The Buddha Comparison Fallacy in HJ Studies

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by Neil Godfrey

English: Christ_and_Buddha_by_Paul_Ranson
English: Christ_and_Buddha_by_Paul_Ranson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Only a day after posting the John Meier’s Nixon/Thales fallacy, as if right on cue Larry Hurtado has posted his own version of a similar fallacy, a comparison of the evidence for Buddha with that for Jesus.

Recall the Nixon/Thales comparison fallacy:

When John Meier in his opening chapter of volume one of The Marginal Jew discusses the “basic concept” of “The Real Jesus and the Historical Jesus” he creates the illusion of starting at the beginning but in fact he leaves the entire question of historicity begging.

    • Of course we can’t know “the real Jesus” given the time-gap and state of the records; after all, we can only partially know “the real Nixon” despite his recency and the avalanche of material available on him.
    • Of course it becomes increasingly difficult to assess “the historical” the further back in time we go; it’s hard enough knowing what to make of Thales or Apollonius of Tyana “or anyone else in the ancient world” and the evidence is just as scant for Jesus.

Owens identifies what Meier has done in making such comparisons (my bolding in all quotations):

An implication exists in the double comparison, which is that Jesus is as real as Nixon and as historical as Thales but the explicit point is that there is less ‘reality’ data on Jesus than on Nixon, and as meager ‘historical’ data on Jesus as on Thales.

We note that what we might consider the “first question” of any book purporting to deal with the issue of a ‘historical Jesus’ – the question of whether or not Jesus existed — is being set up to go begging. ‘Reality’ is impossible, and ‘history’ is impossibly difficult, so we are to assume both, as we do with Nixon and Thales.

(Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 216-221). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)

See how Larry Hurtado has fallen into the same implicit fallacy with his Buddha comparison:

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 . . . ) 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 . . . . . 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).

Of course there is no question here that there was an historical Buddha (I don’t know how that could possibly be proven, but let’s assume his historicity for argument’s sake), and the evidence for Jesus is purported to be so much closer to his time and more explicit about his chronological setting, therefore, the implicit suggestion is that the grounds for Jesus’ historicity are so much stronger than they are for (the assumed historical) Buddha.

The question of historicity in both Meier’s and Hurtado’s analogies is left begging.

Besides, I don’t know what difference it would make if there were undisputed birth and death dates for Jesus in the literature. I suspect that the exact birth and death dates for most ancient persons are open to some doubt within a few years. No-one that I know of disputes the historicity of Jesus on the basis of such quibbles. (Some like G. A. Wells, Alvar Ellgard and G.R.S. Mead have, however, question the century the “Jesus” Paul speaks of lived in.)

Incidentally, Hurtado once again speaks of “the data” scholars have at their disposal in their studies of Jesus. Unfortunately our good professor has explained what he means by this “data” and it is in fact a list of theological interpretations, not raw data at all. See Who’s the Scholarly Scoundrel and a response by C.J. O’Brien.

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14 thoughts on “The Buddha Comparison Fallacy in HJ Studies”

  1. ‘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 . . . )’

    Is this because we had a meticulous historian writing the Gospel of Luke?

    How come this author could not find any historical data to say which year Jesus was crucified or born in?

    Did no Christians know what year Jesus was crucified in?

    How could that be?

    If Jesus really was crucified, would it not have stuck in the memory when it happened?

    1. I’m still wondering how the author of the Gospel of Peter, and apparently even Justin, came to think that Herod, not Pilate, was responsible for the crucifixion; and how Irenaeus came to think Jesus was fifty years old at the time; and how the legend that Jesus’ crucifixion and ascension were followed immediately (not 40 years later) by the Roman destruction of Jerusalem.

      1. Presumably the 50 years can be explained by the embarrassment of having a young whippersnapper show up the old guard. Aren’t wise rabbis always portrayed as old and grey?

    2. Steven, I think it would have. We have a lot of crazy dates and times instead. Eusebius once held the opinion he was crucified in 18 CE and Irenaeus even thinks Jesus was crucified during Claudius’ reign.

      And if one reads the extant Greek text of the TF carefully, going by the scholarly consensus assumption that Josephus wrote most of it, he’d come to the conclusion that Josephus was skeptical that Jesus was even crucified, period! (I have a series of five parts on this at my own blog).

    1. I once asked a Buddhist scholar of Buddhism about the historicity of the Buddha and his most unenlightening reply was that he “sensed” such a question implied an antagonistic spirit. I later asked another and his reply was that it didn’t matter whether there had been an historical Gautama or not.

      1. One of my favorite Zen koans is “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
        i.e. Whatever one’s conception of the Buddha, it’s wrong, you need to get rid of it and move on.
        In the Zen tradition, at least, the historicity of Buddha simply doesn’t matter.

    2. From a Buddhist point of view, it doesn’t matter too much whether the Buddha really existed or not. The techniques for attaining enlightenment came from somewhere, and if they work, it doesn’t matter where they came from. Of course, it would be nice to think that they actually came from someone who attained full enlightenment, so perhaps he was invented for that reason.

        1. Regular people might need the story of Buddha to respect Buddhist teachings, but Christian readers of the Epistle of James needed the stories of Job, Elijah, the prophets and Abraham and Isaac to respect Christian teachings – but not any details of the life of Jesus.

          While Christian readers of the Epistle of Jude needed the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses, Enoch, Cain and Balaam to respect Christian teachings – but not any details of the life of Jesus.

          There must have been something about Jesus which really impressed early Christians.

          If only somebody could find out what it was!

          1. Well, they sure did like his rock.

            Coming to Him, a living stone, rejected by men but with God chosen and precious, -1 Pt 2:4
            Being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone; -Eph 2:20
            As it is written, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling, a rock of offense, and he who believes on Him shall not be put to shame.” -Rom 9:33
            For another foundation no one is able to lay besides that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 1Cor 3:11
            And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. -1 Cor 10:4

  2. Professor Hurtado is now claiming that Jesus must have existed because the Gospels contradict each other.

    ‘ One indication of their quality for historical purposes is that they don’t agree in details! That’s a sure sign that there was no organized attempt to put over an invented figure.’

    I really don’t know what to say….

    1. Larry Hurtado has never, from what I can tell, ever read a single serious mythicist argument. He regularly makes comments that indicate he thinks that the Christ Myth theory argues for some sort of conspiracy. He has no idea what he is rejecting. (Or he has only ever heard of the Murdock thesis and assumes all mythicists argue the same.) And it is pointless my trying to post comments to explain to him since he simply deletes or edits them and/or tells others in his own words what he thinks I was saying in the bits he chopped out. Besides, he has a nasty tone in his replies, with lots of ad hominem and innuendo, yet insists he is as civil and innocent as a newly begotten child of God.

      (But he’s not only like that with mythicists. Look at some of his remarks about his own scholarly peers who have published the most serious criticisms of his work.)

      Do you have a link to his new post?

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