The Buddhist Influence in Christian Origins
By Kenneth Humphreys Copyright © 2004
Speculation of a link between Christianity and Buddhism first arose as a result of the translation of Buddhist texts into European languages during the British colonisation of India. Similarity in the stories of the births and lives of Jesus and Buddha were immediately apparent to scholars. It was also noted that many of their teachings had close parallels. Buddhism was unquestionably
centuries older than Christianity.
Was it possible the authors of Christianity copied their ideas from Buddhism?
East meets West – trade and religious influence
Trade between East and West is of great antiquity. Cuneiform tablets as early as 2400 BC describe shipments of cotton cloth, spices, oil, grains, and such exotic items as peacocks from the Indus Valley region to the Middle East. We can be certain that the silk and spice routes carried more than trade goods. An Oxyrhynchus papyrus fragment from Egypt even contains a passage in a South Indian language.
Long before the word ‘missionary’ came to be synonymous with Christianity, Buddhist monks (‘dharma-bhanakas’) were traipsing across Asia. From the Buddhist heartland on the Ganges, notions of the sacred accompanied the spice and incense. Travelling the trade routes they spread their doctrines all the way from Khotan in central Asia to Antioch and Alexandria in the west.
One such visit is documented in 20 BC in Athens. A Buddhist philosopher, Zarmarus, part of an embassy from India, made a doctrinal point by setting himself alight. His tomb became a tourist attraction and is mentioned by several historians.
Clearly, the evangelists of Buddha were committed to their cause. Is it simply coincidence that the hero of the Buddhist tale is just a tad similar to the Christian superman? In both the story of the Buddha and the story of Jesus we read of a mystic or holy man, travelling from village to village. Each lives off the hospitality of the people and gets into trouble with the ruling elite by ignoring social status and taking food and refuge from prostitutes.
Is it just possible that the miracles ascribed to Jesus merely mimic the tricks practiced by the ‘holy men’ in India?
Alexander and Asoka
Alexander (336-323 BC) carried Greek civilization to the east. Cities along the trade route – Merv, Bactra, Taxila etc. – became Greek military colonies. The Indian province in the north west Gandhara – had been a Persian satrap before the arrival of the Greeks and here, in the 2nd century BC, Greek kingdoms with a distinctive Graeco-Bactrian culture emerged.
But the flow of culture was two way – for example, the Greeks adopted the Indian war elephant and a great deal of speculative Indian thinking. Greek philosophers, like Anaxarchus and Pyrrho, had been in the train of Alexander and had mixed with the Indian gymnosophists or ‘naked philosophers.’ Even the more ancient Pythagoreans may have been influenced by Indian ideas – vegetarianism, communal property and the ‘transmigration of souls.’
After their conquest of the Indus valley the Greeks never again returned to the simple pantheon of their Olympian gods – and founded their first school of Skepticism (see Flintoff, E. (1980), ‘Pyrrho and India’, Phronesis 25: 88-108.).
At the time of Alexander, the Magadha empire had dominated the middle and upper Ganges but Alexander never got that far. Yet into the vacuum created by Alexander’s departure, and bringing east and west closer together, moved Chandragupta (Sandracottus to the Greeks), founder of the Mauryan empire. He conquered Magadha, and also the Greek kingdoms of the north west and much of northern India. His empire included the northern province of Kosala, where a Hindu reformer Gautama Siddhartha (aka “Shakyammuni Buddha”) began advocating his ‘Middle Path’ between greed and asceticism.
Siddhartha’s philosophising had little consequence during his own lifetime but in 270 BC, the grandson of Chandragupta, Asoka, ascended the Mauryan throne. Initially a ruthless imperialist he seems – like Marcus Aurelius – to have spent his later life in soul-searching and pondering the afterlife.
In an action that anticipated Constantine’s religious revolution five hundred years later, Asoka adopted Buddhism as a unifying and pacifying ideology for his vast empire and propagated it’s doctrines with all the usual zeal of a new convert.
Judging by his still extant edicts, inscribed on rocks and stone pillars to be found everywhere from Afghanistan to south India, Asoka sought further ‘conquest’ beyond his frontiers by dispatching Buddhist missionaries in all directions – “Conquest by Dhamma”. Carved in stone is Asoka’s urging of Forgiveness:
“The killing, death or deportation of a hundredth, or even a thousandth part of those who died during the conquest of Kalinga now pains Beloved-of-the-Gods. Now Beloved-of-the-Gods thinks that even those who do wrong should be forgiven where forgiveness is possible.”
By this stage the Buddha’s words of wisdom had been codified into a number of “sutras”, propagated by a growing number of rival sects.
Buddhist monks in Egypt?
There are records from Alexandria that indicate the arrival of a steady stream of Buddhist monks and philosophers. They would surely have contributed to the philosophical speculations and syncretism for which the city was noted. In particular, it seems the original Therapeutae were sent by Asoka on an embassy to Pharaoh Ptolemy II in 250 BC.
The word ‘Therapeutae’ is itself of Buddhist origin, being a Hellenization of the Pali ‘Thera-putta’ (literally ‘son of the elder.’)
Philo Judaeus, a 1st century AD contemporary of Josephus, described the Therapeutae in his tract ‘De Vita Contemplativa’. It appears they were a religious brotherhood without precedent in the Jewish world. Reclusive ascetics, devoted to poverty, celibacy, good deeds and compassion, they were just like Buddhist monks in fact.
From the Therapeutae it is quite possible a Buddhist influence spread to both the Essenes (a similar monkish order in Palestine) and to the Gnostics, adepts of philosophical speculations.
“Conquest by Dhamma”
“Now it is conquest by Dhamma that Beloved-of-the-Gods considers to be the best conquest …
And conquest by Dhamma has been won here, on the borders, even six hundred yojanas away, where the Greek king Antiochos rules, beyond there where the four kings named Ptolemy, Antigonos, Magas and Alexander rule …
Here in the king’s domain among the Greeks, the Kambojas, the Nabhakas … everywhere people are following Beloved-of-the-Gods’ instructions in Dhamma.
Even where Beloved-of-the-Gods’ envoys have not been, these people too, having heard of the practice of Dhamma and the ordinances and instructions in Dhamma given by Beloved-of-the-Gods, are following it and will continue to do so …
This conquest has been won everywhere, and it gives great joy – the joy which only conquest by Dhamma can give. But even this joy is of little consequence. Beloved-of-the-Gods considers the great fruit to be experienced in the next world to be more important.
I have had this Dhamma edict written so that my sons and great-grandsons … consider making conquest by Dhamma only, for that bears fruit in this world and the next.”
– Asoka’s rock edict at Girnuri in Guzerat.
Influence of Buddhism on Gnosticism
Buddhism was a religion of quite a different order to earlier ‘pagan’ cults. It was a scriptural religion, making a strong appeal to the emotions. It offered a moral code – and hope.
The doctrine of Incarnation
The Gnostic idea of liberating the soul from entrapment in matter is not dissimilar to the teachings embodied in the “4 Noble Truths” of the Buddha.
In Buddhism, Mankind is seen as trapped in suffering (dukkha) by desire (tanha). Its cessation (nirodha) is to be realised by an eight-fold path of ‘right thought, right deed, right attitude’ etc. (magga). Rather than Salvation an equally whimsical Nirvana is postulated.
The path of self-liberation (by meditation, asceticism etc.) is demanding and fails to deliver the immediate consolation ordinary people hope for. An easier option (‘outer mystery’) soon developed, within both Gnosticism and Buddhism by which ‘devotion to the god’ (prayer, chanting, ringing of bells, waving incense sticks about, etc.) bestowed liberation (salvation/nirvana) to the god’s devotees.
From Gnosticism emerged the Literalists of Christianity, for whom the Saviour was given a real historic presence.
From Buddhism, Mahayana (“greater vehicle”) Buddhism emerged, in which the real historical Buddha was gradually raised to the status of a divine incarnation (one in a series of enlightened beings). The Lotus Sûtra (Saddharmapundarîka-sûtram) emphasizes mere faith in the Buddha as sufficient for salvation, and advises Buddhist missionaries to convert humanity, where necessary, through symbolic language, codes, parables, etc.
And interestingly, both developments occurred towards the end of the 1st century AD.
Where Did They Get Their Ideas From?
More than two dozen story elements borrowed from the Buddha
- Royal origin and genealogy.
- Virginal Conception by mother/Virgin Birth.
- Dream Vision.
- White Elephant / White Dove parallel.
- Annunciation to the Husband.
- Annunciation of Birth by a Woman
- Righteous foster father.
- Marvelous Light/Star.
- Angels and others at birth.
- The Magi’s´ visit
- Giving of Gifts.
- Presentation in the Temple.
- Infant prodigy / precocious youth.
- Nature Miracle.
- The Naming Ceremony.
- The Taming of Wild Animals.
- The Miracles of the Bending Tree and Gushing Water.
- The Fall of Idols.
- Healing Miracles.
- Sage recognition – Asita / Simeon parallel
- Anna and Shabari/Old Women parallel.
- The Appellation of King.
- Mary / Mahâprajâpati parallel
- Fast in wilderness / temptation by the devil.
- Preparing the Way.
- Reference to Signs
- Offer of universal Salvation.
BIRTH of the Saviour
The conception and birth of Christ in the Gospel of Luke has an uncanny resemblance to the birth stories of Buddha.
In both cases the mother was a paragon of virtue, had a vision and, without sex, became pregnant with an extraordinary child. Each was delivered while the mother was on a journey and their births were both announced by angels.
After the birth of Buddha a hermit sage, who had heard the celebrations of angels, was told by them that the infant would sit on the throne of enlightenment.
In the Christian story, the angels appeared and told shepherds that a child was born who is Christ the Lord.
Both narratives stress that holy people came to pay homage to the world’s saviour.
LOST and FOUND
The homespun ‘wisdom’ of Buddha & Christ
Sinner returns to the Father!!
Younger son leaves home and squanders his inheritance on wild living; bankrupt and reduced to feeding pigs he returns home; delighted father kills the fattened calf for him. Sensible elder brother indignant and angry but father explains celebration is justified because his brother had been ‘lost and is found’. (Luke 15:11-32)
Sufferer attains Nirvana!!
Young son leaves home for distant lands. Father distraught. Years later, looking for work, son doesn’t recognize his now rich father (who does recognize him). He flees. Father secretly hires him as a scavenger. Years later, dying, he tells son of his inheritance. (Lotus Sutra)
After a meal, an innocent man Charudatta is accused of murdering the courtesan Vasantasena, and is brought to trial. The judge, admittinghis incompetence to condemn a Brahmin, sends the case over to the king who condemns the man to be executed and impaled with an inscription on him.
Charudatta is then ordered to carry his cross (Sanskrit sulam) to the place of execution. Meantime, the king’s brother-in-law, who actually murdered the courtesan, buries her body under a pile of leaves. But she is found by a Buddhist monk who raises her from her ‘deadly swoon.’ Vasantasena then saves Charudatta from death.
Charudatta forgives his accuser, Samsthanaka, and appoints the Buddhist monk as the head of all the Buddhist monasteries in the realm. There is a marriage in the end as well: Charudatta accepts Vasantasena as his second wife.
2nd BC Sanskrit play Mrchchakatika (Little Clay Cart)
In this story of ‘Gautama, a holy man’ our hero is wrongfully condemned to die on the cross for murdering the courtesan Bhadra. Gautama is impaled on a cross, and his mentor Krishna Dvapayana visits him and enters into a long dialogue, at the end of which Gautama dies at
the place of skulls after engendering two offspring – the progenitors of the Ikshavaku Dynasty.
- The death episode begins for Buddha crossing the Ganges at Magadha, from whence he goes on to Kusinagari for a last meal.
The fable of Matthew (15:39) similarly has JC aboard ship, to the (unknown) “coasts of Magdala”, from whence he goes on to Jerusalem for a last meal.
- Both Buddha and JC forecast their own death 3 times.
- Buddha arrives at Ku-kut-tha, JC at ‘Gol ga tha’.
- Both Buddha and JC twice refuse a drink.
- Buddha dies between 2 trees, JC between 2 criminals.
- Both promise their last convert that “today you will be in paradise.”
- Death occurs during ‘darkness’.
- A disciple of Buddha – Kas ya pas – travelling with 500 monks – encounters an unknown personage from whom he learns of the death
of Buddha. Another unnamed disciple disparages the dead Buddha.
The fable of Luke has the disciple Kle o pas encounter an unknown personage on the road to Emmaus. This ‘unrecognised’ Jesus disparages the evident lack of faith.
In a variation of the story, the 500 Buddhist monks become Paul’s 500 brethren (1 Cor. 15.6) – though Paul renders Kas ya pas as ‘Cephas’ (Simon Peter has his own origin in Sâri Putra, also in the Buddhist ‘gospel’).
- The dead Buddha is burned and it is the smoke of his corpse which rises– the true “resurrection.”
– From a 2nd/1st century BC play ‘Samghabhedavastu’ (Mahâparinirvâna sûtra)
Essenes – esoteric Buddhists?
The Essenes were a monastic order having much in common with contemporary Buddhists.
Most lived an austere existence in the desert where they eschewed the animal sacrifice of the Jerusalem temple priesthood (they were vegetarians).
Renouncing all normal enjoyments, they lived without personal property, money or women (they recruited from newcomers.) The Essenes extolled the merits of asceticism, penance, and self-torture.
They were, however, interested in the magical arts and the occult sciences. They believed in the pre-existence of the soul and in angels as divine intermediaries or messengers from God.
Influence of Buddhism on the Christians – Q?
Close, striking parallels exist between early Buddhist texts and what Bible scholars postulate as the ‘Q’ material – (‘Q’ is shorthand for Quelle, the German for ‘source’). The earliest translations of Buddhist texts into Greek date back to the time of king Asoka (3rd century BC).
It seems highly probable that the core of the body of Q material was made up of aphorisms, sayings originally ascribed to the Buddha but later attributed to Jesus. To these sayings were added mini-stories and micro-scenes to produce what became the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
From the Dhammapada, Buddha’s observation:
“The faults of others are more easily seen than one’s own, but seeing one’s own failings is difficult.”
Compare to Gospel of Thomas 26
“You see the mote which is in your brother’s eye; but you do not see the beam which is in your own eye.” This subsequently was given a more theatrical flourish when it became Matthew 7:3
“And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? “
From the Dhammapada:
“When a mendicant, though still young, yokes himself to the Buddha’s teachings, the world is illuminated like the moon freed of clouds.”
“He who wishes to follow me must know himself and bear my yoke.”
The Mûlasarvâstivâdavinaya begins with a long list of kings. This is combined with a list of the last seven Buddhas, to give three periods of “fourteen generations” and a total of 42 – an identical format to the Gospel of Matthew!
The whole idea that man should care about his brother, that he should accept responsibility for society as a whole or for needy human beings in particular, clearly precedes Christianity – in Greek thought and in Buddhism.
The Buddha’s philosophy of compassion, his vision of Dhamma, the eternal law that sustains the cosmos, manifests itself among humanity as the moral law.
The Buddha’s most celebrated dictum is:
“Hostility is never conquered by hostility in this world; hostility is conquered by love. That is the eternal law.”
“After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.” 1 Corinthians 15:6
Buddhist tradition states that shortly after the passing away of the Buddha five hundred of his Arhats and disciples met in council at Rajagaha for the purpose of recalling to mind the truths they had heard directly from their hero during the forty-five years of his teachings.
The Coptic biblical text actually identifies the 500 as ‘Indian Brahmans’!
In short, we find opportunity, motive, method, location and scriptural evidence, for a profound and detailed Buddhist influence in Christianity’s origins. That it was so cannot be doubted.
Symposium on “ The Sanskrit and Buddhist Sources of the New Testament” Klavreström, Sweden 9/11 2003
Z. P. Thundy, Buddha and Christ: Nativity Stories and Indian Traditions (Leiden, 1993)
L. Adelskogh, Jesus in Comparative Light
E. R. Gruber, H. Kersten,The Original Jesus (Element Books, 1995)
J. Duncan M. Derrett, The Bible and the Buddhists (Sardini 2000)
N. S. Chandramoul, Did Buddhism influence early Christianity? (The Times of India May 1, 1997)
Christian Lindtner, Wer war Kleophas Radikalkritik