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.”
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.
Some people on here really need to calm down! If you don't like the article, no one is making you read it. I thought it was very interesting and not at all offensive. If you are secure in your own beliefs it shouldn't matter what anyone else says anyway!
I talked with him this morning.
Seek help from a mental health professional immediately.
Praise to thee our risen savior
Except he's been dead for thousands of years. That is, if he ever existed.
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
As an atheist, show some respect people. Just as yom kippur is not the time to argue about judaism, and ramadan is not the time to argue about islam, easter is not the time to argue about christianity.
There is a time and place for religious debate and during a major holiday is not it. One can debate beliefs without being disrespectful of those beliefs.
Respect for harmful mythology that has kept women women for centuries? I think not.
Why? It's just a belief. There are many weird beliefs that we can question all the time.
Wrong. This is the BEST time, because it's the time when "casual believers" actually think about this stuff. And Christians have a spectacularly lousy track record re respecting and tolerating the beliefs of others.
Can't find my post anymore. When is the article questioning the validity of Mohammed coming out? Or is it only ok to question the origin of christianity? Let's see how long this post lasts.
It's still here!
Your post died and rose again! Praise Jeebus!
I would be kind of interested in reading about that, but I don't have enough context nor interest to really care that much. Christianity in this country is much more mainstream and part of many of our majority group's experience from cradle to grave. So, I think it has more to do with whether it is interesting and will be read and understood than that they are staying away from it out of fear or respect that they don't give Christianity. I think you're being too sensitive.
I think it's great when any religion is looked at from an objective, historical perspective as this article does. It gives all sides a voice and doesn't pick winners.
Tacitus referenced Jesus's execution in the Annals, and most historians consider that source to be reliable on this point, especially given the old Pagan's dislike for all thing's Christian. Certainly for such a widespread phenom as the Church to have gotten going in a time of no mass media would argue in favor of a historical Jesus. I have it on good authority that Josephus's account was indeed tampered with, the Hebrew, Greek, and later Latin disagree. It would be an interesting read to figure out how they differ and to look at the political realities of the times to figure out why.
Jesus, existed, exists and is risen! Happy Easter, or eastre, depending on your orientation 😉
thanks for the humor.
I think the growth of the early Christian church is more likely evidence of royal patronage, especially since there are ZERO historical accounts of Jesus roaming the land with twelve disciples and preaching the gospel and performing miracles.
Maybe, like just about everything else in the bible, this too is an allegory. Twelve disciples, twelve months in year, twelve signs of the zodiak, etc... With Jesus being the solar deity of the modern age, I find this interpretation satisfactory.
"He says Freke and others who deny Jesus’ existence are conspiracy theorists trying to sell books." now THAT! is tooooo funny. selling religion is makes the most money.
You got that right.
Thanks wonderful CNN for smearing Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. I hope your Messiah Obama Hussein and the other left wing vermon that run your company are proud. By the way, Jesus still loves you unconditional, you worms.
Did you even bother to read the article?
Lol are you a Christian? There's a reason I stay away from you folks, you are vicious. :/
Just can't stop hating for even one day, can you?
Thanks to "Thanks" for politicizing this.
By the way, we are vermin, not vermon.
Hmmmm....Easter...East Star. The sun (our star) rises in the East every day. During the winter, the strength of the sun fades, yet sure enough it is REBORN to its full strength again every spring which is marked by the Spring equinox. Easter is the first sunday after the first full moon following this Equinox...The Son (Sun) of God is the light of man...wow what a coincidence.
Jesus gave his life for our sins so that we may live in God's glory. Every day, the sun spends it's nuclear fuel (gives it's life) so that we may continue living on this planet.
The birth of Christ is celebrated a few short days after the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. After this day, the sun begins it's new cycle and will grow stronger with each day. Wow, another amazing coincidence.
Yeah, that's really neat how God made that all line up.
Why does it matter if Jesus existed or not? These days nobody believes in religion (except uneducated trash) but the stories in the bible can still teach valuable lessons. The bible should be treated just like any other work of fiction.
Except it's God speaking to us – through imperfect humans and cultures through the ages, but speaking to us nonetheless.
Prayer changes things .
To clarify, prayer changes otherwise intelligent and rational people into believing they can talk to an imaginary super friend.
Actually prayer can have a positive effect. The same way meditation can.
Prayer doesn’t not; you are so full of crap and lies. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.
An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.
The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!
All religions are false, they were explanations for people who wanted answers before science could offer them. They became dogma, gained power in numbers and now are passed on from generation to generation by people who truly believe in them. I have no problem with this if it makes people act as better people, however many use religion as a masque for doing this that would be shunned otherwise, but "in the name of the lord" its ok.
Watch what anthropologists, archeologists and religious historians seeking the truth have to say about where god came from:
Atheism is the most irrational religion ever dreamed up by the dark heart of any delusional person. According to known science the universe is not eternal and could not have created itself out of a steady state of absolute nothing. The first cause had to be self-existant, timeless, spaceless, immaterial, powerful, intelligent, and wise. God.
not so. A flat universe with an overall gravitational energy of zero can exist through quantum flactuation.
Atheism is not a religion, religion has robbed you of your intelligence.
First off, atheism is not a belief system and it definitely is not a religion...
Secondly, the nothing you refer to is not in fact nothing, but it is filled with energy from which spontaneous creation can happen. The argument for the infinity of the universe is simply answered by imagining a continuous collapse/expansion of the universe. On the other hand, there are other theories, such as the multiverse. Either way, none of it requires a supernatural being.
yeah...either that or humans don't fully understand the nature of the universe...
"The first cause had to be self-existant, timeless, spaceless, immaterial, powerful, intelligent, and wise. God."
Please provide your compelling proof this is true .
According to "known science"? What are you talking about? Tell us how old the Earth is according to the Bible and "known science"?
According to the Bible, the sun revolves around the Earth. How does this compare to "known science"?
I have never met a Christian. I have met lots and lots of hypocrites, but never a Christian. Anyone here who believes beyond any doubt that they are Christian should answer one simple question: do you keep the Sabbath holy? Do you, really? Have you ever seen anyone work on the Sabbath? If so, did you kill them? NO?!!!! You are NOT a Christian. The end.
WELL, Thank Tom that YOU'RE here to enlighten myself, and a couple billion people who've obviously been lost for a couple millennium without your razor-like intellect helping us all to appraise the situation.. Thank TOM for TOM's Miraculous Wisdom! in Toms name, Amen..
@Dylan: I bet you've never read the Bible, like 95% of Christians. Tom's right. The Bible clearly instructs its followers that if they see a man working on the Sabbath, they must kill him. Read the Bible.
Enemies of Christ give acount of him. That is a clear proof that he realy existed. An enemy of Christianity would never invent false statements, which would promote it:
Jesus was historical. It is proved by science of history!
There was a very famous historian of the Roman Empire, which lived in the first century after Christ (AD 56 – AD 117), that means extremly near-term to the events, which had came to pass in Palestine. He, Tacitus, was a pagan, which had no reason at all to promote Christianity and to tell us lies about Jesus. We can be sure that it was historical, what he wrote about Jesus, because he was an enemy of Jesus:
"Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superst-ition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multi-tude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind".
This passage is a clear evidence for the historicity of Christ Jesus.
There was a famous Jewish historian of the first century, who gives acount of Jesus Christ. Jews have no reason to promote Christianity and thus we can be sure that Flavius Josephus told us the truth about Jesus:
"And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus... Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned."
A Jew confirms the historical reality of Jesus, the founder of Christianity. That is very great!
Copy and paste much?
Yeah, for Christ's sake I copy and paste with pleasure!
Did you even read the article? The article above refers to Tacitus and states that he is not very believable since he also thought e.g. Hercules was a real figure. Any "proof' of Jesus' existence will always be only hearsay. And it doesn't really matter very much since even if he did exist he certainly wasn't any supernatural magician but only a Joseph Smith type con man.
God lives!! Jesus was and is our Savior whether we accept him as that or not. All of the skeptics and naysayers wont change the truth. Today we remember his exemplary life and we testify of the truth that he lives! And because he lives we may also conquer death! The Bible testifies that many saw him after his resurrection. Modern prophets also testify of him. Mormon.org.
Was there a man call Jesus who taught a different way of life than those of the strict compliance Jewish faith at the time or the oppressive rule of Rome?
Yes, it is entirely possible that such a person existed.
Did some historic writings perhaps survive and others interwoven for political and storytelling purposes:?
But the bigger questions that everyone evades in this article is; Is there a God? To that question we can only stay scientifically that is possible although highly improbable. Just as ancient people worshiped multiple gods to explain the world around them (gods of sun, moons, death, life, rain, thunder, storms at sea, etc.) a more mature approach several thousand years ago rolled this up onto a single power head. Mathematics was growing; The Greek's understanding of our role in the solar system and perhaps a larger universe were the beginning of true science, and we saw civilizations begin to spring up that labored for the pleasures in life more than just simple survival. In a changing world, a mono god helped explain away the roles of the multi-god cultures as selected understanding of the sun and weather cast doubt on the possibility of powerful beings throwing thunderbolts across the sky.
Strangely, worship became a powerful tool and an economic boon for man. If history teaches of anything, man desires absolute power and is loathe to give it up. The influence of churches over the centuries and their quick condemnation of anyone that objects to their stories are a testament to a weaker argument that likely cannot survive the scrutiny placed upon it. While a god belief has long outlived its scientific purpose, at some point mankind will have to acknowledge that Jesus has been dead a really long time and isn't likely to return. Similarly, the world may not end with some terrible rapture but die a normal slow death in the distance future or suffer a natural disaster. In either case, let up hope that man on day realizes that life is to be lived today. That the kindness we do to others doesn't give us a reward in a magical afterlife but makes today a better place and plays it forward to others. We don't need a god or a promise of another life to be better people, we just need to look within ourselves and do what is right to build a better world.
He's alive! We know because He wants us to!