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. joey

    christians and amway are laughable

    April 8, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  2. cnnsucksbawls

    CNN, the atheist liberal blog for stupid people of the world.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • Mark

      They don't question the Jewish beliefs, just Jesus. Its all over the mainstream media. Just watch Family Guy. Making fun of Jesus all the time.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  3. TomCom

    The majority of Americans are Christians. Does the history of America reflect our Christian values?

    April 8, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  4. ford69

    "He says Freke can’t offer any proof that an ancient Osiris figure was born on December 25, was crucified and rose again. " I don't think anyone believes that Jesus was actually born on December 25. Christmas is a holiday that has been proven to fall on December 25 because a pagan holiday fell on that day.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  5. Nii

    The atheists have a right to seek the TRUTH. It is not wrong. I just hope they know that truth is subjective rather than objective. The truth that they find may be someones opinion but if it furthers their cause it is ok. Sounds like some Moslems I know. Hatred is used for brainwashing.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • TomCom

      Athiest have no interest in religion. There is no truth to seek. Athiest live a very content life. We do not spend out lives preparing the Christian belief of life after death.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • rick

      "I just hope they know that truth is subjective rather than objective"

      Yet you proclaim yours is the Truth, with a capital "t"

      April 8, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  6. Ronnie

    Its funny how people say God doesn't exist but there the same people who say we should believe in the Muslim religion that also worships God.And also the same people who believe Obama is God........Gotta love people,lol

    April 8, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • DebbieNJ

      What? I think those of us that do not believe in the Christian god do not believe ANY of the myths, regardless of which culture put their spin on the story.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • rick

      nothing like blathering forth assumptions, ronnie

      April 8, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  7. jack leddy

    The only thing that I am certain of is that Jesus, man or myth, was not the creator of the billion gallaxy universe. The gospels show us that Jesus had no knowledge other than that available to the other humans of his day. He is quoted time and again as believing that disease is caused by evil demons.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  8. Sifleut

    Anyone can be spiritual, but religion DOES separate people as we see here in most of these comments.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • Gotcha

      indeed you are correct. Many theists get flustered in such arguments. Look at all those exclamation points.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • OhPlease

      Religion has also killed more people on this planet than any other thing.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  9. ObjectiveOpinion

    From the bible, psalms 15:20 (had to fix my typo from my bible quote)

    And if any man doubts my existence, I'll send a catholic priests to his parish and have him abuse the doubter's son. And if hatheth no son, I'll have him do the doubter's wife. And if he hatheth no wife, I'll have him do the doubter's ass.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • Gotcha

      Quoting from an unscholarly source does nothing to your argument.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  10. TownC

    Jesus was a historical figure, but he is more! He is the son of God! He led an exemplary life where he taught us how to live and how to live the abundant life. He suffered and died that we might be able to overcome our follies. Today we celebrate his resurrection. And because he lives again so shall we!

    April 8, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • OhPlease

      "Jesus was a historical figure, but he is more! He is the son of God! "

      So your god wasn't compassionate enough just to forgive man. It had to create a bogus son to kill so it could please itself. That is one sick god. Plus when you factor in it killed everything on the planet prior to this to save a few, your god is evil and shouldn't be worshiped.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  11. Joe

    I don't mind when a person doesn't believe Jesus was the son of god, because I don't know if I believe that he was either. Believing he didn't exist altogether is just proudly pronouncing you're an idiot, and absolutely is the same as believing the Holocaust and 9/11 didn't really happen. Of course, CNN's article – like CNN's articles usually are lately – is too afraid to say definitively that there is extremely credible evidence he existed, and we continue to find more every day, and actually claims there ISN'T credible evidence outside of the Bible.
    Archeologists have found as much evidence to prove the existence of Jesus as they have found to prove the existence of any other figure, from George Washington to the pharaohs. If you want to pretend they haven't found the proof, either, then well, that's typically when I stop trying to have a reasonable conversation with you because you've made it clear that for all the arguments you make about "rational science," you're even more irrational than the religious folks.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  12. Sultan

    Good News'
    Muslims,about 30% of the world population , believe that he existed but not the way Christians believe in him.
    Just enjoy ur eastern and be happy

    April 8, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  13. rgbowe

    Religion is a learned belief, if you are brought up to be a christain, you are, if you are brought up to be a Jew you are, and so on with budist, muslims, etc. and then you close your mind so that no other thoughts can exist. If you open your mind you might start to question as many people have, not that Jesus existed but that his is a god or son of a god. And for all of you who say that things happen because if it God's will, ask your self how you could possible know A GOD"s will. And besides any God that would rule over a world as screwed up as this has some of it's own problems.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  14. Casey

    CNN has become a rag periodical catering to the left. They never miss an opportunity to push their agenda.

    God bless you all on this most Holy of days.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  15. Lazlo

    There will always be those who reject the Good News, because it involves leading a moral life. It requires humility and the understanding that "I" am not the center of the universe. It contains instruction, formulated over thousands of years, that prohibits the most destructive social behaviors – things that may feel good but are ultimately corrosive in nature. It's the same as rebellious teens that debase and reject their parents. They seek any flaw that will justify their own self-destructive desires. It's funny that as these young ones mature they gain some clarity, and come to the conclusion that perhaps ol' Pops was right. The same thing happens with ourselves and God.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  16. adamthefirst

    and the holocost never happened either.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  17. Mike

    It always amazes me how many atheists are on the internet. In the population at large, it's 20%, and on the internet it's over 50%. It seems like a lot of atheists must have nothing better to do than comment on message boards. I think it's because religious people have larger families that they spend time with (wish I could be with mine now, working on Easter stinks).

    April 8, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • ObjectiveOpinion

      So you are working, but on the internet? Must do wonders for productivity. God made you do it, right?

      April 8, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • SixDegrees

      How do you identify atheists from posts? There aren't so many here who have self-identified as such. Could it be that in your world, an atheist is just someone you don't like?

      April 8, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Lazlo

      It also amazes me that people who claim to be atheists point to the lack of proof of a god. They are too ignorant to know the same argument, inverted, precludes being an atheist. There is no proof of the non-existence of a god. The most they can truthfully aver to be is agnostic. But that doesn't have the same punch does it? The same shock value. No, for a good pose you need to use the word atheist.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Josh Gonzalez

      It's closer to thirty percent.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • rick

      laslo: or "christian"

      April 8, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  18. peace247

    The Holy Qur'an: Surah Nisa

    That they said (in boast), "We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah";― but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not.― (157)

    April 8, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  19. Tom

    The argument for a historic Jesus seems to be based on the fact that no one would die for a myth. Is that it, really? I guess that some one should mention that to the Hindus and Muslims in India who make sport of rioting and killing over religion, at least one of which has to be a myth by default.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • DownSouth

      But the belief that all human behavior is motivated by individual self-interest is one of the leading myths being peddled by well-known secularists such as Richard Dawkins.

      The cognitive dissonance coming from the atheists is deafening, and it seems the secularists are being hung with their own rope.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Boubkeur

      An Epiphany spirituality is not only Christ in us, but Christ being releaved through us to others. through the Holy Spirit, the nature of which I speculate on in your facebook pages.

      August 1, 2012 at 5:09 am |
  20. paulr

    The answers everyone seeks are in the "earlychristianwritings.com
    "...and in the gospels of all the other decipiles...including many letters and books...Read the gospel of thomas..a real eye-opener.....fyi, even jesus own family, his 4 brothers and two sisters thought he was unstable....

    April 8, 2012 at 10:17 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.