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On Getting Some Perspective: The “Historical Buddha”

December 9, 2013

During my visit to Baltimore for the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (23-26 Nov), I was intrigued to note an article in the newspaper, USA Today (for 26 Nov, p. 5):  “Findings Enlighten Buddha Scholars.”  According to the article, excavations conducted in 2011 & 2012 at a traditional site regarded as the Buddha’s birthplace have produced indications that he may have died in the 6th century BCE, i.e., roughly 100 years earlier than the putative scholarly “consensus”.  The research appears in the latest issue of the journal Antiquity (a link here, and see the online notice in New Scientist here).

The proposal hasn’t (yet) met with complete consent, to say the least.    E.g., Richard Gombrich (Emeritus Professor of Sanskrit, Oxford University) is quoted as saying “Rubbish!” about the find’s relevance, questioning whether the site even gives the remains of a Buddhist shrine.

Well, in any case, it’s an interesting parallel to the questions and controversies over the “historical Jesus.”  There are, it would seem “historical Buddha” inquiries as well.  But the story also offers a reason and basis for gaining some perspective.  In the case of Jesus, we’re not entirely sure what year he was born (arguments typically ranging between ca. 4-7 BCE), or what year precisely to date his execution (between 28-34 CE; see Helen Bond’s brief discussion of the matter on the CSCO blog site here).  In the case of Gautama, it appears that scholars dispute which century in which to place him.  Neither left writings, and around each one a massive trans-local religious movement developed.  In the case of Jesus, our earliest known accounts were written ca. 40+ years after his death (the four familiar Gospels).  In the case of Gautama, the oldest biographical source is a poem,  Buddhacarita, dated to the 2nd century CE (i.e., approximately 600 years after the time when most scholars think Gautama died).

So, no reason to relent in the scholarly investigation of dates and such about Jesus.  We scholars in NT/Christian Origins agonize over the limitations of our data and the inability to nail things down more precisely.  But it’s helpful to get some perspective on things.

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24 Comments
  1. The attribution to me in your [I presume you refer to some commentor, as I made no reference to you in my originating posting–L. Hurtdo] posting seems wrong.

    It was Robin Lane Fox in ‘The Unauthorised Version’ who pointed out the way Josephus seemed to date the death of John the Baptist.

  2. Darren F permalink

    Larry. Nice article. Thank you.

    I’ve been reading about Metzger student Bart Ehrman of late, assessing his arguments against an historical Jesus. His style is supremely confident & almost laconic. His reputation amongst irreligious people is nearing infallibility.

    I have looked for specific responses to his research – but have found little more than blog post opinion pieces. Are his arguments FOR the Jesus myth so solid that other scholars avoid him or am I looking in the wrong places?

    Darren F
    A very amateur history student.

    • Er, Ehrman argues AGAINST the Jesus-myth people (and has received one helluva negative response from some who formerly thought of him as the atheist-god). On his other thoughts/emphases, there are those who debate with him, etc. But most of us scholars are too busy trying to get our own research work done.

  3. Professor Hurtado,

    Another excellent post.

    I wonder if I dare extend the comparison to another religious figure – Muhammad. He is mentioned only four times in The Quran apparently. Next in importance are historical works by writers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries of the Muslim era, In addition, the hadith collections are accounts of the verbal and physical traditions of Muhammad that date from several generations after his death.

    I confess to taking my informaton from Wikipedia (I am no scholar) but no doubt other readers of your excellent blog can correct my Wikipedia-inspired observations if they are incorrect.

    I did read ‘In the Shadow of the Sword’ by Tom Holland (an interesting account though much criticised for various reasons) reviewed here in The Guardian:
    http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/apr/05/shadow-sword-islam-tom-holland-review

    which book seems to suggest that Muhammed is a poorly-attested figure who was a convenient figurehead for an expanding Arabian empire.

    Indeed, Jesus, by comparison with other religion-founders, seems a remarkably well-attested figure?

    • Michael, I’ll simply underscore your final point: That the proximinity, number and quality of our sources for Jesus are superior to almost any other figure from the ancient past. One indication of their quality for historical purposes is that they don’t agree in details! That’s a sure sign that there was no organized attempt to put over an invented figure.

  4. Jason Vonderau permalink

    Just started following this blog closely recently, and am loving the content. Forget the silly naysayers Dr. Hurtado, this is some fascinating stuff!

  5. Without initially reading, I’d be inclined to believe Gombrich. Probably all rubbish, so indeed it is probably just like Historical Jesus studies.

    Much of the Pali texts use the Buddha as a literary device to debate issues at the time. The mythologizing of the Buddha is clear. Was there a man behind the myth, probably. But the mythology is so thick, it is hard to see him. The most fruitful things folks do is show us all the mythologizing that has or could have occured – stripping the allusions of a historical person. Sure, he may exist, but the propaganda is certainly important to understand.

    Check out here:
    http://jayarava.blogspot.com/2011/07/buddhas-biography.html

  6. This just means we have even stronger reasons to doubt “the historical Buddha” than we have “the historical Jesus.” At least we don’t have the central myth of Tibetans murdering the Buddha so that non-Tibetans can be saved.

    • Well, “blood” (and I repeat, please show the politeness to use your name on this site in the future), your comment shows the need for the sort of perspective that I called for. In the case of Jesus, our sources are richer and much closer in time (only a few years in the case of references in Paul’s letters, and only a few decades to the quasi-biog accounts in the Gospels). So, learn some reasoned criticism, in place of knee-jerk responses.

      • How do you know my name isn’t Blood (last name)? I would argue our “sources” for the historical Jesus are closer to the time he supposedly lived because the people writing those sources were much more audacious than most theological philosophers of their day. Joseph Smith published his encounter with the Angel Moroni a mere 9 years after it happened, but I don’t see anyone using this as an argument for the historicity of Moroni. The point of narrative theology is to use plausible archetypes to teach lessons, not to preserve authentic memories of real people.

      • Well, your argument is, by all accounts, shall we say . . . unusual (not to say bizarre), and betrays a curious tendentiousness (i.e., looking for some excuse to dodge accounts). But why don’t you mount a proper case and publish it and see what scholars make of it? Floating such idiosyncratic ideas in a blog comment is one thing, but establishing a position in scholarly debate . . . ah, that’s another. Good luck!

    • faithalchemist permalink

      “Joseph Smith published his encounter with the Angel Moroni a mere 9 years after it happened, but I don’t see anyone using this as an argument for the historicity of Moroni. The point of narrative theology is to use plausible archetypes to teach lessons, not to preserve authentic memories of real people.”

      You can’t even use your own comparison. Jesus is not like Moroni, he’s like Smith. Placed in a historical context, with other historical folks. One could use your arguments to dispute the historicity of Smith, or Lincoln for that matter.

  7. Can we be sure when Jesus was born even to the range 4 – 7 BC?

    Aren’t the birth narratives as reliable as the stories of Obama being born in Kenya?

    Could skilled historians use the faked birth stories of Obama being born in Kenya to determine when he was born?

    • Steven: The birth stories are irrelevant. The key datum is Jesus’ crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, whose tenure as governor of Judea is established.

      • Why are the birth stories irrelevant to dating when Jesus was born?

        ‘According to the article, excavations conducted in 2011 & 2012 at a traditional site regarded as the Buddha’s birthplace have produced indications that he may have died in the 6th century BCE….’

        Could people do excavations at the place regarded as the birthplace of Jesus – namely Bethlehem?

        The Gospels date the crucifixion of Jesus after the death of John the Baptist? Does Josephus tell us when John the Baptist died?

      • The gospel accounts & all other references (including pagan ones) place Jesus’ execution during the time of Pontius Pilate’s governorship of Judea. That’s the key peg for placing Jesus in world history. There wouldn’t be anything to find in Bethelem, Steven. The birth narratives place his birth there, but this is suspected by some scholars as a device to connect him as Davidic descendant. By all accounts, he grew up in Nazareth, and there have been excavations there. But there was never a shrine there to him. So all that can be sought is evidence of what the town was like in his time.

      • ‘The birth narratives place his birth there, but this is suspected by some scholars as a device to connect him as Davidic descendant.’

        This is my amateurishness showing here.

        It takes a very clever scholar to detect what in the Gospels looks like an organised attempt to fabricate details of the life of Jesus, and what are quality sources superior to almost every other figure of the past.,

        I lack the training to do that.

      • Steven, Here are some tips! First, if all the other references locate Jesus as in/from Nazareth, and the only references to Bethlehem are in the two birth-narratives (which present reasons for taking them as “doxological” accounts), then the former has greater basis. Likewise, if we have various sources written from various standpoints (in the case of Jesus, both friendly and hostile), and they agree that the figure lived and, e.g., was executed in a particular time, etc., then it is difficult to write this off as some sort of conspiracy. I’ve treated your amateurish effort at sarcasm as if a real question. How about you try similarly a straightforward approach and lose the sarcasm? It doesn’t become real attempts at learning or conversation.

      • Steve Carr: The information in Josephus puts the date of John the Baptist’s death around 37 CE, at which time Pontius Pilate was no longer prefect of Judaea.

        I guess the crucifixion under Pilate is secure as long as we throw out the birth narratives, the John the Baptist narratives, Luke’s “15th year of Tiberius” date, and so on. It’s like a game of Pin the Tail on the Facts.

      • Paul, I don’t get how you arrive at the dating of John’s execution as 37 CE. So, your other difficulties seem puzzling.

    • faithalchemist permalink

      “Could people do excavations at the place regarded as the birthplace of Jesus – namely Bethlehem?”

      “Amateurishness” doesn’t cover it Carr. You’re just bad at this. Buddha was the son of a human king. Jesus wasn’t. What do you think would be found there?

      “The Gospels date the crucifixion of Jesus after the death of John the Baptist? Does Josephus tell us when John the Baptist died?”

      Josephus corroborates the NT reports about Jesus and John. Of course he chooses to highlight different things, in different ways (not necessarily chronologically) and he does so using his own style:

      http://www.tektonics.org/gk/josephusvsmarkjbapt.html

  8. GFirmin permalink

    Cher Monsieur,
    Un récent status quaestionis de ces études se trouve dans l’article de Charles S. Prebish, “Cooking the Buddhist Books : The Implications of the New Dating of the Buddha for the History of Early Indian Buddhism”, publié en 2008 dans le Journal of Buddhist Ethics, et dont le pdf est facilement trouvable sur Internet.
    Cordialement.
    GFirmin

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