Pagels on Buddhist-Thomas resonances
- Elaine Pagels, in her Introduction (June 23, 1995) to Thich Nhat Hanh's Living Buddha, Living Christ (1995: Riverhead Books), notes "resonances" between GTh and Buddhist thought. Pagels cites the Prologue and LL. 2, 3, 25, 70, and 108. While predicting that many more resonances are to be found, she observes "comparative study of Buddhism and (early) gnostic Christianity has barely begun" (xxvii).
I present here the resonances noted by Pagels and her very brief comments on paralles to Buddhist thought. In doing so, I would caution that a key distinction between this sort of comparison and traditional textual comparisons is that specific literal parallels are difficult or impossible to identify. This can lead to the conclusion that no dependence can be established.
However the absence of literal parallels, when a thematic parallel seems evident, can also indicate the theme was simply passed orally between cultures of widely differing languages. Or it can indicate intent to disguise or cloak the source (for example, the apparent complete ignorance of the Alexandrian Jesus community in Acts). Or it could mean, as Pagels notes elsewhere, that intense familiarity with canonical texts naturally leads one to think that the nature of other texts is less authentic. Literal textual parallel may not characterize transmission of sayings from Buddhism to Thomas, if that transmission occurred. The close textual parallels among the Synoptics, and their freer parallels in Thomas, may suggest that textual dependence requires some degree of textual literality in parallel. But the Synoptics represent later highly-stylized Roman developments of tradition that cannot reasonably be expected to identify Buddhist sources of the earliest Jesus sayings, if they exist.
Obvously there is a higher risk of proposing dependence based on a thematic parallel when in fact no such dependence exists. Common religious themes may arise independently from similar new social conditions. This is, I think, the gist of the "axial age" - the historical rise of major religious movements in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE - given new life recently by Karen Armstrong.
I think that risk must be accepted for exploration of the origins of Jesus wisdom sayings. Literal textual analysis has shown with outstanding clarity many general processes of emerging diversity during the very active phase of Christian literary development, 70-140 CE. Yet the origins of Thomas and Q sayings, c.50 CE for those who support the "early camp" of original Thomas composition, remain bafflingly obscure. Another way to describe a disciplined but somewhat looser approach, might be "new skins for new wine."
Finally, it can be argued that Pagels' "resonances" are not tangible relationships that can be identified with much precision. I think that is probably true. But it is also very true that both Thomas and Buddhism reject that sort of literal approach to understanding. Jesus in Thomas advises each to "bring forth what is within you" (L.70) and to reject leaders in order to know oneself (L.3). Likewise Buddha advised: "Be an island unto yourself. Take refuge in yourself and not in anything else." (Living Buddha, Living Christ, p. 121).
Okay, on to the sayings and Pagels' brief comments. The translation here is Lambdin-Layton. Important deviations in Pagels' translation are marked "Pagels tr."
P) These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.
PAGELS: "twin" = "fellow child of God" (xxiv).
3) Jesus said, "If those who lead you say, 'See, the Kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons [Pagels tr. "children"] of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.
PAGELS: "resonates with the Buddhist tradition" (xxiii).
2) Jesus said, "Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes
troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the All [Pagels tr. "shall come to transcend all things."].
PAGELS: "a path of solitary searching to find understanding" (xxv).
70) If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
PAGELS: "What is at stake is one's deepest well-being" (xxvi).
25) Love your brother like your soul, guard him like the pupil [Pagels tr. "apple"]of your eye.
PAGELS: "loving compassion for others" (xxvi).
108) He who will drink from my mouth will become like Me. I myself shall become he [Pagels tr. "will become as I am; and I will become that person"], and the things that are hidden will become revealed to him [Pagels tr. "and the mysteries will be revealed to him"].
PAGELS: supports "twin" = "fellow child of God" (xxiv).
- Hi Paul,
Thanks for introducing this topic to the list.
Elaine Pagels remarks in her introduction to Thich Nhat Hans book are,
if anything, understated. Not only has the comparative study of Buddhism
and early Christianity barely begun I think it may be more accurate to
say that it has not begun **at all** in any systematic fashion (Thich Nhat
Hans book notwithstanding).
The cautions you offer about the perils of positing parallels between
early Christian literatures in general and GTh in particular (either
literal or thematic ones) are good advice. But as a kind of prolegomena to
comparative studies it might be helpful to sketch out, in broad fashion,
why such an investigation has could have merit in the first place.
What is the evidence for cultural contacts between the ancient
Mediterranean basin and societies where Buddhism was predominant?
Is there hard archaeological evidence for the presence of Buddhist
communities in the basin or its hinterlands?
Do we know enough about Buddhism as it existed around the turn of the
Common Era to be able to identify traces of its influence in Mediterranean
culture and society?
If we wish to identify cross cultural influences using literary artifacts
as primary sources, which Buddhist literature was extant during the period
These are only a few of the core issues that come to mind (Im sure there
are others) that deserve to be examined before looking for an answer to
the BIG question: Does GTh exhibit arguably Buddhist influences?
- Hi Rick,
Thank you for your incisive comments. I am still looking up what is known about Buddhist scriptures before the common era, but the short answer seems to be that the earliest parts of the Mahayana "Perfection of Wisdom" were written down c.200 BCE, and that the complete early Pali canon (the "Three Baskets") were written down in the middle of the first century BCE.
The strongest evidence for Buddhist influence in regions relevant to Thomas (Syria, Alexandria) before the common era may be two Rock Edicts of Asoka (304 BCE 232 BCE), the Indian king and Buddhist who carried on active Buddhist missionary work as far west as Syria, at least according to Rock Edict 13, written in Greek:
"So, what is conquest through Dharma is now considered to be the best conquest by the Beloved of the Gods. And such a conquest has been achieved by the Beloved of the Gods not only here in his own dominions, but also in the territories bordering on his dominions, as faraway as at a distance of six hundred yojanas, where the Yavana king named Antiyoka is ruling and where beyond the kingdom of the said Antiyoka, four other kings named Turamaya, Antikini, Maka and Alikasundara are also ruling, and towards the south where the Cholas and Pandyans are living, as far as Tamraparni. Likewise here in the dominions of His Majesty, the Beloved of the Gods in the countries of the Yavanas and Kambojas of the Nabhakas and Nabhapanktis of the Bhoja-paitryanikas and of the Andhras and Paulindas everywhere people are conforming to the instruction in Dharma imparted by the Beloved of the Gods."
(1994) A. SeneviratnaKing, Asoka and Buddhism: Historical and Literary Studies, p.73
The author provides these equivalents for names of known rulers:
"Antiyoka (also mentioned in RE II): Antiochus II Theos of the Seleucid dynasty in Syria and West Asia (i.e. the immediate western neighbour of Asoka's empire): 261 246 B.C.
Turamaya (Tulamaya): Ptolemy II Philadelphus in Egypt: 285 247 B.C.
Antikini (Antekina): Antigonus Gonatas in Macedonia: 277 239 B.C.
Maka (Maga): Magas of Cyrene in North Africa: 282 258 B.C.
Alikasundara: Alexander of Epirus: 272 255 B.C."
The Kandahar Rock Edict is written in Greek and Aramaic, both of which were spoken in that region of Afghanistan in the third century BCE. There is an image of this rock edict at:
I think that establishes with a decent probability the transmission of some Buddhist teachings ("conquest through Dharma") to Syria and Alexandria during the middle of the third century BCE. The writing of a Rock Edict in both Greek and Aramaic seems especially useful, too, for further inquiry.