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.”
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.
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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.
What difference does it make if he was real, ot not. No man real or fictional has had more effect on this planet than Jesus. His teachings are simple commone sense values that would improve anyones life, believer or not.
It is uncommon sense to "love your enemy," and it's stupid besides.. Try again?
Hate to tell you, but Christianity isn't the most popular religion in the world...ain't even second most popular.
Because He claimed to be the son of God, which, if true, has rather huge implications. =>
“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
The problem with your argument is that you only have those three options to choose from.
You forgot one option. FAKE. He is a character in a book written by men to control men.
C.S. Lewis wrote children's fantasy novels, which was good practice for him when he wrote about christian fantasy. People like C.S. Lewis count on the fact that some people never obtain intellectual maturity and are essentially children who surrender their will to other, stronger men.
I think Thomas Edison has had a bit more effect on the world than Jesus.
Steve Jobs too, and he changed our world now...nobody much heard about Jesus until long after his death (if indeed he existed).
It is noble to seek the truth any day of the year. Thank you CNN for this eye opening article.
Amen! I mean, right on!
Yes, Jesus is real , and so is The Bhudda and many other souls. Anyone that influences the entire Earth has to be real ..Happy Easter Earth !
So by your "reasoning" then Santa Claus is real as well as leprechauns and the tooth fairy.
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.
what about the jewish debate on jewish self governance or to remain in exile like it says in the torah? jus askin for equal time...
The name Yeshua (Jesus) means "God's Salvation." It was a common name among first and second century Kingdom of God fanatics who were crucified by the Romans. It's possibly likely that Christianity can trace its roots to one of these Zealots. But which one? As for the "testimony" of Jospehus and Tacitus? It's simply hearsay. They wrote toward the end of the First Century, after at least three of the four canonical Gospels were in circulation. Their writings prove nothing. The fact that the seemingly "biographical" elements of the Gospels were derived from many Roman, Greek, Hebrew and Egyptian myths of the day was acknowledged by even the earlist Church Fathers. They said that it was a trick of the Devil, going back in time and inventing those other myths to test the faith of future Christians. Mr. Ehrman, the angel Maroni didn't exist, and yet the LDS movement has been going strong for 200+ years. Joseph Smith was a huckster, and so was Saul of Tarsus. The primary purpose of any religion, as you well know, is to take money from those who are far less sophisticated and far less educated, and afraid to die.
If historians listed are "hearsay" then lets apply that to all the other historians. Suddenly all of history is hearsay. You weren't there so you don't know.
That's your logic ^^. Suddenly it doesn't look so logical...
The problem with these to "historians" in particular, though, is that huge swaths of their recorded "histories" are patently false, and much of the rest is unverifiable. Not a good batting average, and not the sort of authority one would care to place their burden of proof upon.
ATTENTION !!!! ATTENTION!!!! ATTENTION!!!!
!! 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/Muslims during their holidays – poor Christians are always on the targeting during their holidays, and luckily they always forgive. It's same as questioning whether the holocaust or Muhammed existed!)
*** 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 -.............
It is noble to seek the truth any day of the year. Thank you CNN for this eye opening article.
because if you criticize israel or joos you are labeled antisemite. Simple as that.
This article is excellent, balanced, well written and timely. This subject is important.
(The term "bs" is not a very Christ-like expression. Shame on you.)
I don't see how this article is any kind of an attack, but apparently there are those who are hypersensitive to having their beliefs examined in the rational light of day.
joos get all riled up if you question the holocaust or israel right to exist in palestine..
Please show me an atheist that has contributed to society in a positive way and uplifted others and I'll show you the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and my Lord that you filth mock...
You do realize that most advances in modern medicine are due to atheist scientists, right?
Here is a very short list that took me about 15 seconds to fine on this new thing called a computer.
Arthur C. Clarke
Thomas Paine (deist)
Thomas Jefferson (deist)
Susan B. Anthony
Stephen J. Gould
Not to mention 99% of the members of the academy of scientist.
Your Lord didnt teach hate. Calling people filth is against the very teachings you tout.
So, where's this Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and "Lord"?
That's the National Academy of Science, jim.
Take it easy Mr Makavli,,, try slowing down with the drinking of your libations too much and too fast,,,,,
God is as real as one wants Him to be. I want God and His Sons to be real so I have a fence to lean on whenever I need to.
I only recognize a few of these so-called "Good" men, I can see that most of you are self-proclaimed scientists or computer anti-social types, the list explains a lot, like I said show me an atheist that has contributed positively to society and I'll show you the Lord.
I don't really care to see your lord, personally.. If he can't be as obvious as math and his truths as self emergent, he's a fvcking moron.. I mean, what sort of deity lets billions of people worship and believe incorrectly about him while he lets math and chemistry be absolutely obvious? Idiot.
Arguing with fools is only mildly amusing, watching paint dry provides much more excitement. I would like to thank CNN for this meaningless forum discussion today, thank you. Now if you don't mind let me get back to making a difference in others lives so I can have a chance for a better afterlife. Cue more arguments from you neo-babylonans.
ATTENTION !!!! ATTENTION!!!! ATTENTION!!!!.
EVIL CNN!!!!!!!!!!!!!! THIS IS A DAY FOR TEACHING CHILDREN THAT RABBITS LAY EGGS AND THAT A ZOMBIE WILL TORTURE THEM FOREVER IF THEY DON'T OBEY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
If you are offended by an article that simply gives both sides of a centuries old debate, you've got serious problems.
Hey, Just sayin Atheism is not Captain America, I thought you'd be in church all day!
Didn't read the post, did you? Here is a hint – Edgar Allen
19 Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery,[c] fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, 21 envy, murders,[d] drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. 24 And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.
Wait, I just found out the author is a former celebrity gossip column journalist. End of story!!
Jesus,Peace and Blessings be upon Him....Muslim,not crucified.
In the beginning God did establish the governances of Creation and thru the establishments of Creationism did God make manifest each and every Cosmos of existentialism. Thus in the beginning was Creation itself born in the glimmer of thought. God was well pleased with Creationism's existence. In the passing of Time God did move about the elemental gods and brought order where was none. Thus were the first moments of Creationism's Creations established to become the stars and the stars' planets and the planets their moons. In God's graces di these things come to be.
Now there came to the awareness of God a planet of extreme interest. God's elemental gods were creating their own creations and these gods of the elemental kinds did call their creations life forms. Not to be outdone by such trivialities, God stuck His big nose in and wham He created all mannerisms of life beyond what the elemental gods could do! God was well pleased with His creations of life and He rubber-stamped His approval and He, God, called one of His better creation a man.
Thusly God grew bored and He went elsewhere while leaving it up to the elemental gods to guide man and all the creations God did manifest upon this planet we now know of as being our Earth.
Too many people worry about Jesus's physical existence and not enough about
what the concept of a Christ truely means. Some folks can't comprehend a meaningless universe and are drawn to religion. Others are fascinated by the unknown and reject the human definition of an orderly hierarchy led by a God. I don't think either approach is wrong. Since most of us hold that to do good is human...whether it be Christlike or just human nature!
Agree. But unfortunately, the Christianity is totally distorted, especially amongst the so called American right wingers.
Sorry typing too fast. but you get the point. headed to church. God Bless
Give our best to the rest of the patients!
Reason from above ??
Jesus really did exist as a human being and as a great prophet and he healed the sick and the blind all by God's authority.But to say that he was sacrificed on the cross as a form of human sacrifice is a blasphemous absurdity and a horrible lie...i apologize to any christians who may be hurt by this statement but you must understand that the true living holy God will not resort to a human to be sacrificed as a form of "mercy" from him.
Well then you do not understand why the cross of Christ was necessary for mankind to have a chance of redemption. Keep seeking.
Believing that Jesus was a human sacrifice to pay back for Adam's sin is as rational as the Aztec belief that a human sacrifice would appease the gods and ensure a bountiful harvest.
1 Corinthians1:18 "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."
Those who know the truth rejoice today. Those who do not believe in Christ continue to believe the gospel is foolishness. I lived 28 years in foolishness and 30 in the joy of knowing Christ. I would die for Christ now that I understand the truth and the reason to live that came with my faith. To those who really want to know the truth you can begin the journey by reading the gospel of John. God knows your heart and if you are ready and truly yearning to know the truth; if you are, I believe He will enable you to find the truth.
CNN you are out of line and a disgrace to journalism putting out this trash.
I think the section is called "Belief Blog"... It isn't exactly news that Jesus did not exist....
Why is it that we don't allow religion to be taught in our public schools?
Becuase we want the nation to go down the drain as we have brought in Secular Humanism why are we supprised the nation has turned to trash.
Careful there, Voice. There are states trying to push that nonsense through their state houses.
Because We would have to teach all religions to be fair and there's not enough classroom time for that. Separation of Church and State comes to mind..
We DO teach ABOUT religion in our public schools as a part of social studies. However, we can't indoctrinate. The problem is that very few people agree about what the correct interpretation of the holy books is. Anything we try to teach, including verifiably historical fact, would enrage a significant group of arrogant believers who won't allow disagreement with their special insight. Christians don't agree about what is truth; Muslims don't agree about what is truth; Jews don't agree about what is truth.
How about we apply cultural sensitivity and not have these types of stories on one of the highest holy days in the Christian calendar. I'm not saying such debates should not be held but rather we should be sensitive to those who see this day as holy and not use it as a way to increase ratings and click counts by running such piece. One would expect the same thing for other major religions on their holy days.
A faith untested is like a life unexamined...not worth living.
cultural sensitivity, like when I go to the store and I get Easter shoved down my throat?