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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. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    April 8, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • notheism

      Can you prove that?

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

      No he can't, nor anyone else that comes here. Best they have is prayer changed my life.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • Dudus57

      I am an Atheist. I agree with you. I will lie to my children and send them to church, might go myself. They can make up their own mind one day, but until then church instils good values. Should they come to disagree with the church, it will be due to their own ideas and convictions, not mine. I'm firm believer in making up your own mind, which the church can never say.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • Jesus

      Prayer doesn’t not; you are so full of crap and lies. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!"

      April 8, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  2. Really

    The Bible: Is a collection of stories put together in one book. It is not a book written from beginning to end. The New Testament is an account of stories from different people who experienced and researched it. So for those of you who keep saying the Bible this and that, understand what the Bible is first.
    Why would there be so many different accounts of Jesus in the Bible from different people? Before you know the Bible George you need to research what it is first, and the history of it. You guys make me laugh when you talk about the Bible and have no knowledge of it.
    I personally believe the Bible because it is a book I have read, and researched, studied. The people in the Bible telling the story of Jesus, did not work together on the stories, they are different accounts from the person's own source or research.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Colin

      And the wroldwide flood, 500 year old men having children, talking snake, man living in a whale's belly, etc. etc.?

      April 8, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • YeahOk

      @Really
      "I have read, and researched, studied."

      And how did you go about your research and studies? Care to give any examples of the compelling evidence that convinced you the bible was absolutely true?

      April 8, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  3. Watcher

    CNN, this is a totally inappropprite article to put on your landing page on Easter. Whether you beleive or not. This is more of a Monday after article. It seems that more and more of your news is more like a news controversy blog. I dunno,,, think I'm going to find another website for news. This ones starting to seem too much like the Jerry Springer show.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  4. Rainer Braendlein

    Jesus was historical. It is proved by science of history! Someone, who denies Christ, must also deny science of history, which gives evidence for Christ's historical reality. Who has the right to deny a complete science?

    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 8:54 am |
    • YeahOk

      So say I say your evidence is plausible, that Jesus the man existed. Any evidence he was more than just man?

      April 8, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  5. Jesus is Lord

    HE IS RISEN !!

    April 8, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • just sayin

      He is risen indeed ! God bless

      April 8, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  6. SDFrankie

    Jesus. 2000+ years of Any Day Now.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  7. nibiro

    bookmark the lord – nibiro :)

    April 8, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  8. Terri

    There's definately alot of haters on the internet. There's so many christian denominations that have a different idea of who Jesus was that they'll bully you and tell you that you're stupid if you disagree with them. My idea of Jesus is that he was a ordinary Jewish guy who was a very nice and pleasant person. People enjoyed being in his company and he was very well respected because of his compassionate and loving nature by his followers. There was haters in his time too that slandered him and wronglfully executed him. Some things never change. There's still alot of less than honest people who call themselves christians who lie about other people and spread gossip if they don't like someone elses religious or political views. When they do that, it's like crucifying Christ all over again. If today's christians would actually model themselves after him, they wouldn't bully other people, lie and deny that the human spirit can either be compassionate or discriminatory. If they really understood the trials that Jesus went through, they'd understand that it's dead wrong to harrass other religious groups or betilttle anyone because of their lifestyle choices.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  9. Major Tom

    If Jesus really did rise from the dead, on what day did he do so? No Christian can answer that question, because it never happened. It's all a bunch of bull. In all of recorded history – real history, not books of fairy tales – no one has ever risen from the dead 3 days after dying. Not ever.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • just sayin

      Lazarus. God bless

      April 8, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • just sayin

      Jesus. God bless

      April 8, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  10. No one

    the more important debate:
    boxers or briefs?

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

      I prefer briefs.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  11. Free Man in the Republic of Texas

    For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,
    but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
    1 Corinthians 1:18

    April 8, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  12. Paul

    There is no God. Man created "God" for fear of his own mortality.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • Major Tom

      Now that's the first sensible thing I've read here.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  13. LJD

    This is trash. There is no doubt Jesus existed. The real question is about who he was/is. And yes, CNN, it does matter to Christianity (and the world) that Jesus actually existed because the Christian hope is that salvation comes in a person, not an idea. If God did not assume our humanity–all of it–then we are not saved. CNN straight sucks at religion pieces. You offer the most banal pseudo-controversies. Why don't you hire some people who actually know what they are talking about?!

    April 8, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  14. Susan

    Did you forget to run this article during a Muslim holiday??? Just saying.... you chose today to post your "Cry-Me-A-River"article. You are not an Atheist but an IDIOT.

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

      Who's crying a river here?

      Why are you picking on us? Look, they should be picked on too! Boo hoo!

      April 8, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  15. Cheryl Jefferies

    Jesus. Man AND God. The Son of God. Human and Divine. Our Savior. He who took upon Himself the burden of our sins. He who died to make us whole. The Tomb is empty. He is risen. Alleluia! Happy Easter, everyone.

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

      You know who comes back from the dead too? Zombies... Do you believe they exist? Probably not...

      April 8, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • BIBLES AND QURANS ARE ALL GARBAGE

      bullpuuckey!

      April 8, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  16. 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 8:51 am |
    • Cheryl Jefferies

      The only true explanation of God is: God Is God. He can be defined no other way. God is. And, was. And, always will be. God is God.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • notheism

      You may define a god into existence, attributing all the special proprieties to him as you wish, but that does not make him real.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  17. Seeker

    While the article skipped over many historical facts – this book doesn't – if you want truth, check out "the Case for Christ" by Strobel or "Living Among Us" by Porricelli.

    He did live, was devine, and lives still today. Seek and ye shall find.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:51 am |
  18. Sara

    I've abandoned CNN for many reasons but decided to visit today only to find a story attacking the fundamental beliefs of Christianity on the most sacred of Christian Holy Days! Unbelievably crass and insulting!!

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

      Next they will run an article saying Santa Claus does not exist on Christmas!

      April 8, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • Dudus57

      HA! Thanks CNN! This story just brightened my day, plus I get to see yet another lost soul.

      Thanks again CNN, I can't wait until "X-mas", seriously.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  19. Rainer Braendlein

    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).

    Muhammad was an incarnated devil. People prefer it to believe in the devil, instead of Jesus Christ. The world is about to become a nuthouse.

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

      The people who believe Mohammed was a prophet also believe Jesus was a prophet. You won't hear Muslims calling Jesus an incarnated devil.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  20. Arnold neoh

    I am afraid to mention Jesus didnt exist which also can mean there is no God. If u ask yourself where you and all that is around you came from you actually dont have an answer. But there are things i find true always everytime i pray to God for sth i get it. I always believe God is there and Jesus existed. Look everythn from climate, living creatures the earth and all the stars in the sky is in good order. It cant be coincidence that human beings are so directly related to their environment. God is good and has love. Lets all believe in HIM and follow his 10 commandments. Lets love one another with true love. Lets love the poor and those who look different to us. Lets mingle with them. Non of us on earth will live here forever. Bt the bible says in the end we will be resurrected and wl be judged according to our deeds. Lets all pray that God bless us so we all be saved

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

      The best thing about religion is that it gives people with an IQ over 32 something to laugh at.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • johnfrichardson

      Human beings are very, very directly related to their environment. Consider the dogs sitting around me. I look into their eyes and know from science that way back there in history somewhere, there were animals alive that were my ancestors and theirs. My kinship to them is no mere metaphor, but a beautiful, literal truth.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:57 am |
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About this blog

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.