I had a nice long into-the-wee-hours chat this week with my brother, who brought his family to my house for a visit. This is my Adventist pastor brother, and the only relative with whom I discuss my atheism. We had the talk at my request--partly for the thrill of debate (I admit I hoped I could give him a few things to think about), but also because I was curious about his thoughts on some matters, as he's a very interesting Christian to speak with.
The reason he's so interesting is because he is so well-studied. It seems that many Christians I have a chance to talk with are Christians in name alone, or at best believe with all their hearts for flimsy reasons. My brother, though, has spent years evaluating his beliefs on a literary as well as spiritual level. He's written articles, published a book, obtained a master's in theology, spent the last ten years preaching, etc.
We discussed lots of topics (morality, evolution, evil, and so on) but one of the issues that stuck out for me was his belief on the historicity of Jesus Christ. Over the course of the conversation it became clear that the existence of Jesus, as written in historical documents, is a major player in my brother's worldview--specifically writings on Jesus's life, death, and resurrection.
I understand that no serious historian doubts that Jesus existed. That much is fairly certain. But according to my brother there are many manuscripts from many areas of the world whose facts and stories all match, all hold up to scrutiny, all telling the story of Christ. He further mentioned that certain prominent atheist authors hardly ever address this issue, dismissing miracle stories as impossible and therefore not up for consideration. He also argued that the-Bible-as-Judeo-Christian-propaganda is an unsound theory, owing to the fact that so much negative press is included in the story (if the writers were looking to convince readers, he said, why would they include all the example of Jewish failure?)
I was wondering if anybody has studied about the claim of a historical Christ. I'm curious as to what documents my brother's referring to--their accuracy and reputability among historians. I wonder if there are any unbiased Biblical scholars who have written about this (. . . and if unbiased Biblical scholars even exist). There's a big long Wikipedia article on the subject, but perhaps some of you have thoughts about it.
It sounds like your brother has fallen into the common trap of only reading that which confirms your biases. I can't blame him, I did the same when I was a believer and when I wanted to be a believer.
Ehrman is a prime example of a serious Biblical scholar who ascribes to the Jesus Myth Hypotheses. Other examples are Robert Price, Richard Carrier, and Hector Avalos.
I've written about it on my blog, but I did little more than a cursoury overview of the prime evidence that there was no historical Jesus, you can find those posts here, here, here, here, and here as well as a list of resources on the topic including quite a few books.
For a real brief summary, the earliest texts from the New Testament (at least the illegitimate portions) were written by Paul who seems to know nothing about Jesus prior to his crucifixion. The gospels were written much later in a style that best follows various cultural mythologies (Mathew using Midrash and Mark following the plot outline of the Illiad), the geography mentioned fits with the time they were written but not with the time they wrote about, and none of the authors claim to be eyewitnesses. Many of the events in the gospels are the kinds of things that secular histories would have included, but none did. Finally, the gospels contain nothing unique. Every miraculous event was already ascribed to some other deity in the general vicinity of Palestine by the time the gospels were written.
In short there is absolutely no evidence to think that Jesus was any more historical than Mythras or Osiris.
Dustin had a good list that have fairly balanced views on the subject. There are a subset of atheists that get worked up about the existence of Jesus and will pounce on anybody who suggests that he existed. Maybe he existed, maybe he didn't. I suspect that there was a person or group of people that were the inspiration for the Jesus myth.
I was curious about something that I had heard. The town, Nazereth, actually may not have existed during the time that Jesus supposedly lived. I haven't been able to chase down details and it is very difficult since most of the "archeological findings" are so biased, it is hard to take it seriously. You pretty much have to throw out everything written by a Christian author.
I have heard of Rene's book. I heard an interesting interview of him, I think by Robert Price. Some of the things said about him remind me of cranks like Velikovsky or that guy who claimed he find the tomb of Jesus. I will have to read his book to see if his case is actually stronger than reported by others who have read it. Are there any mainstream scholars that would agree with his methods and conclusion? I realize they are hard to find because people working in that field are apologists more than scholars.