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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. agadvice

    I read the article earlier. I also just watched Pastor Melissa Scott's internet service. Summary?

    Jesus, 1. CNN, 0.

    April 8, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • northern light

      "Jesus, 1. CNN, 0."

      Correction...

      Myth 1....CNN 0

      April 8, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      agadvice, delusional

      April 8, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • agadvice

      I grew up with the MENSA crowd guys. I've heard it all before, "both" sides. I can probably make your myth arguments better than you can. Faith and proof are mutually exclusive. And the funny thing is, once you pick faith, you get the proof.

      April 8, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  2. 1word

    I believe a lot of people who don't believe in God especially those who claim to be forner Pastors, are the ones who were SAVED at one point and tried to have their cake and eat it too. When you give your life to Christ, you have to live your life by his Word. God is Holy so inorder to commune with him you need to be Holy. Light can never dwell with Darkness, if you don't believe that, try to turning on the light in a dark room and see what happens. LIGHT CONSUMES DARKNESS!

    April 8, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  3. Johnny Yuma61

    Where's Roland?

    April 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Johnny Yuma61

      Probably huntin' Easter Eggs.....Shows ya how relevant he is at this time.

      April 8, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • Johnny Yuma61

      And CNN....Please show him the post that you deleted!

      April 8, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  4. Pipe-Dreamer

    The sad thing about this world's future is that one day we will give up the Gospel forever in light of our sciences leaving behind the cross forever as humanisms begin to reshape the boundaries of socialism into vestiges of which once were and will be again. Like Battlestar Galactica and the series "Caprica" do promulgate, we will follow in their cusps of reasoning and cherish the robots for being but mechanisms for humanisms' delights. God and Christ Jesus will be buta glimmer within tomorrow's place cards. Sad,,,, so sad is our humanisms' future.

    April 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • YeahOk

      "The sad thing about this world's future is that one day we will give up the Gospel forever"

      Awesome!!

      April 8, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  5. JESUS IS KING

    ATTENTION !!!! ATTENTION!!!! ATTENTION!!!!

    !! Shame on CNN for posting this ridiculous article on Easter Sunday and attacking Christianity on this holiday !!

    (CNN would never do this to any Jewish/Muslims during their holidays – poor Christians are always on the targeting during their holidays, and luckily they always forgive. It's same as questioning whether the holocaust or Muhammed existed!)

    *** Do like me and many others: CALL/E-MAIL CNN & COMPLAIN ABOUT THIS BS ***

    † Happy Easter everyone and may our Lord & Saviour bless us all who believe in him †

    April 8, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • nomdefaitour

      Can you explain how Mary was a virgin when she bore Jesus, but yet she was a married woman who bore a son BEFORE Jesus (i.e. Jesus had an older brother did he not)?

      April 8, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  6. Richard Conn Henry

    Who says Hercules didn't exist!

    April 8, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  7. bingheidy

    Dear Atheist, I love you. I will not say anything harsh to you. Your soul is so precious that Jesus died on the cross for you.
    Please consider this: where is the source of life?? Is there anybody on this earth can create "one seed" that can grow??
    It is easier for me to believe that there is a God who created this universe, than to believe to the evolution or big bang theory.

    I'm proud of HIM who died on the cross for my SIN and my sins. He gave His life for you and me so that we can have eternal life. Without HIM I don't have hope in the future. He is our creator and He is our Redeemer. Give glory to Him because He is worthy to be praised for ever and ever. Amen. –>

    2 Tim 3:1-4: But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: 2 For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3 unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, 4 traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,

    1 Cor 2:14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

    Rom 3:23
    for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

    Rom 6:23
    For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

    Rom 5:19
    19 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.

    John 3:16
    16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

    Isa 43:7
    Everyone who is called by My name,
    Whom I have created for My glory;
    I have formed him, yes, I have made him.”

    April 8, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • YeahOk

      You quote any other fiction?

      April 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • northern light

      "Your soul is so precious that Jesus died on the cross for you."

      He died the same way the others did who died with him that broke the law at that time.....the cross has no special meaning it is simply another device for executiing people.....and a very nasty one at that ....but it just an execution device.

      April 8, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • nomdefaitour

      How do you feel about the suppressed gospel in which Jesus raised a young man from the dead, who then beseeched Jesus spend the night with him, and in which Jesus did so?

      April 8, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • bingheidy

      Hebrews 4:15
      15 For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.

      April 8, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • JesusTapdancingChrist

      The fact that you say it is easier for you to believe in Creationism over Evolution speaks volumes about you. I support your right to believe in your Faith, but I ask that you realize that are Billions of us that believe otherwise based upon Facts. If you accept that many basic 'facts' of religious teaching have been proven wrong (the world is NOT flat, the dinosaurs did not live at the same time as Man, nor is the Earth the center of the Universe, etc, etc), then how do you possibly cling to Creationism?

      April 8, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Mr.Makaveli

      Amen

      April 8, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • bingheidy

      Knowledge will not save me or change my heart. In our sinful condition we don't have what it takes to understand and comprehend about God. But we can learn from what already revealed in the bible. We need the Holy Spirit to open our spiritual eyes.

      April 8, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  8. JesusTapdancingChrist

    The amount of death and destruction that has been perpetrated upon mankind by religion and religious leaders throughout the last 3000 years is horrifying to anyone with at least a half ounce of common sense in their heads. I support your right to believe in anything you desire, but keep your insanely blind Faith out of Governments so the world may someday learn to live in Peace.

    April 8, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  9. Jonathan Smith

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4-dnAkcR38&w=640&h=390]

    April 8, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  10. Martin

    the article just reported news, and it is news that millions of Americans have researched the Jesus story and found it to have no valid historical evidence. I thought faith didn't require evidence? Evidently the posters that are upset are "evidence needed Christian" types, or said another way...no faith Christians

    April 8, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • Eassh

      God created you for a purpose. You were no accident on earth. Jesus loves you more. Its ok to have doubts. He doesn't hold that against you. There were only a few who believed before they nailed him to the cross but from a group of a dozen believers today we have more than billion who are faithful followers and believers. that itself is the manifestation of His Power and Love. Love conquers all. Not hatred. Love wins. Jesus wins.

      April 8, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  11. orchardist

    Really CNN? Today?

    April 8, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • notheism

      welcome to reality

      April 8, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  12. Mark

    Why does any reasonable discussion on Jesus have to boil down to an either/or choice. Could Jesus have been real AND myth? See that all the time everywhere else. Why not here?

    April 8, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Richard Conn Henry

      A myth is as good as a smile!

      April 8, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  13. JESUS IS KING

    ATTENTION !!!! ATTENTION!!!! ATTENTION!!!!

    !! Shame on CNN for posting this ridiculous article on Easter Sunday and attacking Christianity on this holiday !!

    (CNN would never do this to any Jewish/Muslims during their holidays – poor Christians are always on the targeting during their holidays, and luckily they always forgive. It's same as questioning whether the holocaust or Muhammed existed!)

    *** Do like me and many others: CALL/E-MAIL CNN & COMPLAIN ABOUT THIS BS ***

    † Happy Easter everyone and may our Lord & Saviour bless us all who believe in him †
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    April 8, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • YeahOk

      Fail .

      April 8, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • nomdefaitour

      Again with the profanity! People need to report this abusive profanity. And his preacher should be informed as well, for he needs to be scourged.

      April 8, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • JESUS IS KING

      That is a cross for lopsided messiahs who are moving very quickly to the left

      April 8, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Skippy

      The cross is a pagan symbol so is easter the rabbit symbolizes ishtar and the eggs are a sign of fertility why celebrate something associated with pagans?

      April 8, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  14. xnothinbutthetruth

    And yes, I agree with many other commenters here - it was in really poor taste to post this article on Easter CNN... I lost quite a bit of respect for you today.

    April 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Intolerant wimp!

      April 8, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  15. Eassh

    The author in collusion with unbelievers at CNN has chosen to use the occasion of Easter sunday to sow doubts in the hearts of both believers and fence sitters. Unless you are touched by the manifestation of the Power of the Risen and Living God you will continue in your unbelief. Millions are coming to believe just by His Love and Power which does not exist in an unbelieving society who are saved by 'money and riches'. The more anti Christian voices the more it is likely to grow. So its good. Keep writing such articles.

    April 8, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • nomdefaitour

      Is the faith of Christians truly so shallow that a simple news article can shake that faith? I think you comment reveals that you know very well how ridiculous christian belief is, if it can be undermined so easily.

      April 8, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • dave

      cool story bro. Fact is, even if Jesus were a real person... the vast majority of his story is made up. Who cares if Jesus existed if God is a myth himself.

      April 9, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  16. Pipe-Dreamer

    God is God and no one can honestly doubt this not even the ungodly who clamour about telling fairy tales and bantering about verbally foresaking God and His Sons of which Christ Jesus became a living human sacrifice for all of Life's forms and formations that ever did live and are living and will in the future become Life's forms and formations.

    1Cr 3:9 For we are labourers together with God: ye are God's husbandry, [ye are] God's building.

    April 8, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • notheism

      what?

      April 8, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • YeahOk

      Ignore him, he's got something special in that pipe.

      April 8, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  17. Johnny Yuma61

    Nice prank CNN, but I predict you'll pay for it.

    April 8, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  18. JESUS IS KING

    ATTENTION !!!! ATTENTION!!!! ATTENTION!!!!

    !! Shame on CNN for posting this ridiculous article on Easter Sunday and attacking Christianity on this holiday !!

    (CNN would never do this to any Jewish/Muslims during their holidays – poor Christians are always on the targeting during their holidays, and luckily they always forgive. It's same as questioning whether the holocaust or Muhammed existed!)

    *** Do like me and many others: CALL/E-MAIL CNN & COMPLAIN ABOUT THIS BS ***

    † Happy Easter everyone and may our Lord & Saviour bless us all who believe in him †
    ................................................. †††††
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    April 8, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • SHAME CNN SHAME SHAME

      ATTENTION ATTENTION ATTENTION

      That is a cross for lopsided messiahs whose head was cut off and placed a ways to the left.

      April 8, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      @SHAME CNN SHAME SHAME
      ATTENTION ATTENTION ATTENTION

      "That is a cross for lopsided messiahs whose head was cut off and placed a ways to the left."

      Thanks for that one! That was the first real belly laugh I had today! Very, very funny!

      April 8, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Keep trying, you'll get the symbol right! We will be patient and pray that you will be able to figure it out. And then when you do figure it out we will believe that it was because we prayed for you.

      April 8, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  19. momoya

    http://www.rationalresponders.com/forum/the_rational_response_squad_radio_show/general_conversation_introductions_and_humor/12367

    April 8, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  20. Mr.Makaveli

    An atheist's true God, don't let them fool you. You serve your master well atheist, you shall reap what you sow, live your life by your rules and see what happens to you. http://fc02.deviantart.net/fs9/i/2006/041/2/e/Thelema_Ov_Baphomet_by_RavenousNemesis.jpg

    April 8, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • notheism

      look up the definition of atheist

      April 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Mr. Atheist

      I have lived life as an atheist, and I am affluent, retired early, with a great family and good friends, lots of interesting hobbies, and a lot of charity work to give back some.

      I guess God sure taught me a lesson.

      April 8, 2012 at 3:54 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.