This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 4 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
There is little doubt that the New Testament makes several unique claims concerning Jesus. Some of these exclusive comments regard claims that Jesus Christ was deity, or that He is the sole path to salvation, or that He was raised from the dead. The claims and deeds of Jesus become even more distinct when compared with the founders of other religious traditions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, or Zoroastrianism.
Crucially, the claims and actions of other religions’ founders encompass highly significant historical issues. The most common problem involves the time intervals between the claimed teachings or events and their recording, with usual gaps of hundreds to well over a thousand years. In contrast, the Gospels were written within a few decades after Jesus. Another significant problem concerns identifying when some founders such as Buddha or Zoroaster actually lived, involving differences of a thousand years or more. Hinduism faces huge problems regarding the date of the extant Upanishads, whether Hindu scholars think Krishna even lived, and treating the potential millennia gap with the Bhagavad-Gītā.
Finally, scholars have too often placed world religious claims approximately on a par while failing to look critically at the historical case for the New Testament writings and events vis-a-vis non-Christian claims. This has led to various confusions such as viewing all religious claims as being equally true or likewise historical, or that one religious truth automatically requires the truth of others. Overly critical attitudes toward Christian beliefs while hardly posing any similarly tough questions to the almost always unevidenced, non-Christian beliefs reveals a scholarly double standard.
It is not surprising that adherents of the various world religions typically claim that their faith is unique. Christians are no exception to such claims. These are quite natural assertions, as everyone wants to believe that something so crucial to them is both different and exceptional. But Christians often go further. They claim to actually have evidence their faith is different from all the others. Is this actually the case, or unsubstantiated wish-fulfillment?
UNIQUENESS OF CHRISTIAN CLAIMS
Several claims are candidates for the uniqueness of the Christian faith. These include that Jesus was (1) the only founder of a major world religion who claimed to be deity; (2) His major message concerned the present and future revelation of God’s Kingdom, with one’s personal response to Him determining the sole path to entry; (3) Jesus was the only religious founder to have His miracles recorded within a very short time of the events; (4) Jesus taught that His death would provide a universal opportunity to appropriate personal forgiveness of sins; and (5) most of all, His followers taught that He had been raised from the dead, as indicated by their having seen Him both individually and in groups.1
Does Christianity have evidential support for these teachings? How do such claims match up against any potential evidence of other world religions?
Early Religions’ Founders as Proto-Naturalists
The founders of world religions that differ most from Christianity often exhibited an early form of philosophical naturalism. Incredibly for some, Buddha most likely rejected belief in God, at least in the sense of a personal or creator God. Buddha’s more philosophically inclined followers tended to follow the same course.2 As S. A. Nigosian attests, it is “fundamental to Buddhism” that reality is impersonal. While there is a life-principle in nature, it is incorrect to discuss these matters by utilizing the term God in any absolute or theistic sense, including for Buddha.3
Allie Frazier agrees, noting that, “Superstition, magic, and mythological beings were entirely absent from early Buddhism.” However, later Buddhism, especially in “its
most extensive period of growth in China” from AD 220–589, allowed many other popular teachings to creep in, including that of “divine figures and heroic saints.”4 Importantly, this Buddhist growth in China, including the move away from the earlier teachings to superstition and mythology, began about 700 years after Buddha’s death, extending to over 1,100 years afterward by the end of this period.
Other examples of highly influential Chinese teachers include Confucius and Lao Tzu (Taoism), who definitely exerted tremendous ethical, social, political, and cultural influences on their students and societies. However, these teachers were not theologians.5 Placing their teachings in a similar crosscultural context, many of their aphorisms were reminiscent of the Jewish Book of Proverbs.
At least for earlier forms of both Confucianism and Taoism, Archie Bahm observes that “there is nothing prior to, other than, or outside of, Nature to influence it.” Further, both Confucius and Lao Tzu were naturalistic, humanistic, and, “neither appealed to a God or any other principle outside the process.”6 In short, the earlier and more reserved teachings of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism evolved into more phenomenal, mystical, and occult versions.
Religions’ Founders as Prophets
Beyond these more naturalistically inclined thinkers, another prominent category for the foremost religions’ founders would be that of a prophet. Here we tend to move away from the Far East and more toward the Middle East.
For example, the chief prophet of the Persian religion was Zoroaster, who is usually dated to the sixth century BC, though we will note below that this dating is problematic. Yet he never claimed to be deity. Neither do the Old Testament texts place any prophet, priest, king, or other leaders on God’s level. The Qur’an neither elevates Muhammad to the place of Allah (Surahs 14:11; 40:78) nor teaches the worship of Muhammad (21:25–26; 23:32; 41:14).
Thus, simply viewing these religious texts in a straightforward manner apart from critical dissection, even a cursory look seems to indicate that Jesus was alone in making the provocative sorts of claims to be the Son of God or the Son of Man (Mark 14:61–64). But there are other differences besides these that emerge from an initial, superficial view of the side-by-side claims alone.
HISTORICAL HURDLES IN MAJOR NON-CHRISTIAN RELIGIONS
Of the problems plaguing the major non-Christian religious claims, arguably the worst are historical. For example, the potential dates for Zoroaster’s birth vary as widely as a full 1,000 years, being placed somewhere between 1,500 and 500 BC!7 Further, the majority of writings containing the central Zoroastrian eschatological beliefs date only from the ninth century AD. So this immediately removes the bulk of the most crucial Zoroastrian material to at least 1,350 years after Zoroaster lived and perhaps even 2,350 years later, if dated from his earliest birth date.8
The only items that could have been written by Zoroaster are a small portion of nontheological prayers and hymns, contained within the Avesta, which was composed over a period of 1,000 years. Moreover, the earliest manuscript copies of the Avesta are “highly dubious” and date to the thirteenth century AD, or some 1,800 years after the very earliest of Zoroaster’s birth dates!9 Much of the religion’s theology comes from the ninth century AD writing, the Bundahishn, a comprehensive collection of Zoroastrian cosmogony and cosmology. Ultimately, we know little concerning Zoroaster’s theology except through very late sources (of at least 1,350 years later) not written by him.10 There are certainly no rivals here to Christianity’s teachings.
Buddhist studies in Japan yield similar results. One historical example drawn from nineteenth century Japanese Buddhists may be helpful. University of Chicago historian, James Ketelaar, points out that various dates for Buddha’s birth differed from each other by more than 2,000 years! Ketelaar compared this to saying that Jesus was born sometime between Socrates and Descartes! Yet Buddha’s historical existence was crucial for these Buddhists because their faith was built on the historical Buddha’s actually having achieved enlightenment.11 As a result, “endless contradictions” yielded frustration because the available accounts were thought to be reliable.12
Buddhist scholar Edward Conze raises another issue. Many of Buddha’s major writings date from 600 to 900 years after his death, with oral teachings being the norm for the first 500 years. Conze then explains the corresponding issue: some of these myriad volumes of teaching must represent Buddha’s original teachings. The chief problem is epistemic in nature: “We have, however, no objective criterion which would allow us to isolate the original gospel. All attempts to find it are based on mere surmise, and the discussion of the subject generally leads to nothing but ill will and fruitless disputes.”13
In short, at least some of Buddha’s original teachings must be among the ones we have, but we can never tell which are authentic because the documents are so late. Conze concedes that that is why Buddhists cannot compete with Christians regarding the reliability of their traditions.14
Another instance concerns the Hindu faith, where probably the best-known figure is that of Krishna. It is significant that, according to one report, even most Hindu scholars doubt whether or not Krishna actually lived. Such a conclusion may have come from some of the claims made on behalf of Krishna, who was believed to have spoken the text of the Bhagavad-Gītā to his friend and student Arjuna some 5,000 years ago.15 What data support such scholarly conclusions?
While there are issues regarding the sense in which Krishna may be thought of as a deity, the historical problems loom here. None of the actual Hindu texts themselves, including the Bhagavad-Gītā, can be accurately dated prior to the twelfth century AD!16 So even if one accepted the date of Krishna actually living and talking with his first disciple Arjuna approximately 3,000 BC, the earliest copy of those alleged words that we have today was copied some 4,100 years later! How many changes may have occurred to the text regarding Krishna’s teaching in the over four intervening millennia, especially in a culture where historical events were thought of in a far different manner than with Jewish chroniclers?
We have been examining two issues here. There is both the time gap between the religious teachers and the actual date of the religious texts, plus the additional issue of the time from the teacher to the earliest extant copies of those compositions.
Regarding the records of apparent supernatural events such as miracle reports, similar historical problems arise. This is not an issue for the earliest forms of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism due to their lack of emphasis or teaching regarding supernatural events.
But for the other foremost religious founders, the texts that record such occurrences were either very late, and/or the earliest extant copies date from many hundreds to thousands of years after the founder’s death. We argued reports concerning Zoroaster or Krishna are from at least 1,300 years later all the way to over 4,000 years afterward! Such track records totally disallow the opportunity for reliable, historical miracle investigations.17
Compared to the major world religions, only Jesus’ miracles are reported in the early sources.18 In recent decades, almost all critical scholars, including the most skeptical ones, have conceded that overwhelming data attest to the historicity of at least some of these special events recorded in the Gospels. Not all scholars agree on what actually occurred, but it is unanimous that healing events like those depicted in these accounts did happen.
Two recent comprehensive studies illustrate the strength of this last conclusion.19 Each one debates the factors that confirm these events, employing carefully the critical historical method, including the criteria of authenticity. The Gospels report “events that actually occurred in Jesus’ lifetime.”20 In the incidents where Jesus reportedly raised the dead, John Meier decided incredibly in favor of all three accounts! Stunningly, Meier determined these accounts enjoy “as much historical corroboration as almost any other statement we can make about the Jesus of history.”21
So there is a substantial historical contrast in more than one area between Jesus’ claims and those of other religions’ founders. We argued that similar historical differences are found in other areas of contrast, as well. What are we to do with the 2,000-year span over which Buddha may have been born, or the 1,000-span of years for Zoroaster?
Most, if not all, of the chief non-Christian holy books that report their major founders’ teachings and actions are plagued by severe historical problems. Many of the texts were written many centuries or even longer after their founders’ deaths. Instances mentioned above include the theological treatises on Zoroaster appearing a minimum of over 1,300 years later (up to 2,300 years if he were born earlier), or the 600 to 900 years in the later period of Buddha’s writings that Conze collected (up to almost 3,000 years if he were born earlier)! Then there are the enormous gaps between the religions’ founders and the extant copies of their works that remain in existence today.
CRITICAL RESPONSES TO THE COMPARISONS
How do critical scholars treat the historical data that clearly favors the Christian tradition as compared to the data of the other religious traditions? Some skeptical scholars surprisingly acknowledge the situation.
For example, in spite of his criticisms, Bart Ehrman acknowledges “the New Testament is preserved in far more manuscripts than any other book from antiquity.” He adds that “scholars are convinced that we can reconstruct the original words of the New Testament with reasonable (though probably not 100 percent) accuracy.”22
After asking if the New Testament can be trusted, John A.T. Robinson comments, “It’s not a question that a Hindu would ask of the Bhagavad-Gītā or a Muslim of the Koran or even a Jew of the Old Testament.” Then he adds that of four major positions on the New Testament manuscripts, the majority scholarly outlook favors a generally conservative view of the text, due to the vast available data. Like Ehrman, Robinson concludes the New Testament is “by far the best attested text of any ancient writing in the world.” As such, the original reading can be reconstructed.23
However, well-copied manuscripts by themselves do not insure their content is reliable and accurate, but scholars have made numerous positive comments on this matter. We have explored above the positive critical stance toward Jesus’ miracles. Further, many researchers like Ehrman have provided numerous comments regarding the early dates, reliable testimony and traditions, and multiple attestation of sources within various New Testament scenarios.24 These sorts of comments bolster the historical comparisons that have been made in this essay.
But on too many other occasions, scholars have placed examples from other religions basically on a par with the historical case for the New Testament writings by failing to look critically at the non-Christian provenance. In fact, this is too often done without requiring any evidence at all for the non-Christian teachings.
For example, Robinson uncritically repeated a Buddhist story and the corresponding claim of apotheosis, involving a holy man who died in Tibet in 1953. Sometime afterward, a rainbow over the house was interpreted by the local Tibetan villagers to mean that the holy man had been taken up to “heaven”!25
Yet no criticisms were raised regarding the details concerning the Tibetan holy man, such as the assurance of the man’s death in the first place, or the possibility of a naturally removed body as it was kept inside a private home, or the extent to which the story may have changed over the years before Robinson heard about it. Perhaps most of all, how does a rainbow indicate that the man was spiritually “absorbed into the Light,”26 especially when the Tibetan climate is often quite rainy, and rainbows would seem to be both common as well as extraordinarily difficult to trace to a single house anyway? The levels of skepticism and critical interaction are simply not the same.
In another instance, major critical philosopher Charles Hartshorne implied in his comments on Jesus’ resurrection that he felt bound not to accept Jesus’ resurrection because it might also confront him with the miraculous events that Buddha was supposed to have performed! But how can events regarding Jesus’ resurrection confirmed within perhaps just months afterward be compared fairly to events reported hundreds of years after Buddha? Perhaps the reason for this comparison is partly solved when Hartshorne confesses in the last sentence of his essay, “My metaphysical bias is against resurrections.”27
Precisely such an overly critical attitude toward Christian beliefs, while hardly posing any similarly tough questions at all to the almost always unevidenced, non-Christian situations, reveals a scholarly double standard. Too seldom are scholars critical of non-Christian teachings, as in the examples above. Granted, it could be that the lack of factual data regarding the non-Christian religions simply is unknown to the commentator. But it seems at many other times to be a case of political correctness or something similar that we see regularly in the news, where stronger cases are frequently subjected to far more strenuous criteria.
A final point should be remembered. The popular platitude of supreme tolerance is that all major religions basically proclaim the same core message or truths, though they may be packaged a little differently. The most common rendition here is that all religions are paths up various sides of the same mountain, of course implying that they will all reach the pinnacle together. Interpreted in that manner, evidence is often not required, unless, of course, we are discussing Christianity! This double standard could be the most important back-handed compliment of all — because Christianity, above all other belief systems, actually is accompanied by factual data.
Gary R. Habermas, PhD, is Distinguished Research Professor at Liberty University and specializes in Resurrection studies, having written many books on the subject.
Benjamin C. F. Shaw has published multiple articles and is currently Dr. Habermas’s teaching assistant.
- Similar ideas are found in Gary R. Habermas, “The Uniqueness of Jesus,” in Terry L. Miethe and Habermas, Why Believe? God Exists! (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1993), 273–85; Gary R. Habermas, “Are Jesus’ Claims Unique Among the Religions of the World?” in If God Made the Universe, Who Made God? 130 Arguments for Christian Faith (Nashville: Holman Reference, 2012), 86–87.
- Geoffrey Parrinder, Comparative Religion (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1962, 1975), 85.
- 3 S. A. Nigosian, World Religions: A Historical Approach, 3rd ed. (Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s Press, 2000), 80–81.
- Allie M. Frazier, ed., Readings in Eastern Religious Thought, vol. 3: Chinese and Japanese Religions (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 25–27.
- Lao Tzu, Tao Teh King, Interpreted as Nature and Intelligence, ed. by Archie Bahm, 2nd (Albuquerque, NM: World Books, 1986), 77.
- These quotations are taken, respectively, from Bahm’s commentary in the Tao Teh King, 77, 85, 78, 80, 114–15.
- Nigosian, World Religions, 216; Irving Hexham, Understanding World Religions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 235.
- Edwin Yamauchi, “Life, Death, and the Afterlife in the Ancient Near East,” in Life in the Face of Death: The Resurrection Message in the New Testament, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 47–49; Nigosian, World Religions, 221–22.
- Winfried Corduan, A Tapestry of Faiths: The Common Threads Between Christianity and World Religions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002), esp. 63-64; cf. Nigosian, World Religions, 222.
- Yamauchi, “Life, Death, and the Afterlife in the Ancient Near East,” 49; cf. Corduan, A Tapestry of Faiths, 63.
- James E. Ketelaar, “The Non-Modern Confronts the Modern: Dating the Buddha in Japan,” History and Theory, Theme Issue 45 (December 2006), 73–74.
- Ketelaar, “The Non-Modern Confronts the Modern,” 75.
- Edward Conze, ed. and trans., Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics, ed. by Betty Radice (London: Penguin, 1959), 11–12.
- Conze, Buddhist Scriptures, 34.
- “Preface,” Bhagavad- Gītā As It Is, complete ed., rev. and enlarged (including the original Sanskrit text), ed. with commentary by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupda (Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1983), xiii.
- Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Hinduism: A Religion to Live By (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 30–31.
- N. D. Anderson, Christianity and Comparative Religion (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1970), such as 46, 50–51.
- Yamauchi, Jesus, Zoroaster, Buddha, Socrates, Muhammad (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1972), 40.
- Graham H. Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker: A Historical and Theological Study (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity), esp. 328–30. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 2: Mentor, Message, and Miracles, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 967–70.
- Meier, A Marginal Jew, 2:968.
- Meier, A Marginal Jew, 2:970.
- Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 443; also 447–49.
- John A. T. Robinson, Can We Trust the New Testament? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), first quotation, page 7; second quotation, page 36; cf. pages 25–29, 36–44.
- Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper Collins, 2012), 22, 27, 56, 71, 74, 77–78, 92–93, 97, 109–13, 130–32, 140–41, 144–48, 155–58, 163–64, 170–73, 232, 249–51, 254, 259–63, 269, 271, 288–93, 327–31.
- John A. T. Robinson, The Human Face of God (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1973), 139.
- Robinson, The Human Face of God. 139, note 157.
- Charles Hartshorne, “Response to the Debate,” in Gary R. Habermas and Antony G. N. Flew, Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate, ed. Terry L. Miethe (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), 137, 141–42.