From the November 2010 E-Block.
Our final entry in this series will have a special focus on claimed parallel miracles of the Buddha which mirror those performed by Jesus. In past articles, we focused on the questions of whether first, a parallel truly exists, and second, whether it predates the Biblical version. As it turns out, most of these parallels are pretty much solid in terms of content, so for most we’ll simply get right into the dates of each document.
Buddha can read people’s thoughts. This story is from the VIMALAKIRTI NIRDESA SUTRA, and a leading book on this document by Burton Watson indicates that the date of the composition is unknown. However, the earliest translation known was in Chinese, in 188 AD, so that Watson has it “originating probably around 100 C. E.” That’s too late for the copycat theorists.
Buddha heals the sick, blind, deaf, lame, and demon-possessed. As Miller has pointed out in his own series, this would not mean very much, since healing would be the expected range of activities for a holy man, whether he was fictitious or not. Thus any parallels would be of little meaning. Let’s look at the dates of the stories appealed to as evidence (some we have looked at in prior installments, and will not repeat here):
- The Lalitavistâra. Much of the work on this text has been done in French, and is so inaccessible to me. One scholar writing here reports, and does not dispute, an opinion that the text dates to the third century AD, which would obviously be useless to copycat theorists, and places the burden of proof for an earlier date on them.
- Samyuttanikâya. I can find nothing indicating a date for this composition.
- Ratanasutta. Information on this text, which has Buddha casting out evil spirits, is also hard to find; one scholarly source does date it to the first century BC. However, exorcism was an established practice in Judaism long before the time of Jesus and before the first century BC.
The unexpected sight of the Elder made the Lord High Treasurer quake with fear... So he said to his wife, ‘My dear, cook one little cake and give it to the sage to get rid of him.’ So she mixed quite a little dough in a crock. But the dough swelled and swelled till it filled the whole crock, and grew to be a great big cake! ‘What a lot you must have used!’ exclaimed the Treasurer at the sight. And he himself with the tip of a spoon took a very little of the dough, and put that in the oven to bake. But that tiny piece of dough grew larger than the first lump; and, one after another, every piece of dough he took became ever so big!
And so it goes; but it can be acknowledged that the substance of the miracle is the same. So where is it from and what is its date?
It is from a work called the Jâtaka, which is a huge collection of stand-alone stories about the Buddha – and arriving at a date isn’t a simple matter; from what I have found, various stories are dated to different eras; some stories may date as early as the fourth century BC, but may have been added as late as the fifth century AD, according to one source on the subject which may be outdated.
So it is that once again, copycat theorists will need to do much more than simply hold up the story as a parallel – they need to explain why it ought to be dated before the time of Jesus.
A reader collaborating on this project adds:
First, Jesus' multiplication of bread calls forth eschatological imagery for Jews (based on Qumran texts which utilize bread and fish in a eschatological banquet). Second, Jesus is clearly alluding (especially in Mark by leading them out into the wilderness) to the provision of manna by YHWH. Lastly and most significant, the narrative utilizes the much earlier miracle of Elisha in 2 Kings for imagery. No one would dispute this miracle preceded the Buddhist one, thus a theorist would be forced to argue that Buddhists borrowed the story from Jews and then Christians borrowed it from Buddhists, rather than simply admit that the stories bear only a superficial similarity. This also serves to show that the theroist was far too willing to see parallels where parallels were not, thus diminishing the value of his argument as a whole.
Walking on water. Here, four documents are appealed to, one of which we have discussed above. The other three:
- Anguttaranikâya. I can find no discussions of the date of this document, but bits of it were apparently among the birch-bark texts we discussed in part 1 of this series, which we have noted offer little solace for copycat theorists.
- Saundarananda. All I can find on this document is that the earliest manuscript dates to around 1165 AD, though it was said to be authored by a writer, Asvaghosa, who lived in the late first and early second century AD. Either way, that’s too late for copycat theorists.
- Mahâvastu . This is regarded as having been compiled over an extended period, from the second century BC to the fourth century AD. Once again, then, the burden is on copycat theorists to explain why we should accept the earlier date for the specific part of the story in question.
Disappearing at will, walking through walls. Actually, it is not clear in the Gospels whether Jesus walks through walls, or simply appears in a room. That said, the Buddhist version does offer claims of such acts by Buddha – and also has him flying through the air and touching the sun and moon.
What of the dates of the documents? Three are listed, one of which we have dealt with above. The other two – the Dîghanikâya and the Majjhimanikâya – I can find no information on with respect to dating. Once again, the copycat theorists have a burden to fulfil.
Stills storms and makes a flood cease. This is from a document called the Vinayapitaka. One work, A Social History of India by S. N. Sadasivan, claims that this work goes back to the 4th century BC, but provides no textual arguments for this, merely indicating that the morals it offers were practiced at this early stage, which is not sufficient to argue for the date of the text itself. I can find no other discussions of date; sources seem content to discuss the contents of this text with little concern for authenticity or date, which we have previously noted provides a stunning difference from Biblical studies.
One of Buddha’s disciples walks on water, as Peter does. The document this time is the Sîlanisamsajâtaka, which is part of the Jataka, which we have discussed above.
Buddha, like Jesus, is blessed by someone for the mother who have them birth (Luke 11:27) and both offer a deeper religious interpretation of the blessing. The parallel here is one of vague generalization, as the story bears little resemblance to Luke’s account:
‘Full happy now that mother is, Full happy now that father is, Full happy now that woman is, Who owns this lord so glorious!’ On hearing this, the Future Buddha thought, ‘In beholding a handsome figure the heart of a mother attains Nirvana, the heart of a father attains Nirvana, the heart of a wife attains Nirvana. This is what she says. But wherein does Nirvana consist? ”And to him, whose mind was already averse to passion, the answer came: ”When the fire of lust is extinct, that is Nirvana; when the fires of hatred and infatuation are extinct, that is Nirvana; when pride, false belief, and all other passions and torments are extinct, that is Nirvana. She has taught me a good lesson.
Certainly, Nirvana is what I am looking for. It behooves me this very day to quit the household life, and to retire from the world in quest of Nirvana. I will send this lady a teacher’s fee.”
That said, the story is from a document called the Nidânakathâ which is also part of the Jataka.
There is a story of a widow who found two small coins in a dungheap and donated them, earning honor from the high priest. However, this story is told by Ashvaghosha, who, as noted, wrote in the middle of the second century.
Our series closes with an observation that these arguments paralleling Buddha to Jesus have been far more pomp and circumstance than substance.