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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 • Evangelical • Faith • History • Jesus • Uncategorized • Virgin Mary

soundoff (8,771 Responses)
  1. TruthPrevails

    Those wishing to think Easter is based on christianity are wrong. As with many other christian claimed holidays, this one too has been confiscated to fit the fairy tales.

    "Easter is named for a Saxon goddess who was known by the names of Oestre or Eastre, and in Germany by the name of Ostara. She is a goddess of the dawn and the spring, and her name derives from words for dawn, the shining light arising from the east. Our words for the "female hormone" estrogen derives from her name."

    http://www.goddessgift.com/Pandora%27s_Box/Easter-history.htm

    April 8, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • captain america

      canadian bull sh it not required. Send this undermining pos packing. There's your sign

      April 8, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • just sayin

      Truthfully the term Easter comes from pesher, from the passover. God bless

      April 8, 2012 at 7:33 am |
    • culheath

      That would explain the word "East" for the direction of the sunrise. Are they connected?

      April 8, 2012 at 7:35 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      CA: the most dishonest American going...this is an international website and Easter is not only pertinent to your country, so keep your stupidity to yourself for a change...one again you have yet to scare any of us off and you never will.

      just spewin: christianity has continuously stolen from belief systems that existed before them and this one is no different...facts don't lie unlike christianity

      April 8, 2012 at 7:42 am |
    • diego homans

      Whoa, Capt America, great "argument," dude. You really know your stuff.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • p4p

      estrogen... meaning unbalanced, meaning inconsistency... meaning, women need men to keep them in check... got it!!! lol

      April 8, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
  2. Sarah

    Jesus is the prophet of God, Jesus was not killed, he was raised before any one touch him. Jesus is the son of the Virgin Mary and he has no father, God is the one and only, the Eternal Absolute, He begets not, nor is He begotten and there is none like unto Him. Glory of Him to be a father of any human. Jesus and his mother ate food and walked so how any of them exist.

    God is God not Jesus, He created the earth and skies and every thing in between before and after

    April 8, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • halfbakedlunatic

      Taking a few too many sips of the koolaid, eh?

      April 8, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • diego homans

      I'll be you're fun on a date.

      Seriously, though, why do the people posting about "Jesus is God," or whatever, sound so insane? And they usually write really, really long posts, often with no paragraph breaks. Surely these aren't the same people you hear preaching in the streets, now come inside to post it all on the internet!

      April 8, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  3. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    April 8, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • diego homans

      Well, all righty, then. I'm convinced.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  4. James Albis

    Why is that your network and stories have to be about a debate? planting seeds of doubt, darkness, death, instead of hope, light and inspiration? Faith is a gift from God, Blessed are those who have not seen and believe. Your very existence and everything in it is held of the palm of God and his son Jesus who at the very name every knee shall bend on the earth and in the heavens above. Again why not focus who Jesus was, instead you publish an Article on Easter disparaging Jesus, the most Holy Day of the year for Christians, if you did for Mohammed you would have the entire muslim world throwing rocks at your network.

    April 8, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • culheath

      A strong faith can handle inquiry, rejoicing in it, while a weak faith flees from it, complaining.

      April 8, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • seyedibar

      "Faith" si just another way to say "it makes me uncomfortable to apply rational thinking any further".

      April 9, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  5. Mcbob

    Wonder if CNN will publish a story on those who doubt that Mohammed was a real person. Maybe on Ramadan.

    April 8, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • culheath

      Of course not because Mohammed is a historically verifiable person, there are cross-references to his existence whereas there are little or none for Jesus.

      April 8, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • Guest

      culheath: please give us the evidence of Mohamed's existence. Thanks

      April 9, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Know What

      Mohammad's existence is not an issue. His fantasy tales of the supernatural, now that is different can of worms.

      April 9, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  6. jon

    Christian bashing on Easter, typical liberal media fair game, Muslim bashing always off limits...why?

    April 8, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • Gawd

      It's always a good day to bash any religion.

      April 8, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • Nellah

      Let 'em base us ... no weapon formed against us will prosper. Remember to that Yeshua is His real name and He was crucified on a Wednesday and rose from the dead on a Sabbath (Saturday). We as believers should not bash anyone else's religion. We pray for them.

      April 8, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • culheath

      What you are seeing as "bashing" some will see as "seeking truth". So it goes.

      Did you get angry when you discovered Santa Claus was a fictional person? Did you give up telling your children about Santa or allowing them to believe he was real for as long as possible? How is that different?

      April 8, 2012 at 7:42 am |
    • halfbakedlunatic

      Praise Gawd.

      April 8, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • tibeau

      Muslims and any other religion besides Christianity are bashed every Sunday, in fact, the many denominations of Christian faith, bash each other.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • seyedibar

      Muslims, Christians, all the same primitive idiocy to me.

      April 9, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  7. culheath

    Was King Lear a real person? Does it matter? Does the story lose any of it's import because we assume there was no real King Lear?
    That's how I see the Jesus myth. It's also how I look at those who try to take the Bible literally.
    The power of allegory to inform and create understanding is as vital as any of the scientific knowledge we can acquire about the world, but to try to move those allegories into the "factual" realm is ruinous to both categories and generates falsehoods rather than truths.
    Part of the problem with demanding that Jesus be a "real" person is that it allows believers to ignore the process of becoming Christ (or Christ-like, if that idea seems heretical) and to disavow their own responsibility for achieving that state themselves.
    When the Christ says,"But through me will you enter Heaven." The Christ is not talking about Jesus the carpenter from Bethlehem, he is talking about becoming the "state of being he has achieved" " Be like me", he said.
    Worrying about whether the Jesus of the Bible was a real person or not misses the point completely in exactly the same way having that same worry about King Lear does.

    April 8, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  8. Rim

    SO, the conclusion is still pretty apparent that there really is no credible proof for Jesus.
    We have transcribed historical events from the supposed time of Jesus of natural disasters, kings, and rulers yet nothing about Jesus. No mention of him from neighboring cities. No mention of him from neighboring countries. No mention of him from neighboring continents. This is supposed to be the most important person ever? Doesn't faith find that a little fishy?

    April 8, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • Nellah

      Read Lee Strobel's Case for Christ ... it will open your eyes and your heart.

      April 8, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • John A

      Why does the Pro author get so upset saying that the early christians had NOTHING to do w/ pagan stuff? he just HAPPENED to be born near Beltane and died near the spring rites celebrating the god Ester *pagan goddess*? We know that when the early christians moved up and out through Europe they co-opted the local celebrations to convert the 'pagans' who lived there. Believe if you want, but don't argue 'proof' if you can't find anyone or anything outside of your tradition to back it....

      April 8, 2012 at 7:35 am |
    • Rim

      Religious people always want to claim that atheist lack compassion and love. Couldn't be further from truth.

      Read greatest show on earth by Richard Dawkins. It will open your brain and hopefully when you hit the switch your intelligence light bulb works.

      April 8, 2012 at 7:37 am |
  9. Dan

    People are finally starting to reason in the age of the internet. Hopefully they will forget about this amusing fairy tale. What a great world that would be.

    April 8, 2012 at 7:25 am |
  10. edmundburkeson

    The real myth is that we are liberty to decide who Jesus is. The disciples and the early church were not tolerant of diversity on that question. So who do you say that Jesus the son of man is? Be very careful how you answer. The issue is forever settled to the dismay of many. Don't mistake divine tolerance for divine acceptance.

    April 8, 2012 at 7:24 am |
  11. Easter Supporter

    Jesus lived, God is real, God is love. Happy Easter, America. May we learn to love each other better, love eachother more, and celebrate life no matter what we believe. Amen.

    April 8, 2012 at 7:23 am |
    • Gawd

      I love you like I would love a retarded kid.

      April 8, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • Dan

      Do you believe in the Easter Bunny too?

      April 8, 2012 at 7:28 am |
  12. Dana

    I knew that the whole bible was a myth long before the internet came along. I have common sense and can reason.

    April 8, 2012 at 7:20 am |
  13. Ellen

    I am disappointed CNN would post such a s-stirring article on Easter Sunday. They could have posted this any other day of the year.

    April 8, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • thinquer

      If am in the market for a better news source. CNN is losing its grip on good journalism.

      April 8, 2012 at 7:19 am |
    • diego homans

      ?? You don't get the connection?

      April 8, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  14. thinquer

    If I wanted to make a million these days on fiction, I would write a book denying the existence of God. It's so trendy to be atheist and doesn't take any journaistic integrity. If Mr. Freke had read the Bible (ie1Corinthians) he would see the many times the apostle Paul referred to Christ. For a free home bible study, please contact your local Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses. They will study the entire Bible with you for free, no obligation to do or join anything, just learn. A journalistic challenge .

    April 8, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • Milton

      I hate to be the one to tell you this, but atheism isn't "trendy", it is the future of the world as scientific (real) miracles supplant religious ones. Want to hear again? Get a cochlear implant, not a faith healing. Atheism is the only "religion" growing in all 50 states.

      As for your "evidence", pointing out what someone said in the Bible as proof of Jesus's existence is standard circular logic. You understand the concept of validation with multiple external sources don't you? This is standard research methods in history. Unfortunately the credibility of external courses also count too. This is why dudes that believe in both Hercules and Jesus don't count as credible.

      April 8, 2012 at 7:35 am |
    • UncleM

      Using the bible to prove the existence of Jesus or god is circular logic.

      April 8, 2012 at 7:35 am |
    • tibeau

      So your using the Bible to prove the Bible is real. Sorry doesn't work that way.

      April 8, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  15. halfbakedlunatic

    It's time to put this tired little fairly tale to bed.

    April 8, 2012 at 7:16 am |
    • Nii

      Thats your point of view! NEXT?

      April 8, 2012 at 7:21 am |
    • Dan

      That's the point of view of many people.

      April 8, 2012 at 7:30 am |
    • Milton

      The best way to make a ton of money isn't to write a book that says God doesn't exist. The best way to make a ton of money is to either to found your own religion or tell rich people that Jesus loves them just a little bit more and blesses the successful (i.e. become a Joel Osteen). Teaching people how to use critical thinking skills will never make you nearly as much money as preying on other people's ignorance. Just ask the GOP, that's their primary modus operandi.

      April 8, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  16. Nii

    The people who say the story of Jesus was culled from Osiris, etc are at a disadvantage. Why? The Hebrew Bible was the Christian Bible exclusively for three centuries because it can describe the life of Jesus just as well as the Gospels can.

    April 8, 2012 at 7:13 am |
    • Nii

      The very first Bishop of the Christian Church was James the Just, the brother of Jesus. He had four other brothers as well as at least two sisters. This was not every Christian Jesus' brother because the Apostles did make a distinction. Unless James believed he had an imaginary brother called Jesus

      April 8, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • seyedibar

      James the Just is a legend, like Presbyter John or King Arthur. He doesn't exist in the historical record of Rome or Jerusalem, only indside the gospels and the personal historians of Paul.

      April 9, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  17. Biotechdev

    CNN's Easter morning attack on Christianity.

    April 8, 2012 at 7:11 am |
    • Charles

      I agree. Troll fodder.

      April 8, 2012 at 7:17 am |
    • Charles

      I mean the article is troll fodder.

      April 8, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • Ellen

      It is definately an attack on Christianity. They could have posted this article any other day of the year. Instead they post it as their lead story on most joyous and holy day of the Christian faith.

      April 8, 2012 at 7:23 am |
    • UncleM

      And the reason you are upset is that deep down you know it's all made up nonsense.

      April 8, 2012 at 7:36 am |
  18. libsareaninterestinggroup

    Wow, CNN way to write an impartial story.

    April 8, 2012 at 7:09 am |
  19. Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

    So anyone who disagrees with the religious comics is a "kook"?

    How about people who believe in mythical beings are delusional. That's the fact.

    April 8, 2012 at 7:07 am |
  20. thinquer

    IF there are any truly interested people reading this: simply contact your local Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses this week . The current Watchtower magazine addresses all the secular evidence that Jesus was in fact an historic person. You can verify it for yourself from the sources given. There is just so much secular evidence starting with Tacitus, that I don't have time here.

    April 8, 2012 at 7:06 am |
    • Slickner

      So you believe in Fictional books huh?

      April 8, 2012 at 7:22 am |
    • Milton

      And as the article points out, Tacitus also believed Hercules was real. Pointing to another person and saying they also believe in Jesus isn't proof. I must say logic isn't the long suit of most of those that are deeply religious. The real problem for Christians is that any solid and incontrovertible evidence for the existence of Jesus will also inevitably demonstrate that he was a man, not the son of God....maybe a Joseph Smith, an L. Ron Hubbard, or a Jim Jones, but a man nonetheless.

      April 8, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • It's me

      he just went over Tacitus in the story. He's the guy who believed in Hercules, which is true that he believed that. So if you believe him, than you must believe that Hercules exists and if not, then your one of those religious people who pick and choose what to believe based on your lifestyle. Not on what's logical.

      April 8, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • jesuslovesall

      Thinquer, Jesus said come as you are. The kingdom hall is a nice place, however Jehovah witnesses change the holy Scriptures to fit their teaching which is wrong. My grandmother was one and so is my mother who took me to the kingdom hall from birth. However I realize at the age of 25 it was a cult. I never felt a connection to God until I prayed and ask Jesus to come into my life. Being born again is the true way to everlasting. God bless you

      April 8, 2012 at 7:29 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.