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.
Thomas Jefferson had quite a bit to say about this – even rewrote the New Testament.
So let me get this straight... Bart D. Ehrman believes in an invisible bearded man that lives in the sky, that wished the universe into existence in six days... Yet to him, somehow other people are the kooks.
Amen, brother, (pun intended)
TAK: Really? Actually, the Big Bang theory is not incompatible with the Bible. Genesis is not a scientific text. The use of "days" refers to stages, not actual 24hr increments of time. If Genesis was to explain the existence of the universe, it would require thousands of pages of equations far too complex for your mind – and possibly mine – to comprehend. The reference to a "bearded man in the sky" is a depiction of the God likely finding its origin in one of MIchaelangelo's paintings...how this artistic representation undermines the existence of God implicit in your statement is puzzling. You should do some reading.
Why is it that Christianity is the only religion CNN and the "objective" media feel free to "debate" and they choose to do so on its holiest day. When CNN and the athiests posting here have the courage to debate the validity of Islam on Ramadan, maybe then will I respect the,, but until then, it is just a cowards attempt to take the easy path.
people debate other religions too. It just so happen in the USA the predominant religion is christian. So it has the greatest impact discussing this particular religion locally. Not all posters are american, and plenty of americans follow other faiths or philosophies. But in general, discussing the validity or concerns of christianity will have the most impact on conversation and challenging people's beliefs.
it's amazing how quickly some people are to point out flaws in another religion and then cling stubbornly to their own, simply out of faith and tradition.
personally, i think both mohammed and jesus deserve a break, they've been carrying us for more than 3k years between the two of them. Time to lessen the load and carry our own weight for awhile : )
Islam is attacked constantly by every media outlet. So why don't you focus your comment on defending the validity of your religion rather than attacking other religions.
On the other hand I'm glad to see so many comments accepting this as what it truly is ...a bronze age myth and legend..I am happy that people grow up and leave behind the imaginary friends. We left so many..Zeus, Amon-ra, Dyonisus, JuJu of the Jungle. What happened to them ? did they get angry.. strike us with lightning...he he he he...same thing will happen to this myth.
Forget the murderer Muhammad, but believe in the friendly pastor Jesus!
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!
No it just confirms the movement. Remember there was never a person called Communist either. Communism is just a movement.
Why when you question Jesus people start quoting the bible? Like it has merit to validate a point? It was written by ordinary people who saw how they wanted the world to be. Instead of living in the past we should create our own future!
What ever makes u sleep better a night......baaaahhhhhhh says the fuzzy sheep
whatever you want to beLIEve in your own brain...is up to you. cmon.
"Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day." – Flavius Josephus – a Jewish Roman historian, not a Christian.
Of note is the fact that the Jews did not save the works of Josephus, a fellow Jew working under the Roman Emperor Vespasian. Josephus began working as a historian under Vespasian in 71AD, after the destruction of Jerusalem.
Jesus existed... that's not open to debate. What did he stand for and what was his wish for his followers? That's open to debate and will be an ongoing debate.. Mohamed existed – he was a pedophile and autocrat. We're not sure if Moses existed because it can't be validated by no other context other than from the chosen Jews.
Human spin stories... spiders spin webs. Happy Easter.
"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." Paul was trying to incite revolt against the Roman Empire. That's why Jesus is always depicted as a European instead of a Jew.
Well, if you claim Jesus didn't exist, than you might as well say that the Roman's didn't exist as well...
Only a moron evangelical atheist would believe in what they can't see with their own two eyes because they feel like they are Mr. Know It All's and too simple minded to understand why people are religious. Maybe if they time traveled 2000 years ago, they would know. For the rest of us, we already know, which is why religion's have lasted this long.
..so I guess you also accept that Buddha is a real figure...or you will be a Buddha atheist..
If Jesus did exist, based on the time and place he was supposed have been born, he would have been a dark brownish man, about 4' 9" to 5' 1" in height. So much for that fantasy of a tall, blond, blue-eyed dude portrayed in the West and perpetuated by Hollywood.
no one thinks that dummy... That's hollywood
And I suppose you think "The Day After Tomorrow" is factually correct?
Where he came downa nd appeared to mankind is not material. If Africans want a black jesus and nordics portray him as they can understand him, that makes no matter. It just shows how little you know as the Greeks, Egyptians, Ethiopians, etc. have all traditionally portrayed him as they look. The irony is that you attempt to slander those of faith based on what you view as their ignorance when you are the one most plainly demonstrating it!
@Boomer2039: "no one thinks that"?! LOL!!! You must not live in America. LOL!!!!! Try getting out of whatever cave you live in sometime.
@Ben: What are you saying, exactly? That Jesus was a shape shifter or an illusionist? And he looked different to different people? To anyone in America, Jesus would look like a Mexican midget if he were around today.
Actually Jesus was blonde and blue eyed with a ruddy complexion. So confirms Pontius Pilot in a letter to Caesar. For three hundred years the Greeks controlled the Levant, and northern Greece (gosh, that would be Macedonia) had a blonde General named Alexander. Not all Jews were dark skinned with thick dark hair at the time of Jesus. King David, a thousand years earlier, was fair skinned, as was Jacob. Jacob had to fool his father into believing that he was the much hairier Easu, because Jacob had fair skin. Jacob received the blessing of the firstborn, and justly so. For while he was not the firstborn of Issac, he was the firstborn of the Father, the heavenly Father. Jesus was here in constant incarnations. He is who he is. Elisha received a double portion of the Holy Spirit, only the firstborn receives a double portion. He is who he is. The young Joshua, was at the side of Moses as he fled Egypt. Of Joshua, the Lord cried out.."Let my son go, that he may serve me." I could go on but you all are blind. Jesus asked the Apostles, "Whom do the people say I am?" He is who he is. Jesus said to you. "I am with you always". And so he was, and he is now. Look for a book called "the hidden key". All your answers lie within.
I wonder why no atheist is willing to provide evidence to be atheist, I wonder they dont have
I wonder why you offer no evidence for not believing in pink unicorns.
Because i said I will offer it once you give me yours! so go ahead give me your proven fact to be an athiest
It's the same reason I don't believe in Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, the Loch Ness Monster, etc. Lack of evidence.
When you can stop being a child and provide your evidence you seem to be so afraid to present, let me know.
Simple...because an atheist (or agnostic) is simply choosing not to believe in something that doesn't exist. And since there is no proof that any supernatural deities actually exist, it is wildly irrational to believe that they do.
The burden is not on atheists to prove that deities don't exist...the burden is on the religious to prove that they do.
Atheists are not the ones making any claims. The believers are. Thousands of unsubstantiated, outrageous and inconsistent claims. You people don't even agree with one another's fairy tales.
stephen hawkings released a book arguing how in our universe, something is created out of nothing, it's how it works.
i'm not an atheist btw, but there are plenty of legitimate arguments for not believing in a bearded man in the clouds whereas most religious types rely too heavily on belief, not enough critical thought.
fair warning: be careful what you believe in
Eesa (Jesus) was real. His was a prophet. Just like all the other true prophets.
Behold! the angels said: "O Mary! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to Allah;
So why does he allow Christians and Muslims to kill each other?
Out of respect for others, the same respect that you claim you want in this country, could you give it a rest for one day?
Watch what anthropologists, archeologists and religious historians seeking the truth have to say about where god came from:
would we still listen to jesus if he couldn't perform miracles?
the greatest lesson to learn from the new testament is that the person who is willing to sacrifice to help us, we may try to kill.
look in the mirror, choose who we want to be, let's make this world a better place, happy easter everyone : )
Sure their are a lot of people that do not believe . It´s because to admit Jesus is real is to admit also that
maybe then their lifestyle isn´t right . Peter the Apostle said No one told us fables about Jesus We WITNESSED THEM !
Paul also mentions Jesus´s Ascention into Heaven being witnessed by the Apostles , OH ... and about 500 people
many of them still alive at the time of Paul . Witnesses , People who saw and HEARD what JESUS SAID and DID !
Any body personally witness hercules or any of those MYTHYCAL CHARACTERS ?? What no witnesses ??
there are plenty of witnesses for bigfoot and space aliens too
that's multiple people believing they've seen something similar. Either they all exist, or there might be something to consider regarding 'testimony' and 'witness' accounts. Salem witch trials will point to the folly of relying on witness testimony.
So, you've met these witnesses? Or, just believing what you were told?
This is Easter Sunday, a very bad time for an article like this. What, is there no racial division or other misery to stir up today CNN? So you had to resort to this?
It seems very appropriate that this article is released today...
The historical truth about Muhammad: He was a murderer, a thief, a bandit, a rapist, an impostor, a liar, a revolutionist, a story-teller.
The historical truth about Jesus: He was holy, holy, holy!
Jesus had 5 bros n 2 sis all of whom were active in the Early CHURCH as was his mother Mary. The immediate younger brother , James de Just was the 1st Xtian bishop. He is a verified historical figure. A Pharisee rabbi like Paul. It was he who gave the ruling on Gentile membership not Paul.
5 brothers and 2 sisters? Mary must have been a wh0re.
god has been busy...
You are delusional, period.
Great calculated timing CNN to publish this topic. Audacity runs in your veins, if this was a Holy Muslim day, would you had the balls to publish a similar one about Mohamed? Keep attacking Christianity, and injecting doubt, as you're becoming Satan's associate. Ultimately, this cold and cheap move full of insult to millions of faithful Christians would blow up in your face CNN, keep it up.
All you believers, where is jesus? Wouldn't this be a good day to come back? Why not do it once every 100, or maybe 10 years. Would probably help promote attendance at church. Maybe counter the impact the priests have had abusing little boys.
You'll never find him with your mind alone........