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Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Historical comparative study of the Lotus Sutra, the Koran and the New Testament

By:   Paul de Lacvivier
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Historical comparative study of the Lotus Sutra, the Koran and the New Testament

In this article, we will attempt to determine the historical value of the Lotus Sutra, the Koran and the Gospels from the point of view of so-called primary historical sources, such as manuscripts.

There are several ways of comparing religions. We can study their doctrine, i.e. analyze the content of the religious teachings of a given religion, or compare their relevance, truth and coherence. For example, we can make doctrinal comparisons between the teachings of Jesus, who revealed that God is Love and that we will be judged according to our charity; the Koran, which has elevated obedience to the status of an absolute virtue; and Buddhism, which seeks by all means to attain inner "nothingness". We can also compare religions according to their historical fruits, and their development through the ages. Catholicism, which has counted numerous saints and martyrs on a constant and continuous basis for 2000 years, under the aegis of the one, holy, apostolic and catholic Church; Islam, which has always expanded through conquest in the name of holy wars, the jihad, and which continues to be illustrated in our news by so-called "terrorist" incidents, while forming disparate and numerous sects, since Islam has never been united ; and finally, Buddhism, which has developed its sects and schools as it saw fit, voluntarily submitting to worldly interests and royal authority (in exchange for protection, of course), while forming numerous, disparate sects. In Japan, as in most Far Eastern countries, bonzes traditionally have wives, money, and behave like secular families with hereditary succession, etc.

In this way, we can compare the fruits and destinies of each religion's religious organizations. Another method is to compare the virtue and sanctity of the founders.

In this essay, we will adopt none of the above approaches, but simply assess the historical documentary value of the Lotus Sutra, the Koran and the Gospels, each of which is considered a major "Book" in its religion.

We will simply compile the most recent research on these subjects.

We are in the realm of myth for the Lotus Sutra, in the realm of obscure, anhistorical patchwork for the Koran, and in the realm of sober historical testimony for the New Testament.

I - The composition of the Lotus Sutra
The Lotus Sutra is the reference sutra for most of Far Eastern Buddhism sects. There are countless other sutras, more or less apocryphal, in all directions, but the Lotus Sutra is the benchmark.

It is supposed to transcribe the Buddha's teachings at the end of his life, and is therefore the most complete.

In practice, it comes later, and contains many legendary facts. It is the foundation of Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, and of the entire Chinese sphere.

To this day, research is still unable to come to a clear conclusion as to the exact date of Buddha's existence. The latest date of his death is estimated at 83 BC (Nakamura hypothesis). Other theories place the date of his death in the seventh century BC, but according to the most recent historiography, a date of death around the beginning of the fourth century BC would be the most reasonable, and researchers generally agree on this order of magnitude. The research consensus also affirms that within a hundred years of the Buddha's death, there was a first and then a second assembly of the Buddha's disciples to decide on a corpus of texts (the focus of which were decisions to fix the rules of monastic discipline, not dogma). These assemblies failed to maintain unity, and quickly gave rise to splits and divisions, giving rise to countless sects that never again returned to a unified form (the split on the question of discipline demonstrates, moreover, that the doctrine itself was already very vague and did not allow for unity). According to Buddhist tradition, the first Sutras and Laws were codified within a hundred years of the Buddha's death.

However, according to the prevailing historiographical theory, the "Sutras" as we know them today were established around the year 0. That is, at least 300 years after the Buddha's death, according to the prevailing thesis. As far as manuscripts are concerned, the oldest date from the 1st century CE, but the Lotus Sutra itself dates from the 6th-7th century CE (Kashmir manuscripts), while the most widely used manuscripts are Nepalese and date from the 11th century.

In any case, the ancient manuscripts are fragmentary and scattered and, what's more, when we consider their respective Chinese translations, they are not at all consistent with each other and present numerous differences and even contradictions. Even the Lotus Sutra itself is unclear as to its composition, and is in fact based on the various traditions of different sects.

In short, the period of the Buddha's life is not known, nor is the period of composition of the sutras that are supposed to relate his preaching. What's more, these sutras are subject to countless variations from manuscript to manuscript, and they vary considerably from one language to another and from one sect to another. It's also a fact that the Buddha's life as traditionally known is also full of pious legends, reminiscent of some of the apocryphal writings of the Christian tradition.

In other words, few historians consider the Lotus Sutra and other sutras to be "historical sources" that can be used to make history, as they lack historical authenticity and value as historical documents.

Study today is all too prone to the relativism that has become the dogma of too many studies.

II - The composition of the Koran

According to the most recent research, it is common knowledge that the original Koran was derived from a Judeo-Christian liturgy. In other words, the composition of the Koran was based on Christian texts written in Aramaic-Syriac for the Arabs in pagan times[1]. This can be explained by the fact that Christians of Jewish origin were active in the Arabian Peninsula from the time of the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent expulsion of the Jews from Palestine. The content of the Koran is also disparate and constitutes a kind of patchwork, with parts identified as coming from apocryphal gospels, Manichaean (or Zoroastrian) religious texts and other Middle Eastern religious texts transcribed directly into the Koran. The date of Muhammad's death is given as 632. (Some theories cast doubt on Muhammad's very existence due to the scarcity, if not absence, of historical sources about him at the time).

According to Islamic tradition, the third caliph (but according to some traditions it was the fourth caliph) ordered the compilation of the Koran, at which point he ordered all variants to be burned.

Legal documents from the empire founded after Muhammad's death survive from the late 8th and 9th centuries, but there are no accounts of the Koran present in these earliest documents of Islamic tradition.

In fact, the earliest extant manuscripts of the actual Koran date back to the 9th century. It should be noted that the reading of the Koran is equivocal and can be read in many different ways. The texts interpreting it are equally disparate and numerous, so much so that in the 10th century, an order was given to limit the possible readings of the Koran to seven.

The earliest manuscripts of what is said to be the Koran, dated 654 and 772, show many differences from the current Koran (around 750), the layout is very different, and many suras are missing. The Koran claims to be clear, but around a fifth of it is totally unintelligible (a property of the Arabic script). The current official, patented version of the Koran was established in 1923.

In short, the historical value of the Koran is low, and it is also highly probable that it was compiled and falsified after the fact. In any case, it is a book fraught with problems due to the many inconsistencies in its content and the way it is read, which allows for numerous and contradictory readings. What is certain is that the Koran cannot be used as a historical source, both because of doubts about its authenticity, and because of its obscure and contradictory content.

The major difficulty on the subject of the Koran lies in the fact that Islam strictly forbids academic research and religious interpretation of the Koran, so unlike research on the Lotus Sutra and the Gospels, historical research on the Koran is lagging behind, and encounters many difficulties.

For the New Testament, we have: over 5,500 manuscripts in Greek, 10,000 in Latin, 9,000 in other languages, and over 36,000 quotations from the New Testament in the writings of the Church Fathers.

III - The composition of the Gospels

Numerous historical sources external to the Gospels support the historical existence of Jesus Christ: the dates of his birth and death are known with a very high degree of precision for the time (some speak of 6 CE or 6 BC, with a death date set at 30 or 33 CE, which is a rare degree of precision for such distant times). Of all the "books" of the various religions, the Gospels are the most attacked and studied by scholars: despite this, the historical value of the Gospels is commonly accepted as high by the scientific community, even if hostile.

The oldest manuscript document of the New Testament is St. Paul's letter to the Romans, sent in 51 CE. The four Gospels were also written by the four apostles or disciples of Jesus Christ before 100 A.D., or around 100 A.D. in the case of Saint John. In examining the content of the Gospels, historians agree that the apostles also reported many passages that were very shameful for themselves, and given the general sobriety of the accounts and the absence of the "marvelous" genre, historians agree that the content of the Gospels could not have been imagined or falsified, and that its degree of veracity is very high in relation to the internal criteria of the texts.

The first manuscript found is the Gospel of St. John, dated 150 (for these ancient times, it is very rare to find a manuscript so early in relation to the year of its composition, in this case around 50 years after it was written).

On the other hand, the date of writing of the apocrypha (texts eliminated very early by the Catholic Church) and other manuscripts rejected outside the Canon, is between 150 and the 4th century, and we only possess as manuscripts documents of which the oldest dates from the 330s. The difference in historical quality between Canon and apocryphal texts is undeniable.

For the New Testament, we have: over 5,500 manuscripts in Greek, 10,000 in Latin, 9,000 in other languages, and over 36,000 quotations from the New Testament in the writings of the Church Fathers (only 11 passages of the New Testament as we know it from the Canon are not quoted by the Church Fathers). The 5,000 or so New Testament manuscripts written in Greek (only one Gospel is in Aramaic, the others in Greek) are over 99.5% identical, which is exceptionally high for hand-copied manuscripts. The manuscripts have been excavated throughout the Mediterranean, without any geographical or chronological bias, and this concomitance of manuscripts is not due to a research bias.

As for the Old Testament, its archival value is also highly appreciated, with more and more archaeological evidence supporting the historical value of the Old Testament.

In short, the Gospels, Epistles and Acts are very reliable historical documents and can be used in history (regardless of faith), to learn about historical facts of the time.


The above is just a brief introduction to the subject, and if you wish to examine it in greater depth, you can refer to existing academic studies on the subject.

The point was to show that, in general and in detail, the Lotus Sutra, the Koran and the New Testament are totally dissimilar books and, historically speaking, they are completely different worlds: we are in the realm of myth for the Lotus Sutra, in the realm of obscure, anhistorical patchwork for the Koran, and in the realm of sober historical testimony for the New Testament.

Study today is all too prone to the relativism that has become the dogma of too many studies. Nevertheless, to study is first and foremost to determine facts as they are - what we call "truth", i.e. the adequacy of a judgment to a reality. It's up to each and every one of us to draw conclusions from these facts established by science, facts established via a methodology that provides scientific certainty while limiting the domain of these certainties. This is often the stumbling block when it comes to studying religious or anthropological phenomena, since the Christian fact is much better known and attacked than pagan facts, which are less well known, less sourced, and always praised - although those who know how to look, know how to find sources.

Paul de Lacvivier
Lys and Chrysanthemums Institute - Tokyo

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Michel Rouche, Les origines du Christianisme, 30-457, Hachette supérieur, 2021 (university textbook for researchers; page 33 presents the origins of the Koran as based on Christian scriptures. It also recalls the historical existence of the sacraments and the primacy of the Bishop of Rome from the beginning of the Church in the first century, as well as the fact that there was legitimate and clear doctrine from the beginning, including in the Apostolic Exegesis).
Masatoshi Ueki, 法華経とは何か ("What is the Lotus Sutra"), Chuko Shinsho, 2020.
Guy Pagès, La preuve par le Coran, DMM, 2021 (Abbé Pagès examines the Koran sentence by sentence, focusing on the original text. Caution is advised as this is a polemical text, but it is based on considerable previous research).

[1]Michel Rouche, Les origines du christianisme, p. 33. See also the research of Professor Christoph Luxenberg (who published under a pseudonym to avoid threats to his person from Islamists). See also Alphonse Mingane, Adolph von Harnac and Theodor Noldek.

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Last modified on Tuesday, July 11, 2023