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.”

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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. His Word Is Truth

    "Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be Born Again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." - JOHN 3:3 (KJV). Being Born Again is accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior! That is the Key to salvation and to attain Heaven! Happy and Saved are those who accept Him and follow Him always!

    April 8, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Book of Armaments, Chapter 2, verses 9-21

      ...And Saint Attila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying, "O LORD, bless this Thy hand grenade that with it Thou mayest blow Thine enemies to tiny bits, in Thy mercy." And the LORD did grin and the people did feast upon the lambs and sloths and carp and anchovies and orangutans and breakfast cereals, and fruit bats and large chu...

      And the LORD spake, saying, "First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin, then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it."

      April 8, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • JT

      Psalm 137:9 – Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  2. ezg437

    What I know is this: Whether or not He was real, the principles are good so why not live them? Early Christians, while converting pagans, had a problem. The pagans had some customs....like a tree in winter and eggs in spring. To get the pagans on board, they incorporated that into the Christain beliefs. Pagas said (more or less) we like the idea and we like this Guy, but we have trees and eggs and we like all that. Christians said fine, we can make this work, they shook hands on the deal and the rest is history. And a profitable history at that. I went to the grocery last night at 10 pm and they were out of eggs....not a one left...all sold....for a profit. So I guess the deal paid off. I believe the founding Figures of many major world religions would be very disappointed in Their followers of today. People monkied around with a lot of history to get what they wanted. That doesn't mean He didn't exist and it doesn't mean he did. Just try to be like Him and we'll all be a lot better off. Amen.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • JT

      There were good and bad people way before this book of fables came out with this Jesus character. Christians like to believe that the golden rule was invented by their nythical Jesus. It was in people's best interest to treat each other as they like to be treated. No need for some majic man to tell us.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • Medecine

      Your newer reverse celaullr lookup services are usually technically superior and all they might need is the cell phone number to be inputted in the search box. The device will then locate a name by way of cell phone number that is keyed on and display the partial details in legible form.

      July 30, 2012 at 2:45 am |
  3. Sam

    Of course it's myth, spun and re-spun to manipulate the masses of earlier times. The ironic thing is that it's still getting re-spun now, to manipulate the masses, and rewrite our knowledge and understanding of our Evolution, our History and the nature of the Universe.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  4. Alexishere

    As an agnostic who was raised reformed Jewish I find religion interesting at best; a curious branch of human thought and belief, and that's it. Yet strangely enough, I have never before considered Jesus a "myth," rather a garden variety cult leader (I don't mean that in an insulting way) who was killed by Jews who believed no man should call himself God, related to God, or even claim Godlike qualities.That was a big no-no, and they killed him for it, which made him a martyr and set his followers (and Christianity itself) on a tear for the next few millennia. David Koresh said the same thing about himself in Waco and that didn't work out very well. Today, Easter, I've already had conversations with family and friends about the ridiculousness of 'celebrating' a carpenter who allegedly rose from the dead three days after he was killed. Even religious friends think it's a rather dumb notion. Then I read this article and I'm fascinated by the idea that Jesus could be a complete myth – actually it's a relief to even ponder that idea. How liberating!

    April 8, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  5. Brett

    Since when do people have to justify their religious beliefs to the entire world whether they're 'Christians' or 'Atheists'? CNN is a joke, but let's all comment on their divisive article and argue like 5 year old children. Awesome.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  6. Keith

    Modern Christians have falling into a dangerous trap that Christians might want to consider may be been set by their Devil. The concept of "I may sin, but I am saved simply because I believe in Jesus" is actually a very dangerous recent drift in Christianity. Christian teachers of the past would not have agreed with this. It is the same concept as the idea that Catholics can simply go into confession and all their sins will be erased. That actually is true of Catholicism either. They key was always whether or not you truly REPENT your sins in your heart. If you are like the kid saying I'm sorry but having your fingers crossed behind your back, then under traditional Christian teachings you are NOT forgiven for your sins. If you are not truly repentent in your heart, then whatever you say or do has no significance.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  7. rbsrs

    Every Easter?...I mean why a negative story every Easter?? It has become a running joke.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Keith

      Why is it negative?

      April 8, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Why is it so negative?

      April 8, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  8. Peteyroo

    Was Jesus the original Superhero? He had super powers. He was a founding member of the Justice League of Nazareth. I know for a fact Jesus rode a unicorn. Since the folks of that era didn't know what a unicorn was, they simply said he rode a donkey. Photos from that period clearly show a unicorn with the Tooth Fairy sitting astride the horn. I believe with all my heart and soul that this is true. Those of you who don't believe me are going to hell, which BTW has recently installed ice machines on several levels. The Easter Bunny controls access and strictly limits the amount of ice available to non-believers. I would say atheists, but that has become such a pejorative that we really need to move on to a much less value-laden word. What should we call people who don't accept/believe in magic, myth, and nonsense?

    April 8, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  9. Discern

    Why is it that the existence of the prophet mohammed is not allowed to be questioned ? There's more evidence to that existence being something mythical than there are any doubts about Jesus very real life.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • Yeah right buddy

      "Not allowed"? Care to tell us who in America is not allowing it?

      You are just another Christian with a persecution complex.

      Jesus' "very real" life. That's just propaganda.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      If this article was about him don't you think we would be discussing him?

      April 8, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • rbsrs

      Show me the major story negative story about Mohammed that CNN has published? Include a link. Or the one that comes at atheism from a negative prospective. You will have a hard time finding it.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  10. @David

    Please, don't be so naive. You know full well the 'evidence' Christians use-stop slanting the issue in your way so obviously. It makes you 'intellectuals' or 'brights' look not so bright after all.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  11. seyedibar

    It's an obvious myth to anyone with an elementary knowledge of history and science. There's no historical evidence he existed, nor any indisputable record of him, nor is sorcery real. Many parts of his cobbled story are hundreds to thousands of years older than that era, and the rest are easily proven fabrications and embellishment.
    Though I don't need $20k worth of history studies to tell me that peopel don't return from the dead and sorcery doesn't exist. If you look at the origins of today's holiday alone, it's enough to prove how christians can steal and rewrite just about any old folktale they can get their hands on.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • reason

      Of course it does not make any sense. That is why you have to reject reason and take a leap of blind faith to accept it as true.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  12. David Koresh

    George Bush believes in Jesus and that is enough for me. George Bush also believes in cocaine. It is possible that he snorted coke with Jesus. Think about that the next time you vote, or pray to Jesus.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Al

      He might have drank with jesus, but Jesus never made it to the Americas so he couldn't have tried coke.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • 640gen

      Obama also believes in Jesus.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  13. The Infallibillity of the Inerrant Bible

    Happy Easter! Yes, the story of Jesus' last days are a miracle! Jesus spent from the third hour to the ninth hour on the cross, even though he was still in front of Pilate at the sixth hour! It's a miracle! Jesus was(John)/wasn't (Luke Mark Matthew) speared in the side and had his legs broken

    When Jesus died, a lot of supernatural thing happened like eclipses and earthquakes and graves opening do (Matthew) and don't (Mark Luke John) happen. Ressurrected saints did (Matthew)/did not go to the city (John Luke Mark), and Roman soldiers did (Matthew) /did not (Mark Luke John) guard the tomb. It's a miracle!

    Jesus died on a Friday, laid in the tomb for three days and three nights until Sunday, which is a real miracle as it wold be Monday to us lowly humans, and then the events of the opened tomb, what a miracle! Four totally different things happened, but they are all true!

    It's a miracle, and it's all perfectly consistent! Praise Jesus!

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

      Oh man that made me laugh - so true

      April 8, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  14. Sarcasm

    whether jesus existed or not is not the issue. His greatest words not verbatim "If you do not believe in anything i say at least live by this LOVE ONE ANOTHER AS I HAVE LOVED YOU" Meaning treat other's the way jesus treated people, but you would have to read the book to understand that passage. I got give the guy credit he never said to kill those that don't believe unlike some prophets, ah mohammed. I can't say that christians didn't kill non believer in the crusades in the end that was a mesage from evil. I'm christian and I could care less if your saved you know why you can lead a horse water but can't make them drink. Ask yourself do you treat your fellow man or women with love and respect. Don't belive and keep living your wicked ways YOU CAME INTO THIS WORLD WITH NOTHING AND YOU SHALL LEAVE WITH NOTHING.

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

      All the major religions say the same thing, which makes it human common sense, and nothing more.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Yeah right buddy

      What same thing do they supposedly say?

      April 8, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • seyedibar

      that's just common sense. The world doesn't need a religion to learn that lesson.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  15. gimmeslack12

    I don't care whether he really existed or not. It's his story that never happened, at least the son of god part and dieing and coming back to life stuff. What matters to Christians is that he is a support system that is able to take the blame for all the bad stuff in your life so that you can move past them and continue living.

    I was thinking about it the other day, and I think Jesus really is a great thing, because it allows people to psychologically take pressure, grief or guilt and remove the effects of anxiety and pressure that those feelings create. On the flipside it possible allows someone to conjure up Love by themselves.

    I think Jesus is a psychological whipping boy for all things that people don't have or can't (don't want to?) deal with. So I think atheists and non-Christians (heck, maybe Christians themselves) are missing the point about the importance of Jesus to some people.

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

      The flip side to that is people not taking responsibility - saying that its "god's will" or even worse, using the bible to justify their agenda

      April 8, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  16. CSMinDC

    Why have I never seen:

    The Mohammad Debate: Man vs. Myth
    The Buddha Debate: Man vs. Myth
    The Confucius Debate: Man vs. Myth


    April 8, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Because

      Because Christians accept that those religions are BS also, and in America, there are too few adherants of those religions to create a visible debate.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • pastafaria

      @CSMinDC Because unlike Christianity, the ignorance surrounding these other myths that you mention is primarily confined to cultures where most people don't watch CNN.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • Eric G

      I am making an assumption that you are a Christian, but I would guess the reason is because you are only sensitive to the questioning of your own beliefs, not those of others.

      Those debates exist, you are just not paying attention.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Bob

      Because the devil always attacks the truth (JESUS) and the people that are lost to all the false beiliefs in our world e.g. islam,buddism hinduism and on and on and on and on. There is on God and and Jesus was God in human flesh and dwelt among men here on earth over 2000 years ago and died and was punished for sinful mans violation of Gods Holy and perfect moral law. Believe on him and recieve the punishment that Jesus took for you or you will take the puniscment yourselves when you die and go to hell. God loves you.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • abcontador

      You would if there were millions of wackos following them in this country

      April 9, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  17. pastafaria

    If you people want to waste their time and gray matter worshiping a fictional character that's one thing, but stop trying to force our legal, health care, and educational, etc., systems to conform to your fairy tales.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Hail the almighty flying spaghetti monster!

      April 8, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  18. Keith

    So Christians, is Romney a Christian or not?

    April 8, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • pastel bunnie eggs

      Considering he's a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I'd say they have no choice but to answer in the affirmative.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  19. reason

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


    April 8, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • banchy04

      how come people believe everybody (bush lies, atheist people, etc.) else but the bible. how ignorant.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  20. David Koresh

    Jesus is real. How do I know? Logic:

    – Jesus is talked about in the Bible
    – The Bible is Truth

    And how do I know the Bible is Truth? Tammy Faye Bakker told me on the television.

    Simple logic for simple people.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • YeahOk

      Well I'm convinced.

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

      Actually, people who read the Bible know it's the truth because it says so, right in the Bible. Everyone knows that there is only truth in advertising, and that everything that labels itself as the best really is the best.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:38 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.