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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.”

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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. anonymous

    Every year you anti-christians and atheists trot out this horse manure. Give it up. For those of us that believe, Christ lived, was crucified, rose and he is our salvation. IIf you can't accept that, you simply don't, and you've only convinced yourself. Those that believe in the Holiness of Christ will never be swayed by your futile attempts to dissuade us.

    April 8, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • reason

      Most atheists grew up religious and rejected it when they figured out it was make believe.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • Quoting

      Our grew up religious because their parents forced them to which drove them away from God

      April 8, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • daneste613

      anonymous.. and why is this "horse manure"? just because does not fit you beliefs? In a secular society we both co-exist. You have the freedom to practice your faith and talk about it, right? why non-christians or non-believers don't have the right to express their ideas too? You belong to an organization that thinks those who oppose you are purely "horse manure".. well, so kind of a member from the religion of charity and forgiveness.. preach to yourself first, then come to us.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • daneste613

      and even more, anonymous.... why should I "give it up"?? just because you don't like me? just because your dead god is offended? I don't get it. You ask for tolerance and understudying, but you FAIL to practice what you preach.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  2. Mr Howdy 2 u

    IF YOU ARE A CHRISTIAN AND YOU HATE THIS NETWORK AND ASK IF THEY ARE TRULY BIASED AGAINST CHRISTIANS YOU ARE ON THE RIGHT TRACK!!!! Listen...this is the absolute worst time to do this...you question billions of people's belief on a day like this? Listen that Moses really didnt part the red sea and that he really wasnt the son of Pharoah and that most of the bible is fiction both old and new could easily be made by everyone who reads it....THE POINT IS THEY DONT MAKE THAT POINT...WHAT THEY DO IS CELEBRATE THOSE "MYTHS" AS YOU ALLUDE TO THEM!!!! That much you should respect. Especially on this day of all days!!!!

    April 8, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • daneste613

      why not mr. howdy?? in a secular society there is freedom to question anything any time. Those who believe don't need to read this article. And as far as I know, this article isn't being broadcasted forcefully into churches today, so don't be so sensitive

      April 8, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • SixDegrees

      If your religion can't withstand even the most cursory rational examination, what's the point in believing in it?

      Easter is supposed to be a time of introspection and reflection. Not a time to gorge yourself into a stupor on chocolate eggs.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  3. anonymous

    Every year you anti-christians and atheistsl trot out this horse manure. Give it up. For those of us that believe, Christ lived, was crucified, rose and he is our salvation. IIf you can't accept that, you simply don't, and you've only convinced yourself. Those that believe in the Holiness of Christ will never be swayed by your futile attempts to dissuade us.

    April 8, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • nomdefaitour

      Why are you trolling the web instead of attending church on Easter Sunday? I think we all can see the depth of your spirituality!

      April 8, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  4. just me

    Do people really believe that Jesus existed? Even Christians know that he's only an idea, a metaphor like Noah's ark.

    April 8, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  5. bizziel

    And in the beginning man created god.

    April 8, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • MikeB

      'In God We Trust' because no human can be or should be.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  6. daneste613

    The whole idea of a god mixed with human nature (here you have tons of contradictions to solve..), the idea of a god that "needed" to die in such horrible way to forgive sins (such cruelty and such waste), the claim that this person died still being god (lots of more contradictions here), the fact that this god-human being has so many similarities with other myths, and the jewish belief that blatantly contradicts these claims, make christianity a very dubious religion. Of course, if christians want to believe this, so be it, but it is really hard to come along reason with these ideas in mind. If there is a god, it should be one, completely away from created thing, that could forgive just by his will. It would be so simple and straight forward.... why christianity is so full of contradictions and twisted stories??

    April 8, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  7. Adam

    "Though Christians clash over many issues, almost all agree that he existed."

    Lol. I'd love to encounter a "Christian" who doesn't believe Jesus Christ existed. That's like having an atheist who says he believes in God.

    April 8, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  8. Name*Kk

    Why not write an article on the failures of the green movement on Arbor Day or an article about how we eventually massacred the Indians on Thanksgiving. Talk about a poorly timed article. Shame on you CNN.

    April 8, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  9. HMont

    Shame on you CNN for posting an article like this on Easter. Insensitive and disrespectful to Christians on their most holy day of the year. Just another piece of sensational garbage that you try to pass as "journalism".

    April 8, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  10. JBOO

    Jesus was not a persecuted hom0se-xual.

    Prove me wrong.

    April 8, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  11. Andrew

    Just took CNN off my homepage. You think they would post articles about the existence of Muhammed during Ramadan? Nope. Happy Easter to my Christian family members out there. Jesus is God

    April 8, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • nomdefaitour

      Why are you surfing the web instead of attending church on Easter sunday? Clearly you are not truly a practicing christian.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  12. tbear640

    I believe Jesus existed, but I also view him as a prophet. We are all children of God as religion distorts God and causes man to destroy each other.

    April 8, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  13. Watson

    Since the number of followers exploded after he was killed, seems logical that he did indeed re-appear to the masses after his return from death. There is no reasonable explaination for the swift rise of Christianity if he DIDN'T appear to people after his death. Doubters can read " The Case for Christ" to further investigate.

    April 8, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Uh – more importantly, there's no evidence at all for what you're claiming.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Quoting

      Yep, our why the Apostles went into hiding when Jesus was being tried and crucified and stayed in hiding until a few days later they started to go preach not caring what happened to them. Something made them do that. To go from scared and hiding, to bold and preaching in the face of persecution.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  14. Pipe-Dreamer

    The religions here upon this dimension of spatial voidedness are mechanisms within the psychic entrails and portrayals of generational discombobulations' non-conformities going belly-up whenever an atheist says it is so.

    April 8, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  15. John3:16

    Mr. Blake there is no debate. He has risen!

    April 8, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  16. No Dice

    I believe that Jesus existed in history but do not believe he was divine any more than Mohammad, Budda or others of the ilk. No, I believe he was just a wise man who knew some magic tricks for the ignorant to consume. History is replete with such figures. He had a good message about loving one another but modern day religion has so skewed the message that it's barely recognizable from the original. Religion evolves just like everything else. It becomes self-sustaining and requires our fealty and alms to keep it going.

    April 8, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • Pipe-Dreamer

      @ No Dice,,,,,

      "Magic tricks" you bewail upon? Therefore by your own dissention you mean that Ctreation itself is a "Magic Trick"? I musta been alseep for that lesson,,,,, :-)

      April 8, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • Linda

      I agree with you, No Dice.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • No Dice

      I wasn't "bewailing" anything. I seem to recall that Archimedes, he of the magical screw that moved water uphill, made a living creating mchanical special effects for temples, oracles and theater productions. The ignorant are always susceptible to sleight-of-hand. Miracles decrease in direct proportion to light cast by scientific investigation. We know that a magician like David Blaine does his act very convincingly. We know it's a fun kind of illusion but what of a pre-A.D. country peasant? Wouldn't he see Blaine's trick of making elephants and buildings disappear and reappear miraculous?

      April 8, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  17. Robbie

    Jesus does exist, he works and Jose's auto body repair on 17th and 5th. He pounded out a couple dents for me last weekend as a matter of fact.

    April 8, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • bizziel

      LOL! Fantastic.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  18. God

    Knock it off guys, you are all debating whether me and my kid are real. Of course we are you guys made us in your image.

    April 8, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  19. Vijay

    So where's my post or are you in the habit of not posting comments you dislike? Journalism and free speech for today...

    April 8, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • YeahOk

      Gotta watch what words you use. Some will cause it not to post. Try breaking up the word with a peri.od if you think it might be filtered.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • Helpful Hints

      Vijay,

      See the list of Helpful Hints on page #36 - automatic word filter...

      April 8, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  20. MikeB

    And the war continues on Religions that Care for People through Charity and do not slaughter their enemies.
    The Government, Secular, and Caliphate Gods have joined in the attack against the two 'Great Commandments'.

    April 8, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • God

      Jesus was a good dude, but more importantly a great magician!

      April 8, 2012 at 11:21 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.