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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. Nii

    I always say that even if the Bible was historically false it is theologically consistent and spiritually(emotional and ethically) functional. I don't know y atheists will use knowledge which Christians gathered themselves out of context. The article isnt anti-Christian per se but de timing is bad.

    April 9, 2012 at 12:44 am |
  2. b4bigbang

    b4bigbang

    Hey Phosphorus, did you know that your armchair 'diagnosis' of Christians as being "insane and irrational " is the *exact* rationale the Soviet dictatorship had for imprisoning Christians and other religionists in mental hospitals, torturing them with electroshock, telling them that all they had to do was renounce their religion and the pain would stop?

    Tsk tsk. Good thing you're just a harmless internet troll rather than running a country.
    Still, your thought pattern raises its ugly head every generation or so, and we have to send our soldiers off to war to defeat your kind.

    April 9, 2012 at 12:43 am |
  3. crixus79

    Respect the brutha

    April 9, 2012 at 12:41 am |
  4. Angel

    "Just because you can’t see the air, doesn’t mean you stop breathing. Just because you can’t see God doesnt mean you stop believing." TRUE STORY.

    April 9, 2012 at 12:39 am |
    • Cq

      We can hear the wind, feel it, and even smell it's fragrance. If everything depended upon seeing it then blind people wouldn't believe in anything, right?

      April 9, 2012 at 12:59 am |
    • sam stone

      Just because you cannot see any of other thousands of gods man has made doesn't mean they do not exist

      April 9, 2012 at 2:15 am |
  5. M-kell

    Yes there was a Jesus. He had some great ideas. Was he the son of God? All who spread the word in the first century were considered to be the son of God! If he was not The Son of God does it make his teaching less important? Many before and after Jesus have be called the Messiah or the Christ but little of their teaching have survived. As to borrowing from other religions– yes many of thing we call Christian were borrowed from earlier religions! Anyone who has studied the past has known that for years!

    April 9, 2012 at 12:38 am |
  6. b4bigbang

    See? Even Tom Tom, i mean Cq (in his current iteration), ADMITS the superiority of the Christian viewpoint!

    April 9, 2012 at 12:37 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh? You know, I'm flattered that you think I'm Cq. I'm not. I also never said a thing about the Christian perspective being superior to anything. Based on what I've seen of you, it's pretty crummy.

      April 9, 2012 at 1:05 am |
    • Cq

      No, it's just that an atheist like me often knows how to argue your side better than a believer like you. That's how familiar we are with the material. Usually, we know all the chief arguments that your side likes to use, and we reject your position because we see it's overall weakness.

      April 9, 2012 at 1:05 am |
    • Cq

      And I'm equally flattered, Tom Tom. :-)

      April 9, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Well, thanks, Cq.

      April 9, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  7. jackenstien

    I think it appalling that the atheistic CNN News team would put an article doubting the existence of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday!
    Where do they (CNN) get their staff from who OK'd this untimely article?
    If CNN dared to defile a Muslim holiday like "Laylat ul Isra and Mi'raj", Arabic for the “Night of the Journey and Ascension” like they just did with Easter Sunday, it could be for their lives..

    April 9, 2012 at 12:36 am |
    • hawaiiduude

      cnn = zionists

      April 9, 2012 at 12:38 am |
    • Science

      I think its appalling that fiction still draws so many people to strip mall churches every sunday.

      April 9, 2012 at 12:38 am |
    • Psyniche

      You forget your Christian heritage when, not too long ago, it was illegal to be a non-christian in certain parts of what is now the U.S., the Inquisition, the crusades, witch burning, Westboro... Let him who is without sin throw the first stone...

      April 9, 2012 at 12:41 am |
    • wrob

      Science, when something else provides the same utility that religion does, then it will go away.

      April 9, 2012 at 12:44 am |
  8. Ren

    So if someone says Jesus didnt exist they are just trying to sell books... how is that different from saying he did exist and sell religion/books ?

    April 9, 2012 at 12:35 am |
    • wrob

      Not all views are equally valid when it comes to the historical record. Holocaust deniers and 9/11 "truthers" are vigorously challenged, and for good reason.

      April 9, 2012 at 12:56 am |
  9. Nii

    ATHEISTS
    Easter is de Germanic derived name for the Christian Passover which is a slightly modified form of the Jewish Passover. It is so named because the Germanic fertility festival of Ester coincides with it. However Passover is a celebration of Independence not Fertility. I love u all as myself.

    April 9, 2012 at 12:31 am |
    • Cq

      It's fertility in the sense that winter marks the "death" of the land, no growth, no crop "life", and spring marks the "rebirth" of it, when crops begin to grow once again and many animals give birth. See the similarity now?

      April 9, 2012 at 12:39 am |
    • sam stone

      no you don't. you are a lying sack of dung

      April 9, 2012 at 2:21 am |
  10. Psyniche

    Christians are in the uncomfortable position of answering the question: If Jesus existed, and everything that he said and that is said about him (in the Gospels) is true, then he came, died and resurrected solely to save us from a Hell that he, and his Father, created. If I were a Christian, I think I'd want to just forget this whole Easter/Resurrection Day thing...

    April 9, 2012 at 12:29 am |
    • Cq

      A guy comes to your door selling the cure to a deadly disease.
      "No", you say, "I don't have that disease, so why would I want to buy your cure?"
      "Well friend", the salesman says, "I took the liberty of infecting you before I came here, that's why."

      That's Christian Salvation in a nutshell.

      April 9, 2012 at 12:45 am |
  11. ann

    I would challenge CNN to run a story on whether MOhammed existed for Ramadan. This repeated front page Time/CNN attack on Christianity is undeniable.

    April 9, 2012 at 12:26 am |
    • hawaiiduude

      challenge cnn to write just as disparaging article about jews and see how that goes... but they would never do it because they would be called antisemite.

      April 9, 2012 at 12:37 am |
    • Psyniche

      I would surmise that CNN doesn't have the brass for that. Fortunately, for them, Christians of today are not their crusading, inquisitors of their heritage...

      April 9, 2012 at 12:38 am |
  12. Nii

    If u won't take the Christian Gospels take the Gnostic. Note that the Gnostics were a quasi-Christian religion like Mormonism, Jehovah Witnesses or Islam. They were even more hostile but they agreed that Christ existed. Also de RCC was never de only denomination of de Xtian Church. Check de others.

    April 9, 2012 at 12:26 am |
  13. Mateo

    Looking forward to CNN's next article. "The Mohammed Debate: Man vs. Myth." .... and on the first day of Ramadan too!

    Wait, we can't talk about a pale, red headed, murderous warlord from the 5th century, that frequently had epileptic seizures; then out of pride and lust for power, easily convinced his conquered subjects and slaves, that his seizures were God speaking to him.

    April 9, 2012 at 12:26 am |
  14. hawaiiduude

    April 9, 2012 at 12:24 am |
  15. tony

    Religion is the scientific result of ignorance and wishful thinking. The spontaneous "cargo cult" of John Frum is a modern example. Mormonism another.

    April 9, 2012 at 12:24 am |
  16. tony

    Religion is the scientific result of ignorance and wishful thinking

    April 9, 2012 at 12:22 am |
  17. josef

    there was a man but he was just a man

    April 9, 2012 at 12:22 am |
  18. tony

    There no business like "snow" business!

    April 9, 2012 at 12:19 am |
  19. Nii

    TO ALL CHRISTIANS
    Don't use the reply function to post anymore the boards are too fast.
    B4BIGBANG(ORIGINAL) I'm sorry! I've suffered such from our "rational and intelligent"(big words most of them don't understand) atheists b4.

    April 9, 2012 at 12:17 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, please. Just because you can't manage to use the Reply function, there's no reason to consign everyone else to the same moronic behavior.

      April 9, 2012 at 12:21 am |
    • Alpa Chino

      Damn Nii, you are acting like a bitch today.

      April 9, 2012 at 12:24 am |
    • Phosphorus

      Nii, you seem quite frustrated. Show us what your education in Mosaic Law can produce. Try providing us with something of substance that actually supports a position you hold. Defend your thesis, if you have one...and if you really want anyone to take you seriously and not LOL @ you, stop using text speak and abbreviations. See how stupid it looks?

      April 9, 2012 at 12:41 am |
    • b4bigbang

      No worries, Nii. Never a problem with brethren and sisteren, we win in the end. The fly in the ointment is, of course, the atheists.
      He is risen!

      April 9, 2012 at 12:54 am |
    • Phosphorus

      His Viagra must be working.

      April 9, 2012 at 3:09 am |
  20. Andy

    Jesus is Mentioned in the Koran , along with the New Testament, The Gnostic Scriptures or otherwise the Nah Hammadi Library, Much of the claims made in this article are using sources that are popular text, but what about un popular text. The existence of Jesus is clearly not investigated enough, but in my findings since the existence of Jesus is clearly reflected in more than one major Religion. It clearly to me shows factual evidence of the existence of a figure named Jesus, no matter what perception those people may have who authored the text, One person's opinion is different from another, but if there is more evidence of the same type of figure then that person surely must have existed. Same as if more than one person see's a UFO, one would say it was a meteor, the other would say it was a weather balloon, and the other would say it was a flying saucer, either way, that is more than one account of that UFO. Different perspectives but evidence of something in the same direction all those people were looking. So clearly lets make Jesus our UFO, Christian's see one thing, Muslims see another, and Jewish people see another, but it clearly states they all acknowledge his existence. Otherwise he would would have been omitted from History. Do your research. and you just might find something.

    April 9, 2012 at 12:17 am |
    • tony

      And without an actual god, why and how does the prior existence of a legend called Jesus actually matter?

      April 9, 2012 at 12:21 am |
    • hawaiiduude

      Christians see messiah
      Muslims see God prophet
      Jews see a heretic and liar.

      Who's is the antichryst religion??

      April 9, 2012 at 12:21 am |
    • Cq

      Does the fact that Dracula is mentioned in more than one book make him any more real?

      April 9, 2012 at 12:23 am |
    • JD

      Thank you.

      April 9, 2012 at 12:39 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.