Historical Existence Siddhartha Gautama

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by Neil Godfrey

From an email I received recently:

Just out of curiosity, I did a quick web search on the historicity of the Buddha.  Funny thing…  Buddhists don’t really seem to be all that anxious about it.  For them, it seems, the dharma is vastly more important than the person responsible for it.  Possibly a subject for a blog entry?

One thing that truly bothers me about the accusation of hyperskepticism  is the way the person making the accusation acts as if you might be hearing it for the very first time.  It’s like the people who make the joke about God not making Adam and Steve.  Seriously?  And what’s really astounding is the way they’ll bring Julius Caesar into the fray.  A guy who wrote books that we still have.  A guy whose funeral mask is still extant (or at least a copy of it).  A guy written about by contemporaneous historical figures.  The fact that anyone would argue that Jesus has more historical cred than Gaius Julius Caesar proves that our schools have failed us.

I don’t know much about Buddhist history, but the first paragraph here reminds me of Albert Schweitzer’s call for Christianity to be grounded in a “metaphysic” that stands quite apart from the “historical Jesus”.

But so much Christian literature does stress the importance of history for Christianity. Interesting that mainstream Christianity has in the main been most opposed to Marxism, which also believes in history.

But the comparison with Buddhism is an interesting one. If Christianity really does need a correct “history” to survive as a religion, does that not make Christ’s kingdom something that is very much “of this world” after all?

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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “Historical Existence Siddhartha Gautama”

  1. His kingdom not being of this world is just a holdover verse from Marcion’s gospel that the ‘orthodox’ who don’t believe in that statement forgot to remove. They don’t really believe his kingdom is not of this world. After all, to them he is the God of this world. How much more wordly can you get than being the Creator of the world?

  2. I mean how it be taken seriously that the Catholic church believes his kingdom is not of this world when its priests parade around in gold like kings. Or how believable are the Evangelicals in this when they think it is their mission to take over the government and impose the 10 commandments (not the five moral ones of the 10, but the whole 10 which includes the Sabbath and not taking the Yahweh’s name in vain and having no other gods before him, etc. none of which is in the least related to morality).

    1. At least there is one positive that comes out of the earthly kingdom of Jesus, and that is that Roman Catholics in particular, in my experience at any rate, have been among those at the forefront of doing the hard and dirty work of social reform, education and activism. My experience has taught me that if one wants as wide a movement as possible one can rely on the Roman Catholics get involved in worthwhile practical causes. Protestants are content to just pray and go to church.

      1. Neil, of course, as far as organizational ability due to sheer numbers, there are a lot of Roman Catholics. And there are Christians of all kinds who are content to just pray and go to church, including Catholics.

        My experience, however, differs from yours as far as characterizing Protestants. I have seen much civic involvement in Protestant churches in the U.S. In fact, I think involvement in social reform is a Christian interest in general. I think even those ancient Valentinians I mentioned in my previous reply showed some social interest. “Make steady the feet of those who have stumbled, and stretch out your hands to those who are sick. Feed those who are hungry, and unto those who are weary give repose, and awaken those who wish to arise, and get up from your sleep.” (Gospel of Truth).

  3. Mainstream Christianity, for the most part, seems to “need a correct ‘history’ to survive”. But historically, not all Christ-centered religions were “all that anxious about it,” whether or not they believed it.

    From the Introduction to The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis: Heracleon’s Commentary on John by Elaine Pagels (pp. 15-16):

    “The Naassenes are denying what Justin, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus regard as the unique validity of the revelation in Christ. They reject the ‘earthly Jesus’ along with the ‘simple’ reading of the gospels – that is, the narrative level which recounts his life, death, and resurrection –just as they would reject a literal reading of the Attis myth. Since truth consists in a potentially universal process of coming to ‘know’ the spiritual meaning of existence, they claim that only those who have been initiated and have ‘become truly gnostics’ are able to perceive the ‘great and ineffable mystery’ (Ref 5.8.27) underlying the words of a sacred text. The literal level of any text, then, including that of the gospels, offers only the outward manifestation of inner meaning; it contains the metaphorical form of the ineffable truth.

    Historical data and theological insight: two points of view

    “Of course there are self-professed ‘ecclesiastical’ Christians—notably such Alexandrians as Clement and Origen—who also apprehend the ‘scriptures’ as ‘religious literature’ and seek to expound its ‘hidden’ symbolic meaning. But these Christians declare that they intend to carry out the theological task Irenaeus commends—to develop theological reflection on the basis of the ‘common postulate’ of the church’s faith. Unlike the Valentinians, they never repudiate the ‘logos made flesh’ or the ‘literal level’ of the gospel accounts that narrate the actual events of the incarnation. Origen states, for example, at the start of his treatise on ‘first principles’ (1.1-4) and of his commentary on John (CJ 1.5-6) that these stand as the necessary foundation for all his theological reflection. Although he is not content to remain on the level of apprehending Christ through the ‘human Jesus’ and through the literal level of the text, he insists that these must serve as the basic postulate from which theological insight many develop. His Valentinian opponents, on the contrary, claim that such data tend to obstruct the process of attaining such insight. Far from serving as the necessary, primary postulate for attaining gnosis, they prove to be a source of ‘ignorance and error.’”

  4. Neil wrote:

    “But the comparison with Buddhism is an interesting one. If Christianity really does need a correct “history” to survive as a religion, does that not make Christ’s kingdom something that is very much “of this world” after all?”

    Christianity needs both to survive. It needs its historical core and its spiritual interpretation of that historical core (which of course, like all interpretation is open to renewal ). It is both of this world, this physical reality, and of our intellectual/spiritual world. Two layers, two expressions of our humanity.

    Consider what Hoffmann said in his recent essay.

    Hoffmann: Did Jesus Exist? Yes and No

    “The early church found the historical Jesus all but unnecessary: *that* is the story. They found his humanity necessary as a theological premise, because they could not quite grasp the concept of disembodied divinity.”

    “If, as I think, the church was largely successful in subduing the humanity of Jesus while insisting as a strictly dogmatic matter that he was both fully human and fully divine (historical and unhistorical, as in John 1.1-15?), why still bother to ask about whether he “really” existed. Shouldn’t the question really be who or what existed?”


    “…humanity necessary as a theological premise”, Interesting point here by Hoffmann. Is this not a another way of saying that theology, Jewish theology, was not willing to go the way of the Gnostics, or proto-Gnostics. And in their Jewish insistence upon a humanity, upon a ‘body’ for the spiritual Jesus construct, are we not here back to square one – the underlying Jewish interest in historical interpretation of OT prophecies. No spirituality without physicality; without a body, without reality, without historicity.

    Indeed, the question asked by Hoffman – “who or what existed?” hits the nail squarely on its head…

    And to come back to your point re this world or the spiritual world – the Jewish mindset would never consider giving up on this world – on the physical realities of their history. (yep, I know – lots to cry about there – but the fundamental premise, earthly, worldly, physical realities, are fundamental aspects of our existence and should not be sacrificed in the name of some spiritual hereafter. Our spirituality, our intellectual free-roaming, needs to be tamed by the constraints of our physical realities – that is if we want to find some real benefit from it that will enhance our humanity…).

  5. Any branch of Christianity descended from Catholicism has historicity at the forefront of the religion. It’s in the bloody CREED for crying out loud. And the branches that reject the creed are, to my knowledge, all “Bible only” religions that demand that the Gospels be taken literally. To be a believer you need to believe that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered on the cross, died and was buried. If you don’t believe these things then you reject that the Bible is literally true. And if you’re in a religion that doesn’t believe in the literal truth of the Bible you are rejecting an element of the creed, which means you reject the very basic tenets of faith of the religion.

    I think that’s a lot of why believers must have a historical Jesus – why these questions about his historicity make people so angry and upset and make people who seem to be fairly rational in other respects close off their brains and cling to poor reasoning and bad evidence to justify their beliefs. They cannot even give weight to the hypothesis of a historical Jesus without rejecting a fundamental tenet of their religions.

    (The existence of Pontius Pilate in the Apostle’s Creed is a strong indicator to me that these arguments about the historicity of Jesus are quite old. Why bother putting his name into a creed unless you were countering a meme that said that Jesus didn’t die under Pontius Pilate? Why the need to delineate that believers should believe that he was killed by Pilate specifically if there wasn’t an argument about it? The more I learn about the competing “Christian” religions of early Christianity the more the Apostle’s Creed looks like a set of lines in the sand to separate “us” from “them”, and I wonder if a belief in Jesus’s death at the hands of Pilate isn’t another line in the sand between two competing groups – and what the other group believed.)

    1. I think you’re absolutely correct about the insertion of Pilate’s name. It’s instructive to look at the Nicene Creed of 325 and the Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 side by side. The insistence that God is the maker of heaven and earth appears to be directed at Marcionites and Gnostics. The addition of the phrase “begotten of the Father before all worlds” addresses the (heretical) notion that Jesus was merely human.

      So, yes, seeing Pilate’s name in the later creed has to mean there were those who were teaching something else. Of course it isn’t simply that Pilate anchors Jesus in human history; the entire inserted chunk asserts that “he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate.” So they’ve also packed in the method of execution and its atoning value for humanity. As far as language goes, they really did get a lot of bang for the buck.

      As difficult as it was to agree on the first draft of the creed in 325, one can imagine how difficult it must have been to alter it. There had to have been a great deal of internal and external pressure that caused the Second Ecumenical Council to insert extra text. Could it be that there were still some people who claimed that Jesus was hanged on a tree (perhaps stoned to death after being found guilty by the Sanhedrin)? We know that some early Christians didn’t see he crucifixion as a “ransom for many,” including, it would seem, the author of the Gospel of Luke.

      A line in the sand is exactly what we’re seeing here. Recall the old adage that we don’t see signs in subway stations that say, “Don’t spit on the ceiling.” The evidence in the creed of 381 shows that enough people believed something else that the council found it worth calling it out as heresy.

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