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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. Martin

    All Theism is based on myth preached as truth, and is inherently a lie that has always produced evil, genocide slaughter of native peoples, and politiclal corruption among humans. The age of honor, honesty and reason is still trying to dawn. Seems slow, but actually a very rapid evolutionary journey.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  2. hawaiiduude

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jd3l72qtxsQ&w=640&h=390]

    April 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  3. when people post videos

    Please select 'Report abuse' below the video.. They are annoying.

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

      unless you agree with them?

      April 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  4. tat tvam asi

    As concerns Erhman's treatment of the TF (Josephus), here's Murdocks response:

    http://www.freethoughtnation.com/contributing-writers/63-acharya-s/672-does-josephus-prove-a-historical-jesus.html

    April 8, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  5. HeavensPanhandlers

    My organization "Panhandling for God" is a religious organization founded in the name of God. We cater exclusively to little old widow ladies. For $10,000 you are guaranteed your spot in heaven. We take credit cards.

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

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

    April 8, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  7. Vance

    The internet is Babylon. The end is near. You should all get saved. Use a few terabytes, the human soul needs a lot of hard drive space.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  8. 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 1:56 pm |
  9. Marley

    How can a human being be 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!

    That is why "God" does not exist. That is why you cannot find evidence to prove or disprove "God". Because wedon't even know what it is you are trying to prove!

    April 8, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Arthur M.

      Your logic fails you. You assume that God is a "thing", whereas by definition, He can't be a "thing". Here, why don't you describe the "thing" that was there before or behind the Big Bang, if you're so informed and enlightened?

      April 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  10. Pipe-Dreamer

    edwardo wrote on Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012 at 1:37 pm, stating, "I have never, personally, murdered anyone. Your god has! So yes, I find your god convicted of murder."

    Taking a grounds of individualism does in no regards leave one blameless for the social involvements as a globalized civilization would have one disbelieve and count social murders and killings via otherly vessels of our Beings!

    As for God "murdering", consider you this,,,, To God we are but mere vessels, containers in which God can do damn well what He pleases to do! Uour being but a vessel, a claymation, an urn made by God's sons gives God, the Father of Creationism the rights to do whatever God Damn well pleases!

    April 8, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • 789boof

      Yes. God brought you into this world and He WILL take you out of it.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  11. The Joker

    What's the difference between Jesus and a picture of Jesus?

    It only takes 1 nail to hang the picture! haha!

    (Happy Zombie Day everybody!)

    April 8, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  12. UglyTruth

    Rag headed men living in caves invented religion.
    Rag headed men living in caves invented spirits, gods, god, religion, faith, belief.
    “Man Created God. Amen, Amen, Amen! © 2012”

    The fantasy world of religious insanity has too long influenced humanity.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • This beautiful Easter Sunday..

      but you miss the most important element as proof.. http://imgur.com/gallery/iX6GP

      April 8, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Arthur M.

      Nope, you just created the concept that man created God. Actually, sorry, you just repeated it like a Parrot. Someone else created that concept.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  13. This beautiful Easter Sunday..

    this will change an atheist http://imgur.com/gallery/iX6GP

    April 8, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  14. Gena

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZgT1SRcrKE&w=640&h=360]

    April 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  15. tony

    Debates need facts from both sides of the argument. Fantasy vs. facts isn't a debate.

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

      The side of religion is at a disadvantage because it does not have any facts.

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

      There is no need to have facts for anything that is in non-existence. The non-existence is the fact of itself.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  16. Arthur M.

    Atheists are the most naive of all when they BELIEVE that they can be objective about anything, including the historicity of Jesus, or the reality of Christ. The notion of hard objectivity has been entirely disproven in cutting edge science, yet these naive, wild-eyed atheists insist that they're correct and objective in their OPINIONS about everything, including things they're not informed or educated on.

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

    It’s funny how so many of those on here who are trying to defend their religious beliefs are just regurgitating scripture. Wow, you can type words verbatim from the bible! I’m overwhelmed by your amazing skills at articulating such well-composed arguments on why people should believe the teachings of a schizophrenic from 2,000 years ago who heard voices telling him he was the son of god. Where do I sign up!

    April 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • 789boof

      That brand of "schizophrenia" is contageous praise God! His sheep hear His voice! Wake up and look around you at the effects of Godless society. Get to know Him before He comes back to sort it all out.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  18. Have faith

    The Bible,in the book of Hebrews, chapter 13,verse 8,tells us Jesus is the same yesterday,today,and forever.

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

      This is true. God has never existed.
      God has always been a fantasy invented by men.

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

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZgT1SRcrKE&w=420&h=315]

    April 8, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  20. Smeagel4T

    Ehrman is REALLY arguing that Jesus was born on December 25th? REALLY? I didn't know there was a legitimate Biblical scholar who would actually make that ludicrous claim. Nearly all scholars recognize that nobody knows on what day Jesus was born (if you accept that he was), and that December 25th was an "arbitrary" day selected by the Catholic Church.

    In reality, it's well known from how the Catholic Church operated that it wasn't "arbitrary" at all. It was deliberately placed at a time to over-shadow the winter solstice celebrations. Like Easter itself, many of the holiday symbols for Christmas have pagan origins. What does a tree REALLY have to do with Christianity? Nothing. Now, it doesn’t symbolize the cross. Christians don’t even decorate it as if it symbolizes the cross. It's from old pagan origins. What does the Easter Bunny REALLY have to do with Christianity? Nothing. The bunny (rabbit) is a pagan spring fertility symbol.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:53 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.