By James Bishop| In this article, we are going to do a comparison between the historical we have for two historical figures: Jesus of Nazareth, and Confucius.
Who was Confucius?
It is generally held that Confucius was born around 551 BC (Creel 1949, 25) to his mother Yan and father Kong He, his father was an officer in the Lu military. Yan raised Confucius after his father died when he was just three years old, and when he turned 19 he married Qiguan, and within a year they bore Kong Li.
Confucius was born into the class of Shi that was between the aristocracy and the common people. He is said to have worked as a shepherd, cowherd, clerk, and a book-keeper. When he was 23 his mother died, and is said to have mourned for three years.
Nevertheless, Confucius was a Chinese teacher and a philosopher. He lived within a tumultuous time in Chinese history where many wars were waged between states, a period known as the Spring and Autumn of the Zhou Dynasty. Confucius took it upon himself to try and bring order back to the people.
He also wanted people to think hard about the problems they faced as well as to learn from others, especially from what history showed. He thought that the common people should also have power because some of them were skilled and deserved it, hence people would not just come to power because they came from powerful families.
Like Jesus, Confucius taught the golden rule that people should only do things to others if they would be okay with other people doing those things to themselves. Confucius died around 478 BC from natural causes and was buried at the Kong Lin cemetery which lies in the historical part of Qufu.
1) Total Textual Sources
Confucius: There are three major works that tell us about the life and teachings of Confucius. These are The Analects, another text authored by the philosopher Mencius, and the Shiji biography of Sima Oian. Some other sources exist but their historicity is highly doubtful. From the Analects, Mencius, and the Shiji we can sketch out a portrait of the historical Confucius.
Although we can sketch a portrait still much of what we know of him “…are pretty bare bones, and much of what is commonly reported about the man is based on legend and conjecture” (1).
Jesus: The textual evidence for the historical Jesus is varied, much of what has been collected and put into the New Testament. The New Testament is a library of 27 books written by 10 or more authors within the 1st century.
These books are divided into the biographical gospels (Mark, Luke, Matthew, John), several Pauline epistles (1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon, Galatians, Romans, and Philippians), several non-Pauline epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians), and two debated books of Pauline origin (2 Thessalonians, Colossians). Other New Testament literature includes Acts, Revelation, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2 and 3 John, and Jude.
Result: Based off the total amount of historical texts to learn about these two historical persons, the historical Jesus, by shear number, is more widely attested to than that of the historical Confucius.
2) Our Earliest Biography on Confucius & Jesus
Confucius: The earliest known biography of Confucius is a short entry in the Shiji. The Shiji is a collection of biographies written in the 1st century BC by the Chinese historian Sima Qian. Sima had to use unreliable and late sources to compile his text on Confucius as four centuries had passed between the death of Confucius and the writing of his biography.
Some scholars are uncertain about some of its contents especially regarding the historicity of legendary kings of the ancient periods (2). This text dates to around 380 years after Confucius’ life.
Jesus: Our earliest biography on the historical of Jesus is that of the Gospel of Mark. Mark, by scholarly consensus, is dated at 70 AD and is that of the genre of Greco-Roman biography. Considering that Jesus died around 30 AD, this leaves a small time gap of only 40 years.
Historians, due to its earliness of composition, see Mark as an authoritative source alongside hypothetical Q, L and M. Scholarly consensus is that the author of Mark utilized a pre-Markan Passion Narrative that was likely based on eyewitness testimony. It is also worth noting that the Apostle Paul writes his first book mentioning Jesus some 20 years after Jesus’ life (1 Thessalonians), though it is not a biography.
Result: On the earliness of composition of our earliest biographies on the historical Confucius and Jesus, Jesus is much earlier attested to by a margin of several centuries. The earliest biography for Confucius, the Shiji, comes around +-380 years after his life, where as Mark is dated no later than 40 years after Jesus’ Earthly existence.
3) The Analects of Confucius
Much of what we can known of Confucius, like Jesus, are from his teachings and words collected and preserved by his followers in the Lun Yu, which is known as The Analects of Confucius in English. Of all the historical sources we have on Confucius, The Analects are thought to be the most reliable although it remains questionable in some facets (3).
The Analects is thought to have been written between 475 BC and 221 BC, a period known as the Warring States. It is also thought that they were finalized around 206 BC–220 AD. The finalized form of The Analects is dated to +- 270 years after his life.
Result: Our sources for the life and teachings of Jesus come from the New Testament literature (see point 1) that, in its entirety, can be dated from 20 – 60 years after Jesus’ life. This would make the teachings of the historical Jesus on average much earlier than that of The Analects of the historical Confucius.
4) The Philosopher Mencius
This is an account of the philosophy of Mencius who was a devoted follower of Confucius; he added much to the total picture of what we call Confucianism (4). Mencius was not a contemporary of Confucius as he lived over 100 years later having been born around 372 BC. This time gap allowed for Mencius to have access to reliable information on Confucius.
Result: Although Mencius is a reasonably early source on Confucius all our authors of the New Testament literature existed within 100 years of Jesus’ life. There are +- 12 of these authors within 100 years of Jesus’ life as opposed to only one for Confucius that comes slightly over 100 years of his existence. Jesus is better attested to by more authors mentioning him within 100 years of his life than that of Confucius.
I think that it is clear that the historical Jesus is better attested to than that of the Chinese philosopher and teacher Confucius. We have seen that the total sources on the historical Jesus are much more varied than that of Confucius, that being 27 sources as opposed to only three (point 1). We have seen that our earliest biography for Jesus, Mark, far surpasses that of the Shiji in its earliness, that being a mere 40 years for Jesus as opposed to an enormous 378 years for Confucius (point 2). We saw that the earliest mention of Confucius is from his follower and philosopher Mencius who lived over 100 years later. This is in contrast to all the authors, +-12 of them, of the New Testament who all lived within 100 years of Jesus’ life and wrote on him (point 4).
1. Bresnan, P. Awakening: An Introduction to the History of Eastern Thought. Available.
2. Watson, B. 1958. Ssu Ma Ch’ien Grand Historian Of China. p. 16-17.
3. Rainey, L. 2010. Confucius and Confucianism: The Essentials. p. 10.
4. Kwong, S. 2000. Mencius and Early Chinese Thought.
This article was originally featured on the website of James Bishop and was republished with permission