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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. Thomas

    This Makes me so sad! To see CNN post an article about Jesus Christ not being real on Easter Sunday just goes to show you that this news network is anti Christian and they lean to the liberal left wing! CNN you really dropped the ball on this one! That video is nothing more than nonsense and we need to stand strong for christianity and take back our country this November!

    April 8, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • I thought jesus was white

      are you old enough to post here?

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

      Dang, every time I think I've had enough of Obama and his minions, someone reminds me what is really at stake! Obama 2012!

      April 8, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  2. Penny....Penny.....Penny

    Bizziel

    Then don't go to belief blogs and you won't have to deal with it.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  3. EasterBunny

    I will continue to believe in the Easter Bunny no matter what evidence these atheists provide. Why? Because I am a blind follower who dare not question my faith.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • I thought jesus was white

      we at least can prove that bunnies are real

      April 8, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • johnfrichardson

      The Easter Bunny is a much better symbol of springtime renewal! And chocolate eggs rule!

      April 8, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  4. Jim McDonald

    After years of telling us that clinton, and then obama was God – CNN feels compelled to publish some anti Christian fluff piece on Easter Sunday. Too Funny! You folks have become a parody of left wing media.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • johnfrichardson

      Who ever said that Clinton or Obama are gods? Or did you mean Hillary? She may not be a god (or goddess, if you insist), but she'd have made a damn fine Valkyrie!

      April 8, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  5. Elena

    I would like an atheist to give me real prove with facts to be atheist and I will provide real prove with scientific facts to be a believer!

    April 8, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  6. HispanicMan

    Religions as a whole is pure corruption and deceit. Religions are the seeds to everything that is wrong in the world today and must be done away with. Jesus himself did exist and his prophetic teachings showed that religions would be harlot and corrupt all that is righteous. Soon, all religions of the world will be destroyed.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  7. Enlightenment777

    Easter Bunny is to Kids as Jesus is to Adults, and both are imaginary

    April 8, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • Elena

      yeah the whole reality we live in is imaginary, would you believe that

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

      The Easter Bunny is simply a symbol of springtime renewal. There are bazillions of "easter bunnies" born every year.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  8. Name*Tomas

    Jesus Christ is a lord for now and for ever!

    April 8, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  9. Mike

    Proud Atheist.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Vivienne27

      good for you – now go away

      April 8, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Elena

      Give me a proven fact to be atheist and I will give you scientific prove to be a believer

      April 8, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • johnfrichardson

      Oh, Elena. Go ahead and post whatever ludicrous "proof" you imagine you have.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Major Tom

      @Elena: you'll need to learn English first. Good luck.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  10. I thought jesus was white

    who thinks bin laden was jesus that came back to life? guess we'll have to update those crosses with a guy with holes in his hands and feet, and now one in his head.

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

      because Jesus didnt kill and did not promoted killing your enemies, see the big diference i guess you cant see it

      April 8, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  11. Name*THE TRUTH

    Satan doesnt attack his intimate friend Mohammed because Jesus is THE REAL DEAL who exposes sin

    April 8, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • I thought jesus was white

      Satan is the cool dude.. all the christians bash him, yet he never had his own bible explaining himself. Satan is the most secure bible character.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  12. peace247

    The Holy Qur'an: Surah Nisa

    O people of the Book! commit no excesses in your religion: nor say of Allah aught but truth. Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) an Messenger of Allah and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a Spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and His Messengers. Say not "Trinity": desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is One Allah: glory be to him: (for Exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belongs all things in the heavens and on earth. And enough is Allah as a Disposer of affairs. (171) Christ disdaineth not to serve and worship Allah, nor do the angels, those nearest (to Allah): those who disdain His worship and are arrogant― He will gather them all together unto Himself to (answer). (172) But to those who believe and do deeds of righteousness, He will give their (due) rewards,― and more, out of His bounty: but those who are disdainful and arrogant He will punish with a grievous penalty; nor will they find, besides Allah, any to protect or help them. (173)

    April 8, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  13. brunette_barbie_SC

    “When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish” (2 Ne. 9:28). No PhD in philosophy, science, or any subject makes one more wise than God! Amen to that haters!

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

      Degrees don't confer wisdom or even intelligence. That is correct. But the god of the bible is anything but wise or good. To put your faith in him is not just foolish, but creepy.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  14. Enlightenment777

    Religion = Ignorance

    April 8, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  15. Audio Ecstasy

    The proof of God is not even as good as the proof of UFO's and Aliens. Should I believe in what I can't see? This article demonstrates that a dispute of the myth of Jesus actually existing is a real possibility. Yes, Jesus may have existed, but like God or UFO's, we don't actually have hard evidence. Believe what you want. In America we are free. However, don't deny my freedom to think and express my beliefs. Certainly to do so would truly go against of the teachings of Jesus. Likewise, to all Christians, stop trying to convert those who don't follow your path. For that path is the path you choose to walk...

    April 8, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  16. Jon

    “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?”

    But the legend of Jesus says he was God's only begotten son (one who was born, as opposed to His miracle children). So his cooperating fully with God doesn't means everyone can do it.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  17. believer

    Same on CNN for posting a story like this on Easter Sunday....

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

      And exactly what other time would be most relevant? Duh huh....

      April 8, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  18. Dizrat

    Nice Easter story CNN.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  19. mac101

    This whole debate misses the point. Regardless of whether he was real, a myth, or a composite, very few in the modern world follow the teachings attributed to him. Jesus the man, Jesus the myth, or Jesus the god have all become distorted, and the new message is "as long as you profess to believe, it doesn't matter how you live your life here, you will be rewarded when you die, and those who don't profess to believe will be punished." The message has become about arrogance, "us vs. them," and is focused on death, not life.

    We live in a world of fear, power and greed, and the message – wherever it came from – of humility, charity and kindness has become obsolete. Jesus – whoever you were, or weren't – is fading into history.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  20. Reader18767

    on Christianity's holiest day comes an article on the existence of Jesus Christ, how fitting for CNN.... I say shalom to the hardworking staff and crew

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

      I think you nailed it. CNN's hiring policies are essentially discriminatory against Christians. Only atheists, non-Messianic Jews, and muslims need apply.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:52 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.