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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. Emvaz

    Two words: Jordan Maxwell

    April 8, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  2. jamest297

    Is it just me, or is it the same people who believe that god is real also believe that pro wrestling is real?

    April 8, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • Robert

      It is not just you. Your fellow delusional atheists think the same.

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

      It's not just you.

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

      it's not their fault, they were brainwashed as children. <– fact

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

      Poor Robert, forced to resort to the "I know you are, but what am I?" defense. Any third-grader could do better.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • explainist

      and if you tell them the beliefs of Mormons, or Scientologists, or the John Frum Cargo Cult, they will shake theiir head in wonder at the bizarre thing people will believe

      April 8, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  3. me

    I'm a proof kinda person. Bring the bones then I'll believe

    April 8, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  4. thinker

    This article is a testament that the left wing media knows Christians are not kooks, or they would not publish such an article out of fear. However, they would never post anything of this nature about islam, because they know they are kooks that will become violent as they are fanatics.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • YeahOk

      "However, they would never post anything of this nature about islam, because they know they are kooks that will become violent as they are fanatics."

      So?

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

      Left-wing media? CNN has been giving the GOP a free pass on their lies for 30 years. And nobody prints that stuff about Islam because hardly anyone in this country believes in it - even the Muslims in America aren't stupid enough to believe all that stuff about Muhammad flying to heaven on a horse. Only hard-core Christians seem to cling to their delusions like their guns and their Bibles.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  5. I thought jesus was white

    did jesus create Miracle Whip too?

    April 8, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  6. AnnaMaria44

    I learned something recently from Bible scholars on the History Channel, that the Book of James and the Book of Jude were written by 2 brothers of Jesus. The family disapproved of his teachings, but continued with his ministry following his death, until they were beaten and killed by the Romans. Scholars produced the family tree, which included grandsons of Jesus' half-brother (or cousin?), who were also tortured and killed. So many on here have argued that the NT books were written long after Jesus' death- but these 2 books were written by his own brothers.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • hellodollyllama

      Most of the books in the Bible which have the "author's" names on them, were not written by the people attached to the names. Even Christian scholars admit that Paul didn't write half of those letters. A number of Old-Testament books are attributed to "authors" whose deaths were described in "their" books. The fact is that no one really knows who wrote this stuff, and that the materials were altered many, many times since they were "revealed by God". If a college student ever submitted a term paper with "sources" this flimsy, he'd get an F.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  7. George Marshall

    I am not a religious person, but I respect the right of others to have religious beliefs and to express them in public and in private (including Tim Tebow's in an arena of thousands) as long as separation of church and state are maintained and attempts are not made to determine governance by religious dogma nor to infuse pseudoscience into science classes disguised as religion, conflating the two, and thereby making a mockery of both.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • notheism

      I also respect the right to be free from religion. If one has the right to express their religious beliefs, one has the right to express their beliefs about how religious belief is absurd.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • contraryjim

      Well said George

      April 8, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • Guest

      Notheism you have that right to be free from it. If someone expresses there beliefs in public it doesn't change your belief system does it? Your right is not taken away because of it but you would have it that you take away anothers right to there beliefs. It doesn't affect you so why make any kind of fuss about it?

      April 8, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  8. Scott Shaffer

    Sit ORIOR ORIRI ORTUS

    April 8, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • Crusmark

      Haven't watched the video yet, but in rergad to this: part of me thinks it’s there for this macho, gross-out factor, selling Christianity as something that can be seen as masculine. Just a gut reaction, but that is not how it strikes me. I would say that it is there for the shock value, a Christian is supposed to be dramatically impressed with Jesus' sacrifice, and the more one realizes the sacrifice has a harsh, physical element, the more one might be awed by it. My impression anyway, from sitting under a lot of teaching like that.

      October 8, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  9. Aberly

    Therevis nothing wrong with having faith in god or Jesus, organized religion iis the issue.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • MithraLives!

      So there was nothing wrong with the faith that the muslims had on 9/11? There was nothing wrong with the faith of the christians had during the crusades? Or the witch trials? Or the inquisition? It appears faith is harmful and I dont see any reason believing in something without evidence can be a good thing.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • hellodollyllama

      Faith in God is delusion. It is mental illness. So, not harmless.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  10. I thought jesus was white

    The catholic miracle..

    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 catholics help the church deny healing <– the miracle.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • Beth J

      I'd like to be called "European American" thank you.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  11. Richard

    You Post this on Easter Sunday? ... NO CLASS!

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

      Agree 100%!

      April 8, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • hellodollyllama

      Since when is it NO CLASS to discuss the truth? Why must the rest of us cater to your delusions?

      April 8, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • notheism

      Richard, actually I think it took some guts to do this. I am glad they posted it.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • Beth J

      Typical Liberal Media... This is what god has taught us to look out for!

      April 8, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • tomas

      Millions of practicing Catholics and this is the story to write? So Sad.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • Josh

      No class?
      Ha, give me a break. Some of your Christian beliefs, contradictions and irrationalities have no class. Shame on you.

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

      It doesn't take guts to publish this kind of article on Easter Sunday. Just a ton of disrespect. If you are not a Christian then that's your personal choice, but what gives any of you the right to trample on someone's spiritual beliefs because they don't align with what you believe. It's all done out of hate and there's to much of it in this world. There's plenty of things I don't believe in but I never feel the need to strike at the people who have those beliefs. Those of you that do really need to look in the mirror and ask yourself why you feel the need to try and hurt or bring people down.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • Guest

      Hellodollylama it becomes no class because as you know this is a big holiday for Christians. For you to think this is an appropriate day to publish this kind of article is absurd. No one is asking you to cater to Christian "delusions" But you and CNN could show respect for others beliefs.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  12. Buck

    Ah, this story is very similar to the Mohammad myth story – oh, wait, there wasn't one...

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

      No myths about Muhammad? Taking dictation from God, flying into heaven on a horse...?

      April 8, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  13. Alive

    He existed and will be back one day!

    April 8, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • MithraLives!

      "I fully believe that jesus will return during my lifetime" – a billion dead people

      April 8, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  14. dreel

    Can't believe CNN would post this article on Easter Sunday. Shame on you!

    April 8, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • hellodollyllama

      Shame on you for demanding the right to your opinion, but denying it to us. Hypocrisy.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • jamest297

      What better day to get people to read it. You folks are just plain old everyday stuck with your delusions that the world revolves around christianity. Galileo took care of that idea 700 years ago and it was 700 years before that Islam started taking market share from christianity.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • NNx592QA

      Shouldn't you be at church at this time?

      April 8, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  15. explainist

    There were 40 historians active in Rome and Jerusalem in the first century. They wrote 143 histories. Two mentioned Jesus.

    If you trouble yourself to read "The Jerusalem Wars" by Flavius Josephus, it will be obvious that the Jesus story was added by a later author. Clearly and unmistakeably a different voice. Inserted in the middle of a different story. Obviously phony.

    Now about the name:

    J: No. J was invented in France in 1520. Y
    E: yes, but the other pronunciation: E as in yes
    S: Not quite. Hebrew / Aramaic SH
    US: Bogus. The Romans copied the Greek habit of appending OS to names, but they changed it to US. When the Romans reinvented Christianity, they changed three Jewish names to Roman names:

    Moses: Have you ever met a Jew named Moses? Moishe
    Jesus: Yeshua in Hebrew, Yehoshua in Aramaic. Corrupted to Joshua and Jehoshua in the KJV.
    Lazarus. Have you ever met a Jew named Lazarus?

    For extra bonus points, the Hebrew word for BACHELOR was... Buehler? Buehler?
    Trick question. There was no Hebrew word for bachelor. Men were married by the time they were 18.

    December 21 or 22: Shortest day of the year. In the minds of the ancients, the sun died that day.
    Dec 23 & 24: Not enough change in the length of the day to be detected without optical instruments.. Specifically, the last star to rise just before the sun rises looks the same
    Dec 25: Visible change in the time lapse between the last star to rise at sunrise, and the rising of the sun. The sun is reborn. Holiday!

    don't take my word for it: http://paulproblem.faithweb.com/websites.htm

    Shucky darn. I posted a link. Now my entire existence is reduced to Internet Conspiracy Theorist because some Jesus wheezer said so.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • contraryjim

      A person named jesus could well have existed, he could have founded a religion. The POINT is that religion and god are HUMAN constructs – all Myth.
      Easter sunday is important to christians – fine that is THEIR belief, not fact.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • zeus_z

      and im so sure you just contradicted 1000s of years of Chritisanity wars, with those meaningless assumptions. bravo.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  16. Rainer Braendlein

    Muhammad murdered plenty of people and people believe in that mad dog. But nobody believes in Christ Jesus, who was holy and the Son of God, which he proved by the miracles, which he wrought. The world is a nuthouse.

    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 9:27 am |
    • Kelly

      You say that Jews in the first century didn't have a reason to promote Jesus. In fact, Jesus was a Jew, right?

      April 8, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • YeahOk

      "But nobody believes in Christ Jesus, who was holy and the Son of God, which he proved by the miracles, which he wrought."

      That IS amazing. Another fact I did not know.

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

      more accurately: in one version of the Flavius josephus history, found in Russia centuries after publication, the quote above was inserted into the text.

      Josephus was a military man. Like many military men, he was a raconteur – a proficient story teller. When read in context, the quote above was written by a boring plodder better suited to plowing up pastures.

      It is a forgery. An insertion by a different author.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • YeahOk

      Rainer Braendlein can only provide evidence of Jesus the man.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      @Kelly

      The most Jews hated Jesus, because he said that man becomes righteous by faith in Christ and not by keeping the law (10 commandments and the like). For the most Jews Jesus was a seducer.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  17. mccgeno

    where does the Easter bunny come in?

    April 8, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  18. Jim

    The real question is not whether there was a historical Jesus (the evidence is very strong that he did) but, rather, what was his nature? Was he the son of God? The evidence is very weak that he was.

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

      Easter bunny, jesus, father christmas & god are all human constructs. You believe or NOT.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  19. 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 9:26 am |
  20. sure thing

    Proof? Try logic instead.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:26 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.