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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 • Evangelical • Faith • History • Jesus • Uncategorized • Virgin Mary

soundoff (8,771 Responses)
  1. Voice of Reason

    It seems likely to me that Jesus was a real person, a radical Jewish rabbi who was killed for being a threat to the Roman occupation and to the Jewish religious establishment that cooperated with it. After his death his legend spread beyond his native Jewish culture into the wider Hellenistic world of the Roman Empire. At this point the mystical aspects, many borrowed from existing religious systems like the Egyptian Osiris myth were added.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • I thought jesus was white

      small minds do think that way

      April 8, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • Atomico

      @I thought jesus was white...does not think at all.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • DownSouth

      Voice of Reason,

      That's pretty much my take.

      To deny that Jesus never even existed is a little bit over the top.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  2. Rainer Braendlein

    Jesus was the holy, holy, holy Son of God, otherwise he had not been able to raise people from the dead and to make lame men going and blind men seeing.

    Jesus was historical. It is proved by science of history!

    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 9:21 am |
    • I thought jesus was white

      jesus was a voodoo witch

      April 8, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • Atomico

      @I thought jesus was white – Your question and your conclusion makes you a "white witch".

      April 8, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  3. MAX

    Why doesn't CNN ever question Islam?

    April 8, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • I thought jesus was white

      'cause it's all the same

      April 8, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • petemg

      Whether you yourself believes or not, thank you for this statement. Good for you. Have a blessed Easter either way.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • Vivienne27

      Good question Max. I think a few begeadings by a couple Christians might change CNN's tune. Unfortunately its unlikley to happen since Islam is satans religion and Christianity is not.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  4. Vivienne27

    satan's companion (aka CNN and all the other MSM) does it once again. The aethiests in CNN get to work Easter Sunday while the CNN believer get the day off. Why would we expect any less from these godless elitist people? Oh Lord, when I die please grant me a 5 second vision of these people writhing in pain in the hellfire of eternity.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • UncleM

      Thanks for illustrating how nasty your deluded religion is .

      April 8, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • Vivienne27

      Glad I could be of help to you Unc!

      April 8, 2012 at 9:24 am |
    • Cheeses

      LOL

      April 8, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  5. Art

    Opposing religious beliefs will always exist and hence the conflicts and killings. Each different belief being absolutely certain with no room for compromise cannot tolerate different opinions. It's part of the balance of nature which limit the world's population and prevent its demise. The mysterious synergy of the fools game.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  6. Elena

    The Koran also talks about Jesus! that is another book different than the bible. I am sure the pharisees were very interested in deleting any record of Jesus from history just as they still want to do today. CNN, why not writing an article on whether the Jews are the chosen people.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • I thought jesus was white

      yes,, there were many jesus stories, the christians just revived the myth.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • Elena

      Ignorant, the Koran was written after Jesus death and refers to the same Jesus we believe in. And none of this ancient Jesuses teached to forgive and love our enemies and top belive.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  7. Atomico

    Jesus appeared to thousands of witnesses before and after death. Witness accounts are sufficient claims of a person's existence in human society.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • UncleM

      The witnesses are just as fictional.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • Atomico

      So says UncleM

      April 8, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • Vivienne27

      Yes – you are really hoping huh Unc? Hmmm – what if you are wrong – I know theres just one chance in 100,000 that you are but what if.................?

      April 8, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  8. Matthew

    Check out reasonable faith dot org. Watch William Lane Craig, one of the most intelligent scholars in the world, make the case for Christ and completely dissect the arguments of his fellow debaters (the leading atheist scholars of our day).

    There are rationale, intelligent people that love God and believe in the story of Jesus Christ. I know a little bit about science...I have a double major in engineering from Duke and a M.D.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • Dbaggins

      "I have a double major in engineering from Duke and a M.D." – LOL

      April 8, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • Vivienne27

      Well Mr Braggin – then you have nothing to worry about do you? Remember me at the moment of your death. Will you have peace or will you be worrying / hoping you were right all those years? Which?

      April 8, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • Matthew

      Those are better qualifications than 99% of critics that deny Jesus' existence. I say this to debunk the idea that the belief in Christ does not appeal to the rational person.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  9. Brad

    Ya post a story like this on Sunday.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  10. Dbaggins

    Isn't it funny how all the major religious prophets existed thousands of years ago back before we understood what mental illness was? Funny to think what would happen to a "prophet" today!

    April 8, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  11. I thought jesus was white

    ... I like Satan better.. Satan's cool. Everyone blasts Satan, even the jesus guy. Yet Satan never harmed anyone and never wrote a bible decribing his side of the story. Based on that, Satan is the most secure of all..

    April 8, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • Veritas

      He looks a lot cooler too, with that red skin, hooves, tail, horns, and mean pitchfork.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  12. Ralph Henson

    Since deep religious experiences are personal, most scoffers will say "there is no proof, that is a personal example." That is what Jesus is about. a personal example with each of us.
    Not only did He live way back there, but He lives today.
    The timing of the article was intential, cast doubt on the reason for Christianity on the day that signifies His being raised from the dead. To know his existance was real, believe.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • I thought jesus was white

      jesus would have been a liberal and voted for health care.. conservatives hate jesus

      April 8, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • LJ

      Yes, questioning the reason on the day a man supposedly rose from the dead......

      April 8, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  13. carolae

    I am wondering why CNN even put this article on here in the first place. It would have been better if they didn't do the story at all. It's shows lack of respect to those who are Christians and only strengthens the convictions of those who are Atheists. CNN has been so controversial in just about everything over the past several years that I don't even bother to watch it on TV any longer. They say they "report the news"....it's getting to be more like the Enquirer. The stories that they show on the Internet are from days and weeks before and only a few stories are current....forget the weekends....all repeats, like summer TV. Fox is my number 1 choice these days and you certainly wouldn't see a story like this on there. Wake up CNN.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • Sean

      I I agree with you 100%!

      April 8, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • Veritas

      But then again, you watch Faux "News"...

      April 8, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  14. gager

    I guess if Thomas Jefferson was alive today he would be considered an internet kook because he thought the new testament was a load of garbage.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  15. petemg

    Why do scholars have such an intesity to disprove Jesus Christ? This was foretold in the Bible that the world would one day do this and that is okay with many believers. The belief that Jesus lived, died on the cross, and was resurrected has endured for centuries and I am sure it will continue. This is the time in history where Islam is another growing "religion" of our time and it appears to be attacking Christianity. Is this because of Chairman Obama? Just saying. Have a blessed Easter. God is still in control, myth or not. Oh and is the Earth flat then and we are being deceived.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • Fact

      Hey petemag

      CNN is attacking Our loving Jesus why the hell u insult Islam? It is Jews hated Jesus so much at the same time Muslims Believes Jesus as the Mesiah and his miracles. It's us and Muslim who is waiting for Jesus return to fight Antichrist and his followers. According to the bible, it all Jews are the follower of Antichrist. So get your act straight.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • LJ

      Chairman Obama? What are you getting on about? So I guess Reverend Wright is an Islamic pastor? Because those mosques just have tons of Reverends. Wow your myth survived for a few centuries, Hinduism predates your religion by thousands of years and will continue to survive, and continue to be practiced by almost 1 billion people worldwide. Buddhism most likely would be the world's largest religion if it wasn't for state-imposed atheism in China, predates your religion by over 700 years, and is actually truly a religion of peace. Just because your myth survived for centuries doesn't make it true, otherwise the oldest myth would be the most correct one (Hindus win).

      April 8, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  16. bizziel

    No god. No Jesus. All imaginary. Religion is a waste of time.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • carolae

      If that's the case, think about it if you ever need an operation and it might be touch and go. No God or Jesus to turn to and ask for help or prayer from friends. OR....you develop cancer and have to go thru chemo/radiation and not know whether you are going to live. I guess you've never heard anyone say "I'll be praying for you". Rest assured that no one will be praying to keep your sorry soul alive. Why would they.....you can just believe in yourself and self destruct.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • Veritas

      @carolae: Interesting to see hpw religious people think, how they cannot think outside the box. Why on earth would a non-believer want to turn to mythological figures or want to hear someone "pray" for them, whether they are ill or not? Makes no sense whatsoever.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  17. Dood

    Yeah, this article is BS. There are many secular writings supporting that Jesus existed. I can't believe this got front page news.

    And for those who are Atheist, you should at the very least be Agnostic. You can't prove a God doesn't exist just because you've never seen it. If an infinite God doesn't want to be seen, then it has the power not to be seen. It's very closed minded, narcissistic and arrogant to say without a doubt there is no God, IMO. Given that, I think people don't want to believe in a moral God because it would take away their license to do as they please. No accountability to anything equals a licentious and hedonistic lifestyle which in fact does make one a Kook.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • notheism

      Dood, it is also very arrogant to presuppose someone's position. Your argument is a straw man. I will not even address it because of your ignorance.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • Don

      1. Infinity is a concept solely in mathematics. It does not apply to supposed beings.
      2. Your strawman of "because you haven't seen it" is just that–a strawman.
      3. Agnosticism is not a halfway position. A light is on or off. A person is theist or atheist. Jointly exhaustive and mutually exclusive.
      4.Trolling is poor form.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • Me

      Site one secular writing...as you call it. Good luck, there are none. Jesus was a fictional character, it's a good story and all but it not true.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  18. Sean

    It is very unusual to see a negative report like this especially during Easter holiday. Sometimes I get the impression that CNN now is financed and controlled by Islamists who want to spread doubt in the Christian faith so their grave ideas are spread all over the globe and all countries are like Pakistan and Afghanistan. Keep up the good work CNN you continue to disappoint me!!!

    April 8, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • Migdalia

      Sean, thank you for expressing my feelings about CNN. Blessed are those who believe without having to see the proof.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • gager

      I can't prove god does not exist any more than it can be prove 100 gods don't exist. Proving nonexistance is nonsense. There is no god until it can be shown to exist.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  19. True Catholic

    Chirst has risen. He is truly risen! He existed; He exists; and He will ever exist. May the love of the Risen Lord shine upon your life and lead your path. Your Brother.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  20. Gerardo Chusan

    How ignorant, resorting to insult the ones that do not follow or "think outside of the box", to make them feel that they are wrong simply because what they believe doesn't have as many followers as the ones that do, for example, Christianity.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:17 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.