Certain modern scholars, notably Elaine Pagels, have proposed that similarities existed between Buddhism and Gnosticism, a term deriving from the name "Gnostics" given to a number of Christian sects by early Christian heresiologists.


Early 3rd-4th century Christian writers such as Hippolytus of Rome and Epiphanius write about a Scythianus, who visited India around 50 AD from where he brought "the doctrine of the Two Principles". According to these writers, Scythianus' pupil Terebinthus presented himself as a "Buddha" ("he called himself Buddas" Cyril of Jerusalem). Terebinthus went to Palestine and Judaea where he met the Apostles ("becoming known and condemned" Isaia),[1] and ultimately settled in Babylon, where he transmitted his teachings to Mani, thereby creating the foundation of what could be called Persian syncretic Buddhism, Manicheism. We find evidence that Buddhist thought had major influence on the teachings of Mani:

In the story of the Death of Mani [2]:

It was a day of pain
and a time of sorrow
when the messenger of light
entered death
when he entered complete Nirvana"

Following Mani's travels to the Kushan Empire (several religious paintings in Bamiyan are attributed to him) at the beginning of his proselytizing career, various Buddhist influences seem to have permeated Manichaeism:

Buddhist influences were significant in the formation of Mani's religious thought. The transmigration of souls became a Manichaean belief, and the quadripartite structure of the Manichaean community, divided between male and female monks (the "elect") and lay followers (the "hearers") who supported them, appears to be based on that of the Buddhist sangha.[3]
Manichaeism spread with extraordinary rapidity throughout both the east and west. It reached Rome through the apostle Psattiq by AD 280, who was also in Egypt in 244 and 251. The faith was flourishing in the Fayum area of Egypt in 290. Manichaean monasteries existed in Rome in 312 during the time of the Christian Pope Miltiades. By 354, Hilary of Poitiers wrote that the Manichaean faith was a significant force in southern France.

Also, in the Great Song of Mani (13th-14th century) Mani is many times referred to as Buddha Mani.

Essenes Edit

Philip Jenkins writes:

Theories of a possible Asian influence on the Jesus movement usually focused on the Essenes. Even orthodox scholars like Dean Mansel argued that Buddhist monks and missionaries had provided the inspiration for the monks and ascetics whom we find recorded in the Middle East before the coming of Jesus, like the Essenes and the related Egyptian sect of the Therapeutae. Some writers explored the idea that Jesus himself might have drawn on these esoteric traditions, as suggested by the title of Arthur Lillie's 1887 book Buddhism in Christendom, or, Jesus, the Essene. In 1880, Ernest von Bunsen argued that Christian messianic concepts derived from a common fund of tradition that was shared by Buddhists and Essenes. The Essenes, it was thought, provided a crucial link between Eastern mysticism and Western heresy, with Jesus as the pivot between the two trends. If Jesus had access to Buddhist ideas, and the Gnostic sects themselves preached reincarnation and other Asian themes, then once again this was evidence that Jesus' earliest teachings were best preserved among the so-called heresies.[4]

Gospel of Thomas Edit

Elaine Pagels has written that "one need only listen to the words of the Gospel of Thomas to hear how it resonates with the Buddhist tradition... these ancient gospels tend to point beyond faith toward a path of solitary searching to find understanding, or gnosis." She suggests that there is an explicitly Indian influence in the Gospel of Thomas, perhaps via the Christian communities in southern India, the so-called Thomas Christians.

Of all of the Nag Hammadi texts, the Gospel of Thomas has the most similarities with Pure Land Buddhism. Edward Conze has suggested that Hindu or Buddhist tradition may well have influenced Gnosticism. He points out that Buddhists were in contact with the Thomas Christians.[5]

Elaine Pagels notes that the similarities between Gnosticism and Buddhism have prompted some scholars to question their interdependence and to wonder whether "...if the names were changed, the 'living Buddha' appropriately could say what the Gospel of Thomas attributes to the living Jesus. " However, she concludes that, although intriguing, the evidence is inconclusive, since parallel traditions may emerge in different cultures without direct influence.[6]

Early encountersEdit

Early 3rd century–4th century Christian writers such as Hippolytus and Epiphanius write about a Scythianus, who visited India around 50 CE from where he brought "the doctrine of the Two Principles". According to Cyril of Jerusalem, Scythianus' pupil Terebinthus presented himself as a "Buddha" ("He called himself Buddas").[7] Terebinthus went to Palestine and Judaea ("becoming known and condemned"), and ultimately settled in Babylon, where he transmitted his teachings to Mani, thereby creating the foundation of Manichaeism:

"But Terebinthus, his disciple in this wicked error, inherited his money and books and heresy, and came to Palestine, and becoming known and condemned in Judæa he resolved to pass into Persia: but lest he should be recognised there also by his name he changed it and called himself Buddas."

In the 3rd century, the Syrian writer and Christian Gnostic theologian Bar Daisan described his exchanges with the religious missions of holy men from India (Greek: Σαρμαναίοι, Sramanas), passing through Syria on their way to Elagabalus or another Severan dynasty Roman Emperor. His accounts were quoted by Porphyry (De abstin., iv, 17[citation needed]) and Stobaeus (Eccles., iii, 56, 141).

Finally, from the 3rd century to the 12th century, some Gnostic religions such as Manichaeism, which combined Christian, Hebrew and Buddhist influences (Mani, the founder of the religion, resided for some time in Kushan lands), spread throughout the Old World, to Gaul and Great Britain in the West, and to China in the East. Some leading Christian theologians such as Augustine of Hippo were Manichaeans before converting to orthodox Christianity.

Such exchanges, many more of which may have gone unrecorded, suggest that Buddhism may have had some influence on early Christianity: "Scholars have often considered the possibility that Buddhism influenced the early development of Christianity. They have drawn attention to many parallels concerning the births, lives, doctrines, and deaths of the Buddha and Jesus" (Bentley, "Old World Encounters").

The "lost years" of Jesus & New Age theories Edit

One tradition claims that Jesus traveled to India and Tibet during the "Lost years of Jesus" before the beginning of his public ministry. In 1887 a Russian war correspondent, Nicolas Notovitch, visited India and Tibet. He claimed that, at the lamasery or monastery of Hemis in Ladakh, he learned of the "Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men." His story, with a translated text of the "Life of Saint Issa," was published in French in 1894 as La vie inconnue de Jesus Christ. It was subsequently translated into English, German, Spanish, and Italian.

The "Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men" purportedly recounts the travels of one known in the East as Saint Issa, whom Notovitch identified as Jesus. After initially doubting Notovitch, a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Abhedananda, journeyed to Tibet, investigated his claim, helped translate part of the document, and later championed his views.[8]

Notovitch's writings were immediately controversial. The German orientalist Max Müller corresponded with the Hemis monastery that Notovitch claimed to have visited and Archibald Douglas visited Hemis Monastery. Neither found any evidence that Notovich (much less Jesus) had even been there himself, so they rejected his claims. The head of the Hemis community signed a document that denounced Notovitch as a liar.[9]

Despite this contradictory evidence, a number of New Age or spiritualist authors have taken this information and have incorporated it into their own works. For example, in her book The Lost Years of Jesus: Documentary Evidence of Jesus' 17-Year Journey to the East, Elizabeth Clare Prophet asserts that Buddhist manuscripts provide evidence that Jesus traveled to India, Nepal, Ladakh and Tibet.[10]

Other comparisonsEdit

Although Gnosticism pre-dates the alleged birth of Jesus it flourishes as a Jesus movement up until around the third century. The word Gnostic is the stem of the modern word knowledge and means 'the state of knowing. To the Gnostics salvation was dependent on knowledge of the world. This knowing by experience can be compared to the Buddhist idea of direct knowledge.

In the 2007 book Father and Son, East is West, the Buddhist sources to Christianity and their influence on medieval myths, the author Daniel Hopkins lists 12 Buddhist/Gnostic Christian parallels of which, he claims, 9 of them are not paralled even remotely by other dogmas. The partially recovered Gospel of Mary begins in the third chapter:

“Will matter then be destroyed or not?”

Jesus then said, “All nature, all formations, all creatures exist in and with one another, and they will be resolved again into their own roots. For the nature of matter is resolved into the roots of its own nature.”

As usual, we can find thousands of utterances by the Buddha that parallel this truth. Here is an example from the Mahaparinibbana sutta.

The Buddha said, “Monks, all formations are subject to decay; therefore I exhort you to work out your salvation with diligence.”

The Buddhists also believed that beings existed "in and with one another". This is most seen in the Avatamasaka sutra were the text states that the Buddha puts all the creatures, forms, and lands inside of his body.


  1. Catechetical Lecture 6 Concerning the Unity of God. On the Article, I Believe in One God. Also Concerning Heresies. Isaiah xlv. 16, 17. (Sept.)
  2. According to the Gnostic Bible by Willis Barnstone, here is one of many authenticating references proving the centrality of Buddhism in Mani's formulation of Gnosticism
  3. Richard Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road, Palgrave Macmillan, 2nd edition, 2010 ISBN 978-0-230-62125-1
  4. Jenkins, Philip. How Gnostic Jesus Became the Christ of Scholars. 
  5. Conze, Edward. Buddhism and Gnosis. 
  6. Pagels, Elaine (1979, repr. 1989). The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House. 
  7. Cyril of Jerusalem Catechetical Lecture 6, paragraph 23
  8. Swami Abhedananda (1987). Journey into Kashmir and Tibet (the English translation of Kashmiri 0 Tibbate). Calcutta: Ramakrishna Vivekananda Math. 
  9. Goodspeed, Edgar J. (1956). Famous Biblical Hoaxes or, Modern Apocrypha. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House. 
  10. Prophet, Elizabeth Clare (1987). The Lost Years of Jesus: Documentary Evidence of Jesus' 17-Year Journey to the East. Livingston, MT: Summit University Press. p. 468. ISBN 0-916766-87-X. 

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