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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. JoMama072

    It doesn't bother me in the slightest that people believe in Christ. I believe in life beyond this planet in other galaxies. The correlation here is that neither of these things has been seen by anyone alive right now with the exception of what's written and/or shown in movies.
    All I ask is that the religious accept that I believe what I want and you believe what you want. I won't force you to think like me, proclaiming 'you can't possibly be right and here's why....' and you grant me the same courtesy. See how easy that is? Peaceful coexistence. Oh, wait, is that too radical an idea?

    April 9, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • GodPot

      The line gets crossed when you UFO folks try to pass legislation that requires everyone to get tested for anal probe activity...

      see contraceptive issue, gay marriage ban, womens rights, "in aliens we trust", religious litmus test for political office, national "alien" holidays, "one nation, under aliens", etc...

      April 9, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  2. Pipe-Dreamer

    Cherish the moments with your Life's fellow travelers for such moments are but fleeting memories in one's Timeliness.

    April 9, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  3. toxictown

    1st century occupied Palestine was a hotbed of political and religious activity and there were all sorts of messianic holymen in the area preaching some variation on the theme. It's entirely possible that someone named Jesus existed and did some of the things mentioned in the bible and it's just as possible that he is an invention or a composite. Ancient authors were not shy about cribbing material from existing sources (the old testament is full of stories that are clones of Sumerian and other Near East tales) and in fact adding familiar elements and story lines may have helped spread the message by acting as a sort of mnemonic. The Bible is a fascinating collection of folk-tales but I wouldn't put much more historical weight on it than I would the Vedas or the Norse Sagas (even if you can triangulate a few dates and place names). All of these sorts of myth-tales have some wonderful stories and lessons along with a decent helping of crapola (remember, that in ancient times, "magical" elements could make a story *more* belivable, not less) and really can't be viewed as modern history or journalism.

    April 9, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  4. Richxx

    How about the third choice? Jesus really existed but was not divine. His followers believed he was so they felt it was ok to make up the resurrection story to get converts.

    April 9, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  5. palintwit

    How many illegal mexicans does it take to shingle a roof?
    It depends how thin they're sliced.

    April 9, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  6. Josef Bleaux

    Christianity, like all religions, is nothing more than ancient mythology, written thousands of years ago by members of a primitive society in an effort to explain existence and comfort people in the face of their mortality. I've read both the old and new testaments cover to cover. I've read many other religious texts as well. They're all just ancient mythology from primitive cultures, nothing more.

    f people would use their brains for a change, THINK about it using logic, reason and objectivity, then they would understand that it's just old myths. It's just so utterly obvious.

    What religion you are is mostly determined by where you were born. If you were born in Hindu, you would be arguing that Hinduism is the one true religion, ditto for Shintoism, Buddhism, Islam, tribal religions etc. etc. You were indoctrinated practically from birth to believe what you believe and only intelligent people who use logic, reason and objectivity instead of blindly accepting what they've been taught can ever overcome that indoctrination.

    April 9, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • Russ

      @ Josef:
      “Suppose we concede that if I had been born of Muslim parents in Morocco rather than Christian parents in Michigan, my beliefs would be quite different. [But] the same goes for the pluralist...If the pluralist had been born in [Morocco] he probably wouldn't be a pluralist. Does it follow that...his pluralist beliefs are produced in him by an unreliable belief-producing process?”
      ― Alvin Plantinga

      April 9, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Johnny

      It is interesting that your view fails to account for people who convert from the religion of their birth to another religion.

      You may also have failed to consider that everyone thinks that their perspective is the most logical, rational perspective, and that if people would only think about it properly they must inevitably come to the same conclusion. The fact of the matter is, you have no more evidence for your religious beliefs than anyone else. Using strict logic and the scientific method, you cannot reach your conclusions, and so, you are also irrational.

      April 9, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • Obvious?

      I find your post very interesting. You talk about reason and logic, yet how do you think reason and logic got here? Reason and logic, by it's very nature, cannot come from uncertainty or obscurity. It must be programmed, coming from reason. If it were to evolve as many say, then it cannot be trusted, because reason and logic should be viewed as "concrete," of course, by its very nature. I ask you to question your existence and how it is that all of human kind got on this planet. If you believe in evolution, then my post will make it no further in your mind, because to me, evolution is the most illogical and improbable perception ever conceived.

      April 9, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • Johnny

      @Obvious? - If you think that evolution is illogical, you don't understand it.

      Evolution by Natural Selection follows logically from a series of observations that are true.

      1) Variations exist in a population.
      2) Some variations are better suited for tasks that allow individuals to survive and breed than other variations.
      3) Many variations are heritable.

      Over time, variations that are better suited for survival and/or breeding will become more common, because the offspring of better suited parents will be more likely to survive and breed. Variations that are less suitable will become less common or disappear entirely.

      This is evolution, and you cannot deny the simple logic of it. All you need to do is look at the world around you, and it is obviously true.

      April 9, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  7. MS 29

    Weather there is a Jesus or not is kind of irrelevant. Was there a God. Existence itself is the chicken and the egg. If God created everything then what created God. But if good created nothing what created the forces and what created even the smallest particle of matter. You cant make something from nothing but it is clear that we are all here.

    April 9, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • OOO

      You can't make something from nothing? Watch this lecture:
      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ImvlS8PLIo&w=640&h=390]

      April 9, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  8. anagram_kid

    What one believes is irrelevant; religion is not about belief, but about behavior – what one may, must and is forbidden to say, wear, eat, read…etc. Problems arise when one group decides that their behavior is the ‘correct’ one and forces it upon others. Look no further than the recent contraception debacle. If you want to believe that Santa is real that is OK by me. When you tell me that I have to reinforce my roof to support a sleigh, a team of reindeer, a bag of toys and one very large man… then we have a problem.

    April 9, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Johnny

      Even if I don't necessarily agree with you, I like your perspective. I think that it is cleverly written.

      Well done.

      April 9, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  9. GodPot

    I'm sure if Jesus existed he would be able to explain what a rabbit and children finding eggs has to do with his death. I'm sure it has nothing at all to do with fertility rites performed by the pagans during that same week for thousands of years...

    April 9, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  10. Atheist Hunter

    CNN religion blog has become a cesspool of atheist spewing their hate for Jesus Christ. Anyone who can get the attention of that many atheist at one time is MOST CERTAINLY ALIVE AND REAL! JESUS IS ALIVE, FACE IT!!!!!! NO JESUS = NO ATHEIST!!!!

    April 9, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Jack

      Atheism is not believing in God.

      April 9, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • JT

      What about Jews, Muslims and other Jesus haters? They're no better and destined for the eternal suffering of flames, right? Their section of hell might be slightly cooler perhaps.

      April 9, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Josef Bleaux

      How utterly stupid.

      April 9, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • Guess What

      Atheist Hunter,

      There are several errors in your post, but guess what...? I am not going to tell you what they are, because it's better if you keep speaking like a dope.

      April 9, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • sam stone

      AH: You are a diseased, inbred mother lover. Go sod-o-mize yourself

      April 9, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Saturn 4321

      Indeed, CNN has stooped very low.
      But why do we marvel? We know what and WHO is driving them!
      As for atheists, they have an incurable disease that causes blindness. They are alive, but yet, they are dead!
      But above all things they are RESTLESS in their souls, and are frantic about covering up their insecurities. That's why atheists react the way they do!

      April 9, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Know What

      Saturn 4321,

      Christians (and other believers in the supernatural) are insecure and greedy and egotistical. This life is not enough for them. They crave MORE... and not only MORE, but a MORE consisting of ETERNAL BLISS with a magnificent, perfect being who loves THEM because they are SO special.

      April 9, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Saturn 4321

      LOL! You obviously KNOW NOTHING!

      April 9, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  11. Pat

    I believed Jesus lived, died and rose sitting at the right hand of the fater. Think about the creation of humans, how we are conceived and grow in our mothers womb. You must believe their is a God. Humans can not make the make up of an individual as far as nerves, brain, heart, skin, blood, etc. God created us. And also death. We all will die but we don't know how or when. So there is power in death from above. Death for all peple is a mystrery because we don't know how a person feels or how death is until we will experience it on our own.

    April 9, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • toxictown

      What about Vishnu?

      April 9, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Josef Bleaux

      So who or what created god? A super-god? Just because you think everything needed a creator doesn't mean that if there is indeed a creator, the Christian version is the one and only absolutely true version.

      April 9, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  12. Red

    Based on this nonsense, I fear for my child's logical rhetoric...

    April 9, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  13. jim

    i agree with many that there are any number of parallels between the mithras, osiris, and isis cults as well as many ther "mystery cults" active in the greco-roman world of the first century. as an educated catholic, it's known that the feast of saturnalia as well as many of the special feasts of the church were co-opted by the early leaders of the church to bring in followers. there is even a command that one should not destroy something held sacred by pagans, but should rather be blessed and used as a lesson for the pagans. it is also quite clear that jesus (yeshua) could not have been born on dec. 25th, but rather in the spring. his birth does not agree with the calendar insofar as his birth marks "year one". it would have had to have been in the period somewhere between 6-4 bce.
    whether one believes the christ story or even the bible as a whole it provides a clear way of living a good life. faith, belief in "mysteries" that cannot be explained, or other problems the regular person has with christianity are a mater of conscience.
    also, i would like to add that the only non-canonical mentiion of jesus comes to us from josephus bar levi. however, even he has been proven to be less than reliable in other ways.
    peaceto you all my brothers ad sisters!

    April 9, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  14. hawaiiduude

    why is this antie khrist garbage still posted on CNN? Oh because it's ziohnist owned and zionism will produce the antie chryst

    April 9, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • sam

      Idiot.

      April 9, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • hawaiiduude

      I agree, sam is an idiot

      April 9, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • hawaiiduude

      they love producing.. just look at the hollywood producers.. levin, shwarz etc...

      April 9, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • sam stone

      oooh....the antie chryst........how scary

      April 9, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  15. ted

    If we could destroy every story book published as of today except for "the peanuts" then store it away for 500 years . Could we brain wash people into thinking Woodstock and Snoopy are Gods.

    April 9, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Ray

      Given how gullible and anti-intellectual most Americans are, it wouldn't surprise me if a Peanuts religion resulted.

      April 9, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • toxictown

      Wait... I already built a stone doghouse in my back yard to await the return of Our Lord Snoopy. Does this mean I should take it down now?

      April 9, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • ted

      Most young Americans are falling from there religion because of the war and blood shed most religions have promoted in the past. TO keep religion alive in our children you may need to destroy science ,and TV first . Simple thinking may make Americans the smartest after all. The day will come when there is a church of different religion on every corner of every block in the U.S.A. and that day is the day when we will see that religion =war or riots.

      April 9, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  16. trollol

    Oh, didn't you know? Easter is all about the easter bunny and lots of candy. The holiday means business! You mention easter and the first thing that pops into mind for a child and probably adult too is the EASTER BUNNY. Jesus is no where in the easter decorations. Let's face it. Easter is about the easter bunny and not jesus.

    April 9, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • hawaiiduude

      anf hannukah is about hiding gold coins and playing spin the dredel and acting joowey

      April 9, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  17. Hawkeye321

    I'd love to see Jesus square off against Hercules and Thor in a deity wrestle mania throw-down.

    April 9, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  18. Kent

    Most of the half-wits who believe any religious bologna either had it pounded into their brains as kids, were guilted into it, or had something tragic happen to them and they use religion as a coping device. I'll be glad when they are all gone.

    April 9, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • jim

      kent: speaking only for myself it was a "magical" moment the first time i walked into a catholic church. i was so ignorant that i didn't even know if catholics were christians!lol sure, i went through a long period of exploring other faith/belief systems once i moved from the bible belt to berkeley, ca. but it was the church that kept calling me back and that's why i am now a member of a religious order-i am a franciscan tertiary. i deal with questioning people all day every day. as s. francis tells us, "preach constantly. sometimes with words." i respect your thoughts and beliefs. i wish you well.

      April 9, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Johnny

      Will the world be so much better when only people like you, who clearly hate those that are different, exist?

      April 9, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  19. OOO

    Comparing the arguments between believers and non-believers in this article, the winner of the debate is clearly on the non-believers side. Almost all of the arguments on the "jesus was real" side are not really evidence for his existance as much as evidence against the idea that the jesus story came from earlier similar stories.

    You feel they are grasping for straws.

    April 9, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  20. cacique

    Would not that statement make the Jewish happy? They are still waiting for their savior as for them Jesus was not the avanging lion worth of their hopes. they even call him the lame sacrificial lamb.

    I am saying that it took the son of god to take all that punishment and sacrifice to expiate all of our sins, including those of the ones who did not accept him but who gladly helped him fulfill his purpose.

    April 9, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
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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.