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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. michael weis

    in no part of what i wrote did i force anything and your reply was made in record time – indicating that you did not even read it. Have a good day regardless.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  2. scallywag

    I prefer to live in a country where we have freedom of religion, as well as freedom from religion.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  3. BanThis

    CNN is anti white and anti religion.Basically, they are the worst news network available in the US.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Godfrey

      I'm pro-religion. It's comedy gold.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • ktown8

      EXACTLY! They failed to put the video of the white man beaten, robbed and stripped naked by a mob of blacks while ever other black around him laughs and does nothing to help him, yet they will put every story that can even be skewed to look racists if it involves white on black.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • Reality check

      and jesus was a non white.. Imagine that!

      April 8, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • Josef Bleaux

      So, I suppose if you want REAL news, you go to Faux News channel? CNN isn't totally unbiased but they're 1000 times better than Fox.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • markcatronmusic

      If Jesus existed, he was Jewish, NOT white, get over yourselves and get your own religion, we stole christianity from the Hebrews, who stole it from the Greeks and Romans, and who knows who they stole it from. Christianity is for those people too arrogant to take responsibility for their own actions, so they dump it all on Jesus, saying he'll forgive them, while they continue to be the hypocrites that they were born to be.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  4. ktown8

    Once again, CNN's anti-religious and anti-religious campaign is in full gear! It's Easter! Can you at least refrain from christian bashing on one of the most important Christian holidays? Complete garbage, CNN.....regardless if you believe in Jesus or not!

    April 8, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • Reality check

      That's right.. not only block your mind from reality, block others too.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  5. Reality check

    children rap-ed and sod-om-ized by priests and the worst crimes of cover up to deny them by the pope and bishops, made their suffering far worse than jesus short 2 day gig on the cross. Grow up christians and pay attention to the children and hold the catholic church responsible for at least one of their crimes.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  6. markcatronmusic

    I am a former Bible student, former youth leader, and I have trouble believing in all of it. I am also a songwriter, I wrote a song called "Why Should We Believe" about the matter. It's at reverbnation dot com forward slash markcatron if anyone is interested in taking a listen.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  7. daneke

    The world is a stage and history a prop

    April 8, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  8. Quoting

    Theirs no way a so called "cult religion" could have made it in 1st century AD if the leader of it did not exist. The dates to which the Gospels talk about Jesus are closer to ANY other historical person in history. Go look at Alexander the Great, the historian that wrote about him wrote 500 years after his death, but none of his story is disputed. The Gospels were written 40-60 years after Jesus death, Pauls writings earlier than that

    April 8, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Dennis

      "There is"

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

      Exacting contemporaneous accounts of alexander were kept by his own scribes as well as by those of his enemies. No contemporaneous accounts of Jesus exist (that probably means if these historical figures actually existed they were illiterate and relied upon verbal story telling).

      April 8, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Godfrey

      Re: Alexander –

      You are completely wrong. He had a court historian with him the whole time. A fellow named Ptolemy Lagides. Went on to rule Egypt. Perhaps you've heard of him?

      It's amazing how some people will assert their own ignorance with such assurance.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • nomdefaitour

      Oh yeah...you do know Alexander was worshipped as a god for many centuries? So which one is the real god....Alexander or Jesus?

      April 8, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • Godfrey

      nomdefaitour – By whom? That's not true. Check your sources.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • Quoting

      Wheres Ptolemy Lagides writings at on Alexander

      April 8, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • nomdefaitour

      Alexander declared himself a god during his lifetime (which was the usual practice for tyrants of that time), and he was acknowledged as a god by an oracle, and cults of Alexander existed for centuries after his death.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  9. Dennis

    Braaains!

    April 8, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  10. TG

    History bears out the authenticity of Jesus, for Flavius Josephus, in his Jewish Antiquities (XVIII, 64 [iii, 3]), mentions certain events in the life of Jesus, adding: “And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day [about 93 C.E.] not disappeared.”

    Tacitus, born about 55 C.E. and considered one of the world’s greatest historians, mentioned the Christians in his Annals. In the account about Nero’s blaming the great fire of Rome in 64 C.E. on them, he wrote: “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus (Christ), from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.” The details of this account match the information regarding the Jesus of the Bible.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Dennis

      Did you read the Article? They also thought Hercules was real.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • Josef Bleaux

      A man named Jesus may have indeed existed and been crucified by the Romans. But the rest is just ancient mythology. The man was a martyr and like many martyrs, his life and deeds were blown all out of proportion. All ancient cultures have their myths, creation myths, afterlife myths etc. etc. But that's all they are, just ancient myths, created my members of an archaic society. Sorry, but I prefer using science, logic, reason and objectivity to make decisions in my life, not ancient mythology.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Was Lost

      Dennis, I guess since you read this one article you are now smarter than centuries of historians? This article denounces Josephus and Tacticus in one loaded comment and you blindly follow suit?
      Put all of this aside, the one and only God of all has sent you instructions in His Word and Salvation in His Son. You have free will and have a choice between eternal death and eternal life. This is a spiritual and eternal choice. Choose wisely.

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

    The reason more and more people are rising up against the falsehoods of organized religion is that it's all based on things that if someone asked you on the street to believe you'd call the police. However since it happened thousands of years ago it must be correct.

    Lets be clear, I respect others beliefs to a point. That point is when it flies in the face of factual, provable things such as Evolution, Age of the Earth, ... etc. That's when I call shenanigans!

    In truth, the most probably explanation for religion was a method of organized law in lawless times and a beacon of hope. Life sucked back then for most people. Disease, famine, etc were all common place. You were lucky if 1 out of your 4 kids survived over the age of 20 (look it up). Believing that being good, and doing good would earn you a place in the afterlife sure sounds appealing to someone who probably couldn't read and was barely surviving on the meager earnings they could make.

    The 'church' became a powerful thing and could even appoint kings in the name of God! The same applies to almost every religion out there. Do good, get rewarded. Humans work well on this system and frankly I don't care if you believe that. That's fine... in fact that makes you a better person in my eyes.

    But again, it's when it flies in the face of truth, fact, established and repeatable things that I call shenanigans. Most of us Atheists don't look to pick a fight. It's when it affects the lives of people, of the spreading of KNOWN falsehoods (creationism), (Intelligent Design in the classroom) that we raise our war banners and run to the fields.

    Religion is about faith. What might be, what maybe, it's not up to us to understand just obey. I don't live like that. I choose to take the path of a good man for no other reason than that's what I think it right. If in the end of my days I do find that god exists and I stand as his gate with St Peter... and I'm not allowed in because I didn't believe... I wouldn't want to join that party anyway.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  12. DAM

    Another disappointing article from CNN (a purported world "leader" in news), suggesting that there's an actual, legitimate debate as to whether Jesus existed. Worse, CNN relies on Internet infidels (or ultra-liberal "scholars" - Carrier, Crossan) as its source) as its sources. CNN: Jesus's existence is not where the debate lies today. The actual, legitimate and interesting debate is whether God raised Jesus from the dead, not Jesus's historisity. Ironically, the only mainstream HISTORIAN the article relies on, Bart Ehrman (who denies the resurrection as a historian because he does not believe in miracles), tried to explain to John Blake, the article's author, that there is no real debate as to Jesus's existence. Most new testament scholars, including Ehrman, agree that (1) Jesus was crucified, (2) buried in a tomb, (3) the tomb was discovered empty by a group of Jesus's women followers, (4) the desciples had experiences of a resurrected Jesus, and (5) an unprecedented movement began (which we call Christianity today). Those are the agreed-upon facts. The real debate is the BEST explanation of those facts. Ehrman would suggest some naturalistic explanation, like the deciples stole the body or the deciples saw visions of Jesus, etc. Christains say the best explanation of those facts is the one the deciples (and Paul) gave: God raised Jesus from the dead. CNN: please make the real debate the target of next year's article and stop leading astray your readers.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • nomdefaitour

      "New testament scholar" is an inherent contradiction in terms.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  13. PhilG

    If people followed the true teachings of Jesus-THERE WOULD BE NO CHURCH.

    THE CHURCH WOULD EXIST IN YOUR HEART AND DEEDS.

    But this is something no church organization ever wants you to know.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Godfrey

      Reminds me of Pullman's "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ."

      An excellent read.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  14. AnnaMaria44

    May mercy and kindness guide you, and fill you with peace, generosity, and restfulness.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  15. In Reason I Trust

    This one's easy folks; MYTH.

    Human beings do not rise from the dead, walk on water, or magically make wine. That sounds more like Harry Potter than any real person. Since there is no such thing as magic, there was no magic son of god.

    2,000- years from now folks will be debating if Harry Potter was real, lol.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • Quoting

      Your right human beings dont do that, but God in the flesh does

      April 8, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Godfrey

      Yes. It's magic, don't ya know.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • In Reason I Trust

      Again, there is NO SUCH THING AS MAGIC.

      A magic man in the sky did not become a magic baby. There was no magic garden, with magic apples. This is clearly a myth.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  16. zombie jesus

    I rise, I walk slow, I zombie

    April 8, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  17. Josef Bleaux

    Several years ago I participated in a study. The study polled 3 groups; the general public, members of MENSA (top 2% IQ's) and Intertel (top 1% IQ). A lot of questions were asked but one of them was "Do you believe in any established religion?". 87% of the general public answered yes. 21% of MENSA members answered yes and .2% of Intertel members answered yes. To me, the indication is clear. The more intelligent you are, the less likely you will believe in ancient mythology.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • floridamom1

      To which the scriptures say "The wisdom of your wise men shall perish..."

      April 8, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  18. Assyrian were right

    This is amazing. ON EASTER.??? You could not help yourself not to show your anger toward Son Of God?
    Jesus did say, you are from your father the devil, cnn?

    April 8, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • Dennis

      Hercules?

      April 8, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Josef Bleaux

      All the gods that have been worshiped since the beginning of history would fill 10 football stadiums. But of course YOURS is the only one that's real. Yeah, right. Whatever.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  19. scallywag

    Arguing about religion is a useless endeavor, as usless as arguing about politics. Because in either, there are no right or wrong answers. No one knows what happens after we die, no matter what you were told, or may think. If there were any 'real answers here, there would be no controversey, would there.
    "Those who think they know, don't. And those who 'know they know, know the least of all."

    April 8, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Mo

      If your are lost it does not mean everybody is lost. You must keep searching and ask God to guide you to the truth. You will find the truth soon as God can't abandon his creatures.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  20. Mike

    Believe what ever you want to believe! I don't really care as long as you don't try to force YOUR beliefs on me!

    April 8, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • scallywag

      Amen brutha!
      Christians run down atheists all the time.. for what? At least no atheists ever tried to 'CONvert me to anything.'

      April 8, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • Chris

      It's funny how all the Christians say the athiests sound like brainwashed drones yet all of them go to church and have a preacher tell them how they should read the bible and interpret it. Or even better they call up Pat Robertson and have him explain it to them! Sounds like you are the brainwashed ones!
      Oh and Jesus isn't the end all be all for morality just because I don't believe does not mean I am immoral! I donate my money and time to the needy and I am also a pasifist! And I do it all in the name of humanity not religion!
      Enjoy being with your families today! And let's not just do it because the "messiah" "rose" today, let's do it because who knows how many opportunities we'll have.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:10 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.