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. GySgtG

    YEA that was part of a conversation. but the point is smarter men than in here understand

    April 8, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • Paris Hilton Debates a Chicken and Loses!

      I'm sure that makes sense to you

      April 8, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • YeahOk

      Albert Einstein is on record as saying that he did not believe in a personal God. He said:
      "It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it."

      Einstein also said:
      "I am a deeply religious nonbeliever. This is a somewhat new kind of religion. I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic. What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism. The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naive."

      Regardless, even if Einstein did believe in God, so what? I don't care WHO believes. Where is the evidence?

      April 8, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  2. I feel sorry for my Christian brothers

    I truly feel sorry for my Christian brothers. Of course, Jesus (peace be upon him) existed. In Islam, we hold a lot of respect for Jesus. However, I must say that all this talk about the non-existence of Jesus is a result of the Christian community itself. The truth is that Jesus was never crucified. It was one of his other disciples who looked like him. As the Quran says:

    [Quran 4:157] "And their saying: Surely we have killed the Messiah, Jesus son of Marium, the messenger of Allah; and they did not kill him nor did they crucify him, but it appeared to them so (like Jesus) and most surely those who differ therein are only in a doubt about it; they have no knowledge respecting it, but only follow a conjecture, and they killed him not for sure."

    April 8, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • reason

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


      April 8, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Dave, Central Illinois

      And your so-called prophet was a sodomite scam artist who conned a bunch of camel jockies into believing his tripe.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  3. Josef Bleaux


    April 8, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • Paris Hilton Debates a Chicken and Loses!

      Happy Egg-Laying Bunny Day to you!

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


    April 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  5. Leo

    1 John 3

    13 Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. 15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. 16 We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. 17 But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. 19 We will know by this that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him 20 in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight.

    23 This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us. 24 The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  6. Who Is James?

    Those who say there is no record of Jesus outside the New Tesament are either ignorant or liars. There are plenty of First Century historians who attest to the historical Jesus. Josephus, a secular Jewish historians writes about Jesus. Thallus a Samaritan historian writes about Jesus. Historians such as Heroditus and Tacitus write about Jesus. The reality is there are all kinds of historical records outside of the New Testament.

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

      People will believe all of history until it talks about Jesus, then even history becomes untrue! Tacitus a great historian, but he was mistaken when it comes to Jesus??

      April 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Matt

      Herodotus lived in the 5th century BC, you're the one who doesn't seem to know their history. It enrages me that ignorant people put their trust in an ancient nonsensical book that was compiled by rich, power hungry men in the 5th century, rather than in the rational methods of science and rational morality. You can be good without God, you're all holding us back and dooming our world to death by denying the facts of what's going on around you for the sake of your myths. Why should I not put my faith in the Gods of the Iliad? It's even older than the Bible.

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

    I don't know why I waste my time reading CNN's Belief articles. I doubt I will ever see good conservative scholarship shared with this audience. The evidence for Christ living and being who he claimed to be is prevalent. Some may say we need Christ to be a myth because a real Jesus (one who did what he claimed to do in the Bible) would confound and confront our rational and scientific world. I suppose they are right if you use reason and science as an escape from dealing with the existence of God. When Einstein proposed his theory of relativity, many folks thought absolutes where doomed. However, Einstein's theory only upheld the notion that life has an ultimate reference point. Something must be the perfect measure. For Einstein that measure was the speed of light. For Christians, that measure is Christ. Christ said he was the light of the world. This was a figure of speech, but perhaps he was stating something much more profound, like all life is relative to an ultimate measure of truth. I believe He is who he claimed to be – God's son, the righteous one to whom all of us will give an account one day. I hope everyone reading this today will do their own research on this matter. Believers need to understand the challenges to the Christian message. Doubters need to understand the challenges to their skeptical arguments. I have confidence that those who are earnest in their search for God will find Him. I am certainly grateful God has helped me work through all of the hard questions I have thrown at Him over the years.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  8. reason

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


    April 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  9. Jackuline Ragan

    Hey Evil.......you just weren't counting on the resurrection..........HE has Risen!!!!!

    April 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  10. Marley

    How can a human be a "God" when we don't even know what a "God" is!

    What is this supposed *thing* theists call "God"?!

    Nobody has been able to provide an answer to this question that makes any logical sense at all!

    That is why "God" does not exist. "God" is not even a rational thought (idea)!

    That is why you cannot find evidence to prove or disprove "God". Because you don't even know what it is you are trying to prove!

    Can you find that thing you are looking for if you don't even know what it is you are looking for? Of course not!

    April 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • bb09

      You should ask yourself why you exist then since everything to you can be either way, theres no real answer, so how can one be wrong?

      April 8, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  11. Proven Right

    When Religion and Science met, it becomes an absolute thruth.

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

      The human mind can not prove absolute truths. Hence, there are no absolute truths.

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

      Atheists claims non-existence of God as an absolute truth, thus, atheism is nothing but a PIECE of CRAP

      April 8, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  12. John

    If Jesus never existed then Humanity is doomed.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  13. Gena

    Here's a book description video


    April 8, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  14. Jesus Loving Christian

    JESUS IS ARISEN ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !

    Uh, wait, no, he's still dead.

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

      Who is "Christian"? Your bf? I think you mean "Jesus-loving Christian".

      April 8, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  15. Josh

    To compare someone who doesn't think Jesus was an actual person to someone who denies the holocaust is absurd! There are no pictures of jesus, no living and breathing people that have literally met him, unlike the many who have experienced and survived concentration camps. Most people who get a decent level of education end up learning about the Facts of the holocaust. There are undeniable historical accounts. There doesn't seem to be any such thing when it comes to Jesus. Also, the majority of the people who believe President Obama is not a US citizen are Tea Partying religous fanatics in the Bible Belt. I just don't understand how John Dominic Crossan can make these comparisons with a straight face. Its like comparing a protester with a sign to a suicide bomber.

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

      It would be more accurate to compare someone who thinks Jesus never existed to someone who thinks Zeus never existed.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  16. Avser Bastian

    VIOLENT WORLD PSYCHIATRY-PSYCHOLOGY REVEALED(mindless mkultra crimes performed by police and psychiatrists/psychologists)

    USE OF MKULTRA + HUNGER GAMES TODAY....Use of psychology/psychiatry for mass population or ethnic cleansing as well as crimes to which we witness daily on behalf of Zionism/communism/liberalism.





    Related to WHITES ARE NOT WELCOME IN AMERICA ANY LONGER !!! http://www.youtube.com/user/BostjanAvsec or rather http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xleq3o OBAMA'S HEALTH CARE RECORDED LIVE IN 2009 !!! EXILING WHITES(US citizens) WITH EXTREME PREJUDICE AND IMPORTING NON WHITES IMMIGRATION REQUIREMENTS FREE !!! WHY TO ACCEPT LIABILITIES FOR CRIMES COMMITTED WHEN WE CAN SIMPLY ASSASSINATE OUR VICTIMS(YOU) THANKS TO HUMAN RIGHTS ORGANIZATIONS AND FREE PRESS/MEDIA(most severe CENSORSHIP OF GENOCIDE in entire history of human kind) !! NOT HUMAN RIGHTS COURTS, BUT ORGANIZERS OF GENOCIDE AGAINST WHITES AND SPONSORS OF BOGUS "MULTICULTURALISM" $$$ CLAIMS AT EXPENSE OF PERSECUTED WHITES(while minorities are awarded for and instructed by governments in bogus human rights claims, whites are simply killed if not perverted in multiculturalism garbage) !!!

    For fast updates use http://www.facebook.com/people/Loki-Nagrind/100001962176474



    IF THEY BRAINWASH YOU WITH LIES ON HOW ELECTING TERRORIST OBAMA WOULD HELP TEA PARTY(there is already over one hundred million of so called minorities in US alone while you are everything, but treated as humans), PLEASE ASK YOURSELF WHAT ARE YOUR CHANCES OF SURVIVAL ONCE OBAMA IS AGAIN SELF-ELECTED(see video 77) & SINCE NEW LAW IS TAKING GUNS FROM YOU ALREADY TODAY(stop the violent world of psychiatry or lies – NOW OR DIE) !!!

    US government consist of TERRORIST Obama alike lawyers(liars), Ron Paul alike doctors, and Gingrich/Sanatorum alike family members of affected(brain disease) individuals who have helped pass CRIMINAL HUMAN EXPERIMENTATION bill against target whites. CRIME NO DIFFERENT FROM ROMNEY(Bush screwed US for Obama and now it's Romney's turn) WHOSE FATHER EXCELLED AFTER GM WAS DELIBERATELY BANKRUPT = AMERICA TODAY(soon to be success based on previous sabotage) !!

    April 8, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • K-Tel

      And now, for the very first time ever, you can protect yourself from this terrible invasion with the new K-Tal Aluminum Foil Brain-Wave Blocker Hat! Not sold in stores! Act now, supplies are limited! Operators are standing by!

      April 8, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  17. GySgtG

    Albert Einstein

    God without science is ignorance, but Science without God is pointless
    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 2:15 pm |
    • YeahOk

      Are you trying to make a point, or just copying and pasting?

      April 8, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Pastor Daniel

      Amen to that!!!

      April 8, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  18. Jackuline Ragan

    Kenites (sons of Cain) yelled Crucify HIM Crucify HIM.....they're still doing it today! HE was crucified but HE is Risen!

    April 8, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  19. Nate (Seattle, WA)

    Atheists are the ones making up a story to sell books? You're kidding, right. The Bible is the best selling book of all time. There's millions of people worldwide whose profession is based on religion (religious scholars, priests, the Pope, various church employees). There's very few people who actually make a living off believing that Jesus was a myth.

    Leading Atheists like Richard Dawkins actually have day jobs (biologist) that provide a productive service, having nothing to do with whether they believe the Jesus fairy tale or not.

    Mankind didn't have the right answer to almost anything 2000 years ago. But, somehow, these handful of early Christians figured out the nature of the universe, and how Gods and men interact? That's a joke. Perhaps there's a simpler explanation, like Jesus was not born of a virgin, but maybe a woman who didn't want to admit to getting pregnant the natural way. And maybe Jesus wasn't resurrected. Maybe he never actually died on the cross, but was simply left there by guards during a storm, and rescued by someone with a heart. Perhaps a man who claimed (or accepted claims of) divinity was not actually the son of God, but simply suffering from mental illness, or any of a host of conditions we now understand, that can lead to delusions of grandeur.

    Or maybe, Jesus never existed at all, the whole story was fiction, and the book just got miscategorized in the early version of the Dewey Decimal System. All explanations are infinitely more plausible than the nonsensical interpretation that Christians accepted when they were children, and too immature to sort out fantasy and reality for themselves.

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

      As Dawkins is.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Pipe-Dreamer

      Jesus' Birth, Life Death and Reserrection is yes but a myth and fairy's tale by foolish blowhards trying in vain attempts to dethrone the waek-minded one's who yet sit upon the fenceposts unwilling to step into the knowledge of God's Graces and Redeeming Qualities for One and All of humanisms' bewailments of the die-fuse we all have in our bodies. We are all but Buildings to God and as the case goes with buildings, they do not last! Even in the heavens', buildings do not last!

      April 8, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  20. The Joker

    I will never read the bible to my children. There are so many more positive messages in the collected works of J.K. Rowling. Long live Harry Potter!

    April 8, 2012 at 2:13 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.