Re: [GTh] Pagels on Buddhist-Thomas resonances
- 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.