A congregant of mine emailed me an article written by an Australian scholar (an atheist religion scholar) printed in a US newspaper. The article argued that there was no convincing evidence that Jesus ever existed. He asked for my response, and here it is:
I seem to remember there being Roman documents belittling the Christ cult, but in their disdain for the Christ cult, they admit part of the ridiculousness is their devotion to an executed peasant, a real person.
Also, when people make up stories, it is to bring glory or honor. A fatherless peasant who is crucified like a runaway slave is not the sort of story one makes up about one's own group. They did, obviously, try to clean it up by saying he didn’t stay dead, but the part leading up to that is not the story one makes up. One never (except in contemporary comedy) makes up tales that would be humiliating to the teller of the tale.
There is no doubt that we know very little about Jesus and that what the church has taught for millennia is largely embellished and mythologized, but underneath the layers of myth, hyperbole, and spin, there must have been a very charismatic figure that inspired the tall tales.
Some have even suggested that Jesus is a composite character…the blending of two or more revolutionaries, but even at that there is a real person (or two) behind the myths.
Jesus as a symbol has become so big that the real Jesus will never be discovered (and if we did find him, we might think “really? What was all the fuss about?”), but it seems to me an unnecessary and unhelpful stretch to deny that someone real inspired a movement and later myths. Even if someone made up Jesus (like Rowling made up Harry Potter), the inventor would be real and Jesus would be a real part of that real person’s imagination. So, to my mind, is obvious that in some way there was a Jesus.
Was he on a suicide mission from heaven, part of an incomprehensible trinity, and decided to play hide and seek in communion bread? I’m going with “No.” But was there someone at sometime that inspired a lot of imaginative work down the line? I have to believe the answer is “Yes.”