Jesus Among Giants

Religious Biographies in Comparative Context

by William Cully Allen (Author)
©2019 Monographs XIV, 142 Pages


Jesus Among Giants: Religious Biographies in Comparative Context compares and contrasts Jesus to Mahāvīra, Buddha, Krishna, Confucius, Laozi, Moses, and Muhammad in terms of their missions and messages. These foundational religious figures are introduced in their particular socio-political context—on their own terms, in their own words, within the canons of their respective sacred scriptural traditions. Each chapter features the biography of a foundational religious figure, their teachings, a comparative analysis, and a suggestion about what Christians might learn from other foundational religious characters.
Jesus Among Giants offers a new approach to comparative religion as a confrontational conference of conflicting claims in search of uncommon insights into truth. This book observes striking similarities and discerns distinguishing differences but does not harmonize or hierarchize competing visions into a single coherent version of truth. Rather, it exposes and respects differences for the sake of determining the unique identity of each religious figure featured.
There is no avoiding controversy and conflict among the foundational figures of the world’s religions. Religious identities are forged in the face of differences. To adequately appreciate any one spiritual giant requires understanding them all. To know who Jesus is means knowing who he isn’t. Readers are invited to face the facts and fictions, myths and messages, and claims and counter-claims that clearly distinguish Jesus among giants.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Mahāvīra
  • Introduction
  • Socio-political Context
  • Texts as Context
  • Birth and Youth
  • Renunciation and Wanderings
  • Enlightenment and Ministry
  • Death and Legacy
  • Teachings
  • Between Mahāvīra and Jesus
  • What Christians Might Learn From Mahāvīra
  • Chapter 2. Buddha
  • Introduction
  • Socio-political Context
  • Texts as Context
  • Birth and Youth
  • Renunciation and Wanderings
  • Enlightenment and Ministry
  • Death and Legacy
  • Teachings
  • Between Buddha and Jesus
  • What Christians Might Learn From Buddha
  • Chapter 3. Kṛṣṇa
  • Introduction
  • Socio-political Context
  • Texts as Context
  • Birth and Youth
  • Mission
  • Defeat of Despotism and Departure
  • Teachings
  • Between and Jesus
  • What Christians Might Learn From
  • Chapter 4. Confucius
  • Introduction
  • Socio-political Context
  • Texts as Context
  • Birth and Youth
  • Marriage and Early Career
  • Mission and Message
  • Death and Legacy
  • Teachings
  • Between Confucius and Jesus
  • What Christians Might Learn From Confucius
  • Chapter 5. Laozi
  • Introduction
  • Socio-political Context
  • Texts as Context
  • Birth and Career
  • Renunciation and Disappearance
  • Teachings
  • Between Laozi and Jesus
  • What Christians Might Learn From Laozi
  • Chapter 6. Moses
  • Introduction
  • Socio-political Context
  • Texts as Context
  • Backstory, Birth, and Youth
  • Exile, Revelation, and Return
  • Exodus From Egypt
  • Wandering in the Wilderness
  • Death and Legacy
  • Teachings
  • Between Moses and Jesus
  • What Christians Might Learn From Moses
  • Chapter 7. Muhammad
  • Introduction
  • Socio-political Context
  • Texts as Context
  • Birth, Youth, and Marriage
  • Retreat and Revelation
  • Message and Mission
  • Death and Legacy
  • Teachings
  • Between Muhammad and Jesus
  • What Christians Might Learn From Muhammad
  • Chapter 8. Jesus
  • Introduction
  • Socio-political Context
  • Texts as Context
  • Backstory, Birth, and Youth
  • Baptism and Renunciation
  • Message, Mission, and Ministry
  • Death and Resurrection
  • Teachings
  • Between Jesus and the Giants
  • What Christians Might Learn From Jesus
  • Index

← viii | ix →


Forty years ago I took a seminar at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary that would eventually lead me to write this book. Professor Lit-Sen Chang conducted a missions seminar called “Christian Approach to Asian Religions.” After having been a Confucian scholar, Daoist philosopher and Zen Buddhist master, Professor Chang was converted to faith in Jesus. He related to the class how he was en route from China to India on a missionary campaign to propagate Zen Buddhism when, during a layover in the Philippines, he was taken reluctantly to a Christian church, heard the gospel for the first time, and was immediately converted to faith. He taught us how to recognize common ground between Jesus and Asian religions as a point of departure for dialogue and declaration of the gospel.

I am indebted to the late Srinarayanmisra of Banāras Hindu University for teaching me how to navigate Hindu and Buddhist philosophical literature, to the late Charles Wei-Hsen Fu of Temple University for teaching me how to read Confucian and Daoist texts in their comparative philosophical contexts, and to my late PhD advisor, Bibhuti Singh Yadav, for training me how to think—in the face of opponents—through sacred texts in comparative religious contexts. ← ix | x →

Colleagues, friends, and family have helped to render an otherwise difficult discourse far more reader-friendly by offering their constructive comments, criticisms, and corrections: Tim Clark, Howard Shultz, Stephen Inbanathan, Jagannatha Charan Das, Daniel Kremer, Kevin Borella, and Cynthia, Gabriel, Emma, Richard and Russell Allen. Peter Lang editor, Liam McLean masterfully mediated an invaluable peer review of a preliminary draft, and Luke McCord meticulously prepared the manuscript for publication. I am especially grateful to Meagan Simpson for her confidence in the project's contribution. The cover design is the creation and contribution of Carla Strozzieri. Reading from left to right and top to bottom, the symbols signify Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Christianity, Daoism, Judaism and Jainism respectively.

← x | xi →


“Out in the open, wisdom calls aloud, she raises her voice in the public square.”1

There are several competing approaches for comparing foundational religious figures. First, there are scholars belonging to each religion who insist that theirs is the best, better than all the rest. They acknowledge valid insights of other foundational religious figures but simply claim that theirs taught or accomplished something more important than all the others.2 A particular problem with this perspective is the difficulty in establishing a common criteria on the basis of which to objectively evaluate and determine who is superior.

A second approach denies that any single religious figure is superior but claims instead that all of them say essentially the same thing in different words to different people in different historical situations. Scholars who take this approach marginalize and minimize differences and claim that all teach a common core message. All religious roads lead to the same destination and all different kinds of people reach there.3 This position is difficult to defend because there is no consensus concerning the core message that they all allegedly share in common. Moreover, the many conflicting truth claims concerning life’s ultimate goal and the means for reaching it are not readily reconcilable. ← xi | xii →

A third approach begs to differ with the previous two by denying both the superiority of any one foundational figure and the essential similarity of them all. No one has a monopoly on the market of religious truth, but each one contributes their own particular perspectives on truth which transcends them all. In light of conflicting assertions, this approach claims that each spiritual giant taught some truth and some error because—after all—they were human. The challenge to this position is the lack of common criteria by which to determine truth from error. Each individual is left to affirm or reject the various teachings according to criteria for truth and falsity established by their respective traditions.4

A fourth approach regards the foundational religious figures as representatives of radically different visions of reality. According to this view, reality itself is ultimately plural and not singular, many and not only one. There may be many different paths leading to many different peaks.5 This view validates the teachings of all and avoids any ultimate conflict between them—but its truth or falsity lies beyond verifiability.

My approach follows the lead of B. S. Yadav, whose method may be called scriptural realism.6 It is a democratization of interreligious dialogue. Scriptural realism extends the golden rule to respect the sacred sources of other religious traditions as you would want them to respect yours. It takes all sacred scriptures seriously as valid means through which wisdom raises her voice. Wisdom, if not censored or suppressed, speaks in and through all scriptures to various people in diverse ways.

Scriptural realism regards sacred texts as mother cows, and the interpreters as calves who jealously contend with each other for access to the pure milk of the word, each claiming to have received better milk than the others. However, the mother cow is untethered and walks from one age to another without depleting or yielding all of her milk to any individual, school or generation of interpreters.

Each sacred scriptural tradition presents its own version of truth. For Mahāvīra, there is no truth above the infinite, eternal, omniscient self. For Buddha everything is momentary; whatever exists changes and whatever doesn’t change doesn’t exist; truth is nibbāna, the unborn and unproduced that is beyond all words and imaginations. Confucius located the source of truth in Heaven and traced its root to the human heart. Laozi situated truth in the Dao as the natural way of the universe. For both Muhammad and Moses, God alone is the source and standard of truth, while Kṛṣṇa and Jesus claimed to personally embody transcendent truth itself. ← xii | xiii →

Sacred scriptures speak a wisdom which is hermeneutically hard to hear. There is an interpretive gap between what a text says and what its readers understand. Text-historical scholars seek to bridge the gap by considering the socio-political contexts in which their original audiences would have heard the text. Truth speaks for itself but even truth needs translators and interpreters. Prakrit, Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, Hebrew, Arabic and Greek are the scriptural languages through which wisdom purports to speak. Sacred scriptures speak a texture of truth in diverse literary devices which transform legends and myths into religious faiths and historical facts. All languages are limited in their capacity to convey truth, which is constrained to speak in and through contradictions. In the pages that follow, wisdom raises her voice from within a cacophony of conflicting claims and counter-claims, each clamoring and contending for its own vision and version of truth.


1. Proverbs 1:20, Holy Bible: New International Version, Zondervan Publishers, 1984.

2. Zacharias, Ravi, Jesus Among Other Gods, Thomas Nelson, 2009.

3. Hick, John, God Has Many Names, The Westminster Press, 1982.

4. For various Christian approaches to world religions, see Knitter, Paul F., No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions, Orbis Books, 1985.

5. Kaplan, Stephen, Different Paths, Different Summits: A Model for Religious Pluralism, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2002.


XIV, 142
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (November)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XIV, 142 pp.

Biographical notes

William Cully Allen (Author)

William Cully Allen served as Associate Professor of Asian Religions at Temple University from 2001 to 2011. He has also held teaching appointments at Austin College, Bucknell University, Muhlenberg College, and the University of the Arts. He is the author of Sanskrit Debate (Peter Lang, 2015), Taoism (2007), and Tennis Mindset (2018).


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158 pages