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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. SugerFoot

    You poor fools that believe that santa claus in the sky is going to send you to nirvana when you die but is going to send people that don't believe like you to heIl are the biggest hypocritcal fools that ever existed. If God exists would he not frown on fools that think they are holier than thou because they think they are better than people that don't believe like they do? DAs!!!

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

      Um, yes. Jesus criticizes the self-righteous religious hypocrites.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  2. A joke???

    The jews were just being nice to jesus, they made him a wooden airplane. .. he just kept falling off.

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

      that's why they killed him!

      April 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • hawaiiduude

      after they nailed him to it...

      April 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  3. hawaiiduude

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MdCjYrv26eY&w=640&h=390]

    April 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  4. 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 2:03 pm |
  5. Steve

    Quote: 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.”

    When your very first argument is an ad hominem attack, your position is not structurally sound.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Josef Bleaux

      Exactly. Name calling is a sure sign that you have no intelligent point to make and you've lost the argument.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • wrob

      Was that "his very first argument", or just a quote the author decided to include in the article. He wrote a book on the subject, you know.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  6. Proven Right

    "The Jesus debate: Man vs. myth"

    Unarguably, He is GOD!

    April 8, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • UglyTruth

      Man invented God.

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

      Atheism was invented by APE!

      April 8, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Wanderer

      @ AtheismIsCrap
      Atheism was invented by APE!

      And APE invented GOD.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  7. whybs

    Wake up, sheep! Once upon a time, Ra was our god...

    April 8, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  8. YeahOk

    Pipe-Dreamer

    "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!"

    Makes you feel really special and warm inside doesn't it?

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

    Religious scholars; you mean those who have studied the historical comic book of religious insanity.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  10. GySgtG

    i really pity those with no faith. ther life is pointless

    April 8, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • Get it

      better to be a silly religious zombie who coughs up money to religious wealth, huh?

      April 8, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • tony

      The point being throwing cash into the collection plate – for what? Can't your God manage any miracles without it?

      April 8, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • 4infoandreviews

      I really pity people who refuse to think and rely on faith. Faith is the suspension of logical thinking. Do you think that's anything to be proud of?

      April 8, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • reason

      Playing make believe does not give your life any more meaning than anyone else's.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Josef Bleaux

      I really pity people who can't spell or use proper grammar. They're obviously not very intelligent.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Ben

      How are atheists lives pointless? Maybe our lives seem sadder because we believe that they will end, but I would hardly consider my life to be "pointless"

      April 8, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  11. ChristsLove

    HHHAAAALLLLAAAALLLUUYYAAAA. I have just experience a true, holy, divine, miracle of God. I just changed my underwear and I found a skitter that is the exact image of the virgin mary holding the baby jesus!!! I will be advertising this pair on ebay tomorrow!!!

    April 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  12. Serge is right!

    He (Jesus) died forYOU, loves YOU, and will help YOU! Accept that, and follow Him! You have nothing to lose, and everything that matters to gain!!!!! God bless you! Happy true Easter!

    April 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Cq

      Throwing out reason is a lot to lose.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Ben

      The thing about Jesus dying for us is that it really doesn't seem like a big deal. I mean, if I knew I was going to go to paradise after death, death wouldn't really be a big deal to me. Death is only scary because we can never know what will really happen.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  13. The Joker

    Why can't Jesus eat M&M's?

    They keep falling through the holes in his hands! hahaha

    Happy Zombie Day Everyone!

    April 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  14. GySgtG

    the smartest minds understand.
    God without science is ignorance, but Science without God is pointless
    Albert Einstein

    April 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • tony

      But Genesis 1:14, says study the stars.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Josef Bleaux

      Einstein never said that. In an interview, Einstein was asked if he believed in God. He replied that he didn't believe in a "personal" god but in something more akin to "Spinoza's God". If you look at the writings of Baruch Spinoza, he believed in something like a "life energy" that flows through everything and is inherent to the Universe. In essence, he was a pantheist. A lot of Einstein's contemporaries believed that as well. No invisible supernatural being in the sky, just energy flowing through the Universe. One scientific principle is that energy, flowing through a system, tends to organize that system into a more complex system. Just a natural property of the Universe, no invisible, supernatural being required.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Proven Right

      If God and Science meet, it becomes an absolute truth.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  15. Marley

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

    What is this supposed *thing* theists call "God"?!

    Nobody has been able to provide an answer to this question that makes any logical sense at all!

    That is why "God" does not exist. "God" is not even a rational thought (idea)!

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

    Can you find that thing you are looking for if you don't even know what it is you are looking for? Of course not!

    April 8, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Pagan

      "God" is energy. It exists and can change form, but cannot be destroyed. It doesn't care about you. But then neither does "God" (as evidenced by what "He" supposedly does to his people.) Jesus is a myth. Sort of like the Sun is a manifestation of energy. "Jesus" is the manifestation of "God".

      April 8, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • tony

      The sun is an energy transformation nuclear process. Almost the same as nuclear power station. Wanna worship that?

      April 8, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  16. Christianity-is-Nonsense

    Who is this Jesus?

    April 8, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  17. tony

    Religious belief is a side effect of evolution. Before we became the Earth's dominant species, other greater creatures had the power of life and death over us . . . and our evolved minds still have remnants of those instinctive fears.

    But more an more humans (apart from the Taliban and their anti-women fan, repub gov. Scott Walker) are waking up to reality.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  18. when people post videos

    click 'Report abuse' below it.. Thanks

    April 8, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Pagan

      Why? I like watching the videos.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  19. radio19952001

    Only Cnn would post a story about Jesus being a myth on the holiest weekend for christians.

    Lets see if they run a "Mohammed the pedophile"story around ramadan.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Get it

      You mean the pope and bishops worst crimes against small children. What a puke those people are.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • wrob

      CNN is no friend of Christianity

      April 8, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Pagan

      Thank God for freedom of speech! Oh wait, it wasn't God who gave us freedom of speech, just free will.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  20. pilgrim

    Since Jesus is God, Jesus Himself said that He is the way, the truth,and the life, and No one can get to heaven, and to the Father, except through Him. This Jesus Christ, did infact exist. The Bible says that the fool has said in his heart, that there is no God. There are so many accounts, that not only proof His existance, they verify that He is the Son of God. The Bible says that in the last days people will deny our Lord, even His existance, and rain torment down upon them, and their lives won't get any better until they humble themselves and cry out to Jesus to save them. Out of sincere heart you will be heard. It's all coming to a head now. Look around people. The stage has and is being set for the greatest battle for your soul. Please have a nice Easter and think hard about what you've read Confess with your mouth, and believe in your heart that Jesus Christ is Lord, that he died and rose again, so a way into heaven has been made. OK Please have a nice Easter and think hard about what you've read. May the Love of Christ manifest Itself in your life.

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

      Or sanity prevail

      April 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Pagan

      That's nice that you believe that, but please don't require others to believe the same. Freedom of Religion is the best. Even Christians disagree about what is real, look at all the different sects (Catholicism, Protestantism, Calvinism, Jehovah's Witness', Mormon, etc.) When you "Christians" can agree to what is correct, that will be the day.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Josef Bleaux

      And blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah to you too. That's what your post sounds like, just ignorant babbling.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:11 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.