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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. sez

    In fact the only thing that keeps you there if you told the truth. Is the socialization with other people possibly your own kind. Fear of hell and heaven. Hell is total malarky. You have to have something to keep people in line. Devils and demons might have something to do with what you people help steal everyday that wreaks havoc on your lives. God no where in that book gave anyone oil. Or the gold on a thousand hills which they continually steal. Or copper or anything else. Other than what he awarded them to begin with. So thats where most people problems lay. You have to wonder am I going to have to be in debt for the rest of my life. Will they stop blowing each others heads off for oil? Tin, silver things they don't talk about. However you get what you deserve. Stop stealing. If you wonder whos your stealing you might want to reasearch a little further. Thats why someone like a Pat Robertson and some of these other smart characters make me want to heave.

    April 8, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
  2. Clairty

    There is no debate among believers. There is only debate among non-believers.

    April 8, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • Colin

      Yes, and that's what makes non-believers so much more credible.

      April 8, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  3. profart

    People who are believers who worry about this don't understand the word "myth." The need for Jesus to be absolutely historical is a distraction from the message of God and the Christ in the Bible.

    April 8, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
  4. pyne

    Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds, because of your evil behavior. 22)But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation- 23)if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hop held out in the gospel. Colossians 1:21-23

    April 8, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
  5. tardacus

    The bible is a metaphorical history book that outlines how we were created by space aliens that spliced their genes with the genes of apes to create us.
    The jesus story is a metaphor that describes how our creators ( aliens ) will return someday.Jesus is a metaphor for what the aliens tried to teach us about their values of love, tolerance and non violence, before they left.

    The book of revelation is a metaphor that describes how we will be destroying our planet and causing unprecedented natural disasters through global warming, nuclear contamination etc.
    Our creators ( the aliens ) will return and stop us before we completely destroy the planet.
    Humans are too violent and intolerant of other races and species to be accepted into the federation of other inhabited planets.until we make greater advances in tolerance and love of other races and species we remain the alienated red headed step child of the inhabited planets.

    April 8, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
  6. Guy

    My post is simple and to the point.
    This man finds this picture in an old artifact book.. with this picture of this naked man.

    WHERES THE PICTURE IDIOT! YOU GOT A BRAN NEW SCANNER!

    April 8, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
  7. pyne

    For GOD,YHWH, was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in JESUS, and through him to reconcile to himself all thing, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. colossians 1:19-20 That includes you.

    April 8, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • Noarle

      Do us all a favor and do not refuse the cyanide-laced koolaide when they hand it out at your church.

      April 8, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
  8. sez

    But GOD, YHWH, chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; GOD chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. vs28) He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things and the things that are not to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.

    Whats that mean dosen't even make sense. I don't think you really know what it means. Whatever it is if its in that book it probably dosen't work like cutting your hand off turning the other cheek praying or giving away your pants when they want your cloak and a whole bunch of other things. If something dosen't work you have to wonder why. Church is a great social organiztion true. However the rest of it kind of comes and goes quickly.. Like what you believe in.

    April 8, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  9. pyne

    He (JESUS) is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church: (not the pagan church) he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that n everything he might have supremacy. colossians 1:17&18

    April 8, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • Middle Ground

      One thing is certain – the Jesus of the Bible didn't exist as written, because the Jesus of the Bible is contradictory, as well as irrational. If there was a man that the myth was built around, or not, is an interesting, but completely academic subject.

      Jesus couldn't perform even a tiny fraction of the "miracles" we can preform today. A video camera would have come in handy for him – or just a looped projection of his words and image on the sky for all time. Why not? Instead, he didn't even leave behind a carved tablet.

      April 8, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  10. JesusIsLord

    DO NOT BELIEVE THIS ARTICLE! RATHER; WATCH WHAT HISTORIANS AND ARCHEOLOGISTS HAVE TO SAY:
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDmUjUqEOJQ&w=640&h=390]

    April 8, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • reason

      What are you saying we should not believe? The article presents two sides.

      April 8, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  11. b4bigbang

    Jesus is risen!
    He is risen indeed!!
    Maranatha

    April 8, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
  12. sez

    I think these religious people wonder about outer space a little more than they should instead of living on the earth.

    April 8, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      Except that being unspiritual is to live a rather shallow, two-dimensional life...

      April 8, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Noarle

      b4, since you have no idea what you are talking about, why don't you just take your shallow, two-dimensional religious views and go pray about it? I can guarantee that your prayers will not be answered except at random.
      Why? Because your shallow, two-dimensional fake god myth can only produce random results from this random universe and your fake god does nothing and never has except in your fantasies. Go ahead and pretend all you like. Just stay out of politics and we won't have to have you arrested.

      April 8, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  13. !!

    ATTENTION !!!! ATTENTION!!!! 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 6:40 pm |
    • BillyBones

      I liked the article. Most of the Bible is mythology. Why not the Jesus story?

      April 8, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • Ryan

      You're dumb.

      April 8, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • marshall

      Roger that mate. Why CNN is so anti-Christian is beyond me. I am a Christian and yes, I'm offended by CNN's constant attacks on my faith. I'm big enough to forgive them for "they no not what they do!"

      April 8, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • Clairty

      I'd like to see them run a similar story on Mohammad or Caiaphas questioning Islam or Judaism. Here's a prediction: They won't.

      April 8, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • Noarle

      Here we have a little kid who thinks his religion is above the law, above question, and above everything else.
      This is the sort of person who will commit many crimes because the law does not matter to this idiot and they can't be bothered to actually learn or read anything and wouldn't understand it if they did. Confusion makes for silly "alerts" like this one.

      Take your hate for freedom and go live in a theocracy somewhere. This is America. We don't want or need slobbering, rabid religious nuts here. We already have too many and I would like to see them, and you, removed permanently from polite society.

      April 8, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • Nancy

      What a better day for reflection? For asking questions. For thinking critically. Heaven forbid (pun intended) that huge amounts of history conflicts with a small amount of so called history written by bronze age shepherds. The article was not attacking Christianity but simply asking us to think about the evidence. Sorta like trying to prove a scientific theory. Christianity tells us what to think, no questions allowed. If all you can do is quote scripture then you are already so brainwashed and there is no hope for this article to make any sense to you.

      April 8, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  14. pyne

    He (JESUS CHRIST) is the image of the invisible GOD, YHWH, for by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. Colossians 1:15-16

    April 8, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  15. Mark G.

    When people die and are brought back from the dead, they all talk about seeing a very bright light. That is the sun. When we die, we return back to the sun from whence we came. We all actually live in the sun but many sun people take short holidays and " vacation" on earth. Our earthly lives are but a mere pittance in time compared to sun time. Without the sun, there would be no life on earth or anywhere else in the universe since all stars are suns that produce living beings like us.The stars themselves were created by an unknown force that we refer to as God that we cannot understand because we are too puny.

    April 8, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
  16. 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 6:39 pm |
  17. Jeff

    All of these individuals need to read Joseph Campbell and download his lectures that are on iTunes. Then they will start to see the limit of their own knowledge on these subjects. Mr. Campbell writes; "The comparative study of the mythologies of the world compels us to view the cultural history of mankind as a unit; for we find that such themes as the fire-theft, deluge, land of the dead, virgin birth and resurrected hero have a worldwide distribution – appearing everywhere in new combinations while remaining, like the elements of a kaleidoscope, only a few and always the same . . . though many who bow with closed eyes in the sanctuaries of their own tradition rationally scrutinize and disqualify the sacraments of others, an honest comparison immediately reveals that all have been built from one fund of mythological motifs – variously selected, organized, interpreted and ritualized, according to local need, but revered by every people on earth." Joseph Campbell "The Masks of God – Primitive Mythology pg 3-4." Time to hit the books gentlemen.

    April 8, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  18. Joe

    Know The Father and the Son....
    Exodus 6:3 And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name JEHOVAH was I not known to them.....

    KJVPslams 83:17 Let them be confounded and troubled for ever; yea, let them be put to shame , and perish : 18 That men may know that thou, whose name alone is JEHOVAH, art the most high over all the earth.

    Isaiah 12:2 KJV Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust , and not be afraid : for the LORD JEHOVAH is my strength and my song; he also is become my salvation.

    Isaiah 26:4 KJV Trust ye in the LORD for ever: for in the LORD JEHOVAH is everlasting strength:

    April 8, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  19. frettin

    Jesus is the SUN not the SON.

    It is the light of the world, the risen savior, the bringer of light, the life giver.

    That is why christains worship on SUNday and not SONday

    When christians end their prayers with "amen" they are paying homage to the egyptian sun god Amen Ra

    April 8, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  20. pyne

    But GOD, YHWH, chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; GOD chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. vs28) He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things and the things that are not to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. 1 Corinthians 1:27:29

    April 8, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • momoya

      Interesting that the argument claims to be non-wise-but-that's-ok.

      April 8, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • Joe

      you speak very good english for being Hebrew? In My native language (english) We call Him Jehovah

      April 8, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • profart

      Joe, calling him Jehovah is very Latin of you. The name in the Old Testament is Yahweh.

      April 8, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • Joe

      You speaking in English is also very Latin Greek of YOU? Most English is Derived from Latin Greek anyway....Why ProFart is every one scared to proclaim Jehovah/YHWH's Name In English(Latin Greek).........You are American Right? You Speak English therefore you also are very Latin.....I am Not scared to Glorify Jehovah's Name through His Son Jesus Christ.......

      April 8, 2012 at 7:09 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.