One hears conflicting estimates of Jesus. Christians believe he is incomparable, without a peer, but they are often quite ignorant of the lives of other great spiritual leaders. On the other hand, some people speak of Jesus, Buddha, Socrates and others without acknowledging any differences. Walter Lippmann, for example, remarks, “There is no doubt that in one form or another, Socrates and Buddha, Jesus and St. Paul, Plotinus and Spinoza, taught that the good life is impossible without asceticism….”1 Arnold Toynbee asks: “Now who are the individuals who are the greatest benefactors of the living generation of mankind? I should say: Confucius and Lao-tse; the Buddha; the Prophets of Israel and Judah; Zoroaster, Jesus, and Muhammad; and Socrates.”2 One may cite many syncretistic movements in the United States, Japan and elsewhere, such as Baha’i, which attempt to combine the teachings of various religious leaders.
The purpose of this essay is to highlight Jesus’ life, death and teachings by comparing and contrasting them with Zoroaster, Buddha, Socrates and Muhammad. We have chosen these four because many people today, in their search for meaning, are looking to these men and the traditions they have generated. We will divide the investigation into five categories: (1) the sources available for reconstructing the lives of these teachers, (2) their birth and family, (3) their life and teachings, (4) their death and (5) their relation to deity. After the data become clear, we will be able to see where the uniqueness of Jesus lies.
From a historian’s point of view there are serious disparities in the sources available for reconstructing the lives of Zoroaster, Buddha, Socrates, Muhammad and Jesus. We need to distinguish sharply between first-hand or nearly contemporary sources and later apocryphal and legendary materials.
Zoroaster (628-551 B.C.). We have what appear to be the genuine sayings of Zoroaster in the Gathas of the Avesta. The mass of Zoroastrian texts, however, are in late Pahlavi recensions (ninth century A.D.). Contemporary Old Persian cuneiform inscriptions betray at best only allusions to early Zoroastrianism. Some Greek and Arabic authors also allude to Zoroaster. The Persian national epic, the Shah Namah by Firdausi (c. A.D. 1000), includes traditions of the prophet.
Buddha (563-483 B.C.). Buddha’s teachings, after many centuries of being passed on orally, were written down for the first time in the first century B.C. in Ceylon. The earliest written texts which have been preserved are in Pali, an Indo-Aryan dialect which may be the dialect Buddha himself used. The Pali canon of the Hinayana school (the southern branch of Buddhism, also called the Theravada school) is known as the Tipitaka (Sanskrit Tripitaka), meaning “Three Baskets.” Portions of this collection, such as the Samyutta Nikaya, the Majjhima Nikaya and the Anguttara Nikaya, may have come into existence two centuries after Buddha’s death, but othted much later.The Sanskrit canon of the Mahayana school, which spread northeastward to Tibet, China, Korea and Japan, dates, at the earliest, to the first and second centuries A.D. According to Christmas Humphreys, “the later Sutras of the Mahayana School, though put into Buddha’s mouth, are clearly the work of minds which lived from five to fifteen hundred years after his passing.”3
In the later sources one notes a conspicuous exaggeration of the supernatural elements in Buddha’s life. But even the earliest traditions, separated as they are by a century or two from Buddha’s time, are not free from amplification. As M. Winternitz observes, “Even what are generally considered to be our oldest documents, the texts of the Pali Tipitaka, speak of Buddha often enough as a superhuman being, and tell us more of the legendary man than of the historical Buddha.”4
Socrates (469-399 B.C.). We are fortunate in having the accounts of two of Socrates’ own disciples, Plato and Xenophon, as well as notices collected by Diogenes Laertius (third century A.D.). We cannot accept these accounts uncritically, of course, because it is difficult to know how much of Plato’s dialogues is really Socratic and how much Platonic. Another problem is that Xenophon’s Memorabilia and other writings were composed to refute the Sophists’ attacks against Socrates.5
Muhammad (A.D. 570-632). In the Qur’an (Koran) we have the authentic sayings of Muhammad, which were at first written down on skins, palm leaves, pottery and even the shoulder blades of sheep. Shortly after the prophet’s death the caliph Uthman (644-55) collected these sayings in a canonical edition. In the Hadith we have numerous oral traditions about the words and actions of Muhammad, traditions involving even such details as his regularly brushing his teeth. Some two centuries after the prophet’s death Al-Bukhari sifted through some 600,000 traditions to obtain 7,000 Hadith which he thought were genuine. The first life of Muhammad, based on the Qur’an and the Hadith, is the ninth-century Sirat ar-Rasul by Ibn Hisham.
Jesus (5 B.C.-A.D. 30). Our main sources of information about the life of Jesus are the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. There is some dispute over the identity of the authors, but it is generally held that Matthew, a converted tax-collector, and John, a fisherman, were two of Jesus’ apostles. Mark was an eyewitness as Jesus and the apostles met in his home, and later he learned more about Jesus from Peter, whom, according to Irenaeus, he served as an interpreter. Luke, a physician who accompanied Paul, made use of eyewitness accounts for his Gospel. Mark, the earliest Gospel, may have been written as early as A.D. 50;6 Luke was probably written before A.D. 64; and Matthew shortly after A.D. 70.7 Although it has been customary to date John’s Gospel approximately A.D. 90, some scholars have recently favored a date in the 70’s or 80’s.8 Jesus spoke in Aramaic, but the Gospels are in Greek.
Apart from the four canonical Gospels, and some data which can be gleaned from the letters of the apostles Paul, Peter and John, little else is helpful or trustworthy. References to Jesus in the rabbinical literature are veiled and hostile. The famous passage in the first-century A.D. Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities VIII: 63-64) is authentic, but there are Christian interpolations in the extant Greek text.9 References in second-century Roman writers such as Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger bear testimony to the fact that Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire as early as the reign of Claudius (A.D. 41-54). The mass of apocryphal Gospels from the second and third centuries are interesting but historically worthless. Some scholars believe that the recently discovered Coptic Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic work from approximately A.D. 140, may have preserved some genuine sayings of Jesus.10
Birth and family:
Zoroaster. Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) was born into the Spitama clan, evidently in northwestern Iran though he ministered in northeastern Iran. According to Arabic sources he lived from 628 to 551 B.C., which would accord with the tradition that he converted Hystaspes, the father of Darius who ruled the Persian Empire from 522-486 B.C. (Greek sources were greatly mistaken in placing Zoroaster 6000 years before Plato!) Zoroaster was married three times and had several sons and daughters.
Buddha. Buddha, who is also known as Siddhartha (his given name), Gautama (his family name) and Sakyamuni (sage of the Sakya) was born in Kapilavastu, now in southern Nepal. His father Suddhodana was a rajah of the Sakya clan. His mother Maya died a few days after his birth. At the age of nineteen Gautama was married to the beautiful princess Yasodhara, who bore him a son Rahula. After ten years Gautama ventured out of his cloistered estate and, according to the traditions, saw for the first time an old man, a sick man, a dead man and an ascetic. So struck was he by these sights that he abandoned his family to become a wandering monk.
Socrates. Socrates was born in Athens to Sophroniscus, an artisan-sculptor, and to Phenarete, a mid-wife. We know nothing about his youth. As someone has remarked, “You would think the Master was born an old man, with no childhood.” His wife was the notorious shrew, Xanthippe. Socrates remarked that if he could master Xanthippe he could easily adapt himself to the rest of the world. But Socrates might well have paid more attention to the material needs of their three sons.
Muhammad. Muhammad was born in Mecca about A.D. 570 into the Quraish tribe. Because his father died before he was born and his mother passed away when he was six, the lad was raised by a grandmother and then by an uncle. As a young man he worked in the caravans of Khadija, a rich widow whom he later married, though she was twenty years his senior. Although Muslims may be married only to four wives, Muhammad himself did not abide by this limit, having ten wives and additional concubines. One of his favorites was A’isha, who came to Muhammad when she was but nine, bringing her toys with her. Muhammad received a special revelation (Qur’an 33:37) to justify his marriage to the beautiful Zainab, the wife of his adopted son Zaid. In spite of these many unions, the prophet never had a full-grown son, a fact which affected the struggles for the caliphate (or succession).
Jesus. The monk Dionysius Exiguus (A.D. 533), who devised our modern calendar with its reckoning B.C. and A.D., miscalculated the reign of Octavian-Augustus by at least four years. Since Herod the Great died just after an eclipse of the moon which can be placed at 4 B.C. and since he was still alive at Jesus’ birth, Jesus must have been born before this date.
According to Luke and Matthew, Jesus was conceived by a virgin named Mary while she was legally engaged but not yet married to Joseph of Nazareth. They were both Jews in the royal line of King David, from whence the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament was to come. When she was about to have the child, Mary traveled with Joseph about seventy miles south to their ancestral home of Bethlehem because the emperor Augustus had ordered an Empire-wide census (Luke 2:1). Jesus was thus born in Bethlehem, fulfilling a prophecy written seven hundred years before (Micah 5:2). Joseph and Mary were quite poor, as evidenced by their offerings in the Temple (Luke 2:24; cf. Leviticus 12:8).
The canonical Gospels record that Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth and had other children. These brothers and sisters were not sympathetic to Jesus’ mission (Mark 3:31-35; Matthew 13:55-56). Later, however, his brother James played a leading role in the church. James and another brother Jude wrote letters which are included in the New Testament.
The canonical Gospels record only one incident in Jesus’ childhood. When he was twelve he impressed the rabbis in Jerusalem with his questions and answers (Luke 2:41-52). In contrast, the apocryphal infancy Gospels (dating from the second century A.D. on) attribute all kinds of absurd miracles to the young Jesus, for example, portraying him making live pigeons out of clay and petulantly striking some of his playmates dead.11
Although marriage was considered a religious duty by most Jews (the Essenes were the exception), Jesus never married.
Life and teaching:
Zoroaster. Zoroaster served as a priest of the polytheistic Iranian religion before he was converted at age thirty to the sole worship of Ahura Mazda. He succeeded in converting some of his kinsmen and also Hystaspes, a king in northeastern Iran. When his new teaching met strong opposition, he responded by pronouncing curses upon his opponents. Zoroaster also denounced the intoxicating cult of the haoma plant and exhibited great concern for the care of cattle. In Zoroaster’s view material prosperity and godliness went hand in hand, a trait perhaps reflected today in the remarkable prosperity of the Parsees (modern Zoroastrians) in Bombay, India.
Buddha. After six years of searching for peace through asceticism, Gautama came to the town of Uruvela in northeastern India. There he sat under the Bodhi tree (a gigantic fig tree) and determined to stay until he received Enlightenment. Forty-nine days later he was illuminated, becoming the Buddha, which means “Enlightened One.” Buddha preached his first sermons in Benares when he was thirty-five. He succeeded in converting his ascetic companions, then his parents and his wife, and eventually King Bimbisara.
Buddha’s teachings may be summarized in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths are (1) suffering exists, (2) suffering has a cause, (3) suffering can be eliminated, (4) ways to eliminate suffering. Buddha taught that all that exists is impermanent and that lasting happiness cannot be found in samsara, the temporal world of change. The way to Nirvana is to eliminate desire, which is the cause of suffering. Desire is not eliminated by gratification nor by mortification but by the Middle Way of the Eightfold Path, which involves (1) right views, (2) aspirations, (3) speech, (4) conduct, (5) livelihood, (6) effort, (7) mindfulness and (8) contemplation.
Legends ascribe all kinds of miracles to Buddha: By washing his hands over the seed of a ripe mango, he caused a tree to spring up fifty-hands high. Once he flew into the sky with fire and water streaming from various parts of his body. He performed these miracles, according to a Jataka account, to dispel the gods’ doubts about his mission.
Socrates. A report of the Delphic Oracle proclaimed that Socrates was the wisest man in the world. Believing that this could not be true, Socrates was impelled on a life of constantly questioning people in order to find someone who was truly wise. As he interrogated citizens in the streets and gymnasiums of Athens, he attracted to himself a coterie of well-born young men. Unfortunately some of these disciples, such as Alcibiades and Critias, turned out to be such scoundrels that this factor played a role in his condemnation.12
Rather than teaching a set of doctrines, Socrates tried to get men to think for themselves. The philosophers who preceded him had focused on the nature of the universe, but Socrates turned his attention to man and man’s behavior. Aristotle and Cicero credited him with founding ethics. His main teaching, as best we can determine from his interpreters, was that all values can be reduced to a single virtue, knowledge. Virtue, then, can be taught. Evil is blindness: No one does evil on purpose. He who knows the good will do it.
Muhammad. After Muhammad received his initial revelation when he was about forty years old, he began preaching an uncompromising monotheism, which so infuriated the pagan Meccans that they made him flee to Medina in the famous Hijra of A.D. 622. After the Jews of Medina rejected his overtures, he changed the qibla, or direction of prayer, to face Mecca rather than Jerusalem. Muhammad’s forces battled various opponents and killed many, including hundreds of Jews. The Prophet, who did not fight in person, showed mercy to captives after the capture of Mecca.
The Qur’an does not claim that Muhammad performed any miracles. But traditions ascribe numerous wonders to him: “Butter, a part of which Muhammad had eaten, increased continually.” “A tree moved from its place of its own accord and shaded Muhammad while he slept.” “A wolf spoke and converted a Jew.” According to Francesco Gabrielli, “His character appeared to later tradition and piety as the sum of all the moral virtues…by dint of adding to the genuine testimonies of the Prophet’s life and character the fantansies [sic] of apologetics.”13
The five pillars of Islam are (1) the Shahada, or creed, which affirms, “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet,” (2) Salat, prayer, five times a day facing Mecca, (3) Zakat, or alms, (4) fasting during Ramadhan, the ninth lunar month, which involves a strict abstinence from both food and drink during daylight, and (5) for those who can perform it, the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. When in Mecca the pilgrim must make a circuit around the Kaaba building and kiss the black meteorite stone enclosed in its walls.
Since the followers of Muhammad do not worship him, they should not be called “Mohammadens.” They should be called “Muslims,” from the word “Islam,” which connotes their submission to Allah.
Jesus. Until his thirtieth year, Jesus remained in Nazareth, presumably working as a carpenter (Luke 3:23). Then he began his ministry by submitting to the baptism of John the Baptist. Jesus, who had no formal training as a rabbi, did not speak like the rabbis of his day; they cited their predecessors as their authorities while Jesus spoke on his own authority (Matthew 5:27-28, 7:28-29).
Since we know Jesus appeared at three or four Passover festivals, his public ministry must have lasted three to three-and-a-half years. During this time he trained a band of twelve apostles and many other disciples. He went about teaching, healing the sick and raising the dead (for example, John 11). Jewish rabbinical sources do not deny these miracles but rather attribute them to demonic magic. Speaking of the miracles attributed to Christ in the canonical Gospels, F.F. Bruce comments: “In general, they are ‘in character’ — that is to say, they are the kind of works that might be expected from such a Person as the Gospels represent Jesus to be.”14
Like his forerunner John the Baptist, Jesus preached that men must repent of their sins (Luke 13:3-5), that is, men must acknowledge God’s judgment against their sinfulness and seek his forgiveness and cleansing. He taught that men should seek the will of God and his kingdom, rather than any earthly kingdom or temporal goal (Matthew 6). He insisted that men should love not only their neighbors but even their enemies (Matthew 5:44).
Above all, Jesus taught that God loves men so much he had sent his only son, Jesus himself, to become incarnate as a man (John 1:1, 14) in order to die in their place, so that they might not perish eternally but might receive eternal life (John 3:16; Matthew 20:28). For a man to receive eternal life he must be ”born again” (John 3:3) by committing his life to Jesus (John 1:12; cf. Revelation 3:20).
Jesus’ disregard for their minute regulations (for example, prohibiting healing on the Sabbath) aroused the opposition of the Pharisees, the most respected religious leaders among the Jews. Jesus strongly denounced the hypocrisy of these antagonists. Even at the time of his greatest popularity Jesus told his disciples that he would be condemned to death, crucified and resurrected (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34).
Zoroaster. According to Al-Biruni (A.D. 973-1048) Zoroaster was killed by invading Turanians. The Shah Namah (c. A.D. 1000) describes the event:
And all before the Fire the Turkmans
And swept that cult away. The Fire, that
Zardusht [Zoroaster] had litten, of their
blood did die;
Who slew that priest himself I know not.
Buddha. In his eightieth year as he traveled near Benares, Buddha became mortally ill after a meal of pork, perhaps from dysentary [sic]. According to the Mahaparanibbana Sutta his last words to a disciple were these:
I have reached my sum of days…. It is only, Ananda, when the Tathagata [a title of Buddha] ceasing to attend to any outward thing, or to experience any sensation,becomes plunged in that devout meditation of the heart which is concerned with no material object – it is only then that the body of the Tathagata is at ease.
Elsewhere in this sutta the Buddha is said to have added, “Therefore, O Ananda, be ye lamps unto yourselves. Be ye a refuge to yourselves. Betake yourselves to no external refuge. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp.” After his death Buddha was cremated and his ashes distributed among eight cities. His alleged remains are venerated at various stupas, or shrines, throughout Asia.
Socrates. Socrates was brought to trial in 399 B.C. on charges of “atheism” and corrupting Athenian youth. This arraignment had at least two immediate causes: a political reaction which occurred in Athens after a lengthy war with Sparta and the lampoons of the comic writer Aristophanes. Though Socrates eloquently defended himself (the defense is recorded in Plato’s Apology), the jury voted 281 to 220 to put him to death.
Socrates could easily have fled from Athens after the trial, but he chose to remain. He said he did not fear dying because it would bring either annihilation or a welcome opportunity to fellowship with those already dead. At the appointed time Socrates calmly drank the poisonous hemlock. According to the Phaedo, his last words were: “I owe a cock to Asclepius [the god of healing]; do not forget to pay it.”
Muhammad. In 632 Muhammad became ill with violent headaches and a fever. Before he died the prophet exhorted the Arabs to remain united, proclaimed the duties of married couples and abolished usury and the blood feud. When he announced that if he owed anything to anyone that person could claim it, a hush fell on the crowd. One man came forward to claim a few coins. Muhammad finally succumbed and was buried in the house of his wife A’isha, who had nursed him during his last days. The prophet’s tomb at Medina is, after Mecca, the site most venerated by Muslims.
Jesus. When Jesus was given a tumultuous welcome into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the chief priests and other leaders of the Jews conspired with Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ own apostles, to arrest him. He finally was arrested on Thursday night (early Friday morning by Jewish reckoning) in a garden where he was praying with his disciples. After preliminary examinations during the night by Annas the high priest emeritus (John 18), by Caiaphas the high priest (Mark 14; Matthew 26; and Luke 22) and by part of the Sanhedrin (the ruling assembly of the Jews), Jesus was taken early in the morning to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and accused of misleading the Jewish nation, forbidding the payment of taxes to Rome and claiming to be a king (Luke 23:2).15
Though he judged Jesus to be innocent, Pilate had him scourged and crucified to placate a mob which had gathered and been stirred up by the Jewish leaders (Matthew 27:20; Mark 15:11). Though Jesus suffered humiliation and excruciating pain on the cross, he asked God to forgive those who were responsible (Luke 23:34). That “Good Friday,” as the Sabbath approached,16 the Roman soldiers hastened the deaths of the brigands with whom Jesus was crucified by breaking their legs. They made certain Jesus was already dead by thrusting a spear in his side.
The body of Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in an unused tomb which was carved into a rock. A large circular stone was rolled in front of the entrance and Roman soldiers were posted there (Matthew 27:62-66). When some women disciples came to the tomb early on Sunday morning to complete the anointing of Jesus’ body, however, they discovered the soldiers gone, the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. Upon hearing the report of this, John and Peter raced to the tomb (John 20) and discovered all that remained in the tomb was Jesus’ grave clothes, neatly in place (evidence, by the way, which speaks against a tomb robbery).
The empty tomb alone did not convince the disciples that Jesus was alive, but Jesus appeared to his disciples on at least ten occasions after that. All of these appearances are recorded in the New Testament; we will mention just four of them.
Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene on Sunday morning near the tomb. The other disciples did not believe her report (John 20:18; Mark 16:11). Then that evening in Jerusalem Jesus suddenly appeared in the midst of the disciples, who had barricaded themselves behind locked doors. After allowing the terrified men to touch him and examine his wounds to prove he was not an apparition, he ate a meal with them (John 20:19; Luke 24:39, 43). He also appeared to a multitude of his disciples on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-18) and in Jerusalem before his ascension (Luke 24:44-49); Acts 1).
Sometime later Saul of Tarsus, on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus to persecute the Christians there, encountered the risen Jesus (Acts 9). This transformed Saul, a fanatical persecutor of Christianity, into Paul, a fervent propagator of Christianity.17
Relation to Deity:
Zoroaster. It seems that Zoroaster preached the monotheistic worship of Ahura Mazda, who was the creator of two other spirits – one good, the other evil.18 Classical dualistic Zoroastrianism, which pitted Ahura Mazda against the evil Ahriman, developed in the Sassanian period (A.D. 226-652). Later Zoroastrianism also developed a doctrine of aSaoshyan (Savior) who would raise the dead. According to Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin:
Zoroaster did not give himself out to be the redeemer. When his prayers call the redeemer who is to renew existence, he means the prince who shall accept his doctrine and realize the Dominion of Righteousness and Good Mind. He even allows the role of redeemer to any man, provided he practises righteousness.19
Buddha. Although it is not correct to speak of Buddhism as an “atheistic” religion, it is a religion whose chief focus is on man rather than on any god. The Buddhist Annual of Ceylon defines Buddhism as “that religion which without starting with a God leads man to a stage where God’s help is not necessary.” Buddha himself, coming out of a background of polytheistic Hinduism, seems to have treated even Brahma, one of the highest of the gods, with a cool superciliousness. Junjiro Takakusu of Tokyo University explains that “the Buddha did not deny the existence of gods (Devas), but he considered them only as the higher grade of living beings, also to be taught by him.”20
It is clear that over the centuries the original concept of Buddha as an enlightened man was radically changed so that “he was no longer that simple teacher of moral values but a Mahapurisa [a super-human being], greater than the gods themselves.”21 Transformations in Buddhist art reveal this evolution in doctrine. From the third to the first centuries B.C. Buddha was depicted in Indian art simply by a symbol, such as his footprint, umbrella or throne.22 Thereafter the Buddha himself is depicted. According to Mortimer Wheeler, “It was no less fitting to represent the deified Buddha than to embody the traditional divinities of the Hindu pantheon.”23
By the second and third centuries A.D. Mahayana Buddhism had produced a doctrine of Boddhisatvas, innumerable perfected Buddhas distributed through space and time who help mankind by their merits. According to the Lotus of the True Law the Buddha was an eternal sublime being, who appeared in human form as the savior of mankind.
Socrates. Though Socrates did not fully subscribe to the anthropomorphic Homeric deities, he was deeply devout in his own way. He was scrupulously obedient to his daimonion, a personal guiding spirit. In Xenophon’s Apology, Socrates says, “As for introducing ‘new divinities’, how can I be guilty of that merely in asserting that a voice of God is made manifest to me indicating my duty?” In his Memorabilia Xenophon asserts, “For myself, I have described him as he was: so religious that he did nothing without counsel from the gods….”
Muhammad. The Qur’an emphatically stresses the Oneness of the Godhead, not only to deny polytheism but also to refute the Christian Trinity. Qur’an 112:1-4 reads:
Say: He is Allah, the One!!
Allah, the eternally Besought of all!
He begetteth not nor was begotten.
And there is none comparable unto Him.
Muhummad himself did not claim to be anything other than a mortal messenger (Qur’an 7:188; 17:95). On one occasion he is said to have exclaimed: “O, God! I am but a man. If I hurt anyone in any manner, then forgive me and do not punish me.” His fallibility is shown in the Qur’an, surah 80, where Allah rebukes him for turning away from a blind man.
Nor did Muhammad claim he had the power to save others. According to a tradition reported by Athar Husain, Muhammad said:
O People of Quraish be prepared for the Hereafter. I cannot save you from the punishment of God, O Bani Abd Manaf…. I cannot protect you either, O Safia, aunt of the Prophet, I cannot be of help to you; O Fatima, daughter of Muhammad, even you I cannot save.24
When Muhammad died, Abu Bakr, who was to be one of the succeeding caliphs, announced: “O men, whosoever worshipped Muhammad, know that he is dead; whoever worshipped Muhammad’s God, know that He is alive and immortal.”
Jesus. Unlike the other spiritual leaders we are examining, Jesus came out of a monotheistic culture. The concept of “gods” in polytheistic religions is quite anthropomorphic; there is no sharp difference in kind between men and such gods.25 In Jewish monotheism the distinction between God as transcendent and infinite and man as finite is almost absolute.
It is therefore altogether remarkable that Jesus claimed to be one with the Father (John 10:30), a blasphemy for which the Jews wished to stone him (John 10:31, 33: John 5:17-18). This claim to be one with God was expressed in Jesus’ claims to be free from sin (John 8:46), to be the only way to the Father (John 14:6), to have authority to forgive sins (Matthew 9:5-6) and to have the right to demand complete loyalty (Luke 14:26). He accepted worship (John 20:28; Matthew 28:9; Luke 24:52; contrast the refusal to accept any adoration by Peter, Acts 3:12; 10:25-26; and by Barnabas and Paul, Acts 14:14-15) and believed he deserved equal honor with God the Father (John 5:23). Jesus dared to address God as Abba, an intimate Aramaic term for “father,” which none of the rabbis used. As Joachim Jeremias has noted, “…this Abba implies the claim of a unique revelation and a unique authority.”26
It is sometimes suggested that the deity of Jesus is a late doctrine, imported into Christianity by pagan converts.27 This thesis cannot be maintained in light of the declarations of the apostle Paul, a converted Pharisaic Jew.28
As we review the data, we see that these important men do share some characteristics.
(1) They all preached against the corruption of contemporary religion. (2) They all perceived keenly the needs of their fellowmen. (3) They all were so gripped by personal convictions that they tried to transmit to others what they believed to be true, even though attempting this often aroused opposition and caused them to suffer. (4) Each man’s deeds and words have attracted admirers and followers who have extended his impact over many continents and through many centuries.
To maintain that each of these leaders is equivalent, however, is to argue not from tolerance but from ignorance. Each one had his own distinctive message and mission. And in comparing Jesus with Zoroaster, Buddha, Socrates and Muhammad, we discover a number of unique features in Jesus’ life and ministry.
First, only Jesus came out of a culture which was already monotheistic.
Second, his death by crucifixion is unique. G. Bernard Shaw once remarked rather cynically: “These refined people worship Jesus and take comparatively no account of Socrates and Mahomet, for no discoverable reason except that Jesus was horribly tortured, and Socrates humanely drugged, whilst Mahomet died unsensationally in his bed.”29
On the other hand, Jean-Jacques Rousseau in “Profession de foi du vicaire Savoyard, ” Emile, wrote:
What prejudices, what blindness it takes to compare the son of Sophroniscus with the son of Mary! What distance between the two! Socrates, dying without pain, without disgrace, maintained his character easily to the end…. The death of Socrates, philosophizing quietly with his friends, is the sweetest that one could desire; that of Jesus expiring under tortures, injured, ridiculed, cursed by his entire people, is the most horrible that one might dread…. Indeed, if the life and death of Socrates are those of a sage, the life and death of Jesus are those of a god.
But Jesus’ death on the cross is unique not only in its manner but also in its alleged redemptive meaning. Neither Zoroaster, Buddha, Socrates nor Muhammad claimed his death would save men from their sins.
Third, if we exclude later legendary and apologetic accounts, we find that early accounts attribute miracles only to Jesus.
Fourth, only Jesus spoke on his own unquestioned authority. Zoroaster and Muhammad acted as spokesmen for God, while Socrates and Buddha urged every man to consult his own conscience.
Fifth, only Jesus predicted he would be resurrected after his death, and only his followers rest their faith on such an event.
Sixth, only Jesus claimed equality with a sole, supreme deity. According to E.O. James, an authority on comparative religions, “Nowhere else had it ever been claimed that a historical founder of any religion was the one and only supreme deity.”30
Now one may argue that Jesus was a deceiver, though few have made that charge. Or one may choose to believe with G. Bernard Shaw that Christ was sincere but deluded:
Whether you believe with the evangelists that Christ could have rescued himself by a miracle, or, as a modern Secularist, point out that he could have defended himself effectually, the fact remains that according to all the narratives he did not do so…. The consensus on this point is important, because it proves the absolute sincerity of Jesus’s declaration that he was a god. No impostor would have accepted such dreadful consequences without an effort to save himself. No impostor would have been nerved to endure them by the conviction that he would rise from the grave and live again after three days.31
C.S. Lewis says Jesus’ claim to be equal with deity leaves us only one other choice:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. 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 patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.32
Rudolph P Boshoff.
1 Walter Lippman, A Preface to Morals (1929), p. 155.
2 Arnold J. Toynbee, Civilization on Trial (1948), p. 156.
3 Christmas Humphreys,Buddhism (1955), p. 14.
4 M. Winternitz, “Gotama the Buddha, What Do We Know of Him and His Teaching?” Archiv Orientalni, I (1929), 235.
5 Cf. Anton-Hermann Chroust, Socrates Man and Myth (1957).
6 Jose O’Callaghan, Biblica, 53 (1972), 91-100 has identified a Greek fragment from Cave VII at Qumran as a manuscript of Mark dates c. A.D. 50 although most scholars have questioned his readings and rejected his identification.
7 F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (1960), p. 12.
8 W.F. Albright, New Horizons in Biblical Research (1966), p. 46; Leon Morris, Commentary on the Gospel of John(1971), pp. 34-35.
9 Cf. P. Winter, “Josephus on Jesus,” Journal of Historical Studies, I (1968), 289-302. In 1971 Professor Shlomo Pines of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem translated a tenth-century A.D. Arabic manuscript which contains a version of Josephus’s passage which he believes represents the original uninterpolated text. The Arabic text reads in part: “At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good, and [he] was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples…. They [his disciples] reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.” S. Pines, An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum and Its Implications (1971), pp. 9-10.
10 Cf. A. Helmbold, The Nag Hammadi Gnostic Texts and the Bible (1967).
11 Cf. M.R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament (1924).
12 A point which should be neither overstressed nor ignored is the fact that Socratic love, as discussed in Plato’sSymposium, was a type of idealistic pederasty or homosexual love in which an older man sought to instruct and inspire a younger man. Cf. H.I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity (1964), pp. 50-59.
13 Francesco Gabrielli, Muhammad and the Conquests of Islam (1968), p. 11.
14 Bruce, p. 62.
15 Cf. Edwin Yamauchi, “Historical Notes on the Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus Christ,” Christianity Today, XV (April 9, 1971), 6-11.
16 The Jews reckoned the beginning of the Sabbath from sundown on Friday.
17 For a further discussion of the evidences, see J.N.D. Anderson, The Evidence for the Resurrection (1965); Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone? (1930).
18 Cf. R. C. Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism (1961).
19 Jacques Duchesne- Guillemin, The Hymns of Zoroaster (1963), p. 19.
20 Cited in F.H. Hilliard, The Buddha, the Prophet and the Christ (1956), p. 60.
21 B.G. Gokhale, “T he Theravada-Buddhist View of History,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, LXXXV (1965), 359-60.
22 Tamara T. Rice, Ancient Arts of Central Asia (1965), p. 150.
23 Mortimer Wheeler, Flames over Persepolis (1968), p. 163.
24 Athar Husain, Prophet Muhammad and His Mission (1967), p. 128.
25 Cf. Edwin Yamauchi, “Anthropomorphism in Ancient Religions,” Bibliotheca Sacra, CXXV (1968), 29-44.
26 Joachim Jeremias, The Central Message of the New Testament (1965), pp. 29ff.
27 For example, H.J. Schonfield, The Passover Plot (1966), pp. 21, 200. Cf. the writer’s review in The Gordon Review, X (1967), 150-60; also reprinted in the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, XXI (1969), 27-32.
28 H.J. Schoeps, Paul: The Theology of the Apostle in the Light of Jewish Religious History (1961), pp. 152, 158.
29 G. Bernard Shaw, Everybody’s Political What’s What (1944), p. 129.
30 E.O. James, Christianity and Other Religions (1968), p. 170.
31 G. Bernard Shaw, Androcles and the Lion (1951), p. 50. First published 1913.
32 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1955), pp. 52-53.
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