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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. Jon

    "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." But Ehrman can't prove that Jesus was born on December 25. Christmas replaced a pagan holiday. (If our calendar begins with the birth of Jesus, why isn't it celebrated on the first day of the first month of the year?

    April 8, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  2. nookster

    Please, religious radicals, keep your fariy tales, myths and fables to yourselfs. Why do you have to share wtih the rest of us how ignorant your are? We already know you live your life afraid of death. We already know that fear controls your existance. We already know that you program your children from birth with this nonsense because you yourself where programmed. We already know you pass on too your children a life of guilt, shame and fear. Please, keep your pathetic ignorance to yourself.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • Joe

      nookster

      John 17:9

      I pray for them: I pray NOT for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine

      Jesus doesn't believe in you either !!!!

      April 8, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  3. ElmerGantry

    "Internet Kooks",

    Insults and name calling; the last resort of people with no viable logical argument.

    This is only the attract the character of the messenger disinformation technique

    April 8, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • ElmerGantry

      Ops ...attack the ....

      What, no edit button?

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

      Isn't that in the first chapter of the progressive playbook, Elmer? Under "What to do when our arguments fail?"

      April 8, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • ElmerGantry

      False mirroring, eh?

      April 8, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  4. Jim

    And in other not-so-startling news, CNN found someone who disagrees with Christianity and featured an article about it on a key Christian Holy day ...
    Strange how I don't recall seeing doubting stories about Mohammed on Eid or about Judaism, Yom Kippur, etc - only Christianity gets the negative focus

    April 8, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • Lazlo

      You nailed it Jim. I think they feel it is "edgy". Shows they have stones. If they want to show their fearlessness in the face of religion, let them run a hit piece on Muhammad. Now that would be edgy – NO ONE has dared to do that.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • YeahOk

      "Strange how I don't recall seeing doubting stories about Mohammed on Eid or about Judaism, Yom Kippur, etc – only Christianity gets the negative focus"

      So?

      April 8, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • Tom

      Very good point, as we know CNN loves to stir the pot and as liberals go, they hit the mark as the pains in the ass of the world, well done CNN....NOT you commies

      April 8, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  5. Joe

    It really doesn't matter what you or I believe. What does matter is how you are going to explain yourself when you are kneeling before him in the end.

    You will meet him some day and those who do not believe now, will not get a chance to change their minds when you meet him.

    John 17:9

    I pray for them: I pray NOT the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine

    You see not everyone in this world is a believer and he already knew that.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  6. redwine9991

    THOSE WHO BELIEVE IN MYTHS ARE LAZY TO THINK FOR THEMSELVES.

    THE PREFER THAT MEN IN WOMEN'S CLOTHES DO THE THINKING FOR THEM.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  7. ObjectiveOpinion

    So jesus came back from the dead? Then it shouldn't be tough making another appearance. Today's a good day. Where is he?

    April 8, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  8. humanone

    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. (From Josephus – a Rman-Jewish historian: Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 9 vs. 1)

    April 8, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  9. 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 9:56 am |
  10. Brian

    Sorry, but the "kooks" are adults who insist on believing in imaginary friends, and then wanting their country to make laws based on that nonsense.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  11. T. Lee

    Apart from testimony by Jesus followers (apostles/disciples) – the Jewish historian Josephus (as he wrote about the "History of the Jews", the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, etc., considered Jesus not as a "myth" but a teacher (rabbi, but not in the sense of a "rabbi" in Rabbinical Judaism):

    "Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day."

    Testimonium Flavianum, Book 18

    April 8, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  12. Michael

    CNN should show some respect on Easter Day. Our Lord died for our sins. How can we deny such love?

    April 8, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • Brian

      Because many of us do not believe in the fables of the bible, such as the absurdity of a man "dying for our sins". Many of us recognize it for nonsense which has plagued mankind for centuries, and has been responsible for so much suffering and oppression around the world. They provide an objective analysis, giving input from the side of belief and from the side of non-belief.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • Elena

      I am a believer and i am quite happy to see this topic today, I am so waiting to debate atheist but none wants to debate me, they know they will loose!

      April 8, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • reason

      It is respectful and noble to seek the truth. Thank you CNN for this article!

      April 8, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  13. I thought jesus was white

    It's been proven that believers and conservatives were likely spa-nk-ed as children. They identify with their ab-us-er parents

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

    So far no atheist has giving me a valid reason to be atheist, I will give valid scientific fats to be a believer!

    April 8, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • Veritas

      You keep saying that, in your infinite ignorance, but will not be able to do so since it is obviously impossible to prove or disprove the existence of a "god" that nobody can see or hear. Elementary.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • muri

      We are all eagerly waiting said facts. Have been for a couple thousand years now.....burden of proof has not been satisfied and such.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • Brian

      No one has presented a single piece of empirical scientific evidence, much less proof, of the existence of any god or gods. None whatsoever. There's no reason to believe in any, hence the default position of atheism to not believe in god. As for science, it has answered a great many questions for us, while religion has answered none at all. To assign "God Did It" as an answer to a question is to declare you are no interested in answering said question. It's a halt to discovery. Another way to put it is this: "Something that explains everything actually explains nothing."

      April 8, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • Elena

      in my infinite ignorance, really! ok try me, give me your real proven facts to be an atheist and I will give you mine with scientific facts!
      go ahead im waiting

      April 8, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • Elena

      I never said prove of God existence, I said scientific evidence to be a believer which is different,

      you people as lawyers are a complete failure! lol

      April 8, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • Elena

      I am waiting!

      April 8, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • YeahOk

      @Elena
      "I never said prove of God existence, I said scientific evidence to be a believer which is different"

      Well, present what you have.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • YeahOk

      @Elena
      "So far no atheist has giving me a valid reason to be atheist"

      Answer: Lack of evidence.

      Now, let's hear your compelling evidence.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • YeahOk

      We're waiting....

      April 8, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • nookster

      You're making a fool of yourself and demonstrating your complete grasp of your ignorance.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  15. Name*THE TRUTH

    Satan attacks the person of Jesus because Jesus is THE TRUTH. He doesn't go against Mohammed or budda or any other false lier. Satan knows his time is short. Satan is the father of lies. Jesus exposes SIN in your life.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • I thought jesus was white

      satan is just cool.. never had his own bible explaining his side. Just like christians to destroy others, like defenseless satan.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  16. Kevin Barbieux

    It is rather silly that Christians take offense of discussions about Christianity on Easter, as if God would care, and as if Christians somehow need the validity of the media, or that somehow the media is suppose to bow down to the Jesus worshipers. And just what is this comparing Christians with Muslims? Someone said "you wouldn't publish something like this during a Muslim holiday." So, are you saying that Christians should be treated like their violent abusive counterparts? If you seriously want to be considered as something better than Muslims, you really should stop acting like them.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • athleticmedic

      chistianity isn't "better" than any other religion. Christians are "better" than anybody else. Unfortunately a lot of people are exceptional at "labeling others" instead of appreciating others.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Gedwards

      You honestly think it's silly? How about this comparison - someone brings up the question about wether you were actually adopted on your birthday?

      We can disagree on Christianity or religion in general, but it tough to have a genuine dialogue when people aren't even honest about another's perspecitve.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  17. brunette_barbie_SC

    that faith “is the assurance we have of the existence of unseen things. And being the assurance, … [faith] must be the principle of action in all intelligent beings.” 11

    April 8, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • Dan Green

      If faith is the belief in something that cannot be proven and has never been seen, then I question on why it is the principle of action in all intelligent beings. It doesn't mean that a person of faith is unintelligent (as some will have it), but a person who questions God, Jesus, or religion in general, has logical reasons to question it and as such is also not unintelligent. Either you have faith or you do not. I suppose you can find faith or lose faith, but it is not a good indicator of inteliligence.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  18. Gotcha

    Best April Fools day joke gone wrong.

    Guy: "hey I just saw this guy do some crazy stuff. He died and came back to life"
    Fools: "Jesus!"

    People actually believed the joke and then it just spiraled out of control.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  19. JHC

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOBU2NSAOM4&w=640&h=390]

    April 8, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  20. Alternative News Fan

    How insensitive and disrespectful for CNN to put an article like this up on Christiandom's holiest day of the year.

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

      You're right, on Christmas it would have been better...

      April 8, 2012 at 9:58 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.