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. rar

    before the discovery and use of electricity, if you would have told people about it and what it could do, they would have thought you were crazy

    April 8, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Kevin Barbieux

      Before the discovery and use of electricity, electricity would not have been discussed. Electricity is discussed now because it is a knowable, identifiable things.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • rar

      @ kevin. lightning

      April 8, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • YeahOk

      You think people then knew the properties of lightning and what was possible with it? Fail.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  2. Doug Lynn

    Based on the evidence, the fact the Jesus walked the earth is more provable in a court of law than George Washington was our first President. Those that deny the existence of Jesus are completely devoid of legal logic. For two thousand years, people have started with the belief that Jesus is a myth, and, after doing their own investigation, have not only confirmed his existence as recorded in Scripture, but became his followers. There is no doubt in my mind that anyone that truly searches for the one called Christ will find him to be greater than their wildest dreams.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Well, that's all very interesting, but the historical evidence is thin to the point of nonexistence.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • Voice of Reason

      you are delusional, for sure.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  3. Abdulla

    God is real and he exists, he created the Messiah, and he was real and he existed, and the Messiah worshiped God and he wanted others to the same. The Messiah never asked anyone to worship him or his mother, and he never claimed to be God himself. The new testament is a forgery in the name of the Messiah. But Saint Satan and his atheist soldiers are hard at work to find a way to get people to either deny the existence of God or to lead them into worshiping a false one.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Voice of Reason

      You are exactly delusional.

      April 8, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  4. PumpNDump

    http://godisimaginary.com/ It's all a myth.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  5. hawaiiduude

    read what the joo talmud says about jesus! http://www.revisionisthistory.org/talmudtruth.html

    April 8, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  6. Khalil

    "no credible sources outside the bible say he existed..." uh, OK, except for the Koran, considered by a billion people to be credible. An entire chapter of the Koran is called Mary, and chronicles her life. The ignorance in the West of Islam, let alone Jesus and his significance in the Islam, is staggering considering the trillions of dollars and drops of blood shed.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • hawaiiduude

      funny that islam considers jesus a prophet by judaism considers him a heretic and sinner but uSA christians are blind and worship isreal anyway like blind sheep. sad.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Given that the Koran was written several hundred years after Jesus purportedly lived, it hardly qualifies as an historical source, any more than episodes of "Davy and Goliath" would be.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • Brian

      "People don't die for myths, some Biblical scholars say." um..... "some Biblical scholars" need to study history.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • Brian

      oooops didn't mean that as a reply, but as a new post.... ack oh well Happy Easter everyone.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  7. Fast Fred

    Belief is a powerful thing,no matter what the belief is in. Be it salvation ,hell or whatever religion you choose. Humans find the need to explain their existence. They take comfort in believing someone or something else is responsible for their lives and their mistakes. They judge themselves good or bad and when they can get someone to forgive them ,they feel better about themselves. I feel up to now it is way beyond our ability to understand our world and our existence, but in time we will evolve to it.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • Reality check

      the problem becomes when people engage in the delusional.. they kill

      April 8, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  8. Andrew

    happy easter to u all... Jesus does exist!!!

    April 8, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • zisee

      Thanks for the positive comment!!!!

      April 8, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • Jeff

      How do you know that?

      April 8, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • Gotcha

      Positive...ly false

      April 8, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Reality check

      they don't know that.. just difficult for them to grow up mentally.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  9. Michael E. Brooks

    The problem with Richard Carrier's claim that Paul's calling James "the brother of the Lord" proves nothing about the existence of Jesus because “all baptized Christians were considered brothers of the Lord” is that Paul referred to James in this way so as to specifically identify him and to distinguish him from all others Jameses with whom he could have been confused. If indeed “all baptized Christians were considered brothers of the Lord,” then Paul's referring to James in this way would not have identified or distinguished him at all, and so there would have been no point in Paul's referring to him as such in the first place.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  10. Jesus Cripes

    Sure Jesus exists.... He does my yard work every other week.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • YeahOk

      He does awesome work doesn't he? I swear he brought my lawn back from the dead.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • Gotcha

      That actually put a smile in my face!

      April 8, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  11. Edward Richer

    Why did you feel the need to post this story on Easter Sunday? Would you have written a similar story questioning the core of the Jewish or Islamic religions on one of their holiest days? I really doubt it, especially not for Islam. Strong work bro.

    – Ed Richer

    April 8, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • nomdefaitour

      You are right about how they cover Islam. I made a post critical of Islamic militants and how they respond to nonbelievers and CNN already deleted it!

      April 8, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  12. Belief?

    They blog should be renamed the NONBELIEF blog!!!

    April 8, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  13. peace247

    There are several arguments that can be made to one who rejects the existence of God.

    I'd start with morality. If you reject the existence of God, tell me, how can you justify what is right versus wrong? Everything would be according to you, and you alone. The reason something would be right/wrong would be because you personally feel it's right/wrong. It's completely subjective.

    For instance, how could you justify what Hitler did was wrong? Because *you feel* killing is wrong? What if Hitler told you *he felt* it was right? What makes his viewpoint wrong and your viewpoint right?

    Without God, morality is completely subjective.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Don

      Morality has nothing to do with any deity. Read Plato's _Euthypho_.

      With god, morality is completely subjective based on the whim of god.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • peace247

      Ok Don.

      I am Muslim. But, here's the reason why morality has a lot to do with this subject...

      The Holy Qur'an: Surah Qiyamah
      Does Man think that he will be left uncontrolled, (without purpose)? (36)

      So according to this, man has a purpose. What's the purpose of creation?

      The Holy Qur'an: Surah Mulk
      He Who created Death and Life, that He may try which of you is best in deed: and He is the Exalted in Might, Oft-Forgiving― (2)


      So again, you're here in this world to be tested. Good versus evil. God dictates to you what's permissable and impermissable.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • YeahOk

      So are you saying the only thing keeping you from raping and killing children is your belief in your god and your book?

      Pretty lame if you ask me.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • Mike

      It is definitely possible to have morals without belief in any religion. There are tons of atheists who are moral people. You say that morality is completely subjective, and that is true. There is not hard rule about what is moral and what is not. Morality stems from people's collective agreement to stand by a certain set of rules. There is reason to think that a person must believe in a god in order for them to have morals.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • Jerry King

      Morality is subjective, even with a belief in God, because all human interpretations of God are subjective. And, even if your thesis that morality without God is impossible were correct, that doesn't mean that God actually exists. I happen to believe that God does exist, but for reasons that have nothing to do with Bible-centered morality.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • Brian

      By the same token, can't someone just say that "My God says it is right", and "My God says it is wrong" to justify their actions, even if they are believers? Oh wait, that's what they do in real life already! Your argument is wrong. If you need religion to make you a moral person then you are not moral at all. Happy Easter!

      April 8, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  14. Reality check

    if jesus were real and he came back, it would be the christians who deny him. As long as he doesn't come back, the fantasy remains. <– truth about fantasies, that's how they work.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • YeahOk

      They would probably think he was the anti-christ.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  15. humanone

    There was this guy from Nazareth who said that his name would pit brother against brother, mother against daughter, et al... the proof is here on CNN on this festival of his Resurrection which has been celebrated for almost 2000 years. How's that for proof.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Reality check

      quite delusional at best. One thing can be said about believers, they have difficulty with a maturing thought process.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  16. Ryan Richardson

    I will say this and this only. Jesus WAS and STILL Alive today. Happy Ressurection Day! I hope and Pray each and everyone of you are Born Again! I Pray that you have Prepared your Hearts for the COming of our Lord and Savior! As he Left this Earth, he will also come back for his CHildren. His Return is coming Entiment and I Pray that you have became Born Again! If NOT I Hope and Prayt that you Beg our Lord to open your Eyes, Mind and Most Important your Heart for our Lords Return! He is Coming sooner than you think, Please Repent and Beg for Our Lord to Redeem you from your Sins and Save your SOUL! He Has RISEN, HE Has RISEN INDEED!

    April 8, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  17. John

    Well, maybe this article didn't have the best timing if it's upsetting to some who would otherwise be strengthening bonds with family and friends. Here I am reading the comments instead of interacting with visiting family from out of state. Another time, folks...

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

    Blah blah blah. Jesus did exist. Many people worship him. Easter is about his resurrection, not the Easter Bunny. Happy Easter All!

    April 8, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Gotcha

      It's about the chocolate. Get it straight.

      April 8, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  19. Easter Bunny

    all Easter Candy 1/2 off

    April 8, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  20. J.E. Faylor

    Alright, let's assume that Jesus was an actual historical person and the story of the crucifixion is true and Jesus really did die as a result. Does that lead us to the unavoidable conclusion that his corpse must have actually came back to life and and then ultimately flew off up into the sky? Or isn't it true that the first and most obvious conclusion concerning a missing corpse is that it was the result of actions taken by the living rather than actions taken by the corpse? And if it can be determined that there were individuals who had the means, motive and opportunity to have taken the corpse of Jesus elsewhere, shouldn't that reasonably render the conclusion that he came back to life and flew away totally absurd and beyond serious consideration for those of us living in the 21st century? Because I notice from my readings that all four Gospels are consistent on the point that the body of Jesus was turned over to HIS FOLLOWERS by Pilate on Friday afternoon, and that HIS FOLLOWERS were the last individuals to be clearly in possession of the body!

    April 8, 2012 at 10:34 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.