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. stmp

    Its called Faith!! some have it and some don't.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • YeahOk

      Yes, we understand you and others have faith. But why? Why put faith in something without evidence?

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

      "Faith" is just a more polite word for delusion.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  2. Todd

    Really CNN! You should be ashamed of yourselves! This is Christianity most holy day of the year,why do you want to spoil it for the masses. I don't have issues with the article but the timing is really tasteless. Why don't you RESPECT other religions for once and let us enjoy our celebration of our faith. What is next are you going to post on Christmas that Santa doesn't exist and your parent actually fill the stocking during prime time so as many kids will watch it?

    April 8, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  3. Anti-idiotism

    This is a typical insensitive CNN editorial. Shallow writing from discreditable authors are taking a shot at Christian in their holiest day. Shame on you. Christ is resin and truly is resin. I wont see you in hell because I will be with Christ.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • aginghippy

      Christ is the sticky goo that's excreted by plants and trees?

      April 8, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • JT

      That you must believe in this myth or roast in hell says it all. I feel sorry for brainwashed drooling imbeciles like you.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  4. bencoates57

    We're now penning banner headline stories about what people say on the Internet? CNN.com is such a rag.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  5. I thought jesus was white

    I like Satan better.. Satan's cool. Everyone blasts Satan, even the jesus guy. Yet Satan never harmed anyone and never wrote a bible decribing his side of the story. Based on that, Satan is the most secure of all..

    April 8, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  6. Rob

    Jesus deniers are "Internet kooks."

    Name calling? that's the best they can come up with... pathetic.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • YeahOk

      I have no insults. Still waiting for someone to produce compelling evidence of a gods existence though.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • bhartman36

      Actually, it's not the best Ehrman can come up with. In his book, he points out that the scholarship the deniers do is sub-par, and they don't generally quote sources later than 1950 or so. In other words, they're terrible researchers.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  7. WMoonFox

    As if being a "New Testament Scholar" isn't silly enough, Mr. Ehrman goes on to completely invalidate his position by poisoning the well, calling his adversaries "kooks" and comparing them to Holocaust deniers. If you cannot argue the facts, sir, then please do us all a favor and refrain from arguing at all.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • bhartman36

      Ehrman *does* argue the facts. The quotes from the article are a very small part of his book. They don't represent the best arguments he has.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  8. cyrus

    It is obvious that people need to look up the definition of myth or at least agree upon one definition. In the article, for example, Bible scholars would have us deny Hercules existed but accept the Biblical counterpart Sampson based on the same evidence. Myth does not imply fiction any more than history implies accuracy.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  9. Rainer Braendlein

    People believe in the sinner Muhammad, but feel not able to believe in the holy Son of God Jesus. That is a calamity.

    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!

    April 8, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • YeahOk

      Copy, paste.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein


      It is legitimate to quote scholars! Clear off!

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

      And you think it is necessary to do it over, and over, and over? Do you think it carries more weight the more you do it?

      April 8, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  10. govspy

    "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."

    If Christians didn't blend or adopt pagan myths, then why is Christmas on the same days as Pagan Yule, All Saint's Day is on the same day as Pagan Samhain and Easter is on the Pagan Beltaine festival? I'm sure that's just coincidence. As much as most Catholic Saint's Days are the same as Pagan Feast Days. Yeah, total coincidence.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • bhartman36

      *Early* Christians hated paganism. As Christianity spread and Christians attempted to supplant paganism, they adapted the pagan rites to Christianity. But adapting a pagan holiday is different from creating Jesus out of whole cloth from pagan myths.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  11. Bill

    "Their answer: Jesus deniers are "Internet kooks."". People usually respond with name calling when they know they can't win their argument.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • frank

      The should read the rest of the article.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • JT

      What do they call fairy deniers?

      April 8, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  12. JT

    Shouldn't you Christians be in church instead of here learning that your god is a re-hash of an older pagan myth?

    April 8, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  13. frank

    Jesus has passed the test of time.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • YeahOk

      If you mean people are still talking about him, then yes.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • frank

      Jesus is still very relevant in lives of may that choose to follow him.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • YeahOk

      You make him relevant, that does not make Jesus a god.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  14. concordantmind

    Thus fair and balanced fact based article is going to really anger some christians 🙂

    April 8, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  15. breakingbad

    Christ has risen...He has indeed! I praise the Lord for His sacrifice to save me for my sins! What mercy and intellect! Jesus is Lord and every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that... Jesus Christ is Lord! Happy Easter!

    April 8, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  16. reason

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


    April 8, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  17. truthfulster

    I believe in God and his son Jesus, I also believe that our soul or ghost or spirit is endless and will survive in what ever existence there is for it occupy. If you want life on earth again after you die through Jesus is the only way. I believe the thought of all the earthly things we take for granted such as eating and laying with a women , breathing air and walking and moving about as we do on earth will be considered suffering when denied because of your transgressions. It's your decision what you do now will effect you after this life and all the protesting in the world can't get you anywhere.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  18. Tyler

    Hallelujah Hallelujah Hal-le-lu-jah! Christ has risen!

    April 8, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • breakingbad

      He is indeed!

      April 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  19. ElmerGantry

    "Internet kooks,

    Name calling and insults; the last resort of people who have no viable logical intelligent comment.
    This is attack the character of the person, not the comment method of disinformation.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • bhartman36

      Ehrman has more to say than name-calling and insults. You should at least gloss over the book. Ehrman makes those judgments because the people writing these books and websites do horrible research with no scholarly attention to accuracy.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  20. YeahOk

    "The first cause had to be self-existant, timeless, spaceless, immaterial, powerful, intelligent, and wise. God."

    Please provide your compelling proof this is true.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • ElmerGantry

      Waiting for the apologist answer to you question.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:14 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.