I listened to an interview today with Bart Ehrman on the "Infidel Guy Show"; was a little miffed to hear Bart pull out lines such as "no serious scholar doubts that Jesus existed" and "there is more evidence for Jesus Christ than any other figure in history."
I think whether or not Jesus existed (in some capacity), it can be shown pretty easily that the majority of the New Testament is refurbished pagan literature... something that is completely swept aside under the protection of New Testament scholars who unanimously agree that "Jesus existed" (whatever that means).
I put a post up about it, linking to the interview.
The main thing is that the evidence scholars do cite is used to gloss over all of the astonishing external evidence that undermines the historical Jesus (such as the early Church controversy over whether or not Jesus came "in the flesh", and the pre-Pauline communities who taught that Jesus was born, lived and died "in the semblance" of a man).
In my view, the issue is complex, misunderstood, and widely marginalized by biblical scholars, who usually automatically discount/refuse any "non-historical" Jesus as an impossibility.
What do you think? Your favorite evidence for/against Jesus as a historical person?
I'm not a historian myself either and I don't pretend to be one. I am just an amateur who's been reading about this subject for several years and knows the available evidence, and how it can be used. My word isn't gospel; at most I think I can fix some preconceptions people have about this subject.
Although, to be fair, that means I'm about equally qualified on the topic as hobbyists like Dan Barker and David Fitzgerald, and they're some of the best-known Jesus Mythicists.
When it comes to determining whether or not a historical figure existed or not, you need to ask yourself two main questions: (i) what kind of evidence do we have, and (ii) what kind of evidence can we reasonably expect? The second question is the most important, because it determines what your standard of evidence is going to be.
It's why we don't ask for dental records or photographic material to believe that Atilla the Hun existed, for instance. We know that those are unrealistic expectations.
Yet what happens on subjects of ancient history isn't that different. It is simply a fact that our source material is quite limited, with only a few hundreds of local historians that we know about - and they have to cover the history of an entire continent for almost a thousand years. That's some quite patchy evidence to have, and the problem is exacerbated because we don't have most of what they wrote.
So people are usually quite surprised to find out that we don't feel too bad about not having contemporary evidence for Jesus because... we don't have contemporary evidence for most people living in the ancient world. Even for people who were extremely important during their life. For instance, we do not possess any contemporary text about Hannibal, Boudicca and Arminius - and these are three of the most fearsome enemies Rome ever faced. Yet we don't have contemporary references to them.
Even when we do have contemporary references, most of our information winds up coming from historians living much, much later. Two of our main sources about Alexander the Great's life are Arrian and Plutarch - both living a full three centuries after Alexander's death.
So when people look at the evidence for the life of Jesus and expect multiple secular attestations of him and (as I sometimes hear) physical evidence or birth and death records, they are of course disappointed. We don't have those for pretty much anyone.
On the assumption that Jesus was a Jewish preacher of sorts (which seems reasonable), we can compare him to how other Jewish preachers of the time (Athronges, Theudas, the Egyptian Prophet, Honi the Circle-Drawer, Rabbi Hillel) are attested to. By and large, we only find one historian interested enough in them to write about them, and that's Flavius Josephus. If there was a reference to Jesus anywhere, it would be there. And not surprisingly, we find that Josephus mentions Jesus twice (yes, I know one of the passages is dubious, but the majority opinion is that the fragment in question was added to, not invented - for reasons that we can get into if you like). At worst, that still leaves one however.
On top of that, Tacitus (most scrupulous historian of the Ancient world right there) also makes a short reference to Jesus.
And then we have for Jesus what we don't have for other preachers: the texts of his followers, some of which are quite close in time (2-3 decades for the Epistles of Paul, 4 decades for the Gospel of Mark). These texts, when used carefully can also be used (Principle of Embarassement, for instance) can also give us strong indications whether or not the Jesus story has a historical core, yes or no.
All of that taken together is at least the same amount of evidence as we have for other preachers of the time (and in some cases actually more). Unless you want to subject each and every source to a hyper-skepticism that is not applied to any other text, the conclusion is clear: Jesus was one of the Jewish preachers of the time.
P.S. Bart Ehrman is writing a book about how we can conclude that there was most likely a historical Jesus. It should be out soon.