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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. andrewkeithanderson

    CNN chooses the holiest of Christian holy days to denigrate belief. To post arguments to belief & Faith. You have 364 other days of the year to belittle Christians. You chose this day above all others to make this the biggest headline on your cover.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • Bonnie

      I can assure you that there is nothing "holy" about this celebration of Easter. Holy means incorruptible, spotless, in full integrity and genuiness. Chanting on beads, instilling false belief in children about easter bunnies and colored eggs, worshipping crosses and statues and a 3-headed god-ghost has no place in sincere honor and appreciation of what Almighty God and His Son, Jesus Christ did for us. Study the actual teachings of Jesus Christ found at Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the Holy Bible, and you will understand.I recommend beginning with John.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • tacc2

      First, I'm not a Christian. Today is just another day to me. As good as any to post an article questioning the existence of Jesus. Second, I think the did a pretty good job presenting the arguments of both sides.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Elena

      Easter is not Christian at all, today in the real christian world is Sunday of resurrection, not Easter. I have no idea where the anglosajon` world introduced Easter in the christian calendar from

      April 8, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • rick

      feeling a bit put upon, andy?

      April 8, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  2. Elena

    I thought atheist ere atheist because they had evidence to be atheist, yet no atheist here provides one single fact to be atheist!

    April 8, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • Gotcha

      Have you read a science text book before? There is probably scientific fact that disapproves almost all if not some of your myth.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • YeahOk

      @Elena
      "I thought atheist ere atheist because they had evidence to be atheist, yet no atheist here provides one single fact to be atheist!"

      Again, I am not an atheist because of evidence, it's lack of evidence you provide. You make a claim to be true, and you do not provide it, thus, I am an atheist.

      Please provide your evidence so I can too believe. I think however, you know your evidence is non-existant, or at best laughable, and is why you are so afraid to present it.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • Gedwards

      Elena, to be fair, one cannot prove a negative. There is no possible "evidence," and therefor not "proof" that God does not exist. Repeatedly asking atheists to provide proof, proves nothing and is a red herring.

      OTOH, if you ask them to explain free will and consciousness in the context of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and entropy, they start bumbling.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • nookster

      Why would an adult of average intelligence try to give evidence to a dilusional moran?

      April 8, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • Elena

      Of course I did, and quantum mechanics in special, and no science will never ever say the have prove to be atheist!

      As Max Plank said `at the gates of science knowledge there is written the words, YE MUST HAVE FAITH

      did you know he quoted that!

      April 8, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • JHC

      By your logic, everything that people believe must be proven wrong or it's true. So if I believe that God is a purple dinosaur that teaches us songs about loving each other and you can't prove it's not true, then it must be true.

      The burden of proof is always on the one who believes but offers no evidence.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Jay

      aethiest's facts are called science – same set of facts that enable you to fly, take medicines, operate technology.... how one can believe in the dogma of organized religion and yet live in modern world where science involves every aspect of your life is beyond me...

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

      Ok I will give you a hint, have you ever heard of the double slit experiment!

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

      Elena: We are not claiming to believe in something that has never been verified to exist. We have a disbelief in your god(s). We usually don't accept anything without evidence and that evidence is usually backed by more than one source, unlike the buybull that you use as evidence.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • YeahOk

      @Gedwards
      "OTOH, if you ask them to explain free will and consciousness in the context of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and entropy, they start bumbling."

      Is funny when one tries to assert modern science in the argument for god. The argument for god existed long ago, when all people considered the world to be flat. So if it was so obvious back then, what was the evidence?

      April 8, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • Klaus

      Well, I thought that I was an atheist until I realized that I am god.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • Elena

      Well give me the facts God is a green dinosaur!

      April 8, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Sifleut

      Maybe you should look up the definition of "Atheist". http://www.dictionary.com

      April 8, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Elena

      Science has no evidence to be atheist, on the other hand has many to be a believer!

      April 8, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Klaus

      I think that you have got the order of proof wrong here.
      I say there is NO god. Prove me wrong.
      It must be a lot easier to prove the excistense of something than to prove that something does not excist!

      April 8, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • YeahOk

      @Elena
      "Science has no evidence to be atheist, on the other hand has many to be a believer!"

      Let it be know that after thousands of years, Elena can finally prove god with her superior scientific intellect. Congrats.

      I'm sure that all the scientists with PhD's and Master degrees just converted by your compelling scientific evidence.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • Elena

      Gedwards, the problem with atheist is that they are atheist because they only can see the lies of those who manipulated the truth, they have no understanding of what seeking the truth means, let alone the laws of thermodynamics!

      April 8, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Elena

      YeahOk, you must have a problem of understanding what you read! I never said prove of GOD I said evidence to be a believer!, as an advice never become a lawyer because you will be a complete failure

      April 8, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • YeahOk

      @Elena
      "YeahOk, you must have a problem of understanding what you read! I never said prove of GOD I said evidence to be a believer!, as an advice never become a lawyer because you will be a complete failure"

      Ok, what are you a believer of?

      April 8, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • Elena

      I am a believer of the souls or spirit and of conciseness and therefore a higher supreme consciousness or being which is the fountain of creations. did you know that besides bones and flesh there is energy in you body, and that according to science energy never is destroyed or created!

      April 8, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • YeahOk

      Let it be know that Elena can prove with her superior scientific intellect that souls or spirits of conciseness, and a higher supreme consciousness or being, which is the fountain of creations exists.

      There is overwhelming excitement among the scientific community for her presentation of her absolute defining evidence.

      Your parents must be proud.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • rick

      tell us, elena, what "facts" have you to prove a heaven or a hell?

      April 8, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  3. ObjectiveOpinion

    From the bible, psalms 15:20

    And if any many doubts my existence, I'll send a catholic priests to his parish and have him abuse the doubter's son. And if hatheth no son, I'll have him do the doubter's wife. And if he hatheth no wife, I'll have him do the doubter's ass.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  4. adamthefirst

    Leave it to cnn to have another hate filled article on Christians and Jewish reiligions.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  5. Nick

    I've found that arguing with the religious is like arguing with your cat, and with the same ultimate results.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • Elena

      I agree on religious debates, yet there are important scientific evidence to believe and those cant be denied!

      April 8, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • Klaus

      Correct. If you could argue with religious people, there would be NO religious people.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  6. Bonnie

    It is FALSE and pretense "religion" that insults our intelligence and these "churches" very existence is for the specific purpose of discrediting the truth about Jesus Christ, AND God. Remember folks, it's ALWAYS the lie attacking the truth, not the truth attacking the lie. The false business about the "Cross" came through Constantine of Rome and then along came Mohammed. These folks came long after Jesus was resurrected. EASTER itself is a recycled PAGAN celebration of spring, which provides no true honor to Jesus or His and our Almighty God. See John 20:17.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • mikstov33

      Bonnie, you are correct. The word Easter comes from Ishtar, a pagan goddess of fertility refered to as the "queen of heaven". That is also where the idea of Easter eggs comes from.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • Elena

      How come Latinamerica don't have ester or Easter eggs or Easter bunny

      April 8, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  7. JHC

    The Egyptian God, Horus, has an identical story to that of Christ.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  8. John

    I read one of Crosson's books and he said that all the magical stuff associated with Jesus (the virgin birth, the resurrection) probably didnt happen and was added later to make Jesus more legitimate.
    It was Joseph Campbell that mentioned the virgin birth being fairly common in ancient mythology, I dont think he was a "kook", let alone an "internet kook".

    April 8, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  9. athleticmedic

    The irritating thing of quite a few non-believers on this site (and others I've interacted with) is that they unfortunately argue with insults...which is EXACTLY as the bible speaks to. Think about this ... When I die, if I'm wrong and i've "wasted my life" worshipping Jesus, I've impacted the world positively by being a "nice guy". When those who don't believe die, if (when) they are indeed proven wrong, they will "waste all of eternity". Let me and my religion be!

    April 8, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • JHC

      No one is persecuting you or making you read fact based, historical articles about the basis of your religion. Atheists are not proselytizing or forcing their preference for an evidence based belief system on anyone. If you feel persecuted by them, it's because your belief in an invisible sky daddy is shaky in the light of logic and reason.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • Sifleut

      You don't need religion to tell you that you have good inside, believe in yourself.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  10. Arthur Paliden

    The oldest Testaments of the Christian church, there are more than just the four we have today, do not mention the reselection at all. Neither do the oldest versions of the common 4. Funny that.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  11. matt bean

    This article is so pitifully timed and completely disrespectful to us non-outspoken Christians, who are celebrating Easter today, that I can't believe it's on CNN. The best that can be written about Jesus, on Easter, is whether he might not have existed? THIS will turn me away from this website and the CNN network, shameful! And I hope "the intellectual" John Blake will appreciate such a conversation, on his wedding day, to discuss if his love for his wife-to-be ACTUALLY exists. Maybe the next lead article can be on the search for a CNN writer who isn't so socially inept.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  12. Apotropoxy

    Sentence under the photo: Some say Jesus never existed and was a myth created by early Christians.
    ____________________________________________________

    No serious scholar of that period argues that Jesus didn't exist. The discussion centers around the issue of deity status. Today, even many Christian thinkers believe that Jesus never claimed to be a messiah or a god. They believe that those qualities were applied to Jesus by his grief-stricken followers in the years that followed his death.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  13. I thought jesus was white

    here's the funny.. if jesus were real and came back, the christians would deny him.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  14. Sifleut

    Jesus was a liberal who didn't believe in religion, thus the reason he was crucified. He didn't believe in capitalism and a lot of things that some current "Christians" believe in today.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  15. Nii

    The historicity of Jesus was never in dispute in the 1st century. No matter how hard people in the 20th century try. I started following the Gospel two years ago n it has transformed my life totally. In short it works. Paul n co were not myths and neither was Jesus.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  16. John

    If people can get together for a pleasant family gathering without being at each other's throats, then that's an Easter miracle enough for many of us. Anything else is just a bonus.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  17. andrewkeithanderson

    And WHY would CNN choose to make the biggest cover story an attempt to denigrate the holiest of holy days in Christianity? Any of the 364 days in the year would have been more suitable to those in the Faith. CNN's lack of respect is a slap in the face.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • reason

      It is respectful and noble to seek the truth any time of year.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • nomdefaitour

      A rationale person would say that the issue is topical.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • Sifleut

      Because this is America and we all don't have to have your holiday shoved down our throats. Freedom of and FROM religion!

      April 8, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      Yet it is okay for christians to attack other regardless of their belief/disbelief any other day of the year. This is just another day that the christians stole from the pagans and to some it is nothing more than a day. When you learn to respect all others, we will respect you.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • Klaus

      Why not?
      What's wrong with this day?
      It's just like any other day!

      April 8, 2012 at 10:42 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 10:14 am |
  19. Et

    You, John Blake what do you hope to achieve by publishing this article on a day like? What do you personally believe? Freke and his likes are confused and so will they be until they reach hell.
    John, this article expressly betrays your indifference towards the christian faith. Whatever your intents are, I hope you know that you are trying to weaken a people's faith.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  20. Joe

    To all those who refuse to believe and accept. For those so lost in the world that they will believe everything they read on the internet but not believe in Christ. For those who believe and can explain the very existence of man.

    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 does not believe in you either !!!!

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

      Jesus does not believe in you either !!!!

      What a lame, childish comment... You can't even live by your own teachings.. sad.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • Gotcha

      I thought "Jesus loves you"? Why the anger? No need for 3 exclamation points, unless you are filled with anger that you don't understand facts.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      "Jesus does not believe in you either !!!!"

      You know this how???

      April 8, 2012 at 10:31 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.