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.”
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.
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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.
If the bible is so real, why can't they find evidence of the things that happened in it?
What planet are you on? Archaeology uncovers confirmation of the Bible on a regular basis. God bless
Maybe "they" lack the intelligence to see the obvious. It says that Israel would be reformed in the land a 3rd time. That occurred in 1948.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18
I applaud CNN for running this article today, but I'll keep an eye on whether CNN publishes similar front page articles on jewish and islamic holy days.. gee, let's expose how Yahweh is just a recycled, appropriated Baal .. and Allah.. pagan moon god. If you DON'T slam the genesis of the gods of other faiths just as hard on their holy days, then Christians are right in complaining that they are being singled out for attack. CNN, there's plenty of God-Fraud to go around.
Please stop calling the Day Of Resurrection a pagan holiday! It's sad that a news company doesn't know the diffrence. Easter is a pagan holiday of fertility. You should look theese things up before you lie on national television.
Its seems pretty clear to me that there was a Jesus. Its what happens after his death that is today's problem. We have had so many people add to and subtract from the teaching. Paul, Constintine, and Darby have warped the messages and the meanings so that very few actual Christians exsist. Few people want to lead others to Christ most want to Legislate or force others to Christ.
It's quite amusing to read the posts coming from atheists. The only thing that these self proclaimed "intellectual superiors" do well is insult others and their beliefs. I'm pretty sure any 1st grader could do the same.
Why are YOU insulting 6 year olds?
I think you are being at least somewhat hypocritical by complaining about one group's use of insults by insulting them.
The Lord Is with U.S ,,, Lets not forget His return ... Happy Easter everybody – :))
Yeah, non believers are internet kooks, but he's the one that based his life on a book written by men who heard voices and can't even be proven as fact.
Hey CNN, have you ever written an article asking if the prophet Muhammad exists or is fake and posted it on the holiest Muslim day of the year? I think I already know the answer. The blatant bias against Christians and non-minority people has to stop.
One more time:
From Professors Crossan and Watts' book, Who is Jesus.
"That Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, as the Creed states, is as certain as anything historical can ever be.
“ The Jewish historian, Josephus and the pagan historian Tacitus both agree that Jesus was executed by order of the Roman governor of Judea. And is very hard to imagine that Jesus' followers would have invented such a story unless it indeed happened.
“While the brute fact that of Jesus' death by crucifixion is historically certain, however, those detailed narratives in our present gospels are much more problematic. "
“My best historical reconstruction would be something like this. Jesus was arrested during the Passover festival, most likely in response to his action in the Temple. Those who were closest to him ran away for their own safety.
I do not presume that there were any high-level confrontations between Caiaphas and Pilate and Herod Antipas either about Jesus or with Jesus. No doubt they would have agreed before the festival that fast action was to be taken against any disturbance and that a few examples by crucifixion might be especially useful at the outset. And I doubt very much if Jewish police or Roman soldiers needed to go too far up the chain of command in handling a Galilean peasant like Jesus. It is hard for us to imagine the casual brutality with which Jesus was probably taken and executed. All those "last week" details in our gospels, as distinct from the brute facts just mentioned, are prophecy turned into history, rather than history remembered."
See also Professor Crossan's reviews of the existence of Jesus in his other books especially, The Historical Jesus and also Excavating Jesus (with Professor Jonathan Reed doing the archeology discussion) .
Other NT exegetes to include members of the Jesus Seminar have published similar books with appropriate supporting references.
Part of Crossan's The Historical Jesus has been published online at books.google.com/books.
There is also a search engine for this book on the right hand side of the opening page. e.g. Search Josephus
See also Wikipedia's review on the historical Jesus to include the Tacitus' reference to the crucifixion of Jesus.
"One of the greatest historians of ancient Rome, Cornelius Tacitus is a primary source for much of what is known about life the first and second centuries after the life of Jesus. His most famous works, Histories and Annals, exist in fragmentary form, though many of his earlier writings were lost to time. Tacitus is known for being generally reliable (if somewhat biased toward what he saw as Roman immorality) and for having a uniquely direct (if not blunt) writing style.
Then there are these scriptural references:
Crucifixion of Jesus:(1) 1 Cor 15:3b; (2a) Gos. Pet. 4:10-5:16,18-20; 6:22; (2b) Mark 15:22-38 = Matt 27:33-51a = Luke 23:32-46; (2c) John 19:17b-25a,28-36; (3) Barn. 7:3-5; (4a) 1 Clem. 16:3-4 (=Isaiah 53:1-12); (4b) 1 Clem. 16.15-16 (=Psalm 22:6-8); (5a) Ign. Mag. 11; (5b) Ign. Trall. 9:1b; (5c) Ign. Smyrn. 1.2.- (read them all at wiki.faithfutures. Crucifixion org/index.php/005_Crucifixion_Of_Jesus )
Added suggested readings:
o 1. Historical Jesus Theories, earlychristianwritings.com/theories.htm – the names of many of the contemporary historical Jesus scholars and the ti-tles of their over 100 books on the subject.
2. Early Christian Writings, earlychristianwritings.com/
– a list of early Christian doc-uments to include the year of publication–
30-60 CE Passion Narrative
40-80 Lost Sayings Gospel Q
50-60 1 Thessalonians
50-60 1 Corinthians
50-60 2 Corinthians
50-90 Signs Gospel
50-95 Book of Hebrews
50-140 Gospel of Thomas
50-140 Oxyrhynchus 1224 Gospel
50-200 Sophia of Jesus Christ
65-80 Gospel of Mark
70-100 Epistle of James
70-120 Egerton Gospel
70-160 Gospel of Peter
70-160 Secret Mark
70-200 Fayyum Fragment
70-200 Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
73-200 Mara Bar Serapion
80-100 2 Thessalonians
80-100 Gospel of Matthew
80-110 1 Peter
80-120 Epistle of Barnabas
80-130 Gospel of Luke
80-130 Acts of the Apostles
80-140 1 Clement
80-150 Gospel of the Egyptians
80-150 Gospel of the Hebrews
80-250 Christian Sibyllines
90-95 Apocalypse of John
90-120 Gospel of John
90-120 1 John
90-120 2 John
90-120 3 John
90-120 Epistle of Jude
93 Flavius Josephus
100-150 1 Timothy
100-150 2 Timothy
100-150 Apocalypse of Peter
100-150 Secret Book of James
100-150 Preaching of Peter
100-160 Gospel of the Ebionites
100-160 Gospel of the Nazoreans
100-160 Shepherd of Hermas
100-160 2 Peter
3. Historical Jesus Studies, faithfutures.org/HJstudies.html,
– "an extensive and constantly expanding literature on historical research into the person and cultural context of Jesus of Nazareth"
4. Jesus Database, faithfutures.org/JDB/intro.html–"The JESUS DATABASE is an online annotated inventory of the traditions concerning the life and teachings of Jesus that have survived from the first three centuries of the Common Era. It includes both canonical and extra-canonical materials, and is not limited to the traditions found within the Christian New Testament."
5. Josephus on Jesus mtio.com/articles/bissar24.htm
6. The Jesus Seminar, mystae.com/restricted/reflections/messiah/seminar.html#Criteria
7. Writing the New Testament- mystae.com/restricted/reflections/messiah/testament.html
8. Health and Healing in the Land of Israel By Joe Zias
9. Economics in First Century Palestine, K.C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus, Fortress Press, 1998.
10. The Gnostic Jesus
(Part One in a Two-Part Series on Ancient and Modern Gnosticism)
by Douglas Groothuis: equip.org/free/DG040-1.htm
11. The interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Pontifical Biblical Commission
Presented on March 18, 1994
12. The Jesus Database- newer site:
13. Jesus Database with the example of Supper and Eucharist:
14. Josephus on Jesus by Paul Maier:
15. The Journal of Higher Criticism with links to articles on the Historical Jesus:
16. The Greek New Testament: laparola.net/greco/
17. Diseases in the Bible:
18. Religion on Line (6000 articles on the history of religion, churches, theologies,
theologians, ethics, etc.
19. The Jesus Seminarians and their search for NT authenticity:
20. The New Testament Gateway – Internet NT ntgateway.com/
21. Writing the New Testament- existing copies, oral tradition etc.
22. The Search for the Historic Jesus by the Jesus Seminarians:
23. Jesus Decoded by Msgr. Francis J. Maniscalco (Da Vinci Code review)jesusdecoded.com/introduction.php
24. JD Crossan's scriptural references for his book the Historical Jesus separated into time periods: faithfutures.org/Jesus/Crossan1.rtf
25. JD Crossan's conclusions about the authencity of most of the NT based on the above plus the conclusions of other NT exegetes in the last 200 years:
Reality, you read Bart Ehrman's books or heard his lectures on tape? They seem compelling, but /i never see you cite him.
26. Common Sayings from Thomas's Gospel and the Q Gospel: faithfutures.org/Jesus/Crossan3.rtf
27. Early Jewish Writings- Josephus and his books by t-itle with the complete translated work in English :earlyjewishwritings.com/josephus.html
28. Luke and Josephus- was there a connection?
29. NT and beyond time line:
30. St. Paul's Time line with discussion of important events:
31. See http://www.amazon.com for a list of JD Crossan's books and those of the other Jesus Seminarians: Reviews of said books are included and selected pages can now be viewed on Amazon. Some books can be found on-line at Google Books.
32. Father Edward Schillebeeckx's words of wisdom as found in his books.
33. The books of the following : Professors Marcus Borg, Paula Fredriksen, Elaine Pagels, Karen Armstrong and Bishop NT Wright.
34. Father Raymond Brown's An Introduction to the New Testament, Doubleday, NY, 1977, 878 pages, with Nihil obstat and Imprimatur.
35. Luke Timothy Johnson's book The Real Jesus
Jesus the Myth: Heavenly Christ
•Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy – check their educational backgrounds
Jesus the Myth: Man of the Indefinite Past
•G. A. Wells
Jesus the Hellenistic Hero
Jesus the Revolutionary
Jesus the Wisdom Sage
•John Dominic Crossan
•Stephen J. Patterson
Jesus the Man of the Spirit
Jesus the Prophet of Social Change
Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet
•John P. Meier
•E. P. Sanders
Jesus the Savior
•Luke Timothy Johnson
•Robert H. Stein
•N. T. Wright
So written a lifetime after and when you look these up, no Originals.
You are the most liberal brainwashing media outlet i have ever encountered. All you care about is seeing Christianity being slandered yet push the Muslim, Buddhist, New age thinking agenda like its your day job. I hope you all see a day where Islam takes over America and you are all under the Sharia law.
For the rest of you may the Lord work in you today and may His resurrection be lifted high!
I think it would be more accurate to say that Jesus existed and had a following, but when he was killed for defying Rome and his teachings were hijacked by the ruling class, they were changed into something that Jesus most likely never taught, and used to pacify the unruly masses(the same thing pretty much all organized religion is ultimately designed for).
There does not exists in this world a single religion that isn't (or wasn't) patronized by the ruling class for the purpose of controlling the teachings and the people who follow them. From Constantine to Clovis to Ashoka and all the way back to the beginning of the mystery schools: control, not enlightenment or "salvation", has always been the prime directive.
I lost my faith now.
Welcome to reality and reason.
I find it especially distasteful that CNN elects to post this story on Easter Sunday. Do they do similar to Islam and Muslims? But it is also very typical, since their anti-Christianity leaning seems to be gaining traction. As many have said, believers will believe and non-believes won't. Belief in God and in Jesus has always been a matter of faith and it always will be. Proving that this existed in historical fact or that existed isn't going to infuence believers. I myself choose to be among them. I choose to believe and I choose to have faith and to exercise it. I don't much care what others select. My faith is between God and me.
Just curious- question to atheists out there... do you believe in ghosts or any type of spirits?
This atheist doesn't.
Dave, no, most atheists would do not accept the existence of the supernatural. However, this is not a requirement to not believe in a god.
Athiest believe in only themselves...the topic of atheism has always made me laugh...they don't believe in God, but wouldn't you have to acknowledge something not to believe in it! The thing is, they can deny, deny, deny, all they want...speak blasphemy all day long...but when they die, they WILL bow before the King of Kings...and they will know what absolute fools they are! As they burn in Hell and wish for a drop of water, they will look back and realize they were tricked by the devil into being fools....
In magic creatures? Doesn't anyone grown up?
"The Jesus debate: Man vs. myth"
II stopped reading there.
Another attack on Christians. Well, well, I have my guns and my God, and will be waiting.
Watch what anthropologists, archeologists and religious historians seeking the truth have to say about where god came from:
The question is not whether he existed the question is whether he was divine. I see no credible evidence for the supernatural but could be convinced otherwise if presented with significant, factual examples of divine intervention.
Blaise Pascal wrote that it is unwise to bet against the existance of God - if you bet FOR the existance of God and you are wrong, you are no worse off than you were before, but if you bet for the existance of God and are correct, you gain everything. I think this is an appropriate day to explore this mystery. Even if you cannot agree that Jesus was divine, I think most of us can agree that his teachings of tolerance, love, compassion are ideals for which we all should strive.
You just had to print crap like this on Easter. I logged into CNN expecting this type of article. The Easter greetings on facebook were too much for you, I guess. There are Jewish historians and others who reference Jesus and his death after the crucifixion, such as Josephus.