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. Elmo

    They said to him, "Tell us who you are so that we may believe in you."
    He said to them, "You read the face of the sky and of the earth, but you have not recognized the one who is before you, and you do not know how to read this moment."

    The Gospel of Thomas

    April 8, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • Mike

      "With great power comes great responsibility" Uncle Ben to Peter Parker, Spiderman

      April 8, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  2. xLegendary Wolf

    profound sadness dude.. insulting JESUS on Easter??? If you want to know if JESUS exist seek him, trust me u will find him. I hope u change before is to late my friend...one cant repent after they die....

    April 8, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • Mike

      that's true... one time I ran out of milk and looked as hard as I could until I found some... unfortunately after I drank it, I found out it was glue

      April 8, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Elmo

      Jesus said, "Take heed of the living one while you are alive, lest you die and seek to see him and be unable to do so."

      April 8, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  3. JHC

    To those who are insulted by this article,

    If your faith is so weak that it cannot stand up to being looked at from an objective, historical, evidence based perspective, then this article is the least of your problems.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Rob

      true that

      April 8, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Elmo

      Allow me JHC.
      If your faith is founded in a book then you stand in shallow water. This is not about us or we. It is about you and it. That which is alive and cannot be perceived by eyes or ears. What is it that you instinctively call out too when your cries to mommy go unheard. In the moment before you surrender yourself to fate, when you make your last cry or plea to survive, what is it that you call upon? What name do you give it?

      April 8, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  4. Andy

    You know what is funny:

    The liberals posting on here saying there is no God are the same folks who post as conservatives ripping on Obama. You can't make that up. Everyone hates Obama on CNN, yet his approval ratings indicate he'll win in 2012. I think CNN has about 13 posters with 800 personalities each.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • JonO

      Nothing you said makes any sense, has any factual basis, and it's about the biggest collection of accusatory, uneducated drivel I've seen in a while.

      Contrary to what you think, you don't know anything.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • momoya

      Your comments are stupid an boring.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Lilith

      Your post is a symptom of the problem.
      You're combining absolute liberalism with Dems and absolute conservatism with Reps .. that's not the case. Political affiliation has nothing (or shouldn't) to do with religious belief.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  5. Lilith

    Best part of this article:

    “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.”

    April 8, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Andy

      Your post is a symptom of the problem.
      You're combining absolute liberalism with Dems and absolute conservatism with Reps .. that's not the case. Political affiliation has nothing (or shouldn't) to do with religious belief.

      April 9, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  6. Bryce

    Jesus' divinity is certified by acts of magic that were limited to the imagination of the writers of that time. Sorry, but I don't buy it. I believe in Scientific Humanism.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  7. Andy

    CNN is so obviously anti-Christian it's amazing that they are based in America. If they had half as many anti Judaism articles as they have anti-Christian they'd be closed down.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Rob

      Yea CNN should never question Christianity. Its perfectly logical and provable. Look... if a bunch of people who continuously altered and changed what another bunch of people allegedly saw 2000 years ago aren't believable then I dont know what is

      April 8, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  8. sez

    You have to understand the Catholic or Rome made up the Christian religion. Its based off of the principal of the Hebrew religion. Indeed those people do exsist. They have a history. Slightly embellished of course in many ways. The Muslims adhere to the same things in many ways they are both "spin offs" of the Hebrew religion. That confuses many of you to a very high degree. All you can do is mumble some bible or koran verses you half believe in.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Andy

      And who made up the Hebrew Religion? Stories about talking bushes and tapping stones to get water to gush out and being the "chosen" people sound more like a cult of freaks than a religion....

      April 8, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • Bob

      The Catholic Church could not have made up Christianity, since Christianity existed before the Catholic Church.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • One Who Chose Education

      Quoting from a Christian site

      "If you try hard enough, you can draw correlations between Christ and any pagan pantheon, but that doesn't mean there are any. People who use arguments like these to discredit Christianity are starting with an assumption and seeking support for the assumption, to the exclusion of critically analyzing the facts. It's a false pretense - don't be misled."

      But really...

      If you try hard enough, you can draw correlations between what you wish to believe and life, but that doesn't mean there are any. People who use arguments like these to support Christianity are starting with an assumption and seeking support for the assumption, to the exclusion of critically analyzing the facts. It's a false pretense - don't be misled.

      There is a good reason that scientific theories tend to converge over time and religious theories tend to multiply over time. Anyone can create an assumption and argue that if you are "good" you will believe their assumption on "blind faith" which is to say by resisting any critical analysis of the assumption. The more you can just believe the better your faith right? Science, on the other hand, is built around the idea of critically analyzing everything.

      Yes both religion and science have assumptions and theories which are wrong. Science is the only one of the two that is designed to self correct.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  9. Larry Kovalick

    Shame on you CNN. This is an inappropriate topic on the holiest day of the Christian calendar.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Adam James

      I agree

      April 8, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • Adam James

      But they've gotten what they were after and have kept us on their page watching their advertisements.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Kleb

      I am a strident atheist, and even I agree with you on this point.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  10. Pipe-Dreamer

    The blackened pitts of human conditioning are so very full of loosened virtues that grab and do claw at one's witts to pander aimingly toward those of Faith and faithfulness.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • YeahOk

      The Black Eyed Peas are an American hip hop group (originally an alternative hip hop group), formed in Los Angeles, California, in 1995.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  11. Larry

    99% of the people who are so dead-set on proving Christ is a myth were probably the same ones who had to be the one kid in grade school to be the first to tell the others that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy aren't real. They really don't care for themselves, they're just so friggin' intent on ruining it for everyone else. If it doesn't hurt you – and by this, I mean all the evil that is perpetuated in the name of religion, be it Christianity, Islam, or any other – then STFU and find some other way to amuse yourself.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • momoya

      So your position is that people should be allowed to believe in Santa or Jesus or whatever because people need to cope?

      April 8, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Rob

      I completely agree.... how dare anyone tell people that they are basing their lives on made up stories and myths

      April 8, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • UncleM

      Good comparison – god is a real as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • RobM

      There is a difference. When someone say's the Easter bunny or Santa isn't real no one tries to persecute you as a non-believer bound for eternal damnation.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  12. Voice Of Reason

    The only debate about Jesus is in the minds of atheists. It is their problem.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  13. arale norimaki

    Most of the stories in the Bible were taken from older Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek mythologies.

    The Egyptians of every period in which they are known to us believed that Osiris was of divine origin, that he suffered death and mutilation at the hands of the powers of evil, that after a great struggle with these powers he rose again, that he became henceforth the king of the underworld and judge of the dead, and that because he had conquered death the righteous also might conquer death...In Osiris the Christian Egyptians found the prototype of Christ, and in the pictures and statues of Isis suckling her son Horus

    April 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • Adam James

      Did you study Egyptian mythology in college or did you learn about this on the History Channel. Be honest with yourself.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  14. Adam James

    Even as I'm not particularly religious, why is it only Christian observances and holiday that CNN feels obligated to sour with "myth" stories? I haven't read any of these types of articles during the observance of Passover questioning the convenient "stricken from the records" command of Ramses or any "Did the night journey happen and did Muhammad exist" articles during the Laylat ul Isra and Miraj. It is Easter Sunday – the day of the Resurrection and the foundation of Christianity. Let those who believe in the Christ observe this day in peace – without inciting anger and controversy. If it is not a religious day for you than go golfing or go for a run and respect and leave alone those for whom this day is sacred.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  15. Cman

    The Shroud of Turin is scientific evidence that Jesus is real.

    It is large piece of cloth that has the face of Jesus on it.

    It has been carbon dated to be over 2000 years old, and it is scientifically proven to be from Jerusalem.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • Elena

      again you are wrong it was dated to around 1200 ad,

      April 8, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • YeahOk

      You can believe all Elena says, and she will be presenting any moment now her groundbreaking scientific proof that souls or spirits of conciseness, and a higher supreme consciousness or being, which is the fountain of creations exists.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • RobM

      It was not scientifically proven for anything. When it was carbon dated is was found to be no more then 650 years old. Some say it was contaminated and a false reading. Take that for what you will but there is defiantly NO scientific proof the Jesus existed.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • Kleb

      It has absolutely NOT been dated to over 2000 years old, using radiocarbon dating or any other kind of testing.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • Errogant2


      April 8, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  16. meh

    Myth or Meth? Meth, someone was high as hell when they created Jesus

    April 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  17. canuck

    do you think CNN would have the brass to run a story about the prophet Mohamed being questioned? Doubt it, based on the fact that Muslam believers would threaten the saftey of it employees....just sayin

    April 8, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • RobM

      Yeah. So it would be a dumb thing to do. So they don't.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  18. reason

    Watch what anthropologists, archeologists and religious historians seeking the truth have to say about where god came from:


    April 8, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  19. David

    The carbon dating results were contamnated. Many scientific minds have stated that since the piece of the shroud that was tested was from the corner of the shroud and had been handled hundreds if not thousands of times over the years, this would result in false carbon dating.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Joe

      The shroud is Non-sense..... New scientific proof.....http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-02/uonc-ter022712.php#
      then again April 4 2012 http://www.cnn.com/video/?hpt=hp_t2#/video/world/2012/04/05/chance-israel-christian-tomb-found.cnn

      April 8, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  20. kruzerone

    Everybody is right...everybody is wrong. I agree.
    Define religion.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
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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.