Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Derrett, John and Buddha

Today’s post continues our occasional look at those who claim Buddhist influence on Christianity. We look now at a familiar name, J. Duncan M. Derrett, who we best know here from his rather absurd (and sometimes anti-Semitic) chapter in The Empty Tomb.

Here the subject is an article by Derrett in the journal Numen titled, “The Buddhist Dimension in the Gospel of John.” Derrett tries to explain “elements of unknown origin in John” which he supposed to be either from Buddhists imitating John – or else “helping” him.

Significantly, Derrett insets a sly qualifier at the start that one should not dismiss ideas as late simply because they appear in late texts; they could be earlier. This is true, but as we have seen, critics seldom grant such leeway to the Biblical text, and even as Derrett seems willing to do here, judge the Biblical text by the other text of comparison. Derrett’s plea is one that we ignore evidence and give place and favor to speculation that has no grounding. In short, Derrett insets on the sly permission to perform special pleading as needed.

Not that it is needed. As it turns out, most of Derrett’s parallels are useless. Most are of the superficial, non-specific kind that convince only those of the Acharya S school of thought who believe that generalities are as significant as specifics (eg, the Christian “Word” is eternal, as is the Buddhist dharma or “truth”; both Jesus and Buddha are associated with light; both do miracles, which include healing common ailments like blindess). Others are deeply equivocated or rely on an error in Biblical interpretation (eg, “Son of Man” compared to the Buddha’s title, “True Model” – where Derrett is apparently thinking that “Son of Man” has no Danielic connection). Yet others may seem canny, but rate best as coincidence (eg, Moses serpent in Numbers is paired to a “healing serpent” in a Buddhist text – maybe this connection is made in both places independently because of the medicinal uses of venom?) or as practical metaphors (eg, the teachings of both framed as “food”). But by far, it is the first kind of parallel Derrett finds the most, and as this is the case, his article argues nothing and proves nothing.

In that respect, it was not much different than his chapter in The Empty Tomb – though at least this time he didn’t make a racist jibe about Jews being good with money.

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