Thursday, April 21, 2016

The case of the Prodigal Son: Common stories told across cultures

A new study* suggests that fairy tales that are often cross cultural were not spread from neighboring culture to neighboring culture over geographic space, but, rather, that when ancient people moved from one vicinity to another they brought with them the kernels of these stories already formed. These stories did not spread by means of cultural diffusion or "borrowing," but "came with" the development of each language from its (lost) parent language. 

*Sara Gra├ža da Silva, Jamshid J. Tehrani. "Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales."

I have been thinking for a long time about the coincidence that the parable known as “The Prodigal Son” has been attributed to both Gautama Buddha (born circa 400 B.C.), in the Lotus Sutra, and Jesus Christ (born circa 1 A.D.), in the Gospel According to Luke. My assumption has been that the story arose after the dispersion of languages and that it spread from story teller to story teller, perhaps later (first millennia B.C.) as they travelled the Silk Road or earlier (second or third millennia B.C.) as they traded across the band of early civilizations from Egypt to Mesopotamia to the Indus River Valley. (It was once thought that these ancient civilizations did not communicate with each other; then it was discovered that the Egyptians and Mesopotamians carried on a lively trade, but it was still assumed that the Indus River Valley was not in contact with the other two centers of early civilization; then archeologists found Mesopotamian artefacts in the rubble of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, the main cities of the ancient Indus Valley.) I doubted, however, and still do, that the story passed from Buddhism to Judeo-Christianity (and certainly not the other way around). I believe that it was already part of common lore when Buddha appropriated it. In other words, this story may have been spread along with the development of languages. The remaining question is whether this goes back to proto-Indo-European or whether it is even older and goes back to the much earlier development of language itself.

In connection with this, it should be mentioned that Indo-European languages are divided into Eastern (Satem) and Western (Centum) languages. The Satem languages, also called Indo-Iranian, might be the main source of the Prodigal Son, which is a safe guess because it would put the origin of the story after the split between Satem and Centum, but still an awfully long time ago. (This concept has two problems: the most obvious being that we don't know when that split occurred but we are speaking in terms of more than ten thousand years ago; the other problem being that the "east/west split" is anything but neat because there are a couple of satem-like languages in the west and more than a couple of centum-like languages in the east, including one very centum-like ancient language, Tocharian, which has been found in western China.)

Now it occurs to me that the story of the Prodigal Son might go back to an oft told tale among populations that traveled eastward from central Asia carrying the Indo-European proto-language. Of course, one of the wrinkles here is that Aramaic, the language almost certainly spoken by Jesus, is a Semitic, not an Indo-European language, with a different history as long as but not basically mingled with that of Indo-European. So, a question arises whether the Prodigal Son existed in both Semitic and Indo-European languages and perhaps had more ancient roots, or if it was learned by Semitic language speakers from the Greeks, Hittites or Persians who are Indo-European speakers. Certainly, I now realize that the source of the commonality of the Prodigal Son is more complicated than I previously guessed.

The average person, certainly in the Christian world, assumes that Jesus invented all of the stories he told, largely because we have never heard any of these stories attributed to anyone else; although some might be aware that some of the aphorisms attributed to Jesus existed in common lore before. (“A physician should not treat a member of his own family,” “A prophet is not honored in his own country.”) And many of his aphorisms are readily acknowledged to be taken from the Hebrew Scriptures. On learning that his parables were not original, however, many Christians might suppose that something is being taken from Christ’s reputation, but I would suggest that this is not at all true.

What Jesus is revealed to be is an excellent story teller. If many of his parables were not original in their basic notion, Jesus tailored each of them to express his particular message. This can be best seen by comparing the Christian version of the Prodigal Son with the Buddhist version.

The first thing that one notices is that the Christian version is succinct whereas the Buddhist version is kind of a shaggy dog story. Both stories are about forgiveness, but the Buddhist version focuses on on the problem of perception and self-realization. Jesus rather cuts to the chase and makes the act of forgiveness unequivocal and recognized by all parties, including the jealous brother who plays no role in the Buddhist version. One of the hints that this is the same story, though, is that both prodigal sons leave their fathers and go off to have adventures in the world that lead to their ruin. Buddha goes into a long account of these adventures; whereas Christ simply tells us that these adventures occurred. In the Buddhist story, so much time has gone by that the father has become an old man whom his son does not recognize, even though the father knows right away who the son is. The father makes the son work for him as a hired hand for a time (In the Christian version, the son asks his father to make him a hired hand, but the father does not.) before finally revealing that they are father and son and offering forgiveness and reward (which, Lai points out, the son no more "deserves" in the Buddhist version than in the Christian one; it is a matter of grace or fatherly love in both instances). The Buddhist father is perhaps more an advocate of "tough love" than the Christian father is, but both fathers love and forgive their sons.

Christ short-circuits the longer version of the story by having the father instantly forgive the son. In this version, it becomes crucial for the older brother to stand in for the audience and ask the father how it is fair that the older brother who stayed with the family farm and worked as a hired hand is now treated no better than the one who went away and has belatedly come back. Christ has the father imply that your reward is available anytime you see the error of your ways and come back to the Father.

Jesus Christ did not necessarily invent the stories attributed to him, but he reworked and used them to express and illustrate his particular teachings.


Whalen Lai, "The Buddhist 'Prodigal Son': A story of misperception," The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, vol. 14, no. 2, 1981, pp. 91-98.

The Gospel According to Luke 15:11-32.

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