Scripture scholarship has reached the embarrassing state where there are as many opinions about Jesus as there are expert scripture scholars. It is little wonder, then, that doubts have arisen that perhaps there is no actual evidence of a historical Jesus at all.
Richard Carrier, doctor of ancient history, has proposed a new and much more rigorous approach to the question 'Did Jesus exist?' This he has done in two books, the first of which is Proving History
, in which he sets out Bayes's Theorem and how it is applicable to historical questions, and the next of which is On the Historicity of Jesus
, in which he examines all the evidence available concerning the existence of Jesus in history by submitting it to the test of Bayes's Theorem. This is actually not a new, highfalutin or nerdy way of treating the question but actually a method of rendering formally rigorous the logical process whereby a good historian should evaluate any evidence for any historical question. As for any empirical question, degrees of probability are the best results that can be hoped for in evaluating historical evidence.
In On the Historicity of Jesus
Dr Carrier comes to the conclusion that Jesus most probably did not exist in history. His argument is complex and not possible to summarize here; I can only invite you to read the two books already cited. Part of his argument, however, I will mention. He argues that the letters of Paul of Tarsus are very much what we would expect of him if he were preaching a mystery religion in the style of mystery cults that flourished in the Graeco-Roman world during the intertestamental period, and that, as happened in other mystery cults, the story of the god's saving mission was later historicized. Thus the mythical savior of Paul's letters written in the middle of the first century CE becomes the historical savior of the gospels written towards the end of the first century CE. Dr Carrier proposes that what later became known as Christianity began as a Jewish version of the mystery cult that arisen in Greece and Persia and Egypt, featuring a dying and rising god who provided salvation from death to those who placed their faith in him and performed certain rituals as acts of that faith. In this Jewish version the savior was called Jesus (Yeshua, which appropriately means 'God saves') and, as in other mystery cults, he came down from one of the higher heavens to the level below the first heaven, in the air below the moon, where the devils and demons live and exercise power. Their he suffered death and was restored to life by the supreme god, who raised him up to share in his glory in the seventh (i.e. highest) heaven. The only way anyone knew of such salvific deeds was by revelation through visions, dreams and prophecy, and that is how Paul came to know of Jesus the savior whom he preached, beginning with his vision on the road to Damascus.
A disadvantage of the mystery religion was that there was no way of controlling who had visions and what visions they had, so divisions inevitably arose, as Paul's letters testify. The process of historicizing the myth on which the religion was based enabled the leaders of the religion to assert their version as historical fact, and anyone teaching something contrary to it could be declared to be teaching falsehood. A religion that purported to be based on historical events was better able to control its message and defend it against competitors that might otherwise fragment the community of believers. Although this post is already rather long, I will quote one passage from On the Historicity of Jesus
, where he discusses the eucharistic ritual.
"Transitioning from sayings to deeds, we have the middle case of what Paul says about the origin of the Eucharist ritual, . . . . This is both an event that supposedly happened and a 'saying' Paul learned 'from the Lord' about it. It appears not to be derived from witnesses or oral tradition but from Paul's hallucinated conversations with Jesus (or so Paul claimed). Paul says (using again the same language of receiving and communicating revelations he employs in Galatians):
'For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was delivered up took bread, and having given thanks, he broke it and said, 'This is my body, which is for your sake. Do this in remembrance of me.' Likewise also the cup after the eating, saying, 'This cup is the new testament in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink, in remembrance of me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes (1 Cor. 11:23-26).'
There are strong verbal similarities with the scene in the Gospels (whose accounts all derive from Mk 14:22-25), indicating dependence on this passage in Paul. But note how Mark alters Paul's account. Where Paul only knows of Jesus taking these objects and requesting those hearing repeat the ritual to establish communion with him, Mark turns it into a narrative scene with guests present: 'as they
were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed and broke it, and gave it to them
', and so on (Mk 14:22). Gone also is the instruction to 'do this in remembrance of me', and inserted are repeated references to people (the disciples) being present and eating and drinking with Jesus.
"If we see this for what it is -- Mark having turned Paul's ritual instructions from
Jesus into a story about
Jesus -- we can no longer presume that Paul is talking about an actual historical event. The more so as he says he was told this directly by Jesus, not by anyone who was present at the meal. It probably resembled the experience reported of Peter in Acts 10:9-17, where another dinner scene is hallucinated, with words also being spoken by the celestial being conducting it. Hence in Paul's case, he refers to no one else being present but Jesus. And Paul tells us he had been preaching the gospel and founding churches for three whole years before he ever spoke to anyone who could have been there (Gal. 1:15-20), and he couldn't possibly have been doing that without teaching the Eucharist ritual. He therefore must have received this revelation then, or claimed to have (Gal. 1:11-12)."
If you have not already done so, I recommend that you take a look at the two books by Richard Carrier cited above for his full argument for the view that Jesus most probably did not exist in history. It will in any case be interesting what consensus Dr Carrier's academic colleagues will reach on this question as they critique his argument.