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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. Jazzman

    From an atheists point of view, where did we come from?

    April 8, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • YeahOk

      I don't know. Where?

      April 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • hawaiiduude

      your mama...

      April 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Jazzman

      I don't know that's why I'm asking?

      April 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • YeahOk

      There are some scientific theories that could be possible, but surely can't say for sure.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Jazzman

      That's the point. Who really knows?

      April 8, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • Marley

      The best rational answer: WE DO NOT KNOW

      To claim we came from this thing you call "God" makes no sense at all because: WHAT THE HECK is this THING you call "God"?!

      To claim that your "God" exists requires that you have atleast ONE LOGICAL THOUGHT about your "God". Nobody has been able to come up with a logical thought about "God". Hence, "God" can not and does not exist.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • YeahOk

      Well, just go through this entire comment section for this article, and you will find several people who with absolute certainty say it was a god who was always here and created something from nothing and we were created in his image to serve him.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • terry

      same place the aliens came from,,,,evaloution

      April 8, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  2. This beautiful Easter Sunday..

    http://imgur.com/gallery/iX6GP

    April 8, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • This beautiful Easter Sunday..

      that beautiful picture will change any atheist's mind.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  3. Marley

    How can a human being being a "God" when we don't even know what a "God" is?

    What is this thing theists call "God"?! Nobody has been able to provide an logical answer to this question!

    April 8, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • terry

      God is nature,,,everywhere,,,,you are god in your actions ,not your teachings of any book other than nature.

      April 8, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  4. Joel

    Read through all of these 3000+ posts and you'll find the TRUTH...And the truth is that NOBODY really has it all figured out. It's the simplest and most obvious answer, but one that people are so reluctant to admit.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  5. Serge is right!

    I know He [Jesus] exists, and loves everyone, He died for YOU. Accept that, and follow Him. You have nothing to lose, and loads to gain!!

    April 8, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Pagan

      You have time to lose following a myth. It is a good idea to be good to your neighbor, but I don't see many "Christians" doing that.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Jon

      Why anyone would die in the name of proving something. Jesus could have done more done for the world if he had lived. Especially considering Jesus could have avoided the whole thing assuming he was special. Then again, Jesus didn't exactly have a high school education.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  6. Gena

    https://www.youtube.com/v/oZgT1SRcrKE?version=3&hl=en_US&rel=0

    April 8, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Timetowinialwayswin

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JuyIxKrw2Yk&w=640&h=390]

      April 8, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  7. Jesus H. Christ

    If you atheists don't start believing in me, I am going to get mad at a fig tree again! I'll kill it, just like last time! Convert or the fig tree gets it! And after that, I'll do in the towering Wattle of Aldershot! Then . . .

    I didn't want to do this. I didn't want to rabbit on all day about lakes of fire and meek people getting everything. I wanted to be . . . a lumberjack! Leaping from tree to tree, as they float down the mighty rivers of British Columbia. The Giant Redwood. The Larch. The Fir! The mighty Scots Pine! The lofty flowering Cherry! The plucky little Apsen! The limping Roo tree of Nigeria. The towering Wattle of Aldershot! The Maidenhead Weeping Water Plant! The naughty Leicestershire Flashing Oak! The flatulent Elm of West Ruislip! The Quercus Maximus Bamber Gascoigni! The Epigillus! The Barter Hughius Greenus! With my best buddy by my side, we'd sing! Sing! Sing!

    April 8, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • pastel zombie

      I'm a lumberjack and I'm okay,
      I sleep all night and I work all day.

      He's a lumberjack and he's okay,
      He sleeps all night and he works all day.

      I cut down trees, I eat my lunch,
      I go to the lavatory.
      On Wednesdays I go shopping
      And have buttered scones for tea.

      He cuts down trees, he eats his lunch,
      He goes to the lavatory.
      On Wednesdays he goes shopping
      And has buttered scones for tea.

      He's a lumberjack and he's okay,
      He sleeps all night and he works all day.

      I cut down trees, I skip and jump,
      I like to press wild flowers.
      I put on women's clothing,
      And hang around in bars.

      He cuts down trees, he skips and jumps,
      He likes to press wild flowers.
      He puts on women's clothing,
      And hangs around in bars.

      He's a lumberjack and he's okay,
      He sleeps all night and he works all day.

      I cut down trees, I wear high heels,
      Suspendies and a bra.
      I wish I'd been a girlie,
      Just like my dear pappa.

      He cuts down trees, he wears high heels?
      Suspendies...and a bra?

      ...he's a lumberjack and he's okay,
      He sleeps all night and he works all day.

      ...he's a lumberjack and he's OKAAAAAAAAAAYYY.
      He sleeps all night and he works all day!

      April 8, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  8. Aaron

    Whether you choose to believe in God and that something was created by something rather than the complacent thought that something was created by nothing Jesus existed. It's a fact. The debate is always whether or not he was the foretold prophet that was foretold to resurrect after 3 days. Not whether or not he existed. All evidence points to him being a perfect human being and resurrecting. Save your uneducated theories.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Cq

      What evidence points to this? The Bible? If the internet and creationism has taught us anything it's that anybody can write anything and have at least some people believe it.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Jon

      Give me 1, just 1, even remote proof that Jesus existed and did something meaningful in his life that warrants making him into a prophet. Preferably some evidence that is not in the Bible or something written decades after he died.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Aaron

      Very much written and oral history from many countries and cultures outside of the bible points to His life and deeds. Why would anyone limit their educational resources to one book.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Aaron

      Well here is one quote from a secular satirist from Greece named Lucian of Samosata. He spoke sarcastically against Christians in this writing but spoke of them and Jesus Christ. I could give more but you asked for 1 and I'm logging off. Google is powerful, have a nice day.

      "The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account....You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property." (Lucian, The Death of Peregrine. 11-13)

      April 8, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  9. hawaiiduude

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHiW-hVf8D4&w=640&h=390]

    April 8, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  10. Just a guy

    "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."

    Heavens Gate anyone? I’d say more people have died or killed for what they believed in, whether it’s a myth or not. So in my opinion whoever these "biblical scholars” are, are simply saying things to work their words to follow their belief rather than doing any research or using cognitive reasoning to learn from.

    I find it amusing that when someone doesn’t believe a radical story like a vigil birth, walking on water, water to wine, fishes and loaves and finished with rising from the dead and floating up to the heavens because he was a god the whole time after all (thus there is no way he could have suffered as do real humans) they all of a sudden are conspiracy theorists.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  11. sudarsha

    It's no doubt been said millions of times that in the name of Jesus (whoever or whatever he was), everything from the most unimaginable and horrendous killing to the most scholarly debate has taken place.

    And we still have nothing that can be called "the" conclusion. Agreement today is as ephemeral as it was in what we think was his own time.

    I have no idea what Jesus would think of this, were he inclined to think of this. But it seems obvious to me that it tells us a lot about ourselves, what we are, what we are capable of doing and what we are incapable of being.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • Jon

      Then again, Mohammed basically started Islam by killing people that didn't agree with him and took over Mecca. Not much has changed in 1500 years.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Wanderer

      Jesus wouldn’t care. Religions were created in his name. Jesus didn’t create religions why would he care?

      April 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  12. Mike

    God gave us the ten commandments, man gave us the bible based on THEIR believes. Christ wasn't born on Dec 25th, this came about to come in line with pagan rituals. Some christian traditions are not christian, but pagan. Did you know that the St Peters is built on a pagan burial ground which you can tour when in Rome and most symbols used by pagans are in today's christian symbols. Christians were still widely persecuted back then, adoption of these rituals were to blend in, i.e. Christmas lights and trees.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Cq

      Mike
      The belief that God gave us the 10 Commandments is in the same Bible that you say is man-made.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Bill

      God gave us the 10 comandments? Is it possible Moses smoking that burning bush?

      April 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  13. 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 1:46 pm |
    • forpol

      LOL. So you found your religion? Reason. LOL So we are back to rationalism? Neo-atheism is fun to watch. Ooooh let's watch what archeologists, anthropologists have to say– they know the TRUTH! LOL

      April 8, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  14. Steve

    Caution, free thinkers and readers.. people get grouchy when you point out their entire belief system was invented to control them.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  15. J R Brown

    As a formerly right-wing Southern Baptist, I am now an atheist....or, at least a very, VERY dubious agnostic. Yet, I still fail to understand why some people try to disprove another's religion...especially on one of it's sacred days. Frankly, it's just classless.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Pagan

      It's nice to want people to be educated and knowledgeable. I wouldn't want to keep someone in the dark if I could. But obviously there are some who like to con others and take from them. There is good and bad. Knowledge is good. Even if supposedly "God" did not want to partake of it.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  16. Gena

    Why can't I embed a video?

    April 8, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Because it's incredibly annoying when people can't think for themselves and have to rely on copying and pasting the thoughts of others instead of their own.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Gena

      Thanks!

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKW9sbJ3v2w&w=640&h=390]

      April 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  17. Wanderer

    I am neither a believer nor non-believer. When I see God I’ll believe him. No mortal can convince me to believe in their words without facts. Words from believers about God or Jesus are empty and coming from their fears. If anyone can prove God’s birthday I’ll believe them.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Bill

      What if God doesn't have a birthday or is a she or it?

      April 8, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • Wanderer

      @ Bill

      What if God doesn't have a birthday or is a she or it?

      I will remain to be atheist.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  18. HALALUYA

    I didnt git much skewlin but ah no fur a fact that the lord wants u to undustand that u should give me sum sweet munny. Ahm not very good at tawkin or convincin people of stuff but do u no what seeds is? Wut bout hawvests? Did u no dat u can send yo munny to me and duh lord weeaahhh give you a ho bunch of sweet munny back? De lord does only take cash doe cause I ain't learnt how to take credit yet like those fancy smancy TV panhandlers.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  19. Unapolegetically Atheist

    I am a very good person: I work in a nursing home, I volunteer at shelters and sponsor children around the world. Just because I don't believe in God people assume I'm a hater. I have found that the most hateful people out their are religious fanatics who take the Bible (and other holy books) too literally!

    Think for yourselves instead of being a slave to a book that was written by Man!

    April 8, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  20. nomdefaitour

    It is truly sobering to see so many people who slavishly transcribe quotes allegedly handed down from bronze age mystics as though they were quoting revealed knowledge. These people are so delusional that they truly think they are dispersing wisdom. It would be laughable if it were not so tragic.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • seyedibar

      it's still very laughable. Any society needs its fools.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
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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.