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.”

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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. Horus

    If god were real, why did he make the atheists so smart and the believers so dumb?

    April 8, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • T. Lee

      If atheists were so smart – they wouldn't be atheists

      April 8, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • A Christian

      God shocked himself that free will would to the type of ignorance atheists exude, lol.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • A Christian

      God shocked himself that free will would lead to the type of ignorance atheists exude, lol.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  2. Joe Genesis

    Perhaps there are myths about "Jesus" but Yahushua did exist, and he fulfilled the prophecies written hundreds of years before his birth and death. When all the gospel accounts are studied together they reveal a ministry of exactly 490 days (70 weeks), including the "year of favour of the LORD". http://4Gospels.info

    April 8, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  3. Tom

    I am sure that person Jesus existed. However, it is highly suspect that he was the Son of God, performed all the miracles noted in the New Testament, and said 'word for word' all the words in the New Testament. The fact are the the New Testament was written generations after Jesus died by people that did not even know people that came in contact with Jesus, the text was written in Greek, and there very limited historical evidence of Jesus (when there was ample historical evidence of other important people in this era). This does not take away from the fact that the New Testament is a incredible and inspirational story of god and that Jesus (as described in the New Testament) was an enlightened person.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  4. S&J

    The last statistics the world almanac produced said there are 2.4 billion Christians (which includes all denominations). I and my family will humbly and lovingly celebrate Easter with all our fellow Christians this day. Shame on you CNN for ridiculing the faith of Billions. Your news agency wouldn't run such an inflaming headline on other religions' major holidays. I'll keep you in my prayers.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  5. martog

    The Easter Bunny did not visit....again. Should I call up Mr. Hefner and find out what's up wit dat? Scewwy Wabbit!

    April 8, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  6. p4p

    Hey... free will for everyone. i choose to believe and will pray for the non-believers. i feel at peace and do not have the need to "find the truth". this doesn't keep me up at night. maybe you shoudl try to do the same. We are way too medicre to be the only ones in this universe. you say man created God, but who created this earth, air, plants, animals... our souls that make us unique and different from each other? Science can explain somethings... but others are simply theories (unproven) and we choose to believe that rather than the alternate. believe what's in your heart... and dont worry about the inconsequential like trying to prove that God or Jesus doesn;t exist. love your family, or those close to you. be good to one another.

    p.s. next thing you know, ya'll are going to say that starwars never happened and the force is non-existent... that would be treason, lol

    April 8, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  7. Tom Notarangelo

    Like many other issues of today, gay marriage, abortion, anti antisemitism, The belief of Jesus existence is up to the individual not the media or some would be scholar or historian. It seems no one questions atheists or agnostics or other religious figures of ancient times, only Jesus. For those who believe, myself included leave us alone for it's our right to believe. For those that don't, go about your way that you see fit for your life and leave me alone. By jamming your theory down our throat that Jesus doesn't exist is no better then Christians jamming their faith down yours. Let it be, let people make their own decisions, that's why God gave us choice.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  8. Robert

    The idea that Jesus was concocted from pagan myths has been thouroughly debunked. But that does not stop anti-theist bigots from propagating the lie.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • notheism

      Is it really anti-theism or is it a-theism... If you can't understand the difference, then you should go no further.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • Tom

      Let me put up a web site and list all kinds of 'facts' that Columbus never discovered America (well, that is a known fact anyway) and this makes anything on the web site true? Anyone can put a web site....this makes it fact? Many known facts and traditions in history have changed as information has become more available and timely, and societies have evolved: the world is flat, women are not smart enough to vote, black people should be slaves, we don't think people that believe the earth rotates around the sun are pagans....the list goes on...it is called progress

      April 8, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  9. reason

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


    April 8, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • frank

      It is like finding pictures of people covered in what appears to be Astronauts in SA caves and coming to the conclusion that we were visited by aliens from outer space. It is the same with what these Anthropoligits have come up with to discredit the existence of God.

      I only care what my Lord Jesus Christ thinks.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  10. Jeff

    I trust we will see a scholarly article discussing the myth of Islam and Mohammed published on Ramadan? No? I didn't think so.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  11. A Christian

    CNN Sucks

    April 8, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  12. No one

    More importantly this Easter, how in the hell does a rabbit lay an egg?

    April 8, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • Colin


      April 8, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • Tom Notarangelo

      They follow Rush Limbaugh

      April 8, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  13. Rainer Braendlein

    The elders called the pope Western Antichrist and Muhammad Eastern Antichrist. They were right!

    April 8, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  14. John B

    Only CNN to be bold enought to touch such sensitive/sensible (oh, English for a foreigner...). I am what I am thanks to Christian moral, but, talking to my "Guarding Angel", the answer was: SORRY, THERE WAS NO HISTORICAL JESUS!.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  15. Peikovianyi

    The pagan world was familiar with stories of mortals who were sired by gods, and this was one more. Tertullian said "I believe because it is absurd" (Credo quia absurdum), the sort of blind faith is required. Does the god who rejected us after our disobedience in Eden now love us because we tortured and killed him? Martyrdom of the good on behalf of the wicked is not a moral philosophy; whether it is demanded by Church or Party makes no difference.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  16. A real person

    I think this is totally absurd to put up an article like this on Easter. Why not put an article on the mystical and existence of Moss on Passover or Mohammad on a Muslim holy day. Stop the hate of Christianity!

    April 8, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • YeahOk

      "Why not put an article on the mystical and existence of Moss on Passover or Mohammad on a Muslim holy day."

      Great idea!

      April 8, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • reason

      Seeking truth does not equal hate.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • Tom

      Actually see no evidence of hate here.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • George

      There is nothing Hateful here. If you are offended simply by views that you disagree with then of course you will be. But if those beliefs are worth holding then you should welcome criticism and us it as an example of why your view is correct.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  17. frank

    Christianity has become the whipping post of the secular media outlets. They would not dare print insulting articles on Islam and Judaism.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • YeahOk


      April 8, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  18. Joe

    Internet kooks?.... Religion should be considered a metal disease...

    April 8, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • frank

      you no type so good.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  19. Jason

    Someone needs to give the author of this article, the authors interviewed and CNN in general the book "The Case for Christ" or "The Case for Easter" by Lee Strobel.

    Thanks CNN for being incredibly rude and insensitive to the Christian faith.

    Yes we understand not everyone believes in Jesus Christ and died and raised for our sins. Who ascended to heave and sits at the right hand. Your article should have explained why we believe what we believe. Not some PoS article.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • martog

      Nice potty mouth(POS) in the name of Jesus.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • Jason

      Sorry Martog guess that was a little righteous anger showing.

      That being said the article is what it is. a big old pile of slag.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • Jason

      Actually Martog I'm not sorry. Deal with it that's what I feel. If they are going to write a horrible article that is completely inappropriate for the day it's posted then I have the ability to post hwo I feel.

      If this offends you that's your problem.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  20. IndianaGreg

    Another Easter Sunday, another article from CNN trying to convert me to Atheism...it's as reliable as my OD'ing on Cadbury Cream Eggs. Thanks for the offer CNN, but I already have my own religion, I don't want yours.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:02 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.