The issue of the historical Jesus is really the issue of Christianity's origins. Behind a plethora of conflicting sectarian doctrines is an implicit claim that Christianity started in some way or other, directly or indirectly, with a Galilean preacher who came to be known as Jesus of Nazareth. Even secularists rarely question the claim, however vigorously they may challenge the accuracy of the gospel accounts of his life and teachings or the fidelity with which they were interpreted by Paul and other epistolary authors. Mavericks among professional scholars who suggest that there was no such man are usually regarded even by atheists as taking skepticism to an unwarranted extreme.
It is not as though one has to be a Christian, or even a theist, to believe in a historical Jesus. The gospels easily could have been about a real man who was really crucified by Pontius Pilate even if the stories are mostly fictional. It is not difficult to suppose that improbable stories about miracles, exorcisms, and a resurrection were later told about him and that certain people found the stories credible.
What is difficult, on a casual review of the evidence, is to suppose that the man himself was a fiction. People who invent religions usually make sure they get the credit, but the gospels were written anonymously. Their authors, unlike Joseph Smith or Mohammed, were not claiming to be prophets. It seems easiest to suppose that they were just passing on stories they had heard about a man who had made a big impression on a few people some years earlier.
Easy suppositions are treacherous, though.
We know nothing about either Jesus or first-century Christianity itself except what a few Christians wrote in the first and second centuries. The secular record is essentially silent during the religion's formative years. When non-Christian writers do show up, they have nothing to report about Christianity and its origins except what Christians have told them. There is no suggestion that they even tried to corroborate what they heard. The historical paper trail therefore was left by Christians and Christians alone.
Our task then is to account for the documentation: Who wrote what, and why did they write it?
Many theories have been proposed, most of them by Christians themselves seeking to defend their particular variety of Christianity. This essay is a sort of apologetic for one theory. My primary source for the arguments summarized here is Earl Doherty's The Jesus Puzzle. The data are his, although the thinking based on them is my own.
To the extent that my arguments mirror his, it is because I find them compelling. To the extent that my thinking diverges from his, no one should be surprised. We are both freethinkers, and neither of us considers himself or the other infallible.
I have confirmed what data I could confirm with resources available to me. I have also searched as diligently as I know how to for disconfirmations. I have spent hours with a search engine looking for a Christian Web site that can refute anything Doherty claims to be a fact. I have also debated the issue not only with Christians but also with atheists and other skeptics who find Doherty's arguments unconvincing. Although I have found some who dispute his interpretation of the facts, I have found few who challenge the facts themselves.
Since originally posting this essay, I have also spent much time on a university library's Web site, searching scholarly journals for relevant material. I have not yet found a historian, biblical scholar, or other relevant authority who reports or discusses any fact about first-century Christianity that is inconsistent with Doherty's thesis.
In this area of study, it is not easy in some cases to separate facts from presuppositions. Like most people, believer and skeptic alike, Doherty and I take it for granted that Paul and the Jerusalem church believed more or less the same thing, whatever it was, about Jesus -- that if Paul thought he was divine, then so did Peter, James, and others of their Christian community. There are some who think this is an unwarranted assumption. If so, it would weaken one argument against historicity. However, while I think it is the most convincing argument, I consider the cumulative weight of all the arguments more than sufficient to justify doubt that an itinerant Galilean preacher called Jesus of Nazareth had anything to do with the religion we call Christianity.
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Response to humanist critique
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This page last updated on August 4, 2010.