Decoding Jesus: Separating man from myth

Story highlights

  • Christians around the world almost universally agree that Jesus existed
  • But some claim Jesus was no more than a myth created for a "teaching story"

(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."
The special bond between Jesus and Lazarus
finding jesus raising lazarus 1_00000622

    JUST WATCHED

    The special bond between Jesus and Lazarus

MUST WATCH

The special bond between Jesus and Lazarus 01:25
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."
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."
CNN Original Series 'Finding Jesus'

Discover fascinating new insights into the historical Jesus, utilizing the latest scientific techniques and archaeological research on "Finding Jesus," Sunday nights at 9 ET/PT on CNN.

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 stone that proves Pilate's existence
finding jesus pontius pilate 1_00003728

    JUST WATCHED

    The stone that proves Pilate's existence

MUST WATCH

The stone that proves Pilate's existence 01:02
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.