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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 • Evangelical • Faith • History • Jesus • Uncategorized • Virgin Mary

soundoff (8,771 Responses)
  1. Yohanan

    Regardless of belief in Christ or not, it is proper to Repent from sin, and to do your best to Love one another, and to Live our lives in Righteousness. The world is clearly growing more wicked and there is an increase of people that are going way out of their way to do, support and teach evil things. Evil can not prevail because it will eventually destroy itself. The only thing that will last is Love. I do agree that there are many problems within religions, but there is clearly an increase of religious people that are not righteous, and that makes the righteous look bad. I also must ask why do the evil people go way out of their way to preach against and slander Christ and those that follow him? It's as if they want everybody to give up hope and to join them in wickedness... Hold onto what is good until your end and let not the pressures of evil drag you into it's darkness.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  2. Rainer Braendlein

    Jesus was historical. It is proved by science of history!

    There was a very famous historian of the Roman Empire, which lived in the first century after Christ (AD 56 – AD 117), that means extremly near-term to the events, which had came to pass in Palestine. He, Tacitus, was a pagan, which had no reason at all to promote Christianity and to tell us lies about Jesus. We can be sure that it was historical, what he wrote about Jesus, because he was an enemy of Jesus:

    "Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, 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, and a most mischievous superst-ition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multi-tude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind".

    This passage is a clear evidence for the historicity of Christ Jesus.

    There was a famous Jewish historian of the first century, who gives acount of Jesus Christ. Jews have no reason to promote Christianity and thus we can be sure that Flavius Josephus told us the truth about Jesus:

    "And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus... Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned."

    A Jew confirms the historical reality of Jesus, the founder of Christianity. That is very great!

    April 8, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • richunix

      Dude, PUT the whole passage AND STOP twisting it as so it will meet your Beliefs....JESUS H. CHRIST! Taken correctly you will find it make NO REF to that person...So damn tired of lairs and soth-sayers

      April 8, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  3. Rami

    I like Christ, but not Christians.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  4. Erik

    '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.”
    He says Freke and others who deny Jesus’ existence are conspiracy theorists trying to sell books.'
    Um does anyone else see the stupidity in this guys statement? he says that those who don't believe are just kooks trying to sell books as he points out in his new book he is selling? You see why us Atheists have no respect for these "biblical scholars"....sigh...

    April 8, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  5. RealityCheck

    Clearly, there is a far greater preponderance of evidence point to 'Jesus' as an amalgamation of ancient savior gods, intermixed with Old Testament prophecy. So, since Jesus himself in most likelyhood is a myth, imaging the suffering of the Jews down the centuries at the hands of 'Christians' for killing their.... MYTHICAL savior! They died for nothing, at the hands of mad men who were pertuating the greatest lie ever told.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  6. Reality

    Yes. Jesus existed BUT"

    Putting the final kibosh on religion

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    Added references are available.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    "The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother's womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. "

    April 8, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  7. I am God

    Why do Christians always say "the word of Jesus or God" tells us they exist? No it doesn't.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  8. blake

    Yet another attempt by the godless leftists at CNN to discredit Christ and Christianity. CNN, relentlessly promoting the leftist agenda.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • I am God

      Leftist agenda? My Dad is Catholic. Are you going to say he is following a leftist agenda? Get a clue moron.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  9. mb2010a

    The problem with all religions, including Christianity, is that you have to die to find out which one, if any, was or is right. Not in any hurry to find out "the truth" myself...

    April 8, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  10. Rami

    I like Christ, but i sur

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

    "People don’t die for myths, some biblical scholars say."

    And they're calling me the "kook."

    April 8, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  12. Bev

    i feel christ everyday of my life just like the wind i can't see it but i feel it

    April 8, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • The answer

      The physicality of wind can easily be measured, replicated, explained, and otherwise proved. Jesus cannot be. The wind and Jesus are about as polar opposite extremes as there can be. If you feel Jesus the same as the wind, then that would be a hallucination. As defined by medical psychiatry, the experiencing of hallucinations temporarily is called delirium. Longer lasting, more recurrent hallucinations is called psychosis.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  13. stldragon

    Fear is religion , courage is science.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  14. Rainer Braendlein

    There was a famous Jewish historian of the first century, who gives acount of Jesus Christ. Jews have no reason to promote Christianity and thus we can be sure that Flavius Josephus told us the truth about Jesus:

    And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus... Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.[19]

    A Jew confirms the reality of Jesus. That is very great!

    April 8, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  15. The Analyst

    The collective psychosis that is religion is a coping mechanism for the one long term consequence we all face that there is no possible preparation for. that being said, this kind of mental illness is unusual in that it can be a positive force in an individual's life. It can also guide moral reasoning for those individuals who would not ordinarily reach a level of altruism left to their own ego structure. The only time religion turns bad is when it becomes the yoke that the powerful can use to control the individual. Also, The "teachings of Jesus" are a distillation of common sense cooperative moral rules cemented over thousands of years that is seems today's "Christians" are intent on ignoring or twisting to their own needs. Whether you are a Believer of Magic and Fable, or Realist, these rules are equally valid.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:12 am |
  16. Sandra

    The historical Jesus is believable. The 'fable enriched' version, not so much. Jesus was like Gandhi , Buddha, Martin Luther King, and a host of others that preached tolerance and to care for your fellow man. It's just that people decided to build a religion around Jesus.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:11 am |
    • today is the day

      "Jesus was like Gandhi , Buddha, Martin Luther King..."

      No He wasn't. In addition to preaching love, tolerance, etc, He also stated that He is the the Son of God, and the only way to eternal life.

      Gandhi, Buddha, and MLK couldn't say that. Jesus is above them and ever will be.

      April 9, 2012 at 1:26 am |
  17. GySgtG

    God without science is ignorance, but Science without God is pointless
    Albert Einstein

    April 8, 2012 at 8:11 am |
    • Colin

      Come on man, please research facts before stating them. Einstein was a complete atheist. I know he admired Spinoza and brandied the word “god” around as a metaphor for the numinous, but he certainly did not believe in the notions of life after death or a god that in any way worried itself with human beings. Indeed, he referred to this as “the god of the naïve man.” For example, in his 1954 letter to the Physicist Eric Gutkind, Einstein wrote,

      "The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this."

      By the way, whether this gifted man believed or not is quite beside the point of whether there is a god, but people should not wrongly attribute a belief in [always their] god to him. Here are some more quotes.

      "It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it."

      "I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature."

      "It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I cannot take seriously. I also cannot imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere.... Science has been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death."

      "I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own – a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body

      April 8, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • vancouverron

      I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it. (Albert Einstein, 1954)

      April 8, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • The Analyst

      Reply to GySgtG: NO, science without god is still science. Science is the process of objective observation in order to deduce maxims about the physical world we live in, and to postulate theorims for which a preponderance of information exists. God is a concept for those of us who are deathly scared ironically, of Death, and the random disorder that is the universe, and need to feel that some "father" continues to observe and review our behavior. Science tells us there is no evidence of any kind for god, but sadly one's belief in god cannot obliterate the existence of science, no matter how the republican'ts try.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  18. Saint_John

    The mythological jesus character did not die. One must stay dead in order to die properly. Returning after death can only mean that he did nothing more than go to sleep for a few days. Died for our sins? This aspect of the the ultimate fairy tale would be much more impressive if he died, stayed dead and went to hell forever. All religions are pure BS and the internet is helping to bring down the house of cards. Religions appear to be disintegrating at about the same rate as global warming is increasing. Perhaps human extinction will coincide with the universal understanding that there is no afterlife. There would be a sort of poetic beauty in that, eh?

    April 8, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  19. Filipe

    wow i wasted my time reading this..actually pathetic to do this on easter..someone had nothing better to do. if you dont have the same beliefs as me or any other christian/catholic then respect our beliefs and we do the same to you..dont go saying that jesus didnt excist and have a debate whether he did..ridiculous

    April 8, 2012 at 8:11 am |
    • Atheist

      Actually, it is Christians who are notorious for not respecting the beliefs of others.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • bananaspy

      Yes, we should just let all the children believe in Santa Clause forever too, without ever pointing out otherwise.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:26 am |
    • Dr.C.R.Keller

      Sir: christanity does not "respect"...does not allow...the beliefs of other religions...for 2,000 years christanity has
      been forced on people of other beliefs...often at the cost of their lives...now with a more educated population and the rule
      of law... christanity is fading and hopefully...dying ....now christians are screeming about religious liberty and equal
      treatment....religion was created to justify gods that do not exist.....the real question is why so many people
      feel the need for gods.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • localdelii

      To Dr. Keller: So you do not believe we are hardwired for religion? And even without religion, do you not fathom a universe that gives rise to intelligence that looks back from whence it sprung and asks, "Why?" And do you think that if we are just energy encased in matter and energy cannot be destroyed, that we would have need to seek eternity? I tell you this: I find it very strange that we come from a universe that gives rise to both intelligence and cunning. And I, sir, am a Christian, formerly atheist, who was called by the living Christ—not from any preconceived notions or fear of death or desire to feel special or "elected"—and I still had the choice to accept or refuse. You say Christianity is dying—no, throughout history it has undergone persecution and that's when miracles abound. Further, how dare you say we scream equality or freedom—that is the cry of
      ALL humanity, and if one is denied, so are we all.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  20. Charles

    Immaculate or otherwise bizarre births and resurrections are common tropes among religions. Osiris was murdered by his jealous brother Set and was then partially reconstructed by Osiris's wife Isis. The goddess Athena was the result of a splitting headache suffered by Zeus, and was born when his head was cut open to relieve the pain. Divine stories of creation and flood/catastrophic myths date all the way back to the Sumerians, thousands of years before Genesis was compiled.

    Judeo-Christian scripture is nothing more than a plagiarism and repackaging of earlier mythos to support a new religion.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:10 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.