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. Nii

    The Blood of the Lamb has been shed for us.
    May it cause us who r forgiven to learn to forgive atheists, etc who offend us
    We've been loved so may we learn to love our neighbors as ourselves, friend/foe.
    Lastly enjoy! It is the Jewish Passover given a Xtian theme.

    April 8, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  2. pyne

    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.For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent i will frustrate." 1 Corinthians 1:18,19

    April 8, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  3. sez

    Quote anyone you want. The people that print the cash to hire anyone to do anything and print the books. Own a CNN and all of the other hard assets in the U.S. Not to mention make all the news facts virtually the same the throw the "facts" out for discussion. Take a look at NBC nightly news and ABC tonight and CBS.night news. I've lived through that it hasn't changed. You either want to get a little more so you go along with it and hope osmosis does its job. Or you finally admit to yourself. Hey I'm just a little more indocrinated in all this stuff than you care to admit

    April 8, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  4. wrthodwyd

    I do not know how writers tend to discount, or not even mention, Jewish historians, Roman Historians, that talk about Jesus, I give up on these writers..

    April 8, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  5. Mom

    This is insulting Christians.... why this on Easter Sunday?!
    Cannot believe CNN's hatred

    April 8, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • nomdefaitour

      You christians just HAVE to be martyrs don't you?

      April 8, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • cigarlover

      Stop spreading hatred yourself. Why the heck you say only your religion is true? Other are myth? Why Mom?
      This is called hurting due to too much make believe !
      Don't worry as humans evolve and get to the fact that they are intelligent species free and clear of stupi* dogma. You and your dogma would be history. And one more thing, in the mean time keep your damn dogma to yourself. Don't dare spread your ignorance to poor & ignorant people of the world.

      April 8, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
  6. Dave

    There is no more reason to believe Jesus existed than there is reason any other person anyone could just make up. The fact that there were plenty of stories centuries before the story of Jesus that almost identically matches the story of Jesus just shows how little validity there is. Christianity is very outdated, however with today's understanding a new religion would be very hard to sell simply because people today just aren't as gullible as they were centuries ago. People today fabricate their own version od Christianity, one that actually barely affects their lives if at all. People pretend to believe in the things that don't affect their lives, but then just dismiss the things that do. I can only assume the same things happen as other religions were fading away. Christains are atheist in regards to Norse or Egyptians dieties, those of which also had huge followings yet their religion just went away and the world kept spinning. Christianity is next, and then will be followed by Islam. I am very curious to see what then comes because feeding people nonsense just won't fly in this day and age.

    April 8, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  7. Andrew

    Listen and learn some more:

    April 8, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  8. !

    Santorum 2012 !!


    April 8, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  9. ReBemol

    Jesus is the symbol of peace, love and forgiveness for most people and not just Christians. By questioning authenticity of Jesus, CNN is not just insulting everybody who believes in Jesus Christ and his mission to the world but also promoting war, hatred and revenge.

    April 8, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • johnston9234

      "Jesus" is the sole reason for the majority of all wars in history. Dismissing religion is not promoting war, it is disposing of its inherant cause.

      April 8, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  10. pyne

    The god (satan) of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they can not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God YWHW 2 Cornithians 4:4

    April 8, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  11. Sasha

    Why do atheists even bother looking at articles about religion? Go look after atheistic satanic articles, not anything about our beloved Jesus, God etc.

    April 8, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • Jon

      This is a news site. Why do Christians come to news sites when they have the Bible to tell them everything about the universe?

      April 8, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • Dave

      Your god killed over 3 million people in the bible, Satan killed less than 10. I bet your priest didn't tell you that. Research your religion, then criticize others. The bible is total evil, I am just the messanger, study it for yourself, you might end up quite dissapointed.

      April 8, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  12. sez

    People are so gullible. Take the camps, nuclear and coming back to Israel. All happening at once. How cozy. Now the Hebrews out of their homeland for 1700 years have been cleansed and brought back. Well, well. Theres a few minor problems that are never brought out like the selling of the land for the newly washed its theres. They aren't supposed to do that. Oh then there is usury in Israel. With rates worse than yours. 17 banks countem all chartered. Home loans, boat loans, car loans, student loans, credit cards, commercial loans, refinance. Now one might think the newly washed would say something about all this. However for a noob. They might not realize there are 9 different Semetic peoples. Many of them Hebrew or not like to play the We are the Choosen and Hebrew game. Hebrew or not. Its like a sport. The Hebrews don't care for it of course. But that ain't gonna stop a determined semite. You have everything in there including turks. You people need to wake up. yYour seriously gullible.

    April 8, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • Jon

      You know... this article is about Jesus.

      April 8, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  13. Atheism is not healthy for our children and living things...

    Prayer changes to good things if you love God from your heart.........

    Happy Easter

    April 8, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • Atheism is not healthy for our children and living things...

      I'm sorry....I failed to take my meds once again. I'm delusional and I can't help it.

      April 8, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
  14. Happy Easter (L)

    Non-Christians are jealous because we have Jesus Christ to pray and love 🙂

    April 8, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • MithraLives!

      talking to yourself doesnt make anyone jealous. it just makes you crazy.

      April 8, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • JT

      Keep your lips on the crack pipe

      April 8, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
  15. Andrew

    Listen and begin to learn:

    April 8, 2012 at 6:10 pm |


    !!!!! 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 †

    April 8, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • Objective_American

      The belief that questioning faith is offensive... offends me. Perhaps CNN should just ban comments which claim that this article is offensive, because I believe that it's my sacred right to have such information made publicly available despite objections based on emotional, not intellectual, foundations.
      Christ, grow up.

      April 8, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  17. Muslim girl

    I'm Muslim and Jesus (Peace be upon him) taught all humans very good things, and we should all be thankful to Allah (God) we have him surrounding us everywhere. I love Jesus Christ!

    This article is insulting and should be removed, and CNN be punished!

    Happy Easter to all my Christian brothers and sisters.

    April 8, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  18. Steve

    It would have been a much better article if the writer had taken the time to investigate the question further, and sort out the good from the bad. Unfortunately, as can be seen from the deluge of idiotic comments, many people have a hard time being objective about this question. The historicist and the mythicist sides have both long suffered from some really poor scholarship – Freke & Gandy are among the worst on the mythicist side; Price and Doherty are much better, but Carrier is the best. On the historicist side, Ehrman has a good reputation overall, but his recent book on the Jesus existence question is extremely flawed.

    For those few among you who aren't knuckle-dragging Santorum-supporting morons, I recommend you read Dr Richard Carrier's newest book and his forthcoming sequel to it. He also has a blog at freethoughtblogs if you're interested.

    April 8, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Gordo

      Oh Steve you are soooo smart. We so appreciate your pedantic comments. By the way, the carrier-lane Craig on you tube really showed the weakness of the carrier argument

      April 8, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  19. Pipe-Dreamer

    "God, I do so love yours mystifying ways and yet I remain feaful of your wrath."

    April 8, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  20. sez

    I care if its real or not. They have established some really vile governments with the "authority of that book". In the minds of a lot of people. Including this one that has attacked and invaded everywhere on the earth. Everything couched in very clever terms when they do. Including religion. Including well horror stories that they run up and down the flagpole until your sick of hearing them.

    April 8, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • gsgofer

      Sure! You are right. This country has killed in excess of 40,000 innocent people in Iraq to fight Bush's "Axis of Evil", all the time saying how violent the Moslim religion is. Well, Jesus is considered a High Prophet in their beliefs. The message is universal if you take the time to look in to it though. They are all right!

      April 8, 2012 at 6:11 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.