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. Leo

    John 15

    18 “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. 21 But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 He who hates Me hates My Father also. 24 If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well. 25 But they have done this to fulfill the word that is written in their Law, ‘THEY HATED ME WITHOUT A CAUSE.’

    April 8, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  2. Jim

    This story is 2000 years old. I’d recommend giving it up if you're waiting for proof he existed in order for you to have faith. Personally, I find it compelling that ideas for the rights of women, rejection of pious leaders and totally new perspectives on freedom from guilt were discussed in vibrant modern terms in such ancient times. I’d focus first on the message regarding justice and forgiveness, if makes sense or not to you, then proceed with your own personal investigation.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  3. † In God We Trust †


    !! Shame on CNN for posting this ridiculous article on Easter Sunday and attacking Christianity on this holiday !!
    (CNN would never do this to any Jewish/Muslim holidays – luckily poor Christians are always forgiving)

    Do like me and many others: *** CALL/E-MAIL CNN & COMPLAIN ABOUT THIS BS! ***

    – Happy Easter everyone and may our Lord & Saviour bless us all who believe in him. –

    April 8, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • jimtanker

      You're right, I will email CNN. And let them know what a great job that they are doing. Thanks for the idea.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  4. tony

    The Holy Collection plate will love you and keep you from harm and give you an afterlife. Just don't rock our boat in this one.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  5. † In God We Trust †


    !! Shame on CNN for posting this ridiculous article on Easter Sunday and attacking Christianity on this holiday !!

    Do like me and many others: *** CALL/E-MAIL CNN & COMPLAIN ABOUT THIS BS! ***

    – Happy Easter everyone and may our Lord & Saviour bless us all who believe in him. –

    April 8, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • notheism

      Why do you need people to call or complain, you have your "lord" on your side...

      April 8, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • JM

      It's just an article. Half the country doesn't believe in God.

      God can't be mocked.

      If people don't believe, that is their choice/decision.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  6. Jenn

    You could have and should have chosen a better day to post this story. Shame on you. If this were some Jewish holiday CNN would never let a story questioning some Jewish figure run on their holiday. Shame! Luckily us Christians are forgiving

    April 8, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • George

      And the bible says women should not speak in public. So STFU.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Dave, Central Illinois

      Right you are! CNN doesn't have the guts to publish anything which would question Islam. That's because they are cowards. Christians are easy targets because, as a whole, we do not answer criticism with violance.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  7. George

    "People don’t die for myths, some biblical scholars say."
    So why did the highjackers do what they did again?
    These people are clueless.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  8. † In God We Trust †


    !! Shame on CNN posting this ridiculous article on Easter Sunday !!

    Do like me and many others: *** CALL/E-MAIL CNN & COMPLAIN ABOUT THIS BS! ***

    April 8, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • George

      What exactly are you complaining about??

      April 8, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • SuZieCoyote

      Boo hoo. Get a life.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • wrob

      Yes, it leaves little doubt where CNN stands. Don't we expect news sources to be objective, or is that old fashioned?

      April 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • hawaiiduude

      they can make it up to me by bashing hannukah

      April 8, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • TheTruthInNews

      I could not agree more. Perhaps on Yom Kippur or during Ramadan CNN "News" could write about Moses or Muhammad being flakes too. Honestly, as a Christian, I am tired of being bullied by CNN.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  9. reason

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


    April 8, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  10. JM

    In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Savior gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man's welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it. – Abraham Lincoln

    April 8, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  11. Atheists are so arrogant!

    I am a humble Christian who believes that God personally communicates with me, and that I am so special to Him that He answers my prayers, and he has a special plan for me, and He has a superspecial afterlife waiting for me, and He will horribly torture people I don't agree with. Because I am humble.

    Atheists are so arrogant that they believe they are only one person in 7,000,000,000, on a planet that is only one of probably billions throughout the universe. What arrogance, thinking they are such gods!

    April 8, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • JM

      People aren't born Christian. They hear the Word, believe it and choose to follow Christ.

      Someone once said "God doesn't have any grandchildren" (meaning: you aren't a Christian just because your parents were; it's a choice).

      April 8, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • tony

      They hear it pounded in while they are still impressionable children who will believe anything that adults tell them.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • YeahOk

      @Atheists are so arrogant!
      "He will horribly torture people I don't agree with."

      Make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside?

      "Atheists are so arrogant that they believe they are only one person in 7,000,000,000, on a planet that is only one of probably billions throughout the universe."

      Ummm, are you saying I am more than one person in 7,000,000,000?

      April 8, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Logic is knocking


      The selfish belief that the universe was created solely for us, makes a lot of sense. Since the dawn of man we have moved frim polytheism to monotheism. Life is dwindling away at the structure of theology. We are all Atheists my friend. You have just one more god than I.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • JOE47Y

      talk about arrogance, you must be the poster child for it. GOOD LUCK1

      April 8, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Timber


      April 8, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  12. reason

    The gods of all organized religions, if true, would all be horribly unjust and evil deities to send billions of people to eternal suffering for choosing the wrong one or being born in the wrong place. Looking at organized religion objectively, they are myths from iron age societies that were trying to explain the world, and there is virtually no chance any one is truth.

    Rationally speaking if there is a just god and an afterlife, you will be judged on how you live your life. Rejecting reason and deluding yourself in blind faith does not help your case.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Timber

      You won't find the concept of eternal suffering for humans in the Bible. It doesn't exist. It was an invention, like so many inventions, of the Catholic church. Rev 20:12 "The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books." Oncethey are judged, they must atone for their own sins, and after that...the end.

      April 8, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  13. LouAz

    Ha Ha Ha ! ! ! Most christians commenting here sound like Ford explaing the Pinto gas tank.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • The Joker

      Nailed it! (pun intended)

      Happy Zombie Day!

      April 8, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Dave, Central Illinois

      You are a brave little lad typing such big comments from mommy and daddy's basement...

      April 8, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  14. potvin99


    April 8, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  15. forpol

    Atheists do not exist. They are a figment of their own imagination.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • YeahOk

      You are just too clever.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  16. Gena

    The 2012 Astrotheology Calendar


    April 8, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  17. GySgtG

    no lies here your just not smart enough to understand

    April 8, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • YeahOk

      Doesn't take much research at all to find that Albert Einstein did not believe in a personal god. But, that doesn't seem to be something you are very good at.

      April 8, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  18. Gena

    Easter – Christian or Pagan?


    April 8, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  19. Jack Be Humble

    I am glad that on this particular Sunday morning, the catastrophes in the world have become so insignificant such that CNN can take the tile to troll Christians off on Atheists. I think I will have lamb for lunch, and rabbit for dinner.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  20. Believe?

    Just knowing that I am of the same species as you evil, dumb religious fanatics that foolishly believe you are going to nirvana even though you talk of being better than others that don't believe like you, and that they are going to BURN IN EVERLASTING HELLFIRE, sent there by an intelligent God are pathetically ignorant DAs. If there is a God and he is that stupid then this is truly a hellacious universe. You are truly hypocritical fools and you are not even equal to people that live and let live. If there is actually a God you will be the ones that he sends to hell, DAs.

    April 8, 2012 at 2:33 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.