Jesus’ & The Buddha’s Deaths

Chapter 3:
Death Before Dishonor:
The Burial of the Historical Jesus

See my series reviewing
The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith
by James F. McGrath

Jesus' Life Buddha's Life

In Chapter 3, McGrath breaks down Jesus’s death into three components:

  • Crucifixion
  • Death
  • Burial

As a methodological approach, he then inspects the individual evidence for each of these so as to clarify the debate on the historical Jesus.

On reading this, my mind quickly sketched a fun comparison between the life of Jesus (the Christ) and the life of Siddhārtha Gautama (the Buddha) which I have crafted here for you.  I color-coded the interesting parallels in the stories of these  heroic religious figures.  I make this little diversion because McGrath does not offer any comparative religious analysis in his book so far, which I feel can give us powerful insights on the historical veracity of ancient figures.  Mythicists would agree with me here by pointing to other Near East heroic figures who were killed and then resurrected.

Two Humble Deaths

McGrath argues that one heavy piece of evidence pointing to a factual component of Jesus’ story was the way he died — crucifixion.  McGrath is comfortable with the 5 records we have of the crucifixion:  the four gospels (written by believers) and the writing of the Roman historian Tacitus (Annals 15:44).   But Tacitus was written about 120 AD and he may have simply be repeating what Christians were saying — so this story is only partially helpful.  I am not sure if McGrath feels Tacitus is credible or if he simply does not want to stress his apparent audience of literalist Christians with too much skepticism.  It is further contended that Tacitus is an outright forgery saying that it is unlikely that he would get Pilate’s title incorrect (proconsul versus prelate).

But McGrath feels the veracity of the crucifixion itself is made most probable by the banality of the story.  In Jesus’ time, Jews envisioned their Messiah coming in power to overthrow the ruling power.  Instead, we are told that Jesus is killed as a common criminal by the ruling power.  The McGrath uses the common argument, that if Jesus’ followers were trying to create a believable mythical Messiah, not based on an actual person’s life, they would not have invented death by crucifixion.

Nonbelievers, who believe that Jesus was a historical person,  explain away the Messiah story by saying that if Jesus’ followers either felt he was the Messiah or were hopeful that he was predicting the coming of the “Son of Man” in his and their lifetimes, then the shock of his humiliating death would send their heads spinning.  Comparative religious studies have many examples (ancient and modern) of such disillusioned apocalyptics regrouping and creating fantastic explanations and reinterpretations for their unexpected turn of events — an executed spiritual Messiah is just such a possible contrived solution.

But McGrath’s point here is to just illustrate that the crucifixion part of Jesus’ life is probably historically accurate.  He is not trying to tackle the whole death-resurrection-messiah problem at once.  He wants us to patiently do the historical analysis piece by piece.  While entertaining his argument, I daydreamed of how I would apply those methods to the Buddha’s life — another great religious hero.  For like Jesus, Siddhārtha also died a humble death.  Siddhārtha was killed by the last meal he ate.  In the Theravada (southern) Buddhist version, he died from eating bad pork while the Mahayana (northern) tradition he died from eating poisonous mushroom.  One could imagine much more glorious mythical stories for the Buddha’s death but instead we have this commonplace and rather demeaning death.  Thus, like Jesus’ death, its mythically counter-intuitive nature adds weight to its veracity.

Continuing the parallels to Jesus’ death, here are other details about the Buddha’s death:

  • He predicted his death 3 months prior
  • A disciple, Cunda, prepared and served Siddhārtha the meal that killed him
  • Siddhārtha forgave Cunda
  • The Buddha prepared for his own death
  • The Buddha comforted those who were mourning his coming death
  • When he died, the earth shook

In conclusion, assuming Jesus did die (to be discussed later), I feel that the stories of both Siddhārtha’s and Jesus’  deaths are most probably historically accurate in terms of the cause.  But most likely many of the peripheral items in both stories were added to color and add meaning to the historical event.  McGrath agrees that the bible contains inaccurate additions to the simple crucifixion.  I will outline some of his points in the next installation of this review.



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

20 responses to “Jesus’ & The Buddha’s Deaths

  1. I find no evidence that McGrath or any other theologian or biblical historian that Jesus lived at all compelling. What McGrath is doing is arguing from the criteria of embarrassment. Those that support that there actually was a historical Jesus point to how Jesus was tried and crucified as a criminal. The problem is, the embarrassment is an illusion. Jesus was wrongly crucified as an innocent man, a very common theme in the history of literature and Hollywood.

    There’s a good argument to be made that the passage referring to Christians in Tacitus is a forgery. It is unlikely that he would get Pilate’s title incorrect (proconsul versus prelate). Curiously, some translations of Josephus make the same error.

    I agree with Richard Carrier. For the criterion of embarrassment to be met, one must show that the concept really was embarrassing to the people who wrote the passage, and not to how we would view it.

    When I’m asked whether Jesus existed, I tell people this: If you are asking whether there was some carpenter named Yeshua (a name that conveniently means ‘saviour’, a common biblical tool when telling stories is to make the meaning of the main character’s name meaningful in its context) who got involved in religious teaching, I have no problem with that. There is nothing extraordinary here. But the Jesus of the bible, one who supposedly fulfills prophecy (if only in a way indistinguishable from writing his biography in a pencilled-in after-the-fact manner) and performed miracles like dozens of other individuals were purported to have done in that superstitious age, forget it. The existence of such an extraordinary individual demands extraordinary evidence, and the sum total of all we have isn’t even good enough to state that the first Jesus I described exist. What makes anyone think that I would I could possibly conclude that the second one did?

  2. Thanks Shameless:
    I must confess, though it should be obvious, that I am not up on the “Mythicist” arguments. I will have to read more in the future, but my open-mindedness to the mythicism was severely blunted by the populist movie “Zeitgeist” which I found rather shoddy. I will try to stay open-minded.

    Thank you for the Tacitus info (I will supplement the post now). I appreciate the contribution.

    FYI readers: here is Shameless’ post on the issue.

  3. Be careful of Zeitgeist. Most mythicists aren’t too happy with the producers of that trash since it gets associated with real scholarship questioning the historicity of Jesus.

    However, I don’t really think the question of the historicity of Jesus is at all important. That is, that some carpenter went around teaching religious principles is not all that big a deal. But that person bears no resemblence to the biblical Jesus.

    Let’s say that McGrath is right, and there was a Jesus that was crucified. How does McGrath think that the historicity of this event translates to a verification of anything else contained in the gospels? Does this show that the resurrection is historical as well? I think not. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I wonder if that is McGrath’s intent. If so, it is incredibly dishonest.

  4. Ah, glad to hear the scholarly mythicists disagree with Zeitgeist too. I’m not sure where McGrath is going in his book and that is why I am reading it. I like much of his approach and feel his book may be a positive influence among more literal Christians. Dishonesty is not the least bit on my radar when it comes to Dr. McGrath — My impression from reading his blog is that he is refreshingly honest, bright and kind.

  5. Themis

    What do you mean when you say that the gospels and Tacticus were the only ancient books to discuss the death of Jesus?

    There were a slew of other gospels written that referenced the death of Jesus. That’s not an argument for the resurrection, but I don’t understand your point.

  6. “I find no evidence that McGrath or any other theologian or biblical historian that Jesus lived at all compelling.”

    yeah, cause you’re a shameless atheist.. haha!

    i agree with Themis. we have a dude who is not only on the low end of the social spectrum, he’s a carpenter which would have put him on the second to last or the very last rung of the social ladder (not middle class like many conservatives would want you to believe). illiterate along with his followers, also from the same classes, amid a honor and shame society which was Roman ruled (who are the pen-ultimate classists). Crossan would be helpful to read here if interested, if not, well, continue along your merry way amigo.


    enjoyed your cross-cultural Buddha/Christ comparison. when i thought of myself as a Buddhist Christian, when i read of the Buddha’s death i thought “wow! just like Jesus!” then i realized i was more Christian than Buddhist.

    however, I was this strange blend up until I visited a temple in the D.C. metro area. Talking with one of the monks at the temple, I was told to go and follow my own tradition of Christianity as that is how I understood Buddhism was through that lens. I found this strange for a Buddhist to say, given that it is a mission-oriented religion. I understand now that this was a Theravada temple and that my Mahayana orientation was picked up immediately. anywho, we’re studying buddhism in my World Religion’s class and it’s been really fun freaking out my classmates with some concepts. i’ll have to post about it in the near future!

  7. @ Themis
    Ahhh, Themis, you are revealing my ignorance ! Smile. I have only started to dabble in “the other gospels”. Do you happen to have a list of the authors in the 1st or 2nd century who speak of Jesus’ resurrection who are not quoting Paul or the Gospels? I’d love to keep learning.

    @ Luke
    Odd, though I like much of the philosophy in Mahayana, I am averse to when then head into the grace realm (Pure Land Buddhism, Amida stuff). But I love the concrete simple practice of Thervada. It seems we have opposite inclinations in our Buddhism. Smile ! Of course it matters not, for work is on nothing more than the mind.

  8. CRL

    It’s interesting to see the parallels between Jesus’ life and the Buddha’s. I wonder if these elements are something we need to see in our religious leaders and mythological heroes. Certainly, Christians giving witness focus on their suffering and subsequent enlightenment/victory. There must be something in this formula which provokes humans to fervor and worship.

    p.s. Your avatar is not wearing green. Consider this an e-pinch.

  9. Back in high school I was first exposed to the Hero’s Journey by a teacher. And when the teacher asked, at the end of the class, “How well does someone like Jesus fit into this model?” I was floored. After that It became a kind of game for me to see how often the model was re-occurring. And when I found Joseph Campbell, well I fell in love pretty hard.

    Zeitgeist was obviously designed for a certain audience and with a certain agenda in mind (not that this absolves the producers or anything). But it must be addressed as to why so many heroes, for example, die humbly and often enough on top of a hill. Or have ‘questionable’ conceptions.

    I can personally accept the idea that, as has been said above, a Jewish carpenter-teacher died by crucifixion. A considerable number of people died by crucifixion. And, in terms of literature, it is absolutely brilliant what the scripture-writers did when faced with the problem that their ‘messiah’ didn’t actually ‘messiah’-up the Romans or anything like that.

    But genius in literature vs genius in truth is maybe another discussion.

  10. Themis

    Bart Ehrman’s “Lost Scriptures” is a comprehensive guide to ancient gospels that did not make it to canon.

    Again, I’m not a biblical literalist, but I didn’t understand what you are saying because there are plenty of stories about the resurrection written in the same general time period as the NT documents. I don’t think that makes them credible sources (one talks about how Jesus’ head stretched up to heaven when he rose from the tomb), but they are there nonetheless.

  11. In Jesus’ time, Jews envisioned their Messiah coming in power to overthrow the ruling power. Instead, we are told that Jesus is killed as a common criminal by the ruling power.

    Here, the writer (an American, right?) shows that he’s never lived in a war-afflicted nation. If he had, he would know that the best way to create a hero is to kill a person in the vilest way.

    The person doesn’t even have to be important. He just have to belong to a certain group, and the minute he or she is killed, he or she becomes the flag the group members use for motivation.

    Rebel groups also have dreams of domination, yet their greatest heroes are those who suffer the cruelest deaths. Che Guevara in Latin America is a great example of this.

    The McGrath uses the common argument, that if Jesus’ followers were trying to create a believable mythical Messiah, not based on an actual person’s life, they would not have invented death by crucifixion.

    And why not? Their story had to be believable, and back then, lots of people where crucified. If they were going to create a hero, they had to speak of events people were familiar with, like the crucifixion.

    But, of course, the story could have easily been based on a real person. That’s what he fails to realize, that it is easy to take a normal person and aggrandize their abilities when writing about them. Doesn’t it happen all the time?

  12. @ Themis
    It would be fun to make a list of document “written in the same general time period as the NT documents” and see if there are “plenty”! Yet alone that speak about the resurrection AND don’t appear to have either from the gospel accounts or from the same source that the gospels took from (Historical & Textual Analysis). Do you happen to know such a list? I just read the Didache from Ehrman’s compilation and don’t find any reference to the Resurrection there.

  13. @ Lorena
    That was a fun observation. The innocent victim motif is powerful in such a setting and very well could be a contrived vehicle. Thanks.

  14. I think Paul puts Jesus’s death into perspective.

    Basically, Jesus had it coming to him. He wasn’t killed for nothing, and nothing would have happened to him if he had behaved himself.

    Romans 13

    Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

    Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

    For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you.

    For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

  15. @ Steven Carr

    I see you used my blog simply to re-post your own April 1st post without interacting with my post at all. This simple cutting & pasting is rather disappointing for a fellow blogger.

  16. Steven Carr

    Apologies. IT was meant to be interacting with the part of your blog about crucifixion and whether it was an establised fact.

    Clearly, Paul had no idea that these authorities had killed the Son of God.

  17. @ Steven,
    Oh, gottcha. So, is it possible that Paul just did not realize that someone was going to be collecting his letters and hoping to systematize his thoughts and that instead, he was just trying to straighten out a tithe paying Church of his and using whatever pragmatic rhetoric it took?

    — So, he may believed Jesus was killed by Romans
    he wanted his listeners of that letter to stop raising trouble least they get squashed too.

    Or am I missing something.
    BTW, did you enjoy the Jesus – Siddhartha parallel?

  18. Steven Carr

    The parallels were good.

    Perhaps if Paul had pointed out what happened to the last famous Christian trouble-maker, he might have got somewhere when trying to persuade people that ‘…rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.’

  19. macroman

    I don’t think modern Christians find the crucixation embarassing at all. Mel Gibson seems to love it as did many religious teachers from my school. They found it very moving that Jesus suffered so much for them. So why are ancient Christians supposed to find it embarassing? Crossan says the early Christians went thru the OT and found that suffering and a lowly death seemed to be part of the job description of a righteous man, and so in effect changed their minds about whether the crucifixion was embarassing. Hence, as I think Carrier argues, there is as much reason to invent the crucifixion as to record it, if it really happened.

  20. @ Macro
    I can see how mythicists could argue that line.

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