I usually feel righteously irritated when I see how emotional people become when they watch a sports game; especially when they consider there has been a poor umpiring decision. Their advice to the referees can’t be heard, so why bother to get upset? For spectators it is only a game. But now I understand their intensity a little better after watching Sunday night’s “Compass” program.

I watched the entire show although, as soon as the presenter said it was going to be “a fresh look” at Jesus, it was clearly going to be abysmal. Unhappily I was correct: it was reprehensibly shallow.

Dr Robert Beckford began the program by announcing: “I’m going to go where most Christians fear to go – I’m going to step outside of the Christian tradition.” I don’t know what kind of Christians he is familiar with, but his statement implied that he was a torch bearer, a free thinker striding out of the darkness of stagnant Christian tradition, where troglodytes cling to their primitive rituals and those with pretensions to scholarship are merely shamans gabbling over goat intestines.

Dr Beckford compared Jesus to three other religious figures – the Buddha, Krishna and Mithras – noting there were amazing similarities between them: miraculous births, miracles and ethical teachings; so Christianity wasn’t as unique as its adherents claim.

Siddhattha Gotama is more popularly known as the Buddha: the enlightened one. Dr Beckford asserted that the accounts of Siddhattha tell of him being miraculously born, visited by wise men, having done miracles, including walking on water. Dr Beckford also said that Siddhattha, like Jesus, challenged religious order. Siddhattha did reject the caste system, certainly. But Jesus, contrary to popular opinion, did not “challenge the religious order”. There were times, when he had healed people, he told them to go to the temple, be inspected by the priests, and offer the sacrifices commanded by Moses (Matt. 8:4 [also Mk 1:44; Lk 5:14]; Matt. 23:1-7). What Jesus did challenge was hypocrisy and their flawed understanding of the law.

There are three assertions about Siddhattha’s birth that are even vaguely notable. The first is that “Legend has it that his mother, Mahamaya, dreamed shortly before her son’s birth of a beautiful white elephant which entered her womb.” (“Buddha”). The second is that she gave birth earlier than expected, not in the city she was heading for, but underneath a tree. These are easily believable; not so the third, which is that Siddhattha was born out of his mother’s right side.

As for being visited by wise men, his father, the king, invited eight Brahmins to predict Siddhattha’s future (““The Buddha, His Life and Teachings””, p.8). The ““Encyclopaedia Britannica”” article says that these eight were chosen out of 108 because they were experienced in interpreting marks on the body, and they used these marks to predict Siddhattha’s future. Hardly on a par with the magi in the New Testament, who travelled hundreds of kilometres from the east, possibly Persia, to worship Jesus when their astrological studies informed them of the birth of the king of the Jews (Matt. 2:1-2)!

As for miracles, after reaching enlightenment under the bodhi tree Siddhattha was apparently “gifted with superhuman insight” (“Buddha”), which may have meant to see beings dying and being reincarnated (“Buddha” in the ““Encyclopaedia Britannica””). One reference refers to him as a healer but this is a metaphor for the healing of our unenlightened spiritual state (““The Buddha, His Life and Teachings””, pp.38-39). The article on the Buddha in the ““Encyclopaedia Britannica”” asserts that Siddhattha performed miracles, but doesn’t give particulars.

As for the accounts themselves, “No complete biography of the Buddha was compiled until centuries after his death; only fragmentary accounts of his life are found in the earliest sources.” (“Buddhism.”) If so, how can Dr Beckford so confidently assert that Siddhartha performed miracles as Jesus did? How do we know that the manuscripts about Siddhattha’s life are reliable? I’m not thereby saying the accounts of Siddhattha are inaccurate, but why accept them and yet reject what the New Testament documents say about Jesus? Consider that there are about 25,000 manuscripts of the New Testament, in whole or part (even if just a few verses), in various languages, some of which can be dated to within the lifetime of the first Christians. There are even references to Jesus and Christians in the non-Christian literature of the day (Suetonius, Tacitus, Cassius Dio, Josephus and Plinius Secundus.

Dr Beckford’s references to the New Testament showed why he was so selective. He mentioned Jesus’ reference to “other sheep” in chapter 10 of the Gospel according to John, and said: ” I believe he was telling them there were other ways to God that were just as valid.” This assertion is only a problem if you ignore the rest of the New Testament, and even the rest of the Gospel according to John, such as 3:36 – “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” – or the mind-scrambling 6:53 – “Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you’”. Dr Beckford did mention the first part of John 14:6 – “I am the way and the truth and the life” – but he didn’t include the rest of the verse – “no one comes to the Father except through me.”

Why did Dr Beckford ignore or reject the verses that explicitly state that Jesus is the only way of salvation? Perhaps because of his belief about Jesus’ mission: “Jesus didn’t want people to become Christians, but to experience the Kingdom of God through whatever way is right for them.” From the New Testament text, Jesus was in no doubt that all people will experience the Kingdom of God, but not many people will be happy about it. Some of the parables in Matthew 13, and the text of Luke 13:23-29 (also Matt. 7:13-14, the small gate and narrow road) show that not everyone will be in the Kingdom. We may as well mention the book of Judges, where the refrain is “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” A quick perusal of the book shows Israel continually straying and rebelling against God. There is also the explicit statement, twice, in Proverbs: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (14:12; 16:25). The way that is right for a person is the way God has made: after all, He created us, so He knows what is best.

Other statements by Dr Beckford further reveal why he interprets the New Testament as he does. First, “Much of the dogma that surrounds Jesus was created by Paul”. Second, “If you strip away all the dogma created by Paul and his followers, what do we find? Jesus, the Jew.” In other words, Dr Beckford believes that Paul and his coterie invented a lot of the New Testament. Admittedly he wasn’t analysing the reliability of the New Testament but if Jesus’ message was perverted by the Paul and the Paulines, this magnifies the similarities between the people that the program was comparing. In contrast, if the New Testament is trustworthy – as people who have given their lives to studying these matters will assert – then the claimed similarities are comparatively miniscule.

Dr Beckford said that Christianity borrowed ideas from other religions to explain the Jesus event. But this ignores that Paul wrote to the Christian churches telling them to test what he said by what they already knew (in the Old Testament) or had been taught (Acts 17; Galatians 1:8). Paul bases the truth of Christianity on historical fact – that Jesus was killed on a cross, buried, and raised from the dead three days after. He wrote that if Jesus was not raised from the dead, then “we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Corinthians 15:14-18). He also mentioned that there were many people (though under 500) who had seen Jesus alive after his resurrection; so anyone wanting to check out the facts of Messiahgate could talk to those people.

Dr Beckford’s position vis-à-vis Paul assumes that Paul worked apart from his Christian contemporaries. However, he was part of the church at Antioch north of Galilee, and he met with other Christians, whose writings are found in the New Testament. Peter refers to Paul’s letters as Scripture. The natural response to this is that Paul’s followers altered the other letters of the New Testament to agree with what Paul taught. But if so, why do people accuse the New Testament of contradiction, pointing out that Paul says salvation is by faith but James says it is by works? This is an example of critics wanting to have their cake and eat it too. For those who would create their own religion, the lesson here is to hire an editor.

If Paul did falsely deify Jesus, then other Christians, not to mention the enemies of Christianity, would have corrected him. Anyway, what value has a religion if it is based on lies? Need we repeat that all of Jesus’ immediate circle of disciples, except for John, died for their beliefs? This doesn’t mean they were right but it does mean they believed what they died for.

Dr Beckford seems to want everyone to just get along, which is a laudable aim. He stated that we could find “unity in common spiritual values” between different religions, as mostly he compared their ethical teaching. He suggested that, because there were trade routes between India and the Mediterranean, the stories of these religious icons were exchanged and borrowed from one another. The idea that their ethical teachings at least could be developed independently wasn’t mentioned.

For the person interested only in a peaceful life now this seems sensible: surely all that matters is ethics and morality? But as we only live for about 100 years, surely it is important to know what happens to us after we die? Moreover, what we believe about life after death also influences how we live in the present. We have come to the point where we cannot do without religion.

Although our ethics may be similar, it won’t help us if our foundation is wrong. We might get along if all that mattered was being nice to one another, but that isn’t all there is to religion. Religion is more than ethics and morality. Ethics refers to a group of beliefs about how we should live; morality refers to how we actually do live; religion tells us why we should follow a particular ethic and morality. Religion is the root; ethics are the sap; morality is the fruit. Religion tells us about the divine realm. Most religions tell us to live good lives to be saved; to get to heaven. The Bible, particularly the New Testament, tells Christians to live good lives because we are already saved; because we are already citizens of the Kingdom of God. (The Bible also is clear that not all people are saved.)

One difference in the religion underlying the ethical teachings of Jesus and Siddhattha is that the Buddha denied being divine but Jesus claimed to be deity. Not only this, he also claimed that receiving eternal life depended on faith in him. If Siddhattha Gotama never existed but Buddhist doctrine came down from heaven written on pages of gold, there would be little difference in Buddhism itself. On the contrary, Christianity depends on the person, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Another difference between Jesus and Siddhattha can be seen in this statement: “‘To depend on others for salvation is negative, but to depend on oneself is positive’. Dependence on others means a surrender of one’s effort.” (“Buddhism in a Nutshell”) Buddhism doesn’t really talk about god or gods. On the contrary, the Bible puts God explicitly at the centre of everything: we are all rebels against Him, deserving punishment; and our only hope is His mercy. We must depend on God alone for salvation.

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:21-24)

The same statement in stronger words is found in Galatians 3:10-13:

All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, “The man who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”

And no, we can’t test these foundations scientifically, but who says science is the only path to knowledge? What about things that science can’t measure directly, like love or anger or black holes? There are other ways of investigating and other kinds of evidence. And because we can’t test the foundations scientifically, is it wise to ignore them and trust it will all work out? When the torch battery dies, to just keep walking and hope we stay on the path?

At least Siddhattha Gotama was a historical figure, who sought to improve the condition of humanity. Dr Beckford also compared Jesus to Krishna (or vice versa). Krishna is described as an incarnation of the supreme Hindu god Vishnu, as the supreme god himself, or as a lesser deity. Stories about Krishna can be found in the Bhagavad-Gita (“Song of the Lord” [Krishna]) in the Mahabharata, written about two millennia ago. He is described as a cowherd, a flute-player, and a philanderer, seducing even married women, a prankster (when a child), having performed miracles, and being invulnerable, except for his heel (shades of Achilles). His stories may be based on one or two people in history.

Followers of Krishna chant his name to get closer to Him. About this, Dr Beckford commented about “The Lords Prayer”, saying “The second line is ‘Hallowed be thy name’. It’s almost exactly the same idea.” This connection is as solid as cotton wool. The name of anything stands for everything that it is: this concept is called a synecdoche – using a part of something to refer to it all. The opposite is found in the third commandment, “you shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God” (Exodus 20:7). It’s like the phrase “in the name of the law”: it stands for everything the law represents: order, justice, safety, the good of society. So God’s name represents all His attributes such as justice and mercy and love and anger and omniscience and omnipotence. Essentially the phrase “Hallowed be your name” is a prayer that God will be honoured as He should be.

The first mention of Mithras was about 1,400 BC with the name Mitra, was a Aryan god brought by the Mitanni entering India about 2,000 – 1,500 BC to India, and later adopted by the Persians, rejected by the Greeks (the enemies of Persia) and adopted by the Romans in the middle of the second century AD.

Mithra was a sun god, sometimes paired with the water and fertility goddess Anahita. He was said to have been birthed from the earth holding a torch and a knife; a clear parallel with Jesus. Mithras was a part of the religion said to have been revealed to Zoroaster (Zarathustra) in about the 6th century BC. Mithra was an immortal power serving (created by) Ahura Mazda, who said Mithra was as worthy of worship as himself, and who was aware of everything. The god’s name relates to the idea of an (unequal) exchange, implying a covenant relationship, like suzerainty treaty, between two parties.

Zarathustrianism is ultimately monotheistic as Ahura Mazda is its ultimate god, although he seems to be the creator of two equal and opposite forces, good and evil. This is something like the concept of the life-force chi, which comprises two equal and opposite – but complementary – forces, yang and yin.

Opinions are divided about the influence of Zarathustrianism on the monotheistic religions. As Judaism was in existence at least at the same time (because of the existence of various texts) as Zarathustrianism and sacrificed bulls – which Zarathustrianism eschews – and had a rich history, already with written records (such as prophecies and psalms and the Book of the Law), it is doubtful that Judaism was dependent on the religion of Mithra. Having said this, the early Christians may well have made use of Mithra’s special days, seeing he was popular with soldiers, to woo his worshippers to Christianity, or to prevent them from persecuting Christians. (If this was so in the case of the emperor Diocletian, it failed abysmally). December 25th is close to the summer solstice – the longest day of the year – so it was an appropriate day to worship the god of the sun.

Although there are similarities between Zarathustrianism and Christianity, including a final judgment and new earth without evil, there are also great differences. Zarathustrianism is Gnostic: our salvation is up to us, and that we are essentially immaterial creatures caught in physical bodies, influenced by physical desires. The events in the life of Mithras are mythical; that is, they relate events in the past that are not tied to a specific time that we can measure, unlike the events surrounding Jesus. Mithras didn’t die to save anyone, let alone his enemies. And, to say the least, the Christian god is above all, and alone; and Jesus is not a created being, an emanation – He is full deity (Colossians 2:9).

Dr Beckford claimed that Osiris, like Mithras, was a saviour god like Jesus. However, Osiris wasn’t portrayed as a saviour but as judge of the dead. After his brother Seth killed him, his sister and wife Isis resurrected him temporarily so that he could father a son – Horus – who would later avenge his murder. After impregnating Isis, Osiris was translated into the west where he assumed his position as the final judge.

Why do sports fans yowl and yawp at the TV when it will make no difference to the game? I now know: you can’t help but become riled When someone else, who should know better, takes a subject you know and love and makes a pig’s breakfast of it.

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Sources

“Buddha.” Microsoft Encarta Premium Suite 2003.

“Buddha.” Rāhula, Walpola and Reynolds, Frank E. “Encyclopaedia Britannica” (2003) Ultimate Reference Suite DVD.

Buddhism in a Nutshell. Thera Narada. Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc. copyright 1982 Buddhist Publication Society. http://www.buddhanet.net

“Krishna.” “Encyclopaedia Britannica” (2003) Ultimate Reference Suite DVD.

“Mithra.” “Encyclopaedia Britannica” (2003) Ultimate Reference Suite DVD.

“Mithraism.” “Encyclopaedia Britannica” (2003) Ultimate Reference Suite DVD.

“Osiris.” “Encyclopaedia Britannica” (2003) Ultimate Reference Suite DVD.

“Osiris.” Microsoft Encarta Premium Suite 2003.

Mithras: Mysteries and initiation rediscovered. D. Jason Cooper. (1996, Samuel Weiser, Inc., York Beach, Maine. http://www.IranianArchives.com . 1997-2005. Abadan Publishing Co.

“The Buddha, His Life and Teachings”. Thera Piyadassi. The Wheel Publication No. 5a/b. Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc. copyright 1982 Buddhist Publication Society. http://www.buddhanet.net

“Zoroaster.” Koenig, Franz Cardinal. “Encyclopaedia Britannica” (2003) Ultimate Reference Suite DVD.

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