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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. majormauser

    I wonder what would happen if this was published about Allah in a Muslim country? This is Journalism?

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

      Yes, it's absolutely journalism. It looks at Christianity from an objective, historical, evidence based perspective and gives both sides of the argument.

      All religions should be looked at this way.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Veritas

      As opposed to most muslim countries, the US has freedom of speech, and is also not a christian nation.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Richard

      Absolutely this is Journalism. As the article states: the mythology of Jesus was derived from multiple similar stories. Face it, people, Christianity and the Bible are nothing but bedtime stories for adults. Time to grow up.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • brohan12

      thought it was a balanced, interesting read

      April 8, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  2. Sean

    Where does the term Easter come from, if you look it is one of the names used for astarte or ashteroth the same man made pagan god in the old testament. More importantly is not did our savior exist but was His name really called Jesus? One answer I have found is simple the first time I saw the name Jesus appear going all the way back to the time He lived till today was in the 5 edition 1611 king James version. So what is our Saviors original name?

    April 8, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  3. mikel@shaw.ca

    For 2000 years, atheists have stood in line eagerly awaiting their turn to disprove the existence of Jesus. The result? They died in failure while Jesus continues to live on and save lives.

    CNN does it's best to help them and probably has dedicated staff to work full time figuring out new ways to dispute, disrupt, and confuse Christians into rejecting the Son of God and accept the will of man. No doubt it works but in our house, we follow the Word of God.

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

      Irrational religious beliefs are on the decline. As we evolve we continue to expand our understanding of this world through science. As more and more people receive a solid education these bronze age mythologies will lose their grip on the human mind.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • MithraLives!

      Christians have had 2000 years to prvoide any shred of evidence that jesus was real, yet they havent been able to do so. Meanwhile, atheists live on and continue to laugh at your delusions. While the delusion of your fictional savior continues to die.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • Keith

      Jesus has never sav ed a single life, in fact Jesus has caused the death of millions.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • brohan12

      christians have also waited 2000 years for 'his' return...no dice there either

      April 8, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  4. Ken

    Poor, poor CNN. They rip on Christian's but are terrified to question the origins of the Muslim faith. Why? CNN turned Trayvon Martin into Jesus, and it looks more and more like "Duke-Lacrosse 2.0." It's a pathetic, hypocritical and biased CNN. Your reputation and integrity no longer exist. CNN is on the clock.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  5. Ken78

    How surprising to find yet another article in CNN's so-called "Belief" blog which focuses on someone who does not believe. Not.

    I am becoming convinced that the whole point of this Blog is to attack Christian beliefs. After all, CNN was founded by an anti-Christian bigot who mocked Christians and called Christianity a "loser religion."

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

      And he was right,

      April 8, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Jim Duron

      then why do you read it.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  6. Robert

    Atheism has been responsible for the deaths of over 250 million people in the past 100 years. Far, far more than all other religions combined for all of recorded history. Of course, I refer to Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and a dozen lesser known atheist tyrants. Atheism is a highly destructive religion, both for the individual who holds the belief and for society in general.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • Ken78

      Exactly right.

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

      What a great logic... let's compare who killed the most people, religion or atheism. Real intelligent comment here.

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

      If Atheism is a religion, then abstinence is a s exual position.

      Your 250 million number is as bogus as your belief in an invisible sky daddy. Neither can be proven.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Veritas

      Nobody was killed in the name of atheism, but millions were in the name of religion. Stalin may have been atheist, or a vegetarian, or liked brown shoes, but that is not why he committed atrocities. Hitler was a Catholic.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Cliff

      Atheism is clearly not a religion. In any event it is human beings not religions that are responsible for the murder of untold millions. That these murderers claim to be adherents to one religion or another, or to no religion at all, seems to me pretty much irrelevant. There is plenty of guilt to go around.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Qubee

      You are talking about Communism, right? Please don't confuse the two. Hitler was a bona-fide Cristian, but most people understand the difference between Nazism and Christianity!

      April 8, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • Jon

      Come on Robert, check your history. None of those dictators killed in the name of "atheism". Take Stalin for example, while he was an atheist and tried to stamp out religion, he didn't kill in the name of atheism. He killed in the name of "Stalinism" which is a religion onto itself. There were images of Stalin everywhere because in the Soviet Union, he was the deity. Same with Pol Pot and every other "Atheist" leader. We even have an example of that in modern times, North Korea. While they are considered an atheistic society, they are devoutly religious. Their deity just happens to be Kim Jung Il and his Dad, the Dear Leader. There has never been an atheist leader who killed in the name of atheism. Besides, atheism isn't a belief or a religion. How is not having a belief a belief?

      April 8, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • OhPlease

      "Atheism has been responsible for the deaths of over 250 million people in the past 100 years. "

      It was religion throughout history that has killed over 480 million people. Of course you left that out.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • Vida

      Awesome post about Jesus. "You mean Easter's not all about the Easter Bunny?!" PS I have a little multi-colored glass perufme bottle I could send you, if you would like. Right now, it's just sitting in my give-away pile. Would you like to see a picture first?

      July 31, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
  7. bizziel

    Godisimaginary.com

    Whywontgodhealtheamputees.com

    No god. No Jesus. All religion is based on bronze age fairy tales. Its sad full grown adults believe religious crap.

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

      Emperor Constatine chose what was to go in the bible. "What He Wanted." The rest was burned. Who is to say he didn't change things? Some parts were a combination of writings and some were written 300 years apart from hand me down fables. And why doesn't the church allow the stories written by Mary Magdalen and Judas? Because it doesn't suit their purpose.

      So believers please continue to believe but leave the athiests the same space to not. And stop telling us we are going to hell.
      It's not your place to give a yay or nay on the subject.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  8. Elena

    It is interesting to read all the comments of all the misinformed atheist who not even know about one single fact of history correct

    However to all atheist, give me one real prove with facts to be atheist and I will give reason with scientific facts to be a believer

    April 8, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • Post Paul

      There is no scientific proof of Jesus or a "god." Please get a grip on reality before you speak.

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

      Here's a fact: logically speaking, the burden of proof rests on the one making the claim. If you say there is a god, then you must prove your claim to be a true one. The atheist simply says that there is no good reason to believe in a god. Atheism is what is called the default position.

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

      Here's how this debate goes:

      Christian: "I believe in an invisible sky God and science proves he exists."

      Sane Person: "Really? What science proves this? Is their any real evidence at all?"

      Christian: Crickets................................................

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

      That was the dumbest thing I ever read. The claim is that Jesus existed and could do magic tricks. Prove it scientifically!

      April 8, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  9. billh

    It isn't something that will ever be proved in a scientific way. But that's OK. The whole idea of religious faith is this. You take things on "faith" based on what you believe, not based on logic, argument or facts. So no proof – other than what comes from within you – is needed or expected.

    Even if you take this out of religion and just think of how the word is used in non-religious conversation ("I have great faith that my friend Helen will figure things out") you're not saying you have proof (or need proof) ... you're saying what you believe.

    In some ways, faith – in either usage – is a stronger term than a word like "proof." Proof can be questioned or changed based on new evidence or facts. So it's not absolute. Belief – since it isn't built on facts or evidence – endures

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

      There are scientific evidence to believe!

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

      @Elena: That sounds utterly ignorant. What would that "scientific proof" be?

      April 8, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • Jim Duron

      If by proof you mean science, Science invites debate, fact finding, evidence and trying diprove a theroy. Faith based beliefs not only shun that but in some cases punish it by death. so to compare Science to Faith is simply not going to work. blind Faith is ignorance no matter what the intent.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • Dave

      Elena........7th or 8th grade?

      April 8, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Scott Free

      That's possibly the stupidest thing I've ever heard. What kind of deluded arrogance is required to 1) think this and 2) publicly state it.

      Ego and Truth cannot coexist.

      Other than God, what other things do you have blind faith and belief in?

      April 8, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • govspy

      So basically, you're saying it doesn't matter if someone can completely prove you wrong; you will beleive what you beleive regardless of fact, truth, or reality.

      Isn't that called sticking your head in the sand?

      April 8, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  10. gary

    this is a great article keep up the good research CNN !

    April 8, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  11. William Pelegrini

    discovery channel, history channel, tom hanks and his movies, atheists, nutjobs in universities, media have devoted their lives to mock, lie, distort the Scriptures, twist messages, challenge everything related to the most perfect written, alive message. Keep trying ! lol Written by God. Written by his Holy Spirit. None of these people are successful in challenging a book with 40 different books, united with the same message, in a amazing, perfect way. And writte by people who live apart sometimes thousands of years. Written by kings and tax collectors, fisherman and soldiers, sheperds and regular people. A Scripture that show the violent nature of human beings. So funny when a "critic" (that never opened the Bible) exercise their disgusting arrogance, talking about that. That is the whole point. To show who they are and who God is. That is why Biblical heroes are criminals, etc who were transformed by His power. I laugh when these people open the Bible expecting perfect heroes, playing harp in the clouds..lol
    Archeology, sociology, history confirm in uncredible details the Bible, page by page. Not to mention the prophecies fulfilled in details....that give any smart person goosebumps.
    HAPPY EASTERN PRAISE THE LORD !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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

      Sorry, I am a person of faith and you are wrong. It is obvious you are a Fundamentalist that believes the bible is a history book. You don't have to be right to believe in Jesus and his Father.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • Scott Free

      You need to read more than one book.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  12. RealityCheck

    Just as in a James Mitchner novel, the dates, places, and some historical events are real, but that's it. The 'meat and potatoes' of the stories are pure fiction. Same with the New Testament. The historicity of Jesus of Nazareth is totally unsubstantiated by the facts. It's a nice contrived book of authors who plagiarise each other for lack of real evidence. But Christians, rejoice - if Christianity falls apart, so does Islam, as Muhammed references Jesus. Both Christianity and Islam are houses of cards, fabricated to supplant the preceding Abrahamic Faith. Let's hope some new Abrahamic faith comes along which declares all previous faiths 'null and void', as Islam has done. And don't bring of Flavius Josephus.. no credible reference to Jesus has ever been attributed to him.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  13. ELH

    It would be ever so nice if those who believe and those who do not could just stop the arguments and just get along. Neither side can 'prove' its claims (blind faith or unwavering denial are not proofs).

    "Say not that this is the truth but so it seems to me to be as I see the thing I think I see."

    April 8, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  14. Post Paul

    There might have been a Jesus, but there is no "god" and religion is a fraud. You'll get better results playing the lottery than to praying to the empty air.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  15. I thought jesus was white

    some christians believe they never evolved, I'd have to agree. Wish they would though and stop brainwashing their children. Stop the abuse and let kids be kids.

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

    "Breaking News from the Situation Room...Faked Moon landing,Bigfoot captured in Montana and WWII bomber found on Mars, yes Mars...coming up,dont go away"....

    April 8, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  17. Bill

    Calling your critics "kooks" is a temper tantrum, not an intelligent response. And Easter is the ideal time to raise this issue. Belief in Jesus's resurrection is certainly relevant to this day.

    It is impossible for someone dead to come back to life. Dead is dead. Even if Jesus had done so, how would that make his ideas any more valid? Should we agree with an idea simply because it comes from someone with supernatural powers? Faith, by definition, prevents critical thought. Judge ideas on their merit, not according to the authority of the person espousing them.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  18. 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 9:33 am |
  19. Thoughtful In Denver

    Long ago people really believed in Zeuz, Hera, Diana, etc., and we know now that these Gods were not real. I wonder if in years to come Jesus will be thought of in the same way? So much of the story of Jesus has to be believed on faith alone, and if it turns out that he was just a man, a wise man, with wonderful ideas, but the rest of it is fluff that people made up to defend ideas or gain control, will his reliegions fall by the wayside, too. The great temples to the Roman and Greek Gods have fallen into ruins...maybe the churches built to glorify the man Jesus will fall too, someday. Just thinking out here in the West....

    April 8, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  20. expres12

    So come Hajj, can we expect "The Allah debate: Man vs myth" headline on CNN?

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

      Why not look at all religions from an objective, historical, evidence based perspective?

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

      Um – no one believes Allah was a man. Allah is believed in as a god.

      Still a worthwhile debate – Allah/God – real or myth.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:37 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.