Historical Evidence for Confucius


Posted: August 18, 2005

Last Updated: August 19, 2005

Relevance of the Historical Evidence for Confucius to Christianity:

The historical evidence for the life of Confucius will be briefly discussed in order to provide the reader with another example of documentation for a religious figure in the ancient world in addition to Jesus. As the reader will probably conclude, the historical documentation for the life and teachings of Jesus is far greater than the historical documentation for the life of Confucius, provided that the reader possesses a general understanding of the historical documentation available for the life and teachings of Jesus.

Background on Historical Sources Testifying to the Existence of Confucius:

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a great deal of verifiable information about the life of Confucius. The sources that do exist are pretty bare bones, and much of what is commonly reported about the man is based on legend and conjecture. The earliest known biography of Confucius is a short entry in the Shiji, a collection of biographies written in the first century B.C.E. by the Chinese historian Sima Qian (Ssu-ma Ch’ien). Four centuries had elapsed between the death of Confucius and the writing of this biography; Sima Qian had to rely on scanty and unreliable sources.

A much better source is the words of Confucius himself. Although he never wrote an autobiography (so far as we know), much of his teaching has been preserved. Confucius himself, though, was not moved to do a great deal of writing; most of what we believe to be his words are really nothing more than a collection of aphorisms written down and preserved by his disciples in the Lun Yu, which we know in English as the Analects of Confucius.

Perhaps the best source for reliable insight into the life and character of Confucius is the Mencius (Meng Zi), which is an exposition of the philosophy of Mencius, a devoted follower of Confucius. Mencius added much to the total picture of what we call “Confucianism”. Though not a contemporary of Confucius-he lived about a century later-Mencius was close enough in time and association to have access to a great deal of reliable information about the man. The Mencius is full of little insights about Confucius.

These three works-the Analects, the Mencius, and the biography of Sima Qian-make up our basic sources of information about Confucius, his life, and his teaching. Other sources exist, but their accuracy is often questionable. From these various sources, taken as a whole, we can abstract a simple, but reasonably credible account of the life of Confucius” (AIHET:127).

What Are the Analects?

  • “The Analects is a collection of sayings by Confucius and his pupils pertaining to his teachings and deeds. It was probably put together by some of his pupils and their pupils (this would be the equivalent of the early Church Fathers putting Jesus' teachings together in Christianity). The name Lun-yu did not appear until the second century B.C. At that time there were three versions of it , with some variations. Two of these have been lost. The surviving version is that of the state of Lu, where it is circulated. It is divided into two parts, with teen books each. In the Ching-tien shih-wen by Lu Te-ming (556-627), ch. 24, it is divided into 492 chapters. Chu His combined and divided certain chapters, making a total of 482, one of which is divided into eighteen sections. In translations like Legge’s Confucian Analects, and Waley’s The Analects of Confucius , these divisions are taken as chapters, making 499. The same numbering is used in the following selections" ( ASBCP:19).

The Reliability of the Analects:

  • The material is unsystematic, in a few cases repetitive, and in some cases historically inaccurate . However, it is generally accepted as the most authentic and reliable source of Confucian teachings” ( ASBCP:19).
  • "This work is, at the present time, quite correctly considered the most direct and reliable source which we have for Confucius, his life, and his doctrines. It is not, of course, a product of Confucius, nor yet-at least, as it is now formulated-of his immediate disciples, who, in part, also appear as "Masters". But it may safely be assumed that data or traditions regarding the "Master" form the sources of the work, and that these were given their final form by the next succeeding generation. This material has a double tradition: the one, in Lu, the native state of the Master, which may, in general, be accepted as closer to the original; and the other, in the neighboring state of Chi'i” ( CAC:133).
  • “All scholars seem to be agreed that, while some parts of the Analects are subject to question, the book in general is our best single source for Confucius. This unanimity is remarkable, since the Analects seems not to have been mentioned by name in any work older than the Han dynasty. Passages found in it also appear, however, in works from a period earlier than Han, and it is evident that these sayings were handed down in the Confucian group for some time without having any particular name attached to them" ( CMM:291-292).
  • "It seems impossible to be certain when the sayings of Confucius and his disciples were first gathered into a book. The first collection was probably made, not by Confucius’ disciples, but by some of their disciples. It may be, as has been argued, that the first ten chapters of our present Analects were the original book, while the next five were added somewhat later. It seems certain that Ts’ui Shu was correct in his hypothesis that Chapters 16-20 represent a still later addition. In these chapters Confucius is commonly called “Master K’ung” instead of “the Master,” and other differences set them apart. Nevertheless, the fact that the last five chapters were joined to the text late does not mean that none of their material existed early" (compare this to the added ending of the Gospel of Mark) ( CMM:291-292).
  • “Nevertheless, the Analects contain questionable passages, ranging from the slightly dubious to the clearly false. Chapter 10 poses a special problem. Henri Maspero and Arthur Waley have considered it to be a ritual treatise telling what the ideal gentleman should do, which was incorporated into the Analects with certain adaptations. However, 10.2,10.11.2, and 10.12 concern a specific individual, presumably Confucius" ( CMM:293).
  • A number of passages have nothing to do with either Confucius or with his disciples, and seem to be irrelevant intrusions into the text; these are 16.14,18.2,18.9-11, and 20.1. The Analects carved on stone in Han times apparently lacked 20.3, and this passage is also said not to have appeared in the Lu version, which is believed to have been the best early text” ( CMM:293).
  • “Finally, there are six sections that appear to controvert the ascertainable facts, about the circumstances or the philosophy of Confucius, to such a degree that they must be considered false additions to the text. The evidence against these passages has been stated elsewhere; they are 7.16 (see p.201), 13.3 (Chap. XIII, note 13), 16.2 (p.220), 16.9 (p.221), 18.3 (Chap. IV, note 29), and 18.4 (Chap. IV, note 28)” ( CMM:294).

Relevance of the Historical Evidence for Confucius to Christianity

Background on Historical Sources Testifying to the Existence of Confucius

What Are the Analects?

The Reliability of the Analects

















































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