Thanks everyone for your responses, much appreciated. I meant no offense asking the question—I think some responders may have thought I did.
For instance, Ben writes, “Discrediting the existence of this or that person because of a lack of documentary evidence, in a period where written records were rarely if at all created, isn't logically consistent.” I have no interest in discrediting anything, Ben. And anyway, as one of my teachers said long ago, “If you take Christ out of Christianity, you’re left with nothing; but take the Buddha out of Buddhism and it wouldn’t make any difference!”
I am, however, very curious about what seems to me to be the elephant in the room—when I hear, “The Buddha said...” or “The last words of the Buddha...” I wonder if we really have any evidence at all for what he said or even if he lived. (Of course, claiming oral history is accurate isn’t evidence, it’s hearsay.) I once heard a theory, for instance, that the Buddha was a Greek invention—has anyone else heard that? (And I don’t just mean the “Alexandrian” curls in his hair!)
In the recent PBS special on The Buddha, almost everyone narrated “facts” of the Buddha’s life as if they were uncontested.
Asoka’s edicts—the ones that are accepted (Major Pillar, Major Rock) don’t mention “Buddha” at all. (The two mentions in the Minor Pillars are obviously not Asokan—totally different style—and the Bairat rock edict again is very dubious, with a totally different style, and undated.) The many references to the dhamma mean nothing, since that word is used in Hinduism all the time. So to me this is weird, that Asoka is pretty well accepted as a follower of Buddha, but that he doesn’t acknowledge him in all his accepted edicts.
(Another problem with Asoka = Buddhist is that he’s big on paying respects to Brahmins, whereas Buddhism is usually presented as a reaction against Brahminism.)
I guess I thought I'd just have to google, "Historical Buddha" and the information would jump out at me! But even his birth-death dates, for instance, is all over the place. Kim says, “the Buddha lived c. 480 - 400 BCE according to recent (sound, historical) research.” (can you pls. reference, Kim?). On the other hand, “In Sri Lanka, 483 BC is accepted as the date of his nirvana while in Burma 544 BC is accepted. In Tibet it is believed to be 835 BC, while in China, 11th century BC is the accepted date. Buddha was an Indian and the Indian Puranic tradition believes that the nirvana took place in 1793 or 1807 BC.” (Bharateeya Historiography, http://www.hindubooks.org/hist_ssathe/b ... /page4.htm
Kim writes, “You compare Buddhism to 'every other religion [you] know about' but I doubt that those include Taoism, Hinduism or Mithraism...Can you cite contemporary written evidence of their origin?” I think it’s pretty well accepted that at least some of the Vedas are Bronze Age, 1000 BCE at least (and we certainly have very old statuary). Mitra (one of the members of Zoroaster’s trinity) is mentioned 1400 BCE in the extant Mitanni treaty. Don’t know much about Taoism—Wikipedia sez, “Laozi received imperial recognition as a divinity in the mid second century B.C.E.”
I was hoping for something more concrete about historical Buddha. Any takers?