On Getting Some Perspective: The “Historical Buddha”
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.