You’ve probably heard about or watched video replays of the botched Fox News interview with Reza Aslan, Iranian-American scholar of religion who just published a new book on Jesus, so I won’t waste time going over that. Suffice it to say that the incident helped propel Aslan’s book to the #1 spot on the Amazon Best Seller list.
The book is called Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I haven’t read it. I did read a review in the Los Angeles Times. Charlotte Allen says there isn’t much original or new about it. Ground already covered by many other scholars. That may be, but I like that the book’s message is reaching so many people.
What is the message? Basically, that the historical Jesus was not divine, and when he died, he stayed dead. Evidently, Aslan portrays Jesus as a Jewish revolutionary, who was not the half-man, half-god with a virgin birth, who preformed miracles, walked on water, and rose from the dead.
There are many these days who like to draw parallels between Jesus and Buddha. For instance Thich Nhat Hanh’s popular book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, that according to Amazon, has them “walking, hand in hand, down the same path to salvation.” To me, that’s a bit of a stretch, as I see them walking in two radically different directions. Yes, they both taught about compassion, but that is a common religious teaching. In everything else Jesus points to a path that leads out of this world, while the Buddha’s path leads us within ourselves.
It’s when we strip away the layers of mythology from each man that we find real similarities. Like Jesus, Buddha was also a revolutionary. He rebelled against the Vedas, denied the authority of the Brahmin priests, opposed the caste system, and was pessimistic (at the very least) about the existence of gods and the efficacy of prayer.
Even more striking are the parallels in the history of their marketing. What I mean is how a king helped to elevate each of them to a status above that of common mortal.
In the case of Jesus, it was Constantine the Great, a warrior who murdered his way to the throne of Rome by killing the rightful Emperor, Maxentius, and his two sons. Constantine was a Sun God worshipper, who supposedly converted to Christianity, but in actuality never renounced his faith in Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”). He convened the First Council of Nice in 325 CE (held in part to combat the Arian heresy), during which the human Jesus was transformed into the Jesus the god, or “Lord of Light,” the Sabbath was changed from Saturday to Sunday, and it was decided which books would be included in the Bible.
Similarly, the transformation of the human Gautama into the supermundane Buddha – with the miraculous birth and supernatural powers, who could perform miracles but refused to do so, etc. – was advanced significantly during the reign of the Indian king Ashoka, approximately two and a half centuries after the Buddha’s death. Ashoka was also a murderous warrior, who converted to a new religion, but unlike Constantine, the conversion seems to have taken hold, and Ashoka became a changed man. He, too, presided over a council, The Third Buddhist Council around 250 BCE. The details of what transpired during that event are not well-known but apparently it was convened in order to rid the Sangha of corruption and eliminate certain heresies. At any rate, it was during Ashoka’s rule, and due in no small part to his patronage and his propagation of Buddhism (through the “Rock Edicts”), that Buddha-dharma was established as a major sect in India, the Sangha evolved to the shape that we know it today, and the Buddha was elevated to almost god-like status.
I don’t know if Aslan’s book discusses the role Constantine played in the Jesus story or not. And frankly, how much truth resides any of the stories about Constantine or Ashoka, as in the case of Buddha and Jesus, is hard to determine.
I’m not aware of any biographies that attempt to demystify the Buddha, as Aslan and others have done with Jesus. I recently mentioned Trevor Ling’s The Buddha, which presents the most realistic portrait that I’ve read, but that only amounts to a relatively small section in a work largely devoted to a sociological study how Buddhism developed through succeeding centuries in India and Sri Lanka.
Buddhism has no real need for a central figure with extraordinary powers and super-consciousness. Buddhism works just fine without the mythological Buddha. In fact, Buddhism could survive without a historical Buddha. As Edward Conze once said, “The existence of the Gautama as an individual is, in any case, a matter of little importance to Buddhist faith.” That’s because Buddhism is about what the Buddha taught, not that he taught.
I wonder, though, if you take divinity away from Jesus, what survives in Christianity. The very essence of Christianity, as it stands today, is faith in Jesus as presented in the New Testament, the Son of God, the divine Messiah.
I also wonder about the folks reading Aslan’s book. Are they the atheistic and agnostic reading it to find loopholes in the Jesus story, perhaps to confirm suspicions they already harbor? Are they people of faith, who exposed to this information for the first time will take it seriously and reevaluate their beliefs, maybe precipitating a sort of mass revolution in Christian thinking? I’d like to think it is the latter, but I’m not willing to place any bets on it.
Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity