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.
on this easter sunday, lets give thanks to an all-powerful gawd that created the entire universe and everyone in it, but who decided not to stop hitler. amen.
For those blasting Ehrman:
To set the record straight: Ehrman isn't defending Christianity. He's an agnostic, not a Christian. He doesn't buy into the supernatural claims of Christianity. But as a historian, he has looked at the evidence honestly and come to the conclusion that a Jesus did exist. The Jesus Ehrman sees is a *failed* messiah who wasn't successful in his mission, and whose followers (the initial people who knew him) made up stories about his resurrection.
Sorry, philosophers and scientists, you can't get instant answers and gratification to whatever you want, and because of that you can't stand it, can you?
All I want to say to the PhD's of philosophy, science, etc. is this: you may study all you want but that does not make you more wise than God himself. Faith is believing in something that exists but is not seen. That, in-and -of- itself, is the greatest challenge anyone can ultimately undertake in this lifetime.
Therefore, having faith in Jesus Christ means relying completely on Him—trusting in His infinite power, intelligence, and love. It includes believing His teachings. It means believing that even though we do not understand all things, He does. Because He has experienced all our pains, afflictions, and infirmities, He knows how to help us rise above our daily difficulties (see Alma 7:11-12; D&C 122:8). He has “overcome the world” (John 16:33) and prepared the way for us to receive eternal life.
“Faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.” 3
Thus, every time you try your faith, that is, act in worthiness on an impression, you will receive the confirming evidence of the Spirit. Those feelings will fortify your faith. As you repeat that pattern, your faith will become stronger. The Lord knows your needs. When you ask with honesty and real intent, He will prompt you to do that which will increase your ability to act in faith. With consistent practice, faith will become a vibrant, powerful, uplifting, inspiring force in your life. As you walk to the boundary of your understanding into the twilight of uncertainty, exercising faith, you will be led to find solutions you would not obtain otherwise. I testify that I know that is true.
And of course, others would like to convince themselves that it is "ok" and "good" to do whatever "feels good" whenever they want. In order to live by that principle, you cannot have a God, good and evil can you? So let's just say everything is a foolish myth! Yeah, very selfish and arrogant.
Great, another southern fried idiot. Lol
david koresh and warren jeffs followed god and practiced faith. look where they ended up.
Why haven't you studied Genesis 1:14?
if you look up delusional in the dictionary there will be a picture of brunette_barbie_SC above the definition:
an idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument, typically a symptom of mental disorder: the delusion of being watched.
Even though I agree with some of the content in this article, I just have to say: having this on the front page of CNN on Easter Sunday is extremely disrespectful to a lot of people, not only in the US but all around the world. Shame on you CNN.
It's not disrespectful. Just because it asks questions you don't like doesn't make it disrespectful.
you have your head up you a.s.s.
the fact that a news organization even has a belief page is very disrespectful to all thinking people.
Like I said, I don't mind the questions. If you can't see how it's disrespectful, you really need to re-examine how you relate to people.
Like I said, I don't mind the questions. If you can't see how it's disrespectful, you really need to re-examine how you relate to people."
Look in the mirror buddy! How do you think you relate to people? You are delusional and stuck with some weird belief.
I'm not a Christian, Voice of Reason. The fact that you can take two comments of mine, posted on an Internet blog, and judge that I am "delusional" and have "weird beliefs" only confirms the general disrespect I was talking about.
"I'm not a Christian, Voice of Reason. The fact that you can take two comments of mine, posted on an Internet blog, and judge that I am "delusional" and have "weird beliefs" only confirms the general disrespect I was talking about."
Anyone that thinks it is disrespectful to question and criticize or for that matter promote critical thinking even on some supposed holy day is irrational at the very least and most likely religious.
The fact that Christ will sound unstable is true. 2Yrs ago i was very proud n rash. When I learned 2 love my neighbor as myself I calmed down. My reasoning powers increased tremendously as can be verified from tests I took during that time. I was however misunderstood a lot. Frankly humans r selfish
My husband and I often visit old ceetmaries. My friends laugh because I say they are romantic places. The grave markers and inscriptions tell of love and sadness. I see the infants and children's markers and thank God I have not been asked to go through that grief and I wonder at how those mothers got through it. Often there are old roses and other plants that have outlived the gardener who put them there. And sometimes there are flowers to indicate even after many years someone is still remembering and missing a loved one. Men often outlived several wives and numerous children before there was better health care and more doctors and the story is right there in the plot amongst all the markers, big and small. I enjoyed your story. I chauffered my grandparents when they got elderly and they yearly visited graveyards to see where old friends had been layed to rest. I guess it planted the seed. I got to hear a lot of stories about older times and different people and it was a special time with them. Yes, I go atleast twice a year to Wheelock and clean their graves and put out flowers. I know they are not there and with Jesus but it brings me comfort even after thirty-plus years. Sharon
The timing of the article is perfect. The day on which Jesus is celebrated, but are these people even celebrating a real person? This makes perfect sense for it to be on this day.
No loving God that existed would allow the sickness, natural disaster or murder of innocents. That automatically means man doesn't have free will. So it's all the oldest marketing scheme in the world.
Pas the collection plate . . . ..
Exactly! Does it even matter if he existed when God doesn't exist? It's a myth.
There is actually plenty of historical evidence of a Nazarene named Yeshua who contemporary Romans thought was a sorcerer because of his ability to defy the laws of nature. Most of their writings say he was crucified for violating Jewish laws. They also don't doubt that he appeared to people after his death, they just figured his death must have been a hoax. So even from the Romans' viewpoint, the man Jesus was not a myth.
I hate to break to high school dropouts like you, but it's a myth.
whats it matter if he existed or not. He had a great message to love each other and not even self proclaimed christians can do that.
@ HR HuffNPuff: Perhaps you should go back to high school and learn how to research history.
And BTW, I hold two master's degrees.
People with thier identiy hidden can response honestly. I think it's great. Not as many believers as the Christians think
Israel exists just like the bible said that it would.
The threat of war between Israel and Iran is real. If the war goes nuclear then it could become Armageddon.
The Egyptians are prophecied to be unable to find any work. The Egyptians shall fight brother against brother. The Egyptians are forewarned. They should be able to avoid the prophecy. Will the whole world be unable to help them? If they can not avoid it then what should we say about them?
Why do we fail to see and believe the signs?
Please take your medication, wingnut.
Because you also then have to believe Genesis I:14 and study Astrophysics to get the rest of the commandments written in the stars.
Because the davidic savior was supposed to re-establish Israel. Are you saying that the head of the UN in 1948 was the davidic savior?
Oh don't look so puzzled; if you'd bothered to learn anything about judaism you'd know this.
Egypt is a sign that is occurring as we speak. It is occurring in real time. The US just gave them $1.5 billion dollars this week. Will that money be able to help? If the prophecy is true then no amount of money will be able to help them.
They aren't signs. War and conflict have always been in the Middle East because it's all self created, therefore self prophesy. You are the type of person that is holding back the world from advancement because you are openly welcoming it's end. Do something to make the world a better place instead of hoping for it's end.
I am watching what is occurring. I am powerless to change the course of events or affect its outcome.
If atheists leaders decide to lead Jews back to Israel against the opposition of the religious Jews then what more can be said when even atheists could not avoid the prophecies? The British actually returned the Jews that escaped Europe back to Europe. If the British Empire could not prevent prophecy then who can?
There is no such thing as prophecy. We make our own future.
Then the collapse of Egypt will come as a total surpise.
A war between Iran and Israel stretch your future as well.
A celebration dedicated to the moon and the spring equinox!
You are correct, thanks.
It's funny that this day was celebrated before their Christ, it's just another holiday the Christians stole. LOL!
An encounter with Jesus Christ demands a response.
Don't be suprised at the numerous responses to Christ. One way is to accept him as savior and Lord, all others is rejection for who he truely is.
It really doesn't matter if Jesus actually existed or not.
All that counts is someone's faith in believing in someone/something.
Here's a quote from Mark Twain: 'Faith is believing in something you know ain't true'.
I have to admit that there is no 'factual evidence' that Jesus did exist. Again, your own faith is your 'evidence'. And, that's all you really need.
I have the utmost respect for people that do believe, and I respect those that don't.It's an individual's choice.
None of us will know for sure until we die.
a strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.
The god followers will be displaying their intolerance to this article in their postings. They ask us to have an open mind and to read their bible but when asked of them to read Darwin they close the door. It is just mind blowing that in this year of 2012 that some humans are still prisoners of fear and hold on to dear life the belief of the supernatural. It is beyond pitiful and repulsive to have to share this world with such madness and ignorance of the truth. Religion is dangerous for humankind.
And see how far you get when you ask them to study Islam, Buddism, or Hindu teachings.
You are absolutely correct! Their intolerance is morally and ethically unacceptable.
For thoughts of you who believe you have life ever lasting.and all of you who dont you have my prayers.i give you all my love and the love of Jesus Chist.have a happy easter.God the Father loves you all.Amen
The real news is CNN's putting this article on their site on Easter. Very insensitive! What an insult to Christians on their holy day. What's next, will CNN question how many Jews really died during WWII on Yom Kippur?
Get over it you righteous zealot.
The earth is approximately 4.5 BILLION years old. Dinosaurs existed, just not with man. Evolution is both a scientific Theory and a scientific FACT. Creationism/"Intelligent Design" have been demonstrably proven to be shams and a fraud. There is absolutely NO academically accepted, peer reviewed proof that "jesus" ever existed. We have absolute proof of Caesar, Alexander the Great and a myriad of other OLDER historical figures. You'd think the most important "person" to christians would have proof of life, but there is none! Christianity has liberally stolen ALL of it's tenants and myths: the virgin birth, a messiah, etc from other faiths such as Mithrasian faiths, druidism and many others. Ergo, it is no more valid or accurate than Greek/Roman mythology, the Egyptian gods or any other faith. It's a myth, end of story.
Good post and I agree. However, most of these zealot's were taught from cradle to adulthood to believe as they do. It takes a curious mind to explore and try to arrive at the truth.
We have to thank some great critical thinkers for our 1st amendment and the establishment clause. This clause has been upheld over and over again in courts of law. Why is that Christians?
The religious types trying to disguise their beliefs and agendas in the form of intelligent design and have been caught planning the conspiracy to write books that look and seem like science but are just the opposite. Repulsive brainless idiots.
You show incredibly poor taste is putting this out there during this time of year. Where are your commentaries on Islam during their holy season?
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The argument over whether or not Jesus actually existed is no different than the argument over whether or not God exists. It is all of impossible to prove a negative but that in no way supports the opposite argument. Personally I do not believe that Jesus was a real person, and even if he was he most certainly was nothing like the Jesus depicted in the bible. Not a single person who has ever lived or will ever live has performed a miracle (ie. a supernatural act). I can forgive our ancestors for believing all sorts of nonsense about virgin births, resurrection, miracles, etc but there is no reason why such notions should persist in an enlightened society.
Because the enlightenment in modern society is spotty at best.
Internet kooks? Didn't Stalin say the same thing about anyone who didn't agree with him? Typical. When you don't have a solid argument, denigrate your oppenent. Personal attacks don't make for a real debate.