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. GySgtG

    joe nice try but he did say that he also said
    I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details
    When the solution is simple, God is answering.
    .God does not play dice with the universe.
    .God is subtle but he is not malicious.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      He sounds pretty malicious to me. His original pair of humans did something he disapproved of, and he punished them AND ALL THEIR DESCENDANTS FOR ALL TIME for it. Later, he drown all but a tiny handful of both humans and creatures on the planet. An various other occasions, he turned people he didn't like into salt and destroyed entire cities for the behavior of just some of their inhabitants. He slaughtered all the male children of an entire nation because of the actions of someone else.

      Shall I go on? It just doesn't get any more malicious than that. They're the actions of a psychopath.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  2. Jeff Lucas

    it is utterly amazing what a nonbeliever believes about Jesus and the Bible.

    It used to be that our soceity had a basic understanding of the Gospel. Not anymore. Modernism and postmodernism have rendered our soceity totally ignorant of the Gospel message.

    this Easter, our soceity needs spiritual milk. They don't know who Jesus is anymore, not even the slightest clue.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Honesty counts..

      people expect honesty and truth today, over fiction. People are Realists

      April 8, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Actually, modern times have brought actual scholarship to the study of biblical texts. They're not simply swallowed whole as they were in the past; they are critically examined in the light of modern knowledge and evidence.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Bill

      If Jesus was as advertised, and back in the day their truth in advertising probably wasn't any better than it is today, he did say not to bother looking around for God for behold the kingdom of God is within you.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Wanderer

      @ Bill
      It is true, Bill! God or kingdom of God can't be found without, looking for them from without is heretic.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  3. TheRationale

    The Jesus that performed miracles and trespassed on physics didn't exist, and that's a fact if there ever was one. You can't value facts and such a Jesus at the same time.

    But what about a Jesus who had no supernatural powers and just told stories and led people? It's the same question about whether Shakespeare existed. Does it have to matter? Are not his ideas the important thing?

    April 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  4. IDoBelieve

    He is risen. He is risen indeed! Jesus died for your sins. That's all there is to it. Faith is love and life

    April 8, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Honesty counts..

      hope you don't have any kids..

      April 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  5. Gena

    Another very interesting video to watch is Zeitgeist part 1


    I wish somebody would embed it for me, please.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Gena

      Are you kidding me ... LOL ; )

      April 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Certain

      How do you get it more embedded than that?

      April 8, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • atheist4sure

      to GENA – Thats exactly what Im thinking every time a Christian opens their mouth

      April 8, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • zlul

      hey lets jump on the zeitgays bandwagon. Lets preach about a resource based economy and then ask for monetary donations.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  6. Honesty counts..

    no doubt, that jesus guy needed a good therapist.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • ReRe


      April 8, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • Bill

      He had one, Mary Magdalene, she was hot and wealthy too.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  7. reason

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


    April 8, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  8. Joaquim Soares

    Easter is the celebration of the rebirth of life in every domain of nature.

    In the text "Easter: a Time of Re-Awakening", the author writes: "Easter is the time of resurrection of all nature in the spring of Northern Hemisphere. For Christians it is a time to reverently celebrate the resurrection of their savior. The earliest depictions of Christ show him with a solar orb radiating above his head, identifying him as a sun god. It is natural for Christians to identify the resurrection of their savior with the sun which seems to awaken in the spring in all its glory after the “death” of winter, in the northern region of the globe." (link: http://www.esoteric-philosophy.com/2012/04/easter-time-of-re-awakening.html )

    April 8, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      So what is it for people in the southern hemisphere? Chopped liver?

      April 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  9. Gena

    So, I still can't figure out how to embed a video since copy/pasting the embed link doesn't work for me.

    I very highly recommend reading the articles and blogs and watching the videos by Acharya S who explains astrotheology and mythicism at:





    April 8, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Gena


      April 8, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  10. J.L. Ragan

    When the "religious" community consisting of the Kenites(sons of Cain-fathered by the devil)yelled " Crucify HIM-Crucify HIM"
    as HE was upsetting their oh so false teachings.....in this modern day time of diversity in this established country based on HIS
    teachings with all this technology amongst us, with all this "Rejection that Jesus existed" jargon is just the modern day way of
    continuing to yell "Crucify HIM-Crucify HIM' the descendants of Cain are still trying to get that job done for what evil wasn't
    planning on at the Crucifixion was HIS resurrection thus we who believe have indeed had death defeated thereby will enjoy
    eternal life with OUR CREATOR. Put that in your pipe and smoke it all you skeptics and non believers! HE is Risen!!!!!!

    April 8, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Will

      Get help. Regardless of whether you are wrong or right, you need help.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • Bill

      I'd like to try some of that stuff in my pipe.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  11. Chuck D

    Jesus was actually Caesarion, son of Julius Caesar. He had just returned to the Middle East after exile in India. He attempted to mount a comeback and retake his rightful rule. His coup was a huge flop until Constantine stole his ideas centuries later and attempted to unite Rome with the fake Canaanite religion.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  12. Honesty counts..

    I enjoy the fact that CNN will provide good sound articles that help people mature mentally. Too many of these parents brainwash their children, stunting the childs mental growth with jesus/god delusions. Those as CNN help de-program these children.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  13. Jazzman

    Marley, our minds can't comprehend it. God no God. Maybe God is pure energy. We don't really know. We say he looks like us, but in reality, we don't know.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • hawaiiduude

      being made in his image does not mean he looks like us fool.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  14. Keith

    Wouldn't expect anything less than an article like this, attacking the Cross of Jesus Christ on Resurrection Sunday, from the Crescent News Network.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • hawaiiduude

      uh cnn is owned by israeli zionists...

      April 8, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      How does this article attack anything?

      April 8, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  15. Raz

    They start the article with Freke? Why not Erich von Daniken? They could have at least used a respected scholar.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  16. Wayne

    Good article. It covers both sides. When you boil it all down, you're left with faith and a willingness to take the message, historical or myth, that you should live life loving your neighbor as thy self. If you can't do that, it doesn't matter if you believe in Jesus or not.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Keith

      It'll matter to you when you draw your last breath if you do so without Jesus Christ: Jhn 3:36 He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him. as your Savior:

      April 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Keith

      It'll matter to you when you draw your last breath if you do so without Jesus Christ as your Savior:
      Jhn 3:36 He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Will

      @Keith No Keith, if someone believed in the Bible, then they would have no problem believing in Jesus. So quoting the bible is no way to prove anything about Jesus. That's why the author looks for proof outside the Bible, which was admittedly altered many times throughout the first few centuries by those in charge. Think of it like modern-day politicians – you think they wouldn't change the history books if they could?

      April 8, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • Bill

      That sounds logical Wayne but isn't it taught that as long as you except Jesus as your savior before you die then you're in not matter what you've done in the past?

      April 8, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • TR6

      @Bill :”That sounds logical Wayne but isn't it taught that as long as you except Jesus as your savior before you die then you're in not matter what you've done in the past?”

      Yes and that’s why heaven will be filled with pedophile priests, televangelists rapists, murderers and politicians

      April 8, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  17. The Joker

    Three Christians were in a car that ran off a cliff. What's the problem?

    The car had five seats!

    Happy Zombie Day!

    April 8, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  18. Jason

    When I think of religious people in this country I think of the sea of fat slobs who waddle their way through the isles of walmart, fascinated by plastic crap built on the backs of poor underage workers overseas. When I hear these little baby-brains regurgitate scripture and go on about jesus is lord and nonbelievers going to hell I want to bang my head against the wall. How can so many grown adults, living in the richest country, in the 21st century, not realize what their doing to the impressionable minds of the kids they’re raising? I swear, I honestly don’t understand how people can be so completely stupid.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • Raz

      Nobody is stopping you from banging your head against the wall. Go for it. That will show those baby brains who's smarter.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • JM

      Obama, Colin Powell, Hillary Clinton.....the list goes on (people who are Christians).

      April 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • James Kimble

      Quite simply put... Jesus Christ lived, and Jesus Christ lives. He is the Lord and whether you want to believe it or not, you will one day face judgement. Who do you want to answer to God for you? Yourself, or the One who gave His life for you?

      April 8, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Jason

      Whether or not god exists jesus had absolutely nothing to do with it. Jesus was likely an intelligent, charismatic philosopher who did what he could to add something positive to the world, just like many, many, many others living and dead. He had a mother and a father and he died once, just like every other living thing on this planet. How dare you tell me that I will be judged based on you’re beliefs. Other religions believe other things. Keep your toxic crap to yourself.

      April 8, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  19. mark

    Al of it – BS!

    April 8, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • hawaiiduude

      the joos are bs!

      April 8, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  20. Gena

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKW9sbJ3v2w?feature=player_embedded&w=640&h=360%5D

    April 8, 2012 at 2:06 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.