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  • Was Jesus a Buddhist?
  • James M. Hanson

Was Jesus a Buddhist? Certainly he was many things—Jew, prophet, healer, moralist, revolutionary, by his own admission the Messiah, and for most Christians the Son of God and redeemer of their sins. And there is convincing evidence that he was also a Buddhist. The evidence follows two independent lines—the first is historical, and the second is textual. Historical evidence indicates that Jesus was well acquainted with Buddhism. If Jesus did not go to India, then at least India went to Judea and Jesus. The real historical question is not if he studied Buddhism, but where and how much he studied Buddhism, especially during his so-called "lost years."

Historical accounts aside, many textual analyses indicate striking similarities between what was said by Jesus and by Buddha and between the prophetic legend of Jesus and ancient Buddhist texts. The conclusion is that, although not identifying himself as a Buddhist for good reasons, Jesus spoke like a Buddhist. The similarities are so striking that, even if no historical evidence existed, we can suspect that Jesus studied Buddhist teachings and that the prophecy and legend of Jesus was derived from Buddhist stories.

Historical Evidence of Buddhism in Judea

Historical evidence indicates that Jesus knew about Buddhism, simply because both he and it were in Judea during the same time. Other evidence, while perhaps apocryphal, indicates that he spent most of his so-called lost years outside Judea, possibly in Kashmir to study Buddhism exclusively.

I owe thanks to the barbed but benign comments of my friend, Dale Bengtson.

Regarding Buddhism in Judea, Jesus did not live in a pastoral, ethnically isolated place and time. On the contrary, non-Jewish political and cultural influences permeated Judea, which was an important shipping center for trade between India and the West and the military gateway to invade Egypt via land. Both land and sea trade routes had run through Jerusalem for centuries. Overland routes extending to Persia and western India were especially active after Alexander's invasion of western India 360 years earlier; most of the routes, whether connecting to wealthy cities in Egypt or in Greece and Rome, came through Jerusalem, where goods for Greece and Rome were shipped via the Mediterranean Sea. Sea routes from Bombay and the mouth of [End Page 75] the Indus River went through the Persian and Red Gulfs, the distance between the mouths of the Indus and Tigris and Euphrates rivers being only about three hundred miles; much of the trade came up the Gulf of Aquaba and overland up to Jerusalem (actually nearby Jappa) as the shipping point to the Mediterranean.

During Jesus' time, Judea was a Roman dominion and most of the trade was Roman. Being the wealthiest empire of the time, Rome sent tons of gold-minted sesterces eastward for goods from India and other places. Most of this trade came over the Mediterranean and through Judea, making Jerusalem a cosmopolitan shipping center. Because of trade alone, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism were well known to the people in Judea. News from other lands was naturally of great interest. Most traders provided detailed accounts of the events of cities and states along their routes, often in the form of eloquent verse. Easterners in Judea were as anxious to hear news as were Jews in Persia or western India.

In addition to trade, Zoroastrians and Buddhists settled in northern Arabia, including Judea, which was only two hundred miles from Mesopotamia. The story of Jesus' birth attracting the three Magi priests, if true, demonstrated close ties with Zoroastrians. Settlements occurred especially during Alexander's invasion of the East after 330 BCE. This included Jews who welcomed Alexander's overthrow of Egyptian rule and who joined Alexander's army. Many settled along the invasion route through Persia and what is now Afghanistan and Kashmir/Punjab, a practice encouraged by Alexander to maintain his empire. About 360 years later, Jesus dispatched Thomas, perhaps his closest and most loyal apostle, to practice Christianity in India. The descendants of these Jews continue today to reside in Kashmir or Punjab.

Were Buddhists really in Judea, as Jews were in India? In Jesus' time Buddhism was already...