Jesus Christ - did he exist?

Jesus Christ is the main character of the largest religion in the world (if all Christian Denominations, including the Catholic Church, are taken together), but outside the gospels there is no historical evidence for him. In esoteric circles the myth is often circulated that there was a Jewish Rabbi called Jeshua (or Jehoshua) ( source ), but this is a myth. The name Jesus does sound like it could have originate from the Hebrew Jehoshua, but the term rabbi is one that only came into use after the destruction of the Tempel of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.(Seltzer 1980, p. 217)

This does not necessarily mean that there was no actual person who modelled for Jesus. On the other hand, the lack of historical evidence for his life already produced the liberal Christian movement in the 19th century:

the first quest for the historical Jesus would end in disappointment. Many scholars recognized that all four gospels were just as much a product of theology as they were of history. Wilhelm Wrede’s The Messianic Secret showed how even Mark’s gospel was ahistorical and shaped by early Christian belief. It is now generally accepted that the gospel writers engaged in an anachronistic portrayal of Jesus, projecting back onto him a highly sophisticated and elaborate Risen Christ motif. The scholars who sought to remove this superfluous motif from the historical man soon found that, like a peeled onion, nothing was left behind once the layers of christological material were stripped away. Albert Schweitzer signaled the end of the first quest by concluding in his watershed book The Quest for the Historical Jesus that Jesus could not be found in the gospel accounts at all and that his "image has not been destroyed from without, it has fallen to pieces, cleft and disintegrated by the concrete historical problems which came to the surface one after another."

Not to be defeated, a second attempt to discover the historical Jesus within the gospel accounts was led by Rudolf Bultmann at Marburg Universitšt. Bultmann used a new scholarly tool called "form criticism" ( Formgeschichte ) to methodically deconstruct the gospel narratives in order to cull the authentic sayings of Jesus from later Church additions. Form criticism looks closely at small literary units (called pericopes ) and asks for what "situation in life" ( Sitz im Leben ) or purpose the story came to be written. For example, the form critic argues that the purpose of the Syrophoenician woman story in Mark 7:25-50(and paralleled in Matthew15:21-28) was to address the extension of salvation to the Gentiles. Bultmann concluded that the early Christians had very little interest in the historical Jesus and that Jesus was forever buried under the mythology of Pauline Christianity. However, Bultmann found a silver lining in existentialism and wrote that even "mythology expresses a certain understanding of human existence." We may not know who the historical Jesus was, Bultmann thought, but we can find meaning in the Christ of faith. This is the essence of mainstream liberal Christianity today. ( source )

Returning to the gospels, those defending the historicity of Jesus refer to the sayings in the oldest gospels as specifically jewish. For instance: "do unto your neighbor as you would have them do unto you" is ascribed by Rabbinic sources to Hillel (who probably lived around the turn of the era). (Seltzer 1980, p. 218)

This method is also used when the gospel of Thomas is accepted by alternative Christians: it is relatively early and contains sayings which are highly inspiring. The inspirational nature isn't proof of anything, obviously, but the fact that Jesus is not hailed as super-natural is highly significant. It is only gradually that the understanding of Jesus as a godlike figure (born of a virgin, One with God) is evident in the Gospels. This development ends in 451 CE when he is accepted as the second member of the Holy Trinity - an idea that is not present in the Bible at all. ( source )

Personally I think it is highly unlikely that a character as inspiring as Jesus would have been invented. To have invented him would have taken a group of people motivated to create that myth. Such a group does not seem to have existed, though the authors of the gospels are accused of using literary devices more suited to fiction. ( source ) The gospels and the letters from Paul make it highly likely that the transition from a Jewish subgroup to a religion open to everybody was already starting before the desctruction of the Temple (70 CE). This does place Jesus in the Jewish community. Seltzer (p. 231, 32) gives the following summary:

Despite data culled from the New Testament and from Jewish, Greek, and Roman writings, we do not have adequate materials for a biography of Jesus. Our main source for his life is the four gospels of the New Testament, probably composed in the last quarter of the century (about fifty years after Jesus's death), when his utterances and actions, recounted by disciples and their followers, had been reformulated in light of later Christian views of his messiahship. The same historiological dilemma holds for a reconstruction of the gradual process by which Judaism and Christianity separated. As a result, our picture of the rise of the new faith must inevitably rely on a considerable amount of conjecture.

With these reservations in mind, a brief summary of the more secure facts concerning Jesus would include the following: that he grew up in the village of Nazareth and spent much of his life in the Galilee where, in the later twenties of the first century CE, he gained a reputation as a healer, exorcist, and itinerant preacher proclaiming the imminent coming of God's kingdom and calling for repentance in preparation for the divine judgment; that after a brief association with John the Baptist, Jesus attracted disciples from among the unlearned, the poor, and the unrespectable strata of Galilean society, and his personal charisma and teachings may have stirred up hostility in certain Jewish circles; that around the year 30 CE Jesus was put to death in Jerusalem on the charge, probably false, of his being a revolutionary .. and that afterwards, his followers believed that he had risen from the dead, appeared to them, and, before ascending to heaven, promised shortly to return to usher in the triumph and glory of the messianic age.

Compounding the difficulty in appraising Jesus's place in Jewish society of his time are the gaps in our knowledge of Jewish religious groupings and the functioning of Jewish institutions during his lifetime. With whom, exactly, did Jesus come into conflict and why? Scribes, priests, Pharisees, Roman officials? Was he lax with respect to Jewish religious laws - or was this gospel tradition influenced by later Christian rejection of the Jewish law in its entirety? Was Jesus a reformer calling, like the biblical prophets, for a higher standard of moral intention among the Jewish people? Or did he hold a notion of purified covenant community limited to a minority of Jews, like the Essenes or the Qumram sect? What was Jesus' conception of himself with respect to the apocalyptic expectations of his time, the atmosphere of which permeates the oldest gospels? Do the supernatural, eschatological roles to which the gospels allude, such as "prophet", "Son of Man", and "Son of God", reflect his own messianic consciousness? Or was he called Messiah by his followers only in retrospect? Why was Jesus crucified and who decided to crucify him? On all these issues the historical evidence permits various interpretations, as the scholarly literature testifies in abundance. It is acknowledged, for example, that crucifixion was a Roman punishment for political crimes. Does this indicate that the Roman governor, Potius Pilates, was primarily responsible?

Wikipedia says the following:

Historicity

Scholars arguing in favor of the existence of Jesus as a historical figure present probable reconstructions of his life by using the historical method. This is to be distinguished from the Biblical Jesus, which derives from a theological reading of the Gospel texts. Some scholars dispute the historicity of Jesus.

Most scholars agree the Gospels were written shortly before or after the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Romans. Examining the New Testament account of Jesus in light of historical knowledge about the time when Jesus was purported to live, as well as historical knowledge about the time during which the New Testament was written, has led several scholars to reinterpret many elements of the New Testament accounts. Many have sought to reconstruct Jesus' life in terms of contemporaneous political, cultural, and religious currents in Israel, including differences between Galilee and Judea; between different sects such the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots; and in terms of conflicts among Jews in the context of Roman occupation.

The Gospels record that Jesus was a Nazarene, but the meaning of this word is vague. Some scholars assert that Jesus was himself a Pharisee. In Jesus' day, the two main schools of thought among the Pharisees were the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai. Jesus' assertion of hypocrisy may have been directed against the stricter members of the House of Shammai, although he also agreed with their teachings on divorce (Mark 10:1–12). Jesus also commented on the House of Hillel's teachings (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a) concerning the greatest commandment (Mark 12:28–34) and the Golden Rule (Matt 7:12).

Other scholars assert that Jesus was an Essene, a sect of Judaism not mentioned in the New Testament.[29] Still other scholars assert that Jesus led a new apocalyptic sect, possibly related to John the Baptist,[30] which became Early Christianity after the Great Commission spread his teachings to the Gentiles.[31] This is distinct from an earlier commission Jesus gave to the twelve Apostles, limited to "the lost sheep of Israel" and not including the Gentiles or Samaritans (Matt 10).

Of special interest has been the names and titles ascribed to Jesus. According to most critical historians, Jesus probably lived in Galilee for most of his life and he probably spoke Aramaic and Hebrew. The name "Jesus" is an English transliteration of the Latin (Iēsus) which in turn comes from the Greek name (Ιησους). Since most scholars hold that Jesus was an Aramaic-speaking Jew living in Galilee around 30 AD/CE, it is highly improbable that he had a Greek personal name. Further examination of the Septuagint finds that the Greek, in turn, is a transliteration of the Hebrew name Yehoshua (יהושוע) (Yeho - Yahweh [is] shua` - help/salvation) or the shortened Hebrew/Aramaic Yeshua or Jeshua (ישוע). As a result, scholars believe that one of these was most likely the name that Jesus was known by during his lifetime by his peers.

Christ (which is a title and not a part of his name) is an Anglicization of the Greek term for Messiah, and literally means "anointed one". Historians have debated what this title might have meant at the time Jesus lived; some historians have suggested that other titles applied to Jesus in the New Testament (e.g. Lord, Son of Man, and Son of God) had meanings in the first century quite different from those meanings ascribed today: see Names and titles of Jesus.

Historicity of the texts

Most modern Biblical scholars hold that the works describing Jesus were initially communicated by oral tradition, and were not committed to writing until several decades after Jesus' crucifixion. The earliest extant texts which refer to Jesus are Paul's letters, which are usually dated from the mid-1st century. Paul wrote that he only saw Jesus in visions, but that they were divine revelations and hence authoritative (Gal 1:11–12). The earliest extant texts describing Jesus in any detail were the four New Testament Gospels. These texts, being part of the Biblical canon, have received much more analysis and acceptance from Christian sources than other possible sources for information on Jesus.

Many other early Christian texts have surfaced detailing events in Jesus' life and teachings, though they were not included when the Bible was canonised due to a belief that they were pseudepigraphical, not inspired, or written too long after his death, while others were suppressed because they contradicted what had become the Christian orthodoxy. It took several centuries before the list of what was and wasn't part of the Bible became finally fixed, and for much of the early period the Book of Revelation was not included while works like The Shepherd of Hermas were.

The books that didn't make it into the final list have since become known as the New Testament apocrypha, and the chief amongst them, heavily suppressed by the Church as heresy and only rediscovered in the 20th Century, is the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of logia - phrases and sayings attributed to Jesus without a narrative framework. Other important apocryphal works that had a heavy influence in forming traditional Christian beliefs include the Apocalypse of Peter, Protevangelium of James, Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and Acts of Peter. A number of Christian traditions (such as Veronica's veil and the Assumption of Mary) are found not in the canonical gospels but in these and other apocryphal works.

Possible earlier texts

Some texts with even earlier historical or mythological information on Jesus are speculated to have existed prior to the Gospels, though none have been found. Based on the unusual similarities and differences (see synoptic problem) between the Synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke, the first three canonical gospels — many Biblical scholars have suggested that oral tradition and logia (such as the Gospel of Thomas and the theoretical Q document ) probably played a strong role in initially passing down stories of Jesus, and may have inspired some of the Synoptic Gospels.

Specifically, many scholars believe that the Q document and the Gospel of Mark were the two sources used for the gospels of Matthew and Luke; however, other theories, such as the older Augustinian hypothesis, continue to hold sway with some Biblical scholars. Another theoretical document is the Signs Gospel, believed to have been a source for the Gospel of John.

There are also early noncanonical gospels which may predate the canonical Gospels, although few surviving fragments have been found. Among these are the Unknown Berlin Gospel, the Oxyrhynchus Gospels, the Egerton Gospel, the Fayyum Fragment, the Dialogue of the Saviour, the Gospel of the Ebionites, the Gospel of the Hebrews, and the Gospel of the Nazarenes. While the earliest surviving manuscripts and fragments of these texts are dated later than the earliest surviving manuscripts and fragments of the canonical Gospels, they are probably copies of earlier manuscripts whose precise dates are unknown.

Questions of reliability

As a result of the several-decade time gap between the writing of the Gospels and the events they describe, the accuracy of all early texts claiming the existence of Jesus or details of Jesus' life have been disputed by various parties. However, most scholars accept many details of the Gospel narratives. The authors of the Gospels are traditionally thought to have been witnesses to the events included. After the original oral stories were written down, they were transcribed, and later translated into other languages. Several Biblical historians have responded to claims of the unreliability of the gospel accounts by pointing out that historical documentation is often biased and second-hand, and frequently dates from several decades after the events described.
The Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution brought skepticism regarding the historical accuracy of these texts. Although some critical scholars, including archeologists, continue to use them as points of reference in the study of ancient Near Eastern history others have come to view the texts as cultural and literary documents, generally regarding them as part of the genre of literature called hagiography, an account of a holy person regarded as representing a moral and divine ideal. Hagiography has a principal aim of the glorification of the religion itself and of the example set by the perfect holy person represented as its central focus.
Some say that the Gospel accounts are neither objective nor accurate, since they were written or compiled by his followers and seem to exclusively portray a positive, idealized view of Jesus, whilst others point to the lack of contemporary non-Christian sources. Those who have a naturalistic view of history generally do not believe in divine intervention or miracles, such as the resurrection of Jesus mentioned by the Gospels. One method used to estimate the factual accuracy of stories in the gospels is known as the "criterion of embarrassment", which holds that stories about events with embarrassing aspects (such as the denial of Jesus by Peter, or the fleeing of Jesus' followers after his arrest) would likely not have been included if those accounts were fictional.

External influences on gospel development

Many scholars, such as Michael Grant, do not see significant similarity between the pagan myths and Christianity. Grant states in Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels that "Judaism was a milieu to which doctrines of the deaths and rebirths, of mythical gods seemed so entirely foreign that the emergence of such a fabrication from its midst is very hard to credit."
However, some scholars believe that the gospel accounts of Jesus have little or no historical basis. At least in part, this is because they see many similarities between stories about Jesus and older myths of pagan godmen such as Mithras, Apollo, Attis, Horus and Osiris-Dionysus, leading to conjectures that the pagan myths were adopted by some authors of early accounts of Jesus to form a syncretism with Christianity. A small minority, such as Earl Doherty, carry this further and propose that the gospels are actually a reworking of the older myths and not based on a historical figure. While these connections are disputed by many, it is nevertheless true that many elements of Jesus' story as told in the Gospels have parallels in pagan mythology, where miracles such as virgin birth were well-known. Some Christian authors, such as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, account for this with the belief that such myths were created by ancient pagans with vague and imprecise foreknowledge of the Gospels; in other words the pagans gave prophetic attributes of the Christ as shown in the Jewish Torah and Prophets to their particular deity.

Sources

Aside from online sources the following book has been consulted:

Seltzer , Robert M. Jewish People, Jewish Thought, The Jewish Experience in History, New Jersey 1980.