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The Jesus debate: Man vs. myth
Does Easter celebrate a man, a savior, or a myth? Some say Jesus never existed and was a myth created by early Christians.
April 7th, 2012
08:32 PM ET

The Jesus debate: Man vs. myth

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN)– Timothy Freke was flipping through an old academic book when he came across a religious image that some would call obscene.

It was a drawing of a third-century amulet depicting a naked man nailed to a cross. The man was born of a virgin, preached about being “born again” and had risen from the dead after crucifixion, Freke says.

But the name on the amulet wasn’t Jesus. It was a pseudonym for Osiris-Dionysus, a pagan god in ancient Mediterranean culture.  Freke says the amulet was evidence of something that sounds like sacrilege – and some would say it is: that Jesus never existed. He was a myth created by first-century Jews who modeled him after other dying and resurrected pagan gods, says Freke, author of  "The Jesus Mysteries: Was the ‘Original Jesus’ a Pagan God?"

“If I said to you that there was no real Good Samaritan, I don’t think anyone would be outraged,” says Freke, one of a group of mythicists who say Jesus never existed. “It’s a teaching story. What we’re saying is that the Jesus story is an allegory. It’s a parable of the spiritual journey.”

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

On Easter Sunday, millions of Christians worldwide mark the resurrection of Jesus. Though Christians clash over many issues, almost all agree that he existed.

But there is another view of Jesus that’s been emerging, one that strikes at the heart of the Easter story. A number of authors and scholars say Jesus never existed. Such assertions could have been ignored in an earlier age.  But in the age of the Internet and self-publishing, these arguments have gained enough traction that some of the world’s leading New Testament scholars feel compelled to publicly take them on.

Most Jesus deniers are Internet kooks, says Bart D. Ehrman, a New Testament scholar who recently released a book devoted to the question called “Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.”

Your comments on Jesus deniers

He says Freke and others who deny Jesus’ existence are conspiracy theorists trying to sell books.

“There are people out there who don’t think the Holocaust happened, there wasn’t a lone JFK assassin and Obama wasn’t born in the U.S.,” Ehrman says. “Among them are people who don’t think Jesus existed.”

Does it matter if Jesus existed?

Some Jesus mythicists say many New Testament scholars are intellectual snobs.

“I don’t think I’m some Internet kook or Holocaust denier,” says Robert Price, a former Baptist pastor who argues in “Deconstructing Jesus” that a historical Jesus probably didn’t exist.

“They say I’m a bitter ex-fundamentalist. It’s pathetic to see this character assassination. That’s what people resort to when they don’t have solid arguments.”

 The debate over Jesus’ existence has led to a curious role reversal. Two of the New Testament scholars who are leading the way arguing for Jesus’ existence have a reputation for attacking, not defending, traditional Christianity.

Ehrman, for example, is an agnostic who has written books that argue that virtually half  of the New Testament is forged. Another defender of Jesus’ existence is John Dominic Crossan, a New Testament scholar who has been called a heretic because his books challenge some traditional Christian teachings.

But as to the existence of Jesus, Crossan says, he’s “certain.”

He says some Jesus deniers may be people who have a problem with Christianity.

“It’s a way of responding to something you don’t like,” Crossan says. “We can’t say that Obama doesn’t exist, but we can say that he’s not an American.  If we’re talking about Obama in the future, there are people who might not only say he wasn’t American, but he didn’t even exist.”

Does it even matter if Jesus existed? Can’t people derive inspiration from his teachings whether he actually walked the Earth?

Crossan says Jesus’ existence matters in the same way that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s existence mattered.

If King never existed, people would say his ideas are lovely, but they could never work in the real world, Crossan says.

It’s the same with an historical Jesus, Crossan writes in his latest book, “The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus.”

“The power of Jesus’ historical life challenges his followers by proving at least one human being could cooperate fully with God. And if one, why not others? If some, why not all?”

The evidence against Jesus’ existence

Those who argue against Jesus’ existence make some of these points:

-The uncanny parallels between pagan stories in the ancient world and the stories of Jesus.

-No credible sources outside the Bible say Jesus existed.

-The Apostle Paul never referred to a historical Jesus.

Price, author of “Deconstructing Jesus,” says the first-century Western world was full of stories of a martyred hero who is called a son of God.

“There are ancient novels from that period where the hero is condemned to the cross and even crucified, but he escapes and survives it,” Price says. “That looks like Jesus.”

Those who argue for the existence of Jesus often cite two external biblical sources: the Jewish historian Josephus who wrote about Jesus at the end of the first century and the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote about Jesus at the start of the second century.

But some scholars say Josephus’ passage was tampered with by later Christian authors. And Price says the two historians are not credible on Jesus.

“Josephus and Tacitus – they both thought Hercules was a true figure,” Price says. “Both of them spoke of Hercules as a figure that existed.”

Price concedes that there were plenty of mythical stories that were draped around historical figures like Caesar. But there’s plenty of secular documentation to show Caesar existed.

“Everything we read about Jesus in the gospels conforms to the mythic hero,” Price says. “There’s nothing left over that indicates that he was a real historical figure.”

Those who argue for the existence of Jesus cite another source: the testimony of the Apostle Paul and Jesus’ early disciples. Paul even writes in one New Testament passage about meeting James, the brother of Jesus.

These early disciples not only believed Jesus was real but were willing to die for him. People don’t die for myths, some biblical scholars say.

They will if the experience is powerful enough, says Richard Carrier, author of “Proving History.”

Carrier says it’s probable that Jesus never really existed and that early Christians experienced a mythic Jesus who came to them through visions and revelations.

Two of the most famous stories in the New Testament – the conversion of Paul and the stoning death of Stephen, one of the first Christian martyrs - show that people seized by religious visions are willing to die, Carrier says.

In both the Paul and Stephen stories, the writers say that they didn’t see an actual Jesus but a heavenly vision of Jesus, Carrier says.

People “can have powerful religious experiences that don’t correspond to reality,” Carrier says.

“The perfect model is Paul himself,” Carrier says. “He never met Jesus. Paul only had an encounter with this heavenly Jesus. Paul is completely converted by this religious experience, but no historical Jesus is needed for that to happen.”

As for the passage where Paul says he met James, Jesus’ brother, Carrier says:

“The problem with that is that all baptized Christians were considered brothers of the Lord.”

The evidence for Jesus’ existence

Some scholars who argue for the existence of Jesus says the New Testament mentions actual people and events that are substantiated by historical documents and archaeological discoveries.

Ehrman, author of “Did Jesus Exist?” scoffed at the notion that the ancient world was full of pagan stories about dying deities that rose again.  Where’s the proof? he asks.

Ehrman devoted an entire section of his book to critiquing Freke, the mythicist and author of “The Jesus Mysteries: Was the ‘Original Jesus’ a Pagan God?” who says there was an ancient Osiris-Dionysus figure who shares uncanny parallels to Jesus.

He says Freke can’t offer any proof that an ancient Osiris figure was born on December 25, was crucified and rose again. He says Freke is citing 20th- and 19th-century writers who tossed out the same theories.

Ehrman says that when you read ancient stories about mythological figures like Hercules and Osiris, “there’s nothing about them dying and rising again.”

“He doesn’t know much about ancient history,” Ehrman says of Freke. “He’s not a scholar. All he knows is what he’s read in other conspiracy books.”

Craig A. Evans, the author of “Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence,” says the notion that Paul gave his life for a mythical Jesus is absurd.

He says the New Testament clearly shows that Paul was an early enemy of the Christian church who sought to stamp out the burgeoning Jesus movement.

“Don’t you think if you were in Paul’s shoes, you would have quickly discovered that there was no Jesus?” Evans asks.  “If there was no Jesus, then how did the movement start?”

Evans also dismissed the notion that early Christians blended or adopted pagan myths to create their own mythical Jesus. He says the first Christians were Jews who despised everything about pagan culture.

“For a lot of Jewish people, the pagan world was disgusting,” Evans says. “I can’t imagine [the Gospel writer] Matthew making up a story where he is drawing parallels between Jesus’ birth and pagan stories about Zeus having sex with some fair maiden.”

The words of Jesus also offer proof that he actually existed, Evans says.  A vivid personality practically bursts from the pages of the New Testament: He speaks in riddles, talks about camels squeezing through the eye of a needle, weeps openly and even loses his temper.

Evans says he is a man who is undeniably Jewish, a genius who understands his culture but also transcends his tradition with gem-like parables.

“Who but Jesus could tell the Parable of the Good Samaritan?” Evans says. “Where does this bolt of lightning come from? You don’t get this out of an Egyptian myth.”

Those who argue against the existence of Jesus say they aren’t trying to destroy people’s faith.

“I don’t have any desire to upset people,” says Freke. “I do have a passion for the truth. … I don’t think rational people in the 20th century can go down a road just on blind faith.”

Yet Easter was never just about rationale.

The Easter stories about the resurrection are strange: Disciples don’t recognize Jesus as they meet him on the road; he tells someone not to touch him; he  eats fish in another.

In the Gospel of Matthew, a resurrected Jesus suddenly appears to a group of disciples and gives them this cryptic message:

“Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

And what did they see: a person, a pagan myth or a savior?

Albert Schweitzer, a 20th-century theologian and missionary, suggested that there will never be one answer to that question.  He said that looking for Jesus in history is like looking down a well: You see only your own reflection.

The “real” Jesus, Schweitzer says, will remain “a stranger and an enigma,” someone who is always ahead of us.

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Art • Belief • Books • Church • Culture wars • Easter • Easter • Faith • History • Jesus • Uncategorized • Virgin Mary

soundoff (8,773 Responses)
  1. zeus_z

    if Jesus was fake, and he didnt even rise from the dead, why did the apostles go and spread the gospel after his death and did not fear the know fact they would be killed for spreading the gospel and Christs words.

    So many people were crucified in those ages, how come the only 3 people that are talked about is Jesus and the two theives that hung next to him.

    How do we explain the prophecy of what Jesus did; the old testament talked about Jesus coming and what he would do. And it happened.

    Of course its tough to have faith when you have never seen. But of course the Bible has something in it for those who doubt- read about Apostle Thomas, or "dooubting thomas" and Jesus said to him "now that you see me you believe?" And followed with "Blessed are those who believe without seeing"..

    Lord Jesus Christ please forgive us for our sins, please open our spiritual eyes. You are the son of God and you came to our world and was beaten, scourged, and whiped, and humanity also placed a crown of thorns on your head and Cricified YOU and set BARABAS the murderer free instead. All this was done to you while you preached LOVE, Spread the word about God, healed the sick, rose the dead, all to show us there is a more meaningful life after this earthly life..in your house, in your kingdom.
    The evil one will do all that he can to steer souls away from you. Thank you for your love, thank you for trampling down death with your Ressurection and BESTOWING life.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • frank

      Totally agree. Myths die out over time, but Jesus has stood the test of time.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • Kevin

      The Roman and Greek gods stood the test of time for thousands of years, until one day they didn't anymore.....the same thing will happen with the present-day myth.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  2. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    April 8, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  3. reason

    Watch what anthropologists, archeologists and religious historians seeking the truth have to say about where god came from:
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlnnWbkMlbg&w=640&h=390]

    April 8, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • frank

      I only care what my Lord Jesus Christ thinks. Things can be put together to mean anything that the author so chooses. It is like people discovering the pictures of what appears to be people in space clothing in the SA caves and coming to the conclusion that Aliens from outer space have visited this planet.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  4. Mike

    Really? On Easter morning? Where are the articles questioning Islam on their holy days? This is ridiculous CNN.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • frank

      CNN and other networks are afraid to question Islam, as they should be.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • Brandon

      you worship the same God; Christian's just don't like the 3rd movie... and like Jews don't like the 2nd or 3rd movie

      April 8, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • Pastor Daniel

      Mike, go look up the word Easter. Then you can go tell others about the Ressurection of Jesus Christ.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  5. Here's your sign

    "Most Jesus deniers are Internet kooks, says Bart D. Ehrman, a New Testament scholar ..." This is his "learned" answer... meaning that he has no answer and that he has no clue about "Jesus deniers" or the internet, either one.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • frank

      I think you should read the rest of the article.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  6. Rainer Braendlein

    Christ Jesus was holy, holy, holy, but Muhammad was a sinner. Muhammad was a murderer, a rapist, a robber, impostor.

    A lot of people believe in Muhammad, who molested a girl at the age of 9 years, but feel not able to believe In Jesus Christ, who was holy and raised people from the dead (if Jesus had been a sinner, like Muhammad, he had not been able to work divine miracles; God hears only the prayers of holy people).

    April 8, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • dg50484

      So right. Muhammad was the Atilla of his day.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:51 am |
  7. Rob

    Have noticed over the past few months CNN seems to attack faith. Why do you need to do this? I only had to read the headline. Christians seem to under attack these days, While I don't understand why, It just seems to be the in thing these days. I bet you will never see CNN attack the Muslim Religion. Why would you want to take away from anyone's faith? A persons faith, is so sacred to them. While I do not practice others faith, They should be free to practice faith without it being attacked by anyone or any network trying to question or discourage them.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • Henrietta

      CNN just stirs up the pot so people can respond however they choose – good job CNN!

      April 8, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • dg50484

      So right! I've come to think that CNN is not the CNN I knew years ago. They want to divide people. Not bring them together.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • Kathryn

      Why does it have to be labeled as an 'attack'? Isn't it possible that CNN is just giving a view point? AFter all thats what journalist do...they write about whats going on and whats going to get people interested. Yes, this is a a rather touchy subject, but what about other religions out there? What about people who don't have a religion? There are many other people out there who have a different belief system than you. It's extremly closed minded and rather hollier of you to label this as an attack when this is mearly an opinion piece.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  8. Al

    There will come a day when Jesus will reveal himself. Jesus is the son of God, became man to die for our sins and those who choose to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead and have confessed their sins, will have eternal life. We all will know the Truth. The bible says "every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord."

    April 8, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • Brandon

      wanna bet? I bet you threefity you're wrong.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:50 am |
  9. dg50484

    If you deny Jesus' existence then you are no scholar.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  10. frank

    I am publicly declaring that Jesus did and does exist.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • Brandon

      in other news; water is wet

      April 8, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  11. Gerald West

    The only records we have supporting the historic Jesus are the gospels of the New Testament. These were written several decades after Jesus's death, and are embellished with reports of miracles of the sort that were expected of great persons such as emperors.

    What is amazing about Christianity is that millions, perhaps billions, of people who call themselves Christians are unaware and unheeding of the teachings of Christ. Many worship His images, chant His prayers, venerate His mother and a host of dead saints, partake of His blood and body in ritual communion, and ooh and aw over His supposed miracles. But, instead of following the two all-encompassing commandments of Christ, they plaster the walls with the Covenant between God of Israel and His chosen people, the Jews.

    Instead of observing Christ’s admonishment against public prayer, they insist on opening secular meetings and high school sporting events with made-up, insincere prayers, and are bent on forcing children to chant prayers in school. Instead of heeding Christ’s dismissal of belief in miracles as a sign of little faith, they teach the virgin birth, the raising of the dead, and Jonah and the Whale as affirmations of their faith. They nod approvingly when fragments of Old Testament law, carefully selected and lifted out of context to support popular prejudices, are preached as Christian values, even though “Christ is the end of the Israelite Law”.

    They are ever-quick to pray for deliverance, rather than “Thy will be done”, when they are struck with diseases and natural disasters that follow God’s laws of nature. They clamor for a “Christian nation” as though Christianity is a community-based religion like the Israelite Law of the Old Testament, rather than the personal religion taught by Christ.

    The contempt for God’s creations and the hatred of their fellowman that spew from the lips and pens of political Christians demonstrate just how far many Christians have come from the simple and direct religion of Jesus.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Neverland911

      Well said.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • dg50484

      Muhammad knew Jesus existed. Josephus witnessed Jesus and he wasn't a believer. You are a fool.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • Patrick

      Brilliant, intelligent and well spoken. Regardless of which camp you conform to, this is an undeniable and well thought out comment. Thank you.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • motomama

      Thank you for a providing a reasonable, thoughtful response. How delightful! and unusual.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • frank

      In Islam, Jesus is highly respected and do not deny the virgin birth. The more I learn about Islam, the more I respect it.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • doughnuts

      dg50484, Josephus wasn't born until 37 AD. That's four years after the alleged crucifixion. How did he "witness" something that was to have happened before his own birth?

      April 8, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  12. Tony

    1Samual 16:7

    If He knows your heart, He knows you cherish this day above all days.

    Thank You God...for the gift of Your Son Jesus.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  13. Dale

    Sure, Jesus probably existed. He was a kook who thought he was the son of God who started a cult. In 2000 years from now everyone will probably be worshiping David Koresh.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  14. VVVVVVVVVV

    Oh! I almost forgot Happy Zombie Jesus day!

    April 8, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  15. skog

    Hey CNN can we expect a story on Islam during Mecca ?

    April 8, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • Dale

      ALl religions are equally retarded, Islam included.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • johnfrichardson

      "During Mecca"? Mecca is a city. You mean during the hajj? Of course,

      April 8, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • David Little

      No neve, how dare they talk about someone or something that is not insulting to Christianity .

      April 8, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • doughnuts

      Mecca is a place, genius, not a holiday.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  16. Lol@bibles

    Only mindless sheep believe what the bible says. It's ok, I know you need comfort to think something happens after you die.

    If there was a god, I doubt it would make a world full of people this stupid.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • Robert

      Only a truly brain dead person can be an atheist. An atheist has be believe the universe is either eternal or that it created itself out of a steady state of absolute nothing. Both ideas are in direct violation of what known science says is possible. Atheism is an irratinoal religion for the brain dead.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • Colin

      "An atheist has be believe the universe is either eternal or that it created itself out of a steady state of absolute nothing. Both ideas are in direct violation of what known science says is possible."

      Not so. A flat, but expanding universe with an overall gravitational energy of zero will inevitably exist, as it is the result of quantum fluctuations.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • Brandon

      Robert-"only a truly dead brain person can be an atheist"

      That must be why atheists are prominent in academia,mathematics,, engineering, and the sciences; cause they are brain-dead...

      Right?

      April 8, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  17. Rainer Braendlein

    Jesus was historical. It is proved by science of history! Only fools can deny Christ's historicity!

    There was a very famous historian of the Roman Empire, which lived in the first century after Christ (AD 56 – AD 117), that means extremly near-term to the events, which had came to pass in Palestine. He, Tacitus, was a pagan, which had no reason at all to promote Christianity and to tell us lies about Jesus. We can be sure that it was historical, what he wrote about Jesus, because he was an enemy of Jesus:

    "Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superst-ition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multi-tude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind".

    This passage is a clear evidence for the historicity of Christ Jesus.

    There was a famous Jewish historian of the first century, who gives acount of Jesus Christ. Jews have no reason to promote Christianity and thus we can be sure that Flavius Josephus told us the truth about Jesus:

    "And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus... Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned."

    A Jew confirms the historical reality of Jesus, the founder of Christianity. That is very great!

    April 8, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • johnfrichardson

      As pointed out in the article, Tacitus also thought Hercules was a real, historical figure.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • doughnuts

      Science has also shown that the "proof" you cite were both inserted into the writings of Josephus and Tacitus a few centuries after they were written.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  18. johnfrichardson

    The question of existence becomes inherently problematic when talking about figures like Jesus. Might there have been a Jewish preacher who is the source of the earliest versions of some of what is said in the bible? Of course, but when you tack on Virgin birth stories and resurrection stories and various miracle stories as THE main points in the life of Jesus, then it is plainly absurd to say "yes, he existed", but kinda odd to say "yes, he existed, but he wasn't born to a virgin, did not rise from the grave, did not raise the dead or cure the sick or turn wine into water, etc, etc, etc". If a character in a story is enormously fictionalized and we've lost all record of what really happened, it is simplest to say that that character indeed never existed.

    Put it this way, the fact that there was a St Nicholas does NOT mean that Santa Claus exists.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  19. Brent

    The real question is "Does God exist" since Jesus is supposed to be God incarnate. My question is if God, "The Creator" exist then who created the creator.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  20. ipmutt

    The very last place you should go for answers regarding your faith or lack of it is mainstream media. This is the height of hypocricy.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • Dylan

      Here's another question.....if God doesn't exist, who created the first piece of matter that ended up evolving into what we have now? Both ideas are completely impossible. I choose God, as with God even the impossible becomes possible.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • doughnuts

      Science hasn't found out yet, Dylan. But is the height of ignorance and intellectual laziness to say, "We don't know, so God must have done it."

      April 8, 2012 at 9:21 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.