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. waterlilly

    I do not like fiction, therefore I do not read the bible. I don't care for fairy tales, therefore I do not believe in these religions. Everything you need is inside yourself. Be good to your fellow man and yourself. There is so much talk about religion and so little morality. Get up off your knees and do some good for someone real.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Sam

      Exactly! Don't sit around and worry about what might have been or what might be. Spend each moment being the best human being you can be, and let the chips fall where they may. Karma is much more believable than any religion.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Arthur M.

      If you don't like fiction, then leave behind the fiction that colors your perceptions and interpretations of everything you see or think about. The notion that there is hard objectivity is the big fallacy of atheists. Even science doesn't believe in it any more!

      April 8, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Leo

      Waterlilly, this nation was founded by theist's and we were once a great nation that was based on morality, but since the 60's when secular humanism has lifted its ugly immoral head, this nation is a mess. Historical Fact!!

      April 8, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • localdelii

      Are you now going to say King David or Israel or Babylon never existed?

      April 8, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  2. Nii

    Brainwashing kids goes along the lines of teaching them to hate and disrespect others and love you only. I see it in atheists and theists alike. The only way to break free is to love your neighbor as yourself.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Jon

      "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."~ Steven Weinberg

      April 8, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Leo

      Jon, How many people did atheist china kill? The scary thing is Atheism is a relatively new thing, yet they have killed more in one century that Relegion has for thousands of years.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  3. Joe Sixpack

    Easter, like Christmas, is a Pagan holiday that was co-opted by the Vatican when converting Europe. Thats where the decorated trees and rabbits come from.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Leo

      Though that is partially true orthodox Christianity follows the Jewish Festivals and this year they happen to match each other. This is the proper week to celebrate Passover and Ressurection Sunday which became the Lords Day.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  4. marcus

    whether or not jesus actually lived is somewhat irrelevant. what matters is the notion that he is the one and only son of the one and only god, which is preposterous, if not downright silly. amazingly, we're discussing this on easter, a holiday named after a pagan goddess of fertility, thus the bunny and eggs. what exactly do bunnies and eggs have to do with the one and only son of god rising from the dead ?? if you want reasons to not believe in god and jesus, try reading the bible, a massive book filled with the diabolical acts of slaughter, hatred, violence and downright satanic rituals by "god."

    April 8, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Clark1355

      Nice work!

      April 8, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Cq

      All the really fun stuff linked to the religious holidays comes from the preceding pagan festivals.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • localdelii

      A book filled with slaughter and demonic acts sounds like a history book to me. But, much like the mythology of Pandora's box, which when opened all manner of evil was released into the world, yet hope was hiding in the corner so is hope, restoration, and love all found in the Bible.

      April 8, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  5. Gena

    Does Josephus prove a historical Jesus?

    April 8, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  6. Nice try, CNN

    Running this story on Easter Sunday, just shows how budget this "news" website has become.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • What!

      get half a brain.. it's a blog. And you want to deny intelligent folks from hearing other opinions? You are closed minded, religion does that.No wonder there are still voodoo believers.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  7. Jazzman

    Brained washed??? You need to look in the mirror.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      You need to write properly, it's brainwashed not brained washed!

      April 8, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • ZEBO

      Ok Jesus, lets see your birth certificate..!!!

      April 8, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  8. Serge

    HE IS RISEN!!! JESUS IS RISEN!!!! He won VICTORY over death. Alleluia!!!!!
    I am so glad CNN in all their attacks has decided to speak again of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!!! In the day we celebrate His Resurrection, by questioning His existence you do nothing more than continue to fulfill the teachings of the Bible. Your ignorance contributes to more learning about God.
    To easily answer your question. Jesus, God incarnated man, born of a virgin, died at the cross and resurrected on Sunday to save humanity, and "that" includes you. Jesus loves you, you the writers, you the CNN people, you the "former pastor" (who apparently needs to find him). Jesus changed the heart of many who were set to persecute Him, Paul is good example of this. Repent! He Loves you. He went to the cross for you. Blessings!!!!!

    April 8, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • LOL

      "To easily answer your question. Jesus, God incarnated man, born of a virgin, died at the cross and resurrected on Sunday to save humanity, and "that" includes you."

      There are many gods that rose after being dead in religious history....and they were all proven to be wrong. Your religion is based on those other pagan gods, where do you think your Easter celebration came from? LOL!

      April 8, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Jon

      What the hell does "Save Humanity" mean? The world was fine before Jesus and was fine afterwards. The only difference is one wandering homeless Jew was killed.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • terry

      Fabricated by the aliens and jews to control , manipulate, murder,invade,slaughter.molest. abuse.Useing human nature against Man. Do you know who the 1% is???? You have all been had......wake up and smell the bull......Oboma gave you ,your change in your pocket ,along with the puppet masters. How better to brainwash kids??? Bribe them...presents at christmas,,,candy at easter...if the church dosent get them then the bull will. Nature has all the answers and laws and balances,,,and has long before any religion....get out your calculators and do the math,,, why do you think the church hated Darwin so much????????

      April 8, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  9. Gena

    Acharya's work has changed the lives of many people for the better as one can see here http://www.freethoughtnation.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=1959

    She should be included in these articles/blogs on mythicism.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  10. mfholland

    "He says Freke can’t offer any proof that an ancient Osiris figure was born on December 25"

    That's got to be the most absurd counter-argument possible, given the arbitrariness of the choice by the church to place Jesus's birth on the 25th. It sounds remarkably like saying "My mythical figure has a real birthday and yours doesn't so there."

    April 8, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Quorum

      Well, I'm sure it wasn't an 'arbitrary choice.' The Church presumably had their reasons for choosing Dec 25, none of which were the fact that Jesus was born on that day. There are competing views as to why that day was picked. I think it had something to do with the fact that it is a holiday in pagan religions, and the Church figured that the mainstream pagan worshipers were unlikely to hunt down and slaughter Christians on Christmas if they were busy celebrating their own holiday.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  11. Sam

    It's just so much easier to read one ambiguously written work of fiction, and let others tell you what it means and what to think and do, then it is to study science, math and history and contemplate the true meaning of God!

    April 8, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • localdelii

      I haven't a clue as to what you are trying to say? Do you mean that we are to study history, but leave out the central character of the history of all Western civilization—Jesus of Nazareth? Are you saying that God is not the creator of the natural world, but he is to be found in our observations of it? Do you mean that God can be reduced to a mathematical formula? And even if his existence were to be revealed through a mathematical formula, does it represent God or is the equation itself that is God? I find it ironic that atheists attempt to deify science when this country's schools are in a profound struggle to help students to perform well in the areas of math and science. So essentially, our students are heathens to your way of thinking?

      April 8, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  12. Gena

    The Mythicist Position | What is Mythicism?


    April 8, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  13. Smeagel4T

    “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." - Ghandi. I feel this pretty much sums it up for me.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • JM

      Very true; however, the people who actually follow Christ's actual teachings are beautiful...like Mother Teresa.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Leo

      Good!! For Jesus is the one to believe in, not his followers!!

      April 8, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Shak

      "I am the WAY, the TRUTH, and the LIFE. No one comes to the Father except through ME." Jesus Christ

      Should have been a Christian...

      April 8, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Ryan

      @ JM. People who follow Christ's teachings are beautiful people. I agree......another way to say it would be, people who are good people are good people. You don't need the parable to be a good person, the choice to be good or bad is inherent in all of us, and however you summons that good or bad is up to you and achieved in countless ways

      April 8, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Cq

      But believing in Jesus makes you one of his followers, so it stands to reason that Jesus isn't such a great thing to believe in.

      Marxism sounds good on paper, but in practice ...

      April 8, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  14. Paulo Guimaraes

    The logic of non-existance can be seen in the understanding that other religions came first. How does one learn to create something new? By adapting concepts from ideas obtained from other sources, to fit their present society. People always need a central figure to lead them to a Nirvana-like existance just by following their ideas.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:36 pm |

    People give me clothes everywhere I go. I have suits I've never worn in my closets. But what God told me you need to do is send me your money. I need to think of some way to convince you all. I think I may study the bible for a few years and then try to convince you rich widows to give me all your money.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  16. Nii

    People do all this and still become believers.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • What!

      as proof of what brainwashing from childhood does.. Sad, let kids be kids without the voodoo brainwashing..

      April 8, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  17. Arthur M.

    Everyone should read the following book: "The Jewish Genocide of Armenian Christians". The assault on Christianity and Christians continues in all ways, shapes, forms and manners. The "Bolshevik Revolution" was yet another Jewish assault on Russian Christianity and Christians. Now, it is done in very subtle ways in the West. That's why the UN Convention on Genocide also covers "Cultural Genocide". Why is this done? Because of Zionist plans on the world and the ancient Jewish hatred for Jesus. If you truly want to see Jewish hate for Jesus and Christians, you have to read the coded messages about Jesus in the "Babylonian Talmud". It is the hatred of a racist, exclusive, and tribal mentality against an inclusive, enlightened, universal, and progressive theology contained within Christianity. Christianity is the single biggest threat to the “Chosen People” mentality within Jews they have ever encountered, or will ever encounter.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • nomdefaitour

      I thought you died in a Berlin bunker...

      April 8, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • What!

      I was assaulted by pedo priests..

      April 8, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • localdelii

      The Turks committed the genocide against Armenians, or to be precise, the Ottoman Empire.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  18. JM

    "You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England." – C.S. Lewis

    "Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable." – C.S. Lewis

    "I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg - or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to." – C.S. Lewis

    April 8, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • Cq

      Lewis failed to either realize, or acknowledge that Jesus himself may not have been the one to make the claim to godhood. It could have been done quite easily without his knowledge by the New Testament writers.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  19. pedsboys

    God was invented by Man.........to rule mankind.

    April 8, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • jj


      April 8, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • localdelii

      Christ said is kingdom is not of this world...

      April 8, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  20. billy jester


    April 8, 2012 at 1:33 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.