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. EddyL

    It's a pack of bull

    April 8, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  2. Ruggero

    Enough. Go plant potatoes instead of debating about Jesus. Somebody will eventually eat them. I'm not sure this article is helping anybody.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  3. Kel

    ...I believe in God and Jesus – it's not so difficult to believe that Satan could have altered the stories of pagan religion beforehand in anticipation of the upcoming Jesus, in order to generate future historical conflict and to get people to not believe as I believe in God and Jesus...

    April 8, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • EddyL

      What asylum are you in?

      April 8, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  4. HappyEaster

    So classless on Easter CNN. I would expect nothing less.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:38 am |
  5. Rainer Braendlein

    A lot of people believe in Muhammad, who molested a girl at the age of 9 years, but feel not able to believe In Jesus Christ, who was holy and raised people from the dead (if Jesus had been a sinner, like Muhammad, he had not been able to work divine miracles; God hears only the prayers of holy people).

    April 8, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • TheBob

      Really? I thought god was omniscient. Even I can hear the prayers of unholy people. So much for your puny god. Better find the real god or you're screwed in the afterlife. Or at least find one that's not hard of hearing.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • YeahOk

      How bout we just believe in neither and call it a day.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • TheBob

      By the way, the girl Muhammad molested was 8, not 9. She was 9 in lunar years, which the backward Arab calendar is based on.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • iEvolved

      Let's see, if you know statistics, whatever religion you believe, there is a chance that you may be one of the people following the wrong religion is 50% or more. I think it's more like 100% wrong given the fact there is more evidence of evolution right in front of your eyes. So don't go all out attacking and harming other lives, because when it comes to judgement day, you might end up in the wrong line. A real god would want you to just live a peaceful life without forcing you to believe this or that.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  6. Ken

    This article is full of typical CNN lies, Jesus is Lord come soon Lord Jesus and end this terrible world we live in. Praise you Jesus!!!!

    April 8, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • Abolish All Religion

      Keep relishing in your deluded ignorance.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • iEvolved

      What do you mean by "end this world"? Sounds like you cannot find happiness in this world with what you believe. Try to open your eyes and learn scientific facts about evolution.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  7. Shame!

    Shame on he whom do not have God our heavenly father and Jesus in their life!

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

      It's ok to believe what fits you. But don't try to impose it on others and don't try to hide evolution/natural selection/dinosaurs from school curriculums to justify what you believe is correct.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • MithraLives!

      Shame on those who beleive the first religion they were taught without requiring any evidence.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  8. Colin

    Rather than positing the question "did he exist?" which most scolars and historians seem to accept, a good, objective look at how the stories about what he supposedly did and said developed in the first 100 or so years after he died would be much more interesting.

    It is pretty clear that the writers of M, M, L and J based their accounts on stories circulating around the Midetteranean about him at the time. The earliest, Mark, was written about 40 years after he died. The chance that what he said and did was accurately recorded in the intervening decades,without embellishment, is pretty small.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  9. JUDY


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

      There should be one God. Not your god or my god. That's the kind of divisive mentality causing mayhem in this world causing thousands of deaths.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  10. regertz

    What is amusing is seeing some people who deny science on the basis of some literal taking of tthe Bible (which ever one they choose to read) denouncing people who do similar things with it and other texts as "internet kooks". Joshua-bar-Joseph seems to have some evidence in history for existing...Believing more about him is up to me and you. Just don't deny facts and attack people to fit your belief system...From what I 've heard of JC he wouldn't approve.. Anyway a safe and happy Easter and may the good intentions and kind heart of that nice Jewish kid and preacher work for you.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  11. iEvolved

    Jesus probably did exist, but cannot be son of god. If god can influence the way I think (according to my pastor), he can clear my sins like Men in black. No need to perform a sacrificial ritual (crucifixion) , which implies it's ok to sacrifice a life for religious purposes. Not only Jesus, Mohamed cannot be god also. If we come out of those myths, world will be a much safer place as a real God would want it to be.
    There is enormous evidence of evolution that is totally denied according to Bible. So, it's time to move on and accept the real truth of evolution.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  12. Don't deny history

    "... scholars say Jesus never existed. Such assertions could have been ignored in an earlier age."

    They wouldn't have been ignored. They would have been burned at the stake... in the name of Christianity, you understand.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  13. eric calderone

    That some pagan myths share some similarities to the story of Jesus is not credible evidence that Jesus is a myth. Similarity in some aspects does not make for disproof of the historical Jesus. And in none of the pagan myths does the god deign to become human and die for the sake of humanity. Jesus's life occurs in the context of so many historical events that we know are true; such a historical context cannot be found for any of the pagan deities.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • MithraLives!

      other events, such as..........?

      April 8, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  14. Bob

    Whether you believe or not, please explain who and why the historical timeline clock button was pushed 2012+ years ago? Something extraordinary took place, an event that shook the world to it's core resulting in a new beginning.....

    April 8, 2012 at 8:35 am |
    • notheism

      Yet, the Gregorian calendar began in 1582... How interesting....

      April 8, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • YeahOk

      So you practice Mayan religion? Not sure what you are saying here.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  15. Mike

    Believers wil believe and non-belivers won't.Not really sure why people try so hard to prove their side is right and the other is wrong.Death will come to all of us one day and we will get our answer then.Personally I'm going to choose to believe.As far as the article goes CNN showed little class by posting on the holyiest day of the year for Christians.I think this may have more of a political agenda behind it anyway.Note the Obama ref when this has nothing to do with him.Thats the media at its best asways pushing their candidate even when the article has nothing to do with politics.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  16. 4th wright

    Jesus was real. He was who he said he was. And still is. You don't have to like it. You don't have to believe it. But I do.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • notheism

      It isn't about liking or disliking, it is about the truth. I don't choose to believe in something because it fits my agenda, I believe something because it is justifiable to do so. Supernatural stuff is not justifiable.

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

      Even if he was real, it a long stretch to being the son of a god!

      April 8, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  17. reason

    Watch what anthropologists, archeologists and religious historians seeking the truth have to say about where god came from:

    April 8, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  18. george

    Very strong possibility that Jesus never existed

    -No credible sources outside the Bible say Jesus existed.

    -No credible sources outside the Bible say the world was created in 6 days

    -No credible sources outside the Bible claim a 500+ year old man Gathered 2,000,000 species at once to save them from a flood

    -No credible sources outside the Bible say that a group of men were RAISED FROM THE DEAD and went into town to talk to the inhabitants (pretty big news if that did happen, especially in an age where this could be recorded secular and not 50++ years later from witnesses of witnesses told to unknown authors)

    seriously shouldn't this be the nail in the coffin. The bible is so full of inaccuracy's to be reliable evidence of ANYTHING. It's the same book that have many believing the earth is only 6,000 years old and a three headed monster will kill us all one day.

    Aside from that if the character of Jesus did exist, it's almost understandable why Rome would have him killed, he said he was "sent to earth to set father against his son, and to tear a mans house in two, and he was there to bring the sword" He was your average crazy nutter, like the Jim Jones of 2000 years ago, only because Constantine bought into it we still have it around, showing not the influence of Christianity so much as the power of the Cesar and them the roman church which had enough time to indoctrinate a majority of the world.

    also the evidence for his existence is lame. "Why would they lie, when they could be killed" Thats the worst excuse ever. Your telling me NO other religion have people who are willing to die for what they believe. Hell under those guide lines Jim Jones was the real deal, also that heavens gate guy, and the Waco guy, they all claimed to have direct contact with god and the people, like those in the bible believed them and died for them(so under Christian scholars they had divinity as well). We call them crazy now because we as a society have enough knowledge to recognize crazy when we see it, but if the same thing happened 2k years ago, it's suddenly Okay.

    April 8, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • p4p

      people do not like the idea of being accountable to an "intangible someone". non-believers want to justify this by dissecting and questioning faith, shrouded by what the call, "passion for the truth". choose to believe, or not... free will for all homey. but please... believe what is in your heart and not what some other ass wipe writes simply because they claim to be educated. people like that let their education get in the way of learning.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  19. Casey

    I don't understand how anyone can believe in religion. If God is the creator of Earth and all of life on Earth, why would He allow people to create any religions before Jesus was born?. Particularly, since in the Old Testament, God was ruthless and known to punish those who disobeyed Him. Wouldn't the creation of a religion that does not support the Creator be a punishable offense in the Old Testament?

    April 8, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • p4p

      have you ever heard of free will?

      April 8, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  20. Sam

    Did any of the writers check what Islam view of Jesus? I could easily accept the Jesus story written in the Quran

    April 8, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • johnfrichardson

      Islam clearly just appropriated a lot of stories circulating in the area at the time, Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian and what not. The oral tradition was full of stories of religious heros, many of which got scrambled together. I have heard of stories of a Christian saint that scholars have traced back to Buddha and a possible reverse case of Jesus stories entering Buddhist lore, making the Jesus figure out to be some sort of Buddhist holy man. These random transmissions and reinventions make things confusing enough, but Mohammed pretty clearly set out to redo Middle Eastern monotheism in a way that served his purposes, and the borrowing was intense and intentional. So I'd consider the Quran about the least credible source for historical confirmation.

      April 8, 2012 at 8:51 am |
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About this blog

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.