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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. Eric Stratton Rush Chairman

    So..I'm the "kook" for no longer believing?

    Christianity is the belief that a cosmic Jewish carpenter zombie can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh, drink his blood, and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a woman created from a man's rib was convinced by a talking snake to eat an enchanted apple from a magical tree...

    ...but I'm the kook.

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

      Worst thing of humans is to be slave of their own ignorance!

      April 8, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • Steve Johnson

      Lol. Well said.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • Burtrain Collins

      Christ was a kind good man. He didn't "order" his worship. He asks us to humble ourselves, serve others, love others. This was, is a revolutionary concept for man to follow. People hated him then and they hate him today for this reason. Our Lord cannot force you to love his word. You have a free will in this short life. Look around you. What is life? What is this existance?
      There is already scientific talk of us living in a multi-dimensional universe with infinite galaxies and stars and planets. Endless time.Yesterday tomorrow and now. Christ was annointed by the powers that be....whether you call it God or Jehovah.....throughout time man has had a correspondence with this God. Tettragammatron – the symbol for ancient God, has been found in ancient Mexico, Africa and Europe. Christ was murdered and buried. His life force left him for three days. Our God gave him life and returned him to his followers so they would know that there is everlasting life. Our life is spirit filled. Jesus was not a Zombie. Please do not ridicule our Lord like this.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • ElmerGantry

      Exactly right.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • johnfrichardson

      Get off it, Burtrain. At least know what you presume to criticize. I have never ever heard anyone say "Oh sure, Jesus was the son of god, born to a virgin, performed miracles, died for our sins and was resurrected. Absolutely! But when he says that we should love one another, damn, that just frosts me!!" Even the most hardened of ultra atheists acknowledge some value to some of the teaching ascribed to him. What people oppose is the whole creepy cosmology of original sin forgiven only by divine blood sacrifice and that granted only on the condition that you get on your knees and suck up to Jesus and Yahweh and by extension the church. THAT is what people PROPERLY disdain.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Eric Stratton Rush Chairman

      zombie (noun) – a dead body that has been brought back to life by a supernatural force.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • govspy

      @Burtrain

      Jesus doesn't force anyone to follow his religion. He only says beleive in me, and love me more than you love yourself, your spouse, your children or your parents, and if you don't, you will spend eternity being tortured in Hell.

      But nobody's saying you HAVE to worship him, right? No pressure.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  2. Me

    The bible is a book written by many regular people and compiled over a many year span. It is simply a book with stories in it, many of which are absurd and down right disgusting. It doesn't matter if Jesus was a real person, there are many people like Jesus written about in many different religions. Connect the dots people or be doomed to your ignorant ways.

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

      It wasn't compile during many years span, The books of the Bible were compile all at once by Geronimo, did you know that, did you know who Geronimo was.

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

    Frankly i have better things to do than wonder about something there is no answer to . I guess we'll find out in the end ! I just know i don't like laws made on faith :-)

    April 8, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  4. Say it ain't so

    Do the writers know that centuries before Jesus was born there were stories, prophecies if you will, which told of a man who would come to bring salvation for all mankind? That he'd be a messiah, the son of God? This was written way, way before Jesus was born. These prophecies were so accurate that when Jesus was actually born King Herod felt compelled to order the killing of all boys 2 yrs old & younger in a failed attempt to get Jesus. We know this because of the writings of Josephus who in turn got this information from Nicolaus of Damascus, a close friend & advisor of Herod. There's your Information outside of the bible my good friends Let's see what would you like to discuss next, Jesus' birth place from the obvious birther movement???

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

      Not accuracy, but Herod's paronoia!

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

      There is no historical record of any such "slaughter of the innocents". You justifying your belief in fiction by citing more fiction.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  5. Hogwash

    The whole point of studying the Bible is to know rubbish such as this when you read it. Jesus spent his entire adult life surrounded by deniers who did not believe he was the Son of God. There are more non-believers and lazy Sunday followers today than ever before but so what for if they chose not to believe in Jesus then that's their life's lot. Do the false teachers in this article believe in Satan? My guess is yes which would warrant no further discussion of their so-called truths. Happy Easter and Praise the Lord!

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

      Thank you for your comment and Amen. Happy Easter.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • johnfrichardson

      You've labelled your contribution most appropriately!

      Anyway, all heros in all hero tales face enemies/deniers/what have you. It's one of the main points of these silly tales.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  6. bizziel

    It is so sad to see the fairy tales that full grown adults believe in. All gods are imaginary, all religions are a fares. Do not be a slave to a god who does not exist. Godisimaganary.com
    Whywontgodhealtheamputees.com

    April 8, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  7. jamest297

    Has anyone seen Trayvon yet this morning?

    April 8, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  8. dreamer96

    I don't think the problem is myth or man fro Jesus, and does it really matter, it's his teachings that really matter, much about Jesus is not in our Bible..George Washington was not a myth, nor Abe Lincoln,...and they had his faults...Gandhi was a real man...and many of his teaching were so much like those of Jesus....MLK was a real man...and had his human faults too... but also used methods like Gandhi and Jesus...

    The Problem is,.. We do not follow the teachings of Jesus that much anymore...the modern Christian is border line Corporation, and agenda pusher...It's one thing to have a personal belief..that gives us inner strength, and guides us, a moral compass...but another to push that on everyone around us..and on our cities, and states, and country.to play judge of all people..Modern Religion is using pressure to force it's beliefs on the population....and Jesus did not use force...but used his own example of living to express his beliefs.....real or myth...

    Does it really surprise anyone that the history of the time Jesus does not mention him...but only many years later do we see the writings of his followers..many out casts.themselves...Why did Rome itself change to Christianity then, if Jesus was just a myth....Do you always see the wind..no... but you see it's effects just the same...as it passes..

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

      It would be a lot easier to follow the teachings of an admittedly flawed human than it is to swallow the collected absurdities called Christianity. THAT is the problem. Christianity asks you to believe nonsense and places the faith in nonsense ABOVE any moral teaching. That is why it is so repugnant and so increasingly irrelevant.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  9. Laurie

    Praise the Lord. He has Risen indeed. Allelulia. Allelulia. Happy Easter everyone!

    April 8, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  10. Bill

    Nice hit piece. About 80 percent of the article is based on the statements of 2 individuals. John Blake does everyone a large dis-service by neglecting to interview and post statements from religious scholars who believe Jesus existed. Why am I not surprised?

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

      The article quoted two people who believe in Jesus's existence, at at length in one instance. And there are a lot more people who disbelieve than the two quoted here. This article is all but bent over backwards in its attempt to present both sides.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  11. Steve Johnson

    My point is, regardless of whether Jesus existed or not, are other religions wrong? The way I see it, it comes down to believing in one God or many gods. Jesus may have existed, but maybe he was another delusional person who thought of himself as the messiah. People who lived during the time when Jesus supposedly lived wanted something different than what Paganism and Judaism were offering at the time, so they created Christianity.

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

      All religion is wrong.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • dmadam

      Read your comment while preparing to write mine but stopped as it mirrors mine. good post

      April 8, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  12. I thought jesus was white

    jesus was an old myth revived by christians with their own slant

    April 8, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  13. True Catholic

    Just another comment to share respectfully: The power of the Grace of God in our lives and the undeniable power of Physical Miracles that took place for over 20 centuries are two of the greatest proofs of the existence and the love of Jesus Christ.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • I thought jesus was white

      you mean by the catholic church pedo-phi-ia? the worst crimes of cover up which ultimately destroyed childrens lives, by the popes and bishops. Yes, the catholic donations to this organization helped the catholic church lobby to stop laws that would further destroy children victims. The truth is the greatest healer and the catholic help the church deny healing <– the miracle.

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

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

    It's far, far, more probable that the "conspiracy" is that of early Christianity to establish itself and that an historical Jesus would forward that intent.

    It's known with a great deal of certainty that the modern Christian Bible was made of a very careful selection–and rejection–of a lot of material, some of which still survives. The Christian Bible says exactly, and only, what its compilers and editors wanted it to say and there's there's no way of determining the truth of any of it.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  15. Burtrain Collins

    So CNN has now decided to portray Christians as ignorant frightened bipeds hanging on to myths and prayers in the hope that there is everlasting life. We can now join the ranks of the so called CNN "bigots" who oppose Gay marriage. Thank you CNN for forwarding the evolution of an atheistic society with no absolutes and no morality. We're all getting "hipper" thanks to CNN. The problem is that "Jesus Christ is extremely real to those Christians who have accepted his spirit into our lives". It is beyond our understanding as human beings. This existance is much more complicated, more multi- dimensional than what meets the eye. This is a material world but it is also a spiritual world. I'm not an evangalist, so I can easily say, that if you don't believe in Christ, then great, keep it to yourself and leave us alone. Regardless of what CNN says, this is still a Christian nation. You're the oddball not me.

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

      @Burtrain Collins
      "The problem is that "Jesus Christ is extremely real to those Christians who have accepted his spirit into our lives". "

      Ok, I agree with that, Christians believe Jesus Christ is real.

      "This existance is much more complicated, more multi- dimensional than what meets the eye. This is a material world but it is also a spiritual world."

      Evidence please.

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

      No one is allowed to question anything then? Calm down, Burtrain.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  16. Nathan

    The Book of Mormon is another testament of Jesus Christ. It testifies that the resurrected Christ ministered to the ancient inhabitants if the American continent. If the Book of Mormon is true, and it is, then the testimony of Christ in the Bible is also true, as many believers already know. The Bible and the Book of Mormon, two independent and true records of Jesus Christ, remove all doubt and demonstrate to the world today that Jesus Christ lives, even in our day!

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

      Circular logic that does not prove your point, but may be comforting to you.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • B

      Really?

      April 8, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  17. Today

    Jesus Christ died for our Salvation, in blessing we all revel and live in today. The under pinning of morality- is on a foundation of Jesus Christ. With all the evil, sin- horrific scenarios playing themselves out in the world- Jesus Christ is always, and I mean always – the only true beacon of light that gets us through the storm. Always. When we fought to save the world of nazi tyranny for example, it is our faith in Jesus Christ that gave us power to- stand through it, not the Atheists and non beleivers, That's a fact even CNN, cannot smear. :-)

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

      If Jolly Old Jehovah needed a sacrifice to "save" his creation from his own demented wrath, he should have simply offed himself.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • OkayComeOnNow

      So in your world, only Christians fought against the Axis in WWII? Let me guess. Now you're going to say that there are no atheists in foxholes, right?

      April 8, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  18. Migdalia

    "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

    April 8, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  19. Xman37

    What about Jesus being mentioned in the Qur'an!? That's the strongest proof that jesus existed. He was a prophet and messenger of God, and not his son.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • erich2112x

      You're aware that the Quran was written almost 600 years after the Bible?

      April 8, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  20. Dennis

    Happy patient zero day of the zombie Apocalypse

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

      I continue to pray for you so that one day your eyes open to the Truth, like you have never seen before!

      April 8, 2012 at 9:27 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.