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. Henry Bowman

    I would be interested to see if CNN would choose to run a similar story about Mohammed on lets say, the start of Ramadan. Perhaps they could delve into his choice of a 9 year old for a wife, or the fact that he advocated the conversion of the unfaithful at the point of a sword. No, CNN would never do that, it wouldn't fit into their twisted model of objective journalism. On what is arguably the holiest day of the year for Christians, CNN chooses to run a garbage article like this one. At least we know who our enemies are.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • SixDegrees

      If your religion can't withstand objective examination, it's not something worth believing in, is it? And Easter is supposed to be a time of reflection and introspection; instead, you seem to treat it as an opportunity to shut your brain off completely, demand that everyone else do the same, and fall into a chocolate egg induced stupor.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  2. Kevin Barbieux

    Wow, on every side of the discussion in this article, there are very weak arguments. All of these "scholars" are riding an intellectual merri-go-round, racing to assert themselves as the "authority" yet doing nothing more than going round and round and getting no where.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  3. I thought jesus was white

    i can almost hear the religionists minds here 'god will show those atheists'.... Their delusion runs deep

    April 8, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Dougie

      you mean "European American"

      April 8, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  4. Andrewa

    Hey, CNN! Can you headline some other religions?? You're stuck on Tebow and Christianity. Maybe you should call this section "American Christianity" instead of "Religion".

    April 8, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • I thought jesus was white

      this is the religion blogs.. They should include witchcraft. oops, they do, jesus was a witch

      April 8, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • .

      CNN posts these stories every Sunday to allow their left wing gay-theists an opportunity to vent their bigotry.

      CNN condones bigotry as long as it's directed toward Christians.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • MithraLives!

      this guy is talking about bigotry and is calling people gaytheists. LOL! Christianity everybody! Spreading hate and lies for 2000 years.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • Jeff

      Because other religions don't cram their religion down everyone's collective throat. Because other faiths don't look down their noses at everyone who isn't part of their religion. Because other religions don't comb residential neighborhoods to enlist the "heathen" into their religion. Because other religions don't preach their faith to drivers on roadsides, street corners, etc. complete with loud speakers and amplifiers. Because other religions don't protest the burials of fallen American heroes.

      I personally don't think "Christians" are so poor and downtrodden. They have earned the treatment they are getting by the actions of their past. The Christian hypocracy is finally being exposed. They should man up and take the criticism.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  5. Vivienne27

    I will be waiting for CNN's article "The Allah Debate – Was the Prophet Muhammed the real deal or a hoaxster pedophile?" at the start of Ramadan.

    Oh heads up CNN – I'd be checking under the hood and frame before you start the car to go home. Just sayin

    April 8, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  6. Jon

    In saying Freke and others who deny Jesus’ existence are conspiracy theorists trying to sell books, Bart Ehrman makes himself a conspiracy theorist trying to sell his book.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  7. Don Everson

    There should be no debate; history proves that Jesus did in fact walk this earth. He was sent by God to reveal the true way back to a relationship with a loving Creature.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • notheism

      Where is this proof??

      April 8, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • iamdeadlyserious

      Is the "loving Creature" a dinosaur?

      I hope it's a dinosaur.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • sybaris

      Therein lies the problem with religion. It takes a book of questionable authenticity and regards it as a 100% fact filled reference regardless of evidence to the contrary.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Nick

      No debate? Jesus may have walked earth but sent from God? I suppose you believe in unicorns and trolls too?

      April 8, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • ElmerGantry


      Unicorns are mentioned in the bible.


      April 8, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Rishi

      A lot people want and need something to believe in and some of them were just forced from birth to go church and have have all these teaching drilled in you. No matter what religion it is EVERYBODY NEEDS TO KNOW GOD LEFT THIS PLACE A LONG TIME AGO


      April 8, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  8. Nick

    I believe that Jesus was a historical figure but thats it. Think about how easy it would have been to con people back in those days...enough said.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • ElmerGantry

      Look how easy it was for Joseph Smith to con people in more "modern times"!

      Heck, even more recently look how easy it was for L. Ron Hubbard to perform the same con in the 1900's.


      April 8, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  9. FSM

    “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.” Obviously, he has never been to Oklahoma.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  10. Rainer Braendlein

    Tacitus was an archpagan and thus hated the Christians. Flavius Josephus was a Jewish general and did not like the meek and humble Jewish Christians, which refused to fight against the Romans together with Bar Kochba.

    We can believe, what Tacitus and Flavius Josephus told us about Jesus.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • Don

      A whopping two sentences? That's your evidence?

      April 8, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  11. reason

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


    April 8, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  12. Robert

    Atheists tend to be deeply religious people. One must cling to dogma that runs counter to science to maintain his atheism. For example, one must hold fast to the dogma that the universe is eternal in order to be an atheist. Or one must embrace the equally unscientific idea that the universe created itself out of a steady state of absolute nothing.

    Nothing about atheism is scientific or given credence by science. Indeed, atheism and science are at odds.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • I thought jesus was white

      it's no wonder you are religious, you never matured a thought process.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • Josh

      Your ignorance is showing again.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • FSM

      I'm not an athiest, but I see their belief system as being less at odds with science than your belief system.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • reason


      April 8, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • YeahOk

      "Atheists tend to be deeply religious people."

      That is one of the most ridiculous statements ever made.

      "One must cling to dogma that runs counter to science to maintain his atheism. For example, one must hold fast to the dogma that the universe is eternal in order to be an atheist. Or one must embrace the equally unscientific idea that the universe created itself out of a steady state of absolute nothing."

      Not a requirement at all. I could throw out every science book, and you can still not provide evidence of your god. Why are you trying to use the they're wrong about this, so it makes me right about that argument. Just provide some evidence, that is all we ask.

      While you may find some claims in science that says something came from nothing, it's really, something came from a state we do not understand.

      Your belief is that something absolutely came from nothing by a magic man that said abracadabra.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Tom LI

      Science had nothing to do with my losing Faith and becoming an Atheist. It was all purely the results of an in depth and long study and journey INTO the Religious tracts, esp. Xtianity – that led to my de-conversion. Not science, but religious study turned me Atheist. If

      If more Believers did this, they might temper their faith and move from a system of Dogma practice and defense to one of more skepticism about Mans hand in it all, and move to a more careful, and conscious faith – not blind faith that all too often demands ignorance and blinding oneself to reality and history.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  13. HispanicMan

    To show how far off from what is right that Christianity has fallen, each year on a Sunday, they celebrate the "resurrection" of Jesus Christ. It was his death that is of primary importance and yet, most of Christianity fails to observe that one day. A day in which all of our sins had been atoned for. Also, why always on a Sunday? Its all commercially motivated without a single hint of sincerity to following what we were commanded to observe.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • FSM

      Because we must have CANDY! The Easter hare (pagan) brings baskets of eggs (pagan) to celebrate the fertility goddess Oestre (Easter). Don't you know anything?

      April 8, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  14. Vincent


    April 8, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • Dougie


      April 8, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • notheism

      That's what the Church told Galileo

      April 8, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • bizziel


      April 8, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Nancy

      Right on Vincent!!!!

      April 8, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • becer12

      It's fine not to believe... but I hope your right.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • MithraLives!

      or what becer? Your all loving god is going to set us on fire for eternity? Well in that case, for your sake, i hape you picked the correct god to worship, or else your going to some other religions version of hell. Guess wisely!

      April 8, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • John

      Absolutely not. Your religion can't leave me alone, or anyone else that's not christian so I won't leave it alone. The lie that Christianity is has caused more death and destruction throughout human history than any else.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  15. iamdeadlyserious

    There really isn't enough evidence to support the existence of a historical Jesus with any certainty. Which doesn't necessarily mean that there wasn't one. Just that he's about as well supported as Zeus & Co.

    I think the point of the people calling this into question is quite valid though: who cares? If the Jesus myth was created just to give people an anchor for their beliefs, why does it matter that it's a myth? Either way, millions of people have done good and/or terrible things in the name of that faith. Why does the literal existence of a guy who most people misquote and misunderstand matter to you?

    April 8, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  16. There never was a god

    lol the real jesus was never ahead of us, figure head mythical beings are silly. believing in things you cant prove are there is a practice in imbecility. i mean if youre going to believe in a invisible man in the sky that sent his son on a suicide mission why not believe in the goldilocks and the three bear, or jack and the beanstalk, humpty dumpty, etc. oh thats right, your brand of fairy tale holds more water because.... and thats where i get lost. why choose to have blind faith in things that hold no empirical evidence to have existed? because it feels good? because you gain some form of security? well ask yourself if the murder of millions is worth your security blanket. ask yourself is the systematic raping of children is worth it. "the real jesus will always be ahead of us", lol not in my life.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • athleticmedic

      The funny thing here is that there are MANY things people believe in that aren't "proven"...the theory of relativity, the atomic theory, certain aspects of medicine...are just a few. Yet, people aren't criticized (or "allowed" to be criticized) for believing in these. There is exactly zero reason to toss insults at others beliefs. I get the argument, but at least be an adult about it...

      April 8, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  17. Ronald Raygun

    internet kooks.. lol. ufos are more real than jesus. who in their right mind would believe in a jewish zombie that if you telepathically communicate to him that he is your master. he will remove an evil force from you that was caused from a rib woman tricked by a snake to eat a forbidden fruit... religion is for nuts

    April 8, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  18. Robert

    Man has hallway needed something to believe in in order to sceptically death. No matter how insane it is just look at some older religions in history. I can never fully believe in Jesus as. As its been Proven the church has edited the bilble in the midshipman era to have the Bible say what they wanted it to teach. In the end one one truely knows what waits for them. We all just need to be good people and hoe something awaits us

    April 8, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  19. Peter

    And a Happy Easter to you too, CNN.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  20. I thought jesus was white

    I treat religion as p-or-n and keep it away from kids. If at age 18, when they are mature, they want to believe, then let them. Until then, leave religion in the history books where they destroyed lives.

    Then again the religious don't like that, the brainwashing doesn't stick as well if you don't start when they are small trusting children.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • I thought jesus was white

      the religious are like alcoholics, they need believing buddies to join them in denying the truth.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:38 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.