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.
If Jesus was alive today and walked through airport to get on a plane, what would happen?
PERHAPS JESUS EXISTED, BUT SADLY CHRISTANITY WAS DESTROYED BUY CATHOLICISM. IF JESUS RETURNS THE FIRST THING HE WOULD DO IS TO BURN THE VATICAN.
The lead story on Easter? Questioning Christ? Shameful CNN, simply shameful.
Since when is seeking truth shameful?
Back in the day there were two types of Europeans, the Greeks and the Romans; and there were the other people, who were not Greek or Roman...so we know Jesus was not Greek or a Roman and therefore he had to be one of the other peoples and the other peoples were not Greek or Roman and that settle that as to what color Jesus was.
Israel exists just like the bible said that it would.
The threat of a war between Israel and Iran is serious. If the war goes nuclear then we are talking about Armageddon.
With so many signs coming true why would we not believe?
I don't care. Jesus saved me and changed my life. He is risen from the dead and lives!!! He can save you as well!
It's called delusion. Are you on Prozac?
"I don't care. Jesus saved me and changed my life"
This is the problem with your cult, you can't recognize you did it all yourself. It's been proven you release a chemical in your brain. You should stop cutting yourself down and get more self confidence.
Religion is very accurate way to measure intelligence. The stronger the believer the dumber the person.
People who can't fully understand a topic are lead to throw insults. Have your thought process, don't insult others.
So let's use some common sense.....what is today's date? 4/8/2012 from what? Hummm, the WORLD uses the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the way to measure what time and year it is. Just remember, every time you look at a clock or your watch, we are moving every second / min / hour further from his resurrection.
The correct typing is "more dumb". This coming from a devout Christian.
Jesus is a Sun God. The name Jesus comes from the numbers 888. In Hebrew and Greek all letters have numbers assigned to them......Jesus numerical value adds up to 888 which is the numerical value of god.
BTW, "Pass over" is to celebrate the sun going over the equator. Easter, today, is to celebrate the sun now being on the eastern sign of the zodiac which is known as the sun giving new birth after the winter.
Please don't confuse communism and Atheism. Hitler was a bona-fide Cristian, but most people understand the difference between Nazism and Christianity!
Hitler was a Christian. Yes only like Mitt Romney, Mohammed, and a host of Christian like religions. You cannot distinguish between a Christian and a member of a Christian-like religion?
This is why journalism has no tact or credit anymore. Easter Sunday? I would have enjoyed this article if I had read it yesterday or tomorrow but of course Christians are not People to the media anymore. Do good journalism exist anymore? write an atricle about that
you are correct. christians do not exist. at least, they should not exist.
It's amazing how much CNN declare war on Christianity and became atheist broadcast .. I'm Boycotting this station and its web site.
Fact or myth?
Keep sending in your donations
Jesus did exist. He had his crown of thorns, was nailed to the cross, but the spear missed his heart. The women tended to his wounds and after three days he wandered amoung us. He married Mary and slipped into oblivian.
I have come to realize that christians are very hungry on sundays and pushy at buffet lines.
So 'God', after the human species had already been around for some 200 thousand odd years, only when 98% of human history had already take place, suddenly decides that a blood sacrifice of his 'son' will redeem this irredeemable creation.. oh, created in his own image. That he'll send a messenger to end human suffering.. which, in hindsight, hasn't worked. But why did he allow humans to suffer for the previous 200K years without sending a savior? And why has God been silent since then? This infantile fantasy and this jealous, cruel, blood thirsty God are not worthy or 21st century credulity.
That's an easy one. God has simply allowed man to function by his own free will......just as we have always demanded since the beginning of time in the garden of Eden & thus bringing into question God's right to rule over us..
All the passing of time is simply to show man he is in dire need of a theocracy governed by God & his son becuase he is wholely unable to govern his own self.
He even provided a written law through Moses to show mankind what is required if he wants to rule himself justly, holy & continue to have a relationship with him so all could live a blessed & fulfilling life & prove we are worthy of that life given to us
Mankind has shown by constantly breaking these laws that he is prone to be sinful , wholely unable to rule over himself without creating his own destruction, thus unable to live by these righteous laws & only deserving of death.
Becuase God loves us & doesn't wish to destroy us but to enjoy life abundantly ,Jesus was sent & sacrificed to abolish that law,to enable mankind to have a relationship with a perfect holy God even though we continously live in grave sin and am only deserving of death by our own self-condemnation.
Since Jesus death,all manner & systems of self-government have proven without a doubt that we rule ourselves to our detriment,completely helpless to bring about our own happiness with a righteous & peaceful co-existance.
Soon & the time is very near,Jesus will take action to wrestle control from mankind & establish his righteous government without men interfering & claiming God has no right to rule over us because we have proven without a shadow of a doubt, we are unable to govern ourselves.So we would be unable to ever again question God's right to rule.
Jesus Christ is Risen !!! He is truly Risen Alleluia ! Happy Easter to all the believers on the CNN editorial board.
Yes happy Ostare!
Christians stole this pagan holiday too!
1. You were likely brought up a theist (probably a Christian if you live in the USA) and had to do your own thinking to rise above the beliefs that still occupy the mind of the believer. This usually involved being smart and working hard at school and college so as to get a good, accurate view of the natural Universe and overcoming significant social pressure to dumb yourself down and conform. In short, you had the guts to ask the hard questions and the brains to spot the weak answers. The more you came to understand the Universe, the less reason there was to believe in a god and the more you came to appreciate human nature, the more you understood why billions of us still do.
2. While rejecting the supernatural elements of the Bible, you nevertheless retain a large amount of the morality taught today by mainstream Christianity. To the extent you reject Christian morality, it is where it is mean spirited – such as in the way it seeks to curtail freedoms or oppose the rights of $exual minorities. In most other respects, your basic moral outlook is indistinguishable from that of the liberal Christian – you just don’t need the mother of all carrots and sticks hanging over your head in order to act in a manner that you consider moral.
3. You know a great deal more about the Bible than most believers. This is because you took the time to read it yourself and did not rely on the primary-color simple stories you learned in Sunday school. You have also probably done some research into the historical Jesus and have a good handle on where he REALLY fit in to the broader picture of the Middle East at the time. Needless to say, his miracles and other magic powers soon started to look pretty unlikely.
4. Your knowledge of basic science and history is much stronger than that of your average believer. You likely have a basic working knowledge of physics, astronomy, evolutionary biology and cosmology and a good idea of the history of life on this planet. This acc.umulated knowledge puts you in a position to judge the claims of the Bible in a critical light and they are almost always found wanting. To the theist, this makes you “elitist” and ‘arrogant”.
5. You relish your role as a religious minority in the USA, as this gives you an impetus to fight and you understand how others with unpopular, but doubtlessly correct views have felt throughout history. There is something altogether satisfying to you about having a deep conviction you are right and being viewed with disdain for your views by the errant majority. You feel a quiet confidence that future generations will look back on you as a member of a class of trailblazers, as religious supersti.tions go into inevitable decline in popularity.
6. You are likely more environmentally aware than your theist friends and colleagues and unlikely to fall for claims of industry and wind-bag politicians concerning the impact of man’s activities on the environment. You could no more act in an environmentally irresponsible manner because “god will keep us safe” than you could jump of a ship, believing King Neptune will keep you safe.
7. You generally have a live and let live atti.tude, but will fiercely defend any attempts by theists to thrust their views on you or your children, directly or through control of school boards, the legislature or the executive. While you are prepared to debate and argue passionately with the theist on an intellectual level, you would never wish them harm or ill will. You know you are likely to be smugly told you will “burn in hell for all eternity” for your healthy skepticism. This highlights what you despise about religion, as you would not wish a bad sunburn on another, simply because they have a different religious view to you. You have never heard of an evolutionary biologist strapping a bomb to himself and running into a church yelling “Darwin-u akbar”.
8. You likely know more about other religions than your average theist. This makes you less fearful of them and enables you to see parallels. You realize that, if you were born in India, you would have been brought up with a totally different religion. You realize that every culture that has ever existed has had its own god(s) and they always favor that particular culture, its hopes, dreams and prejudices. They cannot all exist and you see the error all faiths make of thinking only theirs exist(s). This “rising above” the regional nature of all religions was probably instrumental in your achieving atheism.
9. You likely have a deep, genuine appreciation of the fathomless beauty and unbelievable complexity of our Universe, from the 4 nucleotides that orchestrate every aspect of you, through to the distant quasars, without having to think it was all made for you. You likely get more out of being the irrelevant ant staring up at the cosmos than you do in having to pretend that it was all made to turn in majestic black-and-white pirouette about you.
10. While you have a survival instinct, you cannot fear death in the way the theist does. You know that the whole final judgment story, where you may be sent to hell if you fail, is Dark Ages nonsense meant to keep the Church’s authority. You also know that you were dead for 13,700,000,000 years before you were born. It is impossible for you to fear death, for the simple reason that you know the capacity to fear (or to feel pain or discomfort) itself dies. You will not even know you are dead. Fear of death is as meaningless to you as is the fear of a vacuum, the fear of not being born. You feel a lot more secure, and indeed a deep comfort, in this knowledge, than you would in trying to yoke yourself to some quasi-hope that every part of your intellect tells you is untenable.
Well done Martog. I remain hopeful that rationality will prevail over ignorance.
WHEW martog, it sure is getting deep ! ....& some have the audacity to accuse many New Testament scholars, as stated in this very article, as being "intellectual snobs". ( Note however the referance of them as being an ** Intellectual**)
There are 7 million active Jehovah's Witnesses in the world & all understand hell as NOT being a place of eternal torment .They understand that when you die you are just that....DEAD. You would NEVER hear them tell you,as you stated, you will “burn in hell for all eternity”.
So where does the fear of eternal punishment play a role in motivating them to have a belief in God??
What's more,there are many many highly intellectual scientists who are creationists,who possess a devout intellectual belief & understanding of God & the existance of Jesus.
Being an intellectual or possessing a gift to write eloquently does not equate to having all the facts & thus the truth.
I will give a short version of what I said above–can someone who already believes very strongly in Jesus and Christianity as fact do actual unbiased 'research' into the question of whether Jesus actually lived or not? I ask because the field of top NT scholars is made up almost 100% of such people. do they actually give equal effort to the possibility that Jesus may not have existed? Highly doubtful. So, the question is rarely even considered seriously by top scholars in the field.
Watch what anthropologists, archeologists and religious historians seeking the truth have to say about where god came from:
Someone, who denies the historicity of Christ Jesus, is an outrageous fool.
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!
The guy that wrote that believed Hercules was a real person too. You guys always leave that part of the story out
"Tacitus" ... he also believed hercules was a person who actually existed. so much for your "proof".
the FACT is ... no real historical evidence exists which shows jesus every existed.
This is an unprofessional article. I am former practicing Christian open to new ideas, but this article still appears very biased. You cannot truthfully summerize a debate that has involved hundreds of years and millions of people by only sourcing 4 or 5 in a debate. If John Blake and CNN had put as much effort into the question "Does Jesus exist?" as they had in the question "Was Treyvon Martin's death race related?", I would start to respect their opinion.
You could write, and many have, entire books on this. It is one article and there is limited space.
I Love Roman Lions
Too bad they ran out of Lions