Spoiler Alert! He probably did.
I recently finished two books, one after the other, about the historical (as opposed to theological) existence of the man we call Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth is the historical man. Jesus Christ in the theological man. The two books, in chronological order (but in my reverse reading order), are Bart Ehrman’s “Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth“, and Reza Aslan’s more recent “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth“. As you can surmise, both of these books explore the question of who the actual man named Jesus was, as opposed to the myths and religions we’ve created around him. In short, they attempt to analyze the latest historical scholarship about him, while regurgitating it for the layman. In the process they give their own considered opinion about exactly who Jesus was.
By now you have probably figured out that both authors actually believe he existed, with the more interesting question (to them) being who he was. If so, you would be correct. As most relatively informed atheists and agnostics might know, there presently rages a debate in the free thinking community about whether Jesus, the man, actually walked and talked in Palestine, or whether he was created out of whole cloth by later, interested originators of the religion we now call Christianity. This debate has not been resolved, although Ehrman is quite firm that most Biblical scholars hold to the view that Jesus did exist, though most of his works, words and actions set forth in the New Testament are primarily fictitious. This is not to say that it’s all pure fiction. Both authors, for instance, subscribe to the view that he was a real Jewish male, born and raised in Nazareth (not Bethlehem), who became a minister (or rabbi) with a particular message for his people, who eventually attracted the ire of the Roman overlords, was arrested and was crucified, most likely for sedition, an executable offense in the Roman Empire. Beyond that, there isn’t much more that can be confirmed about him.
Ehrman and Aslan have different opinions about exactly why Jesus was executed by the Romans, though I think they tend to overlap. Ehrman says that
…most scholars in both the United States and Europe over the past century have been convinced that Jesus is best understood as a Jewish apocalyptic preacher who anticipated that God was soon to intervene in history to overthrow the powers of evil now controlling this world in order to bring in a new order, a new kingdom here on earth, the kingdom of God.
In short, he was no different than every apocalyptic preacher that came before him and which we now still see on street corners, thumping their Bibles and yelling “Repent, Repent! The Kingdom of God is near!” Apparently, while we may find that to be a minor irritant these days, the Romans took great umbrage at it, because declaring a new kingdom meant a new king, and any hint of new kings gave the Emperor the willies, since he thought only he had the power to create kings. So he took a dim view of anyone even remotely questioning his authority.
Aslan, on the other hand, declares that Jesus was a zealot (small “z” – there was an organization that came after Jesus called the Zealots), someone who was intensely sympathetic to the view that the Romans had invaded “god’s land” given to the Jews, and should be resisted at all turns, and he was so outspoken in it that he made enemies – the Jewish high Priests and Pharisees (who had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo), and the Romans, who were were quick to squelch anything that smelled of sedition. That meant Jesus, whose message criticized the current social order, so he was quickly disposed of. Ehrman states that he was dead within six hours of his trial before Pontius Pilate, who probably spent no more than a few minutes on the actual trial.
However, when you compare the two, Ehrman and Aslan really don’t disagree much more than in the tenor and color of their descriptions of Jesus and his times, and this may be explained simply by their different backgrounds – Ehrman was a raised evangelical Christian who studied theology to the point of deconverting to agnosticism. Aslan is an Iranian Muslim who came to America with the overthrow of the Shah, only to become an evangelical Christian, then an atheist, and then back to his Muslim faith. I suspect that as a Muslim he may find the idea of religious zealotry a bit more palatable, with more explanatory power, while Ehrman was raised on the fundamentalist vision of Jesus as a loving God and hence may identify more with the passive shepherd motif. Either way, it doesn’t make much difference to their conclusions.
They agree that all of the supernatural baggage (angels, and demons, and miracles, and faith healing, etc) were unsupportable historically, as they should be. Most of the stories in the NT are easily explained as being created after the fact to fit an emerging Christian agenda, or to fulfill known prophecies in the OT to make Jesus seem inevitable, especially when it became clear that the heart of his message – that the end times were imminent – was not coming true, so a new message had to evolve. Ehrman points out that his message was very Jewish, not meant to found a new religion, and was meant for Jews only. That message was that God’s Kingdom was near, and to be a part of it, you had to strictly observe Jewish law set down by Moses. He wasn’t as concerned about the minute interpretations of the law that the rabbis and priests loved to nitpick over, as he was about the basic underpinnings of the law. Love God and love your neighbor. That was basically it in a nutshell, Observe this and you get to be favored when the Kingdom arrives. This was later morphed by Christianity into “believe in me (Jesus) or risk hell when you die”.
Both of these books opened my eyes, and frankly changed (or at least fixed) my opinions. Prior to reading them, I wasn’t sure where I stood on the historicity of Jesus. I tended to feel that since all of religion stemmed from a desire to explain the unexplainable, and hence had no real basis in reality, that a historical Jesus was probably unsupportable, and therefore was more than likely a fictional character of convenience. And to a certain extent, that’s still how I feel – that Jesus is a man-made myth.
But I think there seems to be a good basis for finding that someone named Jesus actually existed in Palestine in the beginning of the first century CE, that he may have had grandiose ideas about his understanding of reality, and felt a need to preach about it and convert others to his odd beliefs. People like him are replete in history, and still occur in society to this day. Think Jim Jones, David Koresh, Sun Myung Moon et al. And this Jesus guy probably pissed off the locals and their Roman Masters, who squashed him like a bug, with great efficiency. But he had convinced some to go along with his weird visions, and had created a small organization headed by his apostles (who also probably existed), and in an ignorant, relatively credulous society that existed in the first century Middle East, many latched on to this, which eventually grew, and eventually created the religion that we now call Christianity – a religion that probably would have died had it not been embraced eventually by the powerful people of the time, most importantly the Emperors of Rome.
If you don’t think a powerful religion can grow out of the credulous and naive desire of people who want to believe something, anything, to make their miserable lives seem a bit more palatable, you only have to look at the Mormons. And the 1st century CE was far more ignorant that 19th century America.
So, yes, there probably was a Jesus of Nazareth. But who cares? The question of whether he existed is irrelevant to current times, or even history. What matters is the myth surrounding him, the myth that was created, loosely hung on a real man like a bad suit draped over a scarecrow. He wasn’t anything like the forces of present day Christianity would like us to believe he was. He was just another Jewish schmuck who thought he knew something he really didn’t know about the world and about reality. He was a man of his times, looking for a way to break the chains of subservience his people were suffering under as a satellite state of the Roman Empire.
Or perhaps he was a simple man that wanted to ease the suffering of his people under the thumb of their Roman conquerors. It doesn’t really matter. He was not the “son of God” or part two of a three part Trinity, or the “savior who died for our sins”, or the Messiah, or any other such nonsense. The argument between the mythicists and the historians is pointless, because in the end, even if he started out as real, he ended up as a myth. Who he was became irrelevant when his followers, chief among them Paul, began making up stories about him, that grew and evolved and morphed into the monster they now call Jesus. A Jesus that doesn’t resemble the real man in any way, shape or form, because pieces of him were taken from other myths and grafted on to him, like Frankenstein’s body parts..
He was just one man among millions who lived in his time. He’s best left there. These two books actually go far in doing just that.