Did the New Testament rip off Buddhism?
There has long been a vein of speculation that seeks to discover connections between Buddhism and Christianity. In 1906 Albert Joseph Edmunds argued that the Gospel of John contained Buddhist morifs. Others have compared the infancy account of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke to that of the Buddha in the later Lalitavistara Sutra (a Mahāyāna/Sarvāstivāda biography stemming from the 3rd century CE). Note the problem of dating: by definition a later work cannot be the source of an earlier one, though some have sought to get around the problem by asserting that the later texts rely on earlier oral tradition. ("Isn't that convenient!" as the Church Lady would say.) Similarities have been noted between Christian monasticism and that of Buddhism, though again the chronologies are hard to establish--and there is always the possibility that the two sets of religious institutions developed independently.
In 1918, in his popular "History of Religions," Professor E. Washburn Hopkins of Yale went so far as to say, "Finally, the life, temptation, miracles, parables, and even the disciples of Jesus have been derived directly from Buddhism." This sweeping--and unprovable--claim concluded a period of four decades in which speculation about the connection was intense. After lying fallow for some time, in recent years the discussion has revived. Why has this renewal happened?
Philip Jenkins has noted that, since the mid-19th century, new and fringe religious movements have been tempted to create innovative images of Jesus, presenting him as a sage, philosopher, and occult teacher, whose teachings resemble those of the adepts of Asian religions. He asserts that the concepts generated by these religious movements share much in common with the images that have been proliferating in the mainstream critical scholarship of the New Testament, especially following in the wake of the rediscovery of the Gnostic Gospels found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. He alleges that,in some modern interpretations, Jesus has become a gnostic, cynic or even a crypto-Buddhist, supplanting the traditional concept of the reformist Jewish rabbi.
One tradition claims that the founder of Christianity traveled to India and Tibet during the "lost years of Jesus," before the beginning of his public ministry. In 1887 a Russian war correspondent, Nicolas Notovitch, visited India and Tibet. He claimed that, at the lamasery of Hemis in Ladakh, he learned of the "Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men." His story, with a translated text of the "Life of Saint Issa," was published in French in 1894 as "La vie inconnue de Jesus Christ." Creating a minor sensation, it was subsequently translated into English, German, Spanish, and Italian.
The "Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men" purportedly recounts the travels of one known in the East as Saint Issa, whom Notovitch identified as Jesus. (Issa is the Muslim name for Jesus.) After initially doubting Notovitch, an Indian disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Abhedananda, journeyed to Tibet, investigated his claim, helped translate part of the document, and later championed his views.
Notovitch's assertions proved fascinating. The leading orientalist Max Müller corresponded with the Hemis monastery that Notovitch claimed to have visited; then Archibald Douglas visited the site. Neither found any evidence that Notovitch (much less Jesus) had even been there himself, so they rejected his claims. The head of the Hemis community signed a document denouncing Notovitch as a liar.
Despite the flimsy evidence, a number of New Age and spiritualist authors have glommed onto this data, incorporating it into their own works. For example, in her book "The Lost Years of Jesus: Documentary Evidence of Jesus' 17-Year Journey to the East," Elizabeth Clare Prophet (1939-2009) still claims that Buddhist manuscripts exist showing that Jesus traveled to India, Nepal, Ladakh, and Tibet.
This is an amusing tale, but we must not trivialize the question: did Buddhism play a major role in inspiring Christianity? After all, Buddhism originated 500 years earlier.
I have just learned about an intriguing, though I fear mistaken new proposal regarding the seeming Buddhist origin of the Christian Gospels. This theory was advanced some years ago by a controversial Danish scholar, Dr. Christian Lindtner [apparently his arguments are only available in full in a Swedish-language book]. Put simply, this theory proposes that to all intents and purposes the Gospels are translations, though with many interpolations and complications, of two key Buddhist texts, the Saddharmapundarika-Sutra [sometimes known as the “Lotus Sutra”] and the Mulasarvastivadin-Vinaya, especially its last section, the Sanghabhedavastu. Lindtner holds that the New Testament reflects Buddhist missionary activity. However, the texts he cites do not seem to belong to the mainstream of Buddhist teaching two thousand years ago, but to certain marginal (though authentic) tendencies. While these doctrines existed in the Buddhist homeland of South Asia, they are unlikely to have been projected westwards.
Lindtner’s ideas have been critically examined by Dr. Burkhard Scherer, a leading scholar of Buddhism. Scherer remarks: “Let me just go into one detail: the resemblance of Romans 3 (the lie of the man enhances the truth of God) and the upaya-kaushalya concept in the Lotussutra, which Christian Lindtner uses as [an] argument for a direct textual relationship, is totally unconvincing, since in Romans 3 Paul engages in a (pre-?)Rabbinic exegesis of a Psalm verse; there is nothing Buddhist about it.”
Scherer continues in a more general vein: “Here we discover a main secret about Christian Lindtner: a deep unwillingness to ponder the Jewish (and Hellenistic) background of the Gospels. In order to avoid going the trodden path of Hebrew and Aramaic heritage, CL wanders on the devious route into Sanskrit. But for almost any textual (as opposed to narratorial) unit which CL quotes in the New Testament, we have to look to the Hebrew Bible or . . . the Septuagint and non-canonical early Jewish scriptures for interpretation. Only if we can’t find any Jewish or Hellenistic explanation for a passage are we justified [in looking] further.”
So Lindtner’a theory presents grave problems--problems that would seem to preclude its acceptance as such. Still, is there no Buddhist influence in the Gospels? In fact, for more than hundred years Buddhist influence in the Gospels has been known and acknowledged by scholars from both disciplines. Voicing agreement with Duncan McDerret, author of a somewhat obscure book “The Bible and the Buddhist,” Dr. Scherer holds that there actually are significant Buddhist narratives embedded in the Gospels.
He would differentiate between narratives (such as parables), motifs (e.g., Jesus walks on water), and some proper names and place names (such as Magad[h]a). These narratives and elements may have been transmitted orally by mercenary soldiers (especially Parthians) traveling along the trade routes, that is, the Sea Routes and the Silk Routes. Crucial is the fact that these tracer elements have a clear contextual or narratological function in the Buddhist sources. Yet they lack this function in the Gospels, where they stand out as alien intrusions. In this limited way, to be sure, their Buddhist origin seems patent. This point must be conceded, even without considering chronological evidence in favor of the priority of the Buddhist texts, or at least some of them. Scherer indicates that he gave some examples in his German-language book “Buddha” (Gütersloh, 2001), not seen by me. He concludes that there is “much Buddhist stuff going on in the Gospel.” But it is not the only source, in fact not even a main source for the New Testament.
This is where the matter seems to rest, at least for the present.
Labels: Buddhism and Christianity