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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. Lily

    Did you have to write this article TODAY? I bet you will never write an article like this about Islamism.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • Jason

      They know mainstream Christians wouldn't do anything. Al-Qaeda would post John Blake's address if he wrote about Islam.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • YeahOk

      @Jason
      "Al-Qaeda would post John Blake's address if he wrote about Islam."

      I don't believe that Al-Qaeda is considered mainstream Islam, and if they are too scared to write about Islam, so?

      You're the type of person that is going to whine to the police officer, "But officer, why did you pull ME over for speeding, can't you see there are lots of others doing it too?"

      April 8, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  2. trollol

    Bart D. Ehrman is trying to troll everyone? Meh, a kook calling everyone else a kook. What's new?

    April 8, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • trollin

      You crazy kook! U been pumpin dem gayboyz in da keister again. Too much knob gobblin will clog da brain with dat salty spoo!!!

      April 8, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  3. Your beliefs are personal

    This debate has been ongoing for centuries and will continue for many more certainly. I see valid arguments on both side and, as my minister once said at my fathers funeral, you either believe, or you don't. But, there is no need IMO for all of the hostility and name calling. Your personal faith, or non-faith is just that, personal. if someone believes in Christianity and it leads them to be a better person and to make it through this hellish world, let them be. If someone believes we are on our own, let them be. Believers in something harmful to others, is another thing altogether, I'm not saying any belief is ok. Personally, for the record, reaching or crying out to God and to Jesus when I was in a critical situation, got me through it. If that makes me stupid or not completely educated on all aspects of our world's history, I don't really care, it's personal.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • Jason

      Exactly!

      April 8, 2012 at 8:34 am |
  4. 1812Overture

    "Argue for your limitations, and you'll own them". Richard Bach...Jonathon Livingston Seagull

    April 8, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  5. Harvey

    All I can say to non-believers is this: If I spend my life believing and praying and trying my hardest to do God's work and I die and there is no God or there is no Jesus to come to God through then I have lost nothing. Whereas you non-belivers, when you die and find there is a God and Jesus IS the way then you will have lost EVERYTHING.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • YeahOk

      Of course, you have assumed you have chosen the correct god and follow the correct rules. Why not follow them all just in case?

      April 8, 2012 at 8:26 am |
    • vancouverron

      Oh brother, not this again. There have been thousands of gods over the history of mankind. What if you're backing the wrong one? Maybe you're just making Zeus angrier and angrier with your heresy.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:26 am |
    • El Flaco

      Early Christians were called atheists by their pagan neighbors because Christians denied the existence of the Gods.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  6. I am God

    I agree with the scholars trying to determine if Jesus existed or not. It is just the same as trying to believe Hercules and other demigods existed in society long ago. The Bible is not a fool proof book to determine if Jesus or God exist because it has been altered so many times during the centuries of its existence.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • Dave

      Jesus did exist. There are actual historical records that indicate that. Jews acknowledge that he existed– it is the whole "son of God" thing that they and other non-Christians disagree on.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:28 am |
  7. john Williams

    Another example of anti-christian bias in the media. Why choose the holiest day on the Christian calendar, a day of celebration to have a front page story debating the very core of that religion's belief! I looked up CNN for the first day of Ramadan , the holiest day on the Islam calendar and there is no such article. CNN – why choose today? Why does CNN show a picture of a a stutue of Mary depicted in elephant dung but when cartoons of Mohammed come out they do not display out of repect for Islam.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • Ellen Thompson

      Great post. Having this article as the lead story on the holiest of christian holidays is in very poor taste. Shame on you CNN. I'm not at all surprised.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • TrueBlue42

      If you're such a pious Christian, why are you reading CNN right now? Shouldn't you be in church? Or is the sermon so boring that you've decided to read CNN on your mobile instead of listening?
      Not everyone is a Christian, therefore, Easter is not a holy day to everyone. CNN has just as much right to publish this article today as on any other day of the year. If you don't like it, go somewhere else.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • Kevin

      No disrespect is intended, but what better day to have this discussion? You talk about the Super Bowl on Super Sunday, you talk about elections on election day. Today is Easter.

      Having been a Christian and having been a member of the church – and still having family and friends that I love who remain devout believers – I do understand your viewpoint. But growing up is partially about learning, and sometimes we learn things that might be uncomfortable.

      I believe there is enough evidence to suggest that Jesus existed. There is, however, no evidence whatsoever beyond some of the texts in the Bible to indicate that he did anything but die that day on the cross, just like every man who came before or after him. I say some texts because other Christian texts tell of a spiritual resurrection, not a physical one. What's more likely? That something happened that day that had never happened before and has never happened again in human history or there was an attempt to deceive, an accidental misunderstanding, an attempt to cover up the other Christian texts which paint Jesus as a man, or a combination of all? The selected books in the most popular versions of the New Testament were written decades after Jesus died, by men who never knew him. Just as the Romans began to mesh pagan religions with Christianity in order to gain converts, many early Christian writers also added the supernatural feats of earlier myths and legends onto the life of Jesus. The virgin birth, healing the sick, coming back to life: this was nothing new in the world of myth. David Crockett was a man, a great American leader who died at the Alamo. Within decades of his life, stories were written telling about him riding lighting bolts. Was he not a great enough man just based on what he did during his life? Will Davy Crockett be worshiped two thousand years from now because of a misunderstanding between the difference between myth and reality? Now, this does nothing to diminish the teachings of Jesus. To me, it makes it an even better story to know that he was a man like the rest of us. Instead of worshiping Jesus for something that was beyond his control (being the son of God), how about emulating his life and practicing his teachings? That would be a true sign of respect on Easter Day.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • john Williams

      True Blue – Going to Church at 12:30 and thanks for asking. You are right and I choose not read CNN anymore – it was my home page but I will switch it and gets my "News" from other sources. The point I am trying to make is that CNN is a news network. I believe in frre speach and the right for people to have a healthy debate on topics – but this article should be in the Opinions sections and not the lead "News" story on Easter Sunday.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  8. ABD

    "three days and three nights", ((crossified)) on Friday, and resurrected on sunday, so how is that three days and three nights??!! the answer is because the bible is man written, and make mistakes, and Jesus was never crossified in the first place, other than that there is no answer. On the other hand, why do you celebrate "the killing" of your lord? are you happy he got killed?? christianity is full of contradictions, and non-sense, but the christians don't see it becasue they are living in a sweet dream, believe in Jesus and go to heaven, and that is the reason you see priests sleep with kids in the churches, because their sins were forgiven already so why not, this is another non-sense.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • vancouverron

      Crossified? Does that mean he apparently died on the cruss?

      April 8, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  9. what up bro

    What if jesus was a jiga-booo!! He be lovin all dem nigz its true. Even though dey smell like doggie-doo and their color is dat of Poo!! Fo sho bro!!

    April 8, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  10. Rami

    I like Christ, but Christians too dumb and easy to manipulate.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • Poor Judgement

      Nice grammar!

      April 8, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  11. Rainer Braendlein

    Christ was historical. That is no question at all.

    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.

    Secondly, 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 8:20 am |
  12. John

    MYTH

    April 8, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  13. Joe Fox

    I'm very disappointed in CNN! This article is inappropriate on Easter Sunday.

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

      Who made you a media censor?!?

      April 8, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  14. Chucky

    I think we all know jesus rode in on a raptor shooting guns, it's all right there in the bible.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  15. 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 8:19 am |
    • Me no likey pseudoscholars

      Monotone video that presents pseudoscholarship. The JEPD theory has been roundly refuted (and it's laughable how the theory keeps accreting more sources like "r" – let's make up another source to bolster our academic careers). Of course it can't be proven that Enuma Elish was the source of the Biblical story vice the Biblical story being the source of Enuma Elish. In fact, Enuma Elish provides additional, and perhaps independent, witness to the truth of a Biblical account. Don't fall for amateurish pseudoscholarship as presented in this video.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:34 am |
  16. maxim

    Religion is based on absolutely nothing.

    Christianity, like thousands of religions before it, will eventually join the mass grave known as mythology.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  17. bob

    Four problems.1. we have a mountain of historical and real physical evidence that December 25, christmas trees, etc. were added to appease pagans in the holy roman empire, so we don't actually have jesus' birthday right, even with the bible. 2. There is no actual eyewitness account of Jesus from his followers in the bible, the earliest (matthew) still comes many years after jesus' supposed death. 3. Lots of people claimed to rise from the grave, so the idea that rising from the grave was unique at that time is totally false. "when we say … Jesus Christ, our teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propose nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you consider sons of Zeus." So the Greeks already had risen savior figures, therefore Christianity is a long ways from being the only one, not even the only contemporary one with this feature as is promoted by many of its followers. 4. "Most Muslims believe Jesus was raised to heaven alive by God". This was another contemporary account and CLEARLY conflicts with the Christian one as long as it helps their cause, since neither has any actual evidence both are equally likely, but what's important is they both point to an even more likely scenario - both are made up in order to fit the religious views within.

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

      Mark was the earliest. Matthew and Luke used that writing as a scource. Otherwise, generally, I agree.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  18. 1812Overture

    How can you not believe? The world would be an empty place indeed without God in it.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  19. Rami

    I like Christ, but Christians not for sure. They hate too much.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • Rami noodles

      Then you don't really know any.

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

      Rami- glad you like Christ. Get to know some Christians. Real- Christ honoring believers and trusters. May the day come that you do more than just like Christ.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  20. Way to go CNN!

    Seriously? On Christianity's holiest day, CNN, you put up an article about "internet kooks" who congregate at "Internet Infidels" website and collaborate on how to deny that Jesus ever existed?

    Are you also going to put up an article that says Mohammad never existed on a Muslim holiday? How about a denial of the holocaust on a Jewish holiday? Somehow I doubt it. Stop the hate of Christianity!

    April 8, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • notheism

      Don't worry, faith trumps facts any time. Just have faith that this article was never written and go on with your "holy" day.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • .

      Of course they won't. It doesn't fit in with the gay-theist bigoted agenda.

      Besides, how can they miss an opportunity to allow all the left wing hate mongers to express their hatred at Christians?

      April 8, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • El Flaco

      I am simply a citizen with a library card, but my opinon is this ...

      1. The historical Jesus fully expected God to destroy the monarchy and expel foreigners from Israel when he rode into Jerusalem in mock triumph to fulfill a prophecy. He and his followers were stunned when he was summarily executed.

      2. Jesus' followers, like members of a UFO cult, came up with an explanation: Jesus would be returning very soon and He would destroy the monarchy and expel foreigners from Israel. They all died of old age, as did their children and grandchildren.

      3. In 330 AD, Constantine chose Christianity from among other religions as the state religion. He ordered the assembly of a Bible and a consistent theology from all the competing versions of Christianity that were out there.

      And here we are.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • Way to go CNN!

      Mr. no, you might be surprised to know that not all Christians are so dumb as you suppose. Belief is all that any of us have with respect to what happens after death. And, when it comes to morality, atheism can't find a belief to save its miserable and unjustifiable life.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:45 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.