Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) was the first tumour virus identified in humans. The virus is primarily associated with lymphomas and epithelial cell cancers. These tumours express latent EBV antigens and the oncogenic potential of individual latent EBV proteins has been extensively explored. Nevertheless, it was presumed that the pro-proliferative and anti-apoptotic functions of these oncogenes allow the virus to persist in humans; however, recent evidence suggests that cellular transformation is not required for virus maintenance. Vice versa, lytic EBV replication was assumed to destroy latently infected cells and thereby inhibit tumorigenesis, but at least the initiation of the lytic cycle has now been shown to support EBV-driven malignancies. In addition to these changes in the roles of latent and lytic EBV proteins during tumorigenesis, the function of non-coding RNAs has become clearer, suggesting that they might mainly mediate immune escape rather than cellular transformation. In this Review, these recent findings will be discussed with respect to the role of EBV-encoded oncogenes in viral persistence and the contributions of lytic replication as well as non-coding RNAs in virus-driven tumour formation. Accordingly, early lytic EBV antigens and attenuated viruses without oncogenes and microRNAs could be harnessed for immunotherapies and vaccination.