This is fascinating. It sounds like you trust all the tax info and census data etc, yet the Gospels of Christ are not trustworthy as a historic record? This is surely biased sampling on your behalf.
Can I take it then, that you accept as true the claim that Pharaoh Ramses II defeated an entire Hittite army from his chariot single-handed because Amun-Re strengthened his arm? If you go to Egypt and visit the Temple of Karnak, you can see this account, with pictures, inscribed in stone, dozens of feet high, on one of the entrance pylons. This was created during the lifetime and under the supervision of Ramses II (definitely a real person; you can see his mummy in the Cairo Museum), and, being carved in stone
, there is no issue of passed-down copies of copies of copies of original manuscripts now lost, as there is with Biblical texts. The Qadesh inscription on the pylon at Karnak is what textual scholars refer to as an "original autograph." It's the equivalent of having the very papyrus of the Epistle to the Romans that Paul himself wrote.
If you are skeptical of Ramses' claim--when he had the entire Egyptian army as eyewitnesses
--could you explain why? Why would he build a gigantic temple pylon commemorating a story that thousands of Egyptians (not to mention the Hittite princess he married as a result of the peace treaty signed after the battle!) could have called out as a lie?
You then turn to lack of "impartial evidence" - but how likely is it that the actions of an obscure preacher
If the Gospels were wrong when it comes to their claims that Jesus was so famous that crowds of thousands sought him out in the harsh Judean wilderness, crowds so large and supportive that he was able to take effective control of the Jewish Temple (e.g. chasing out the money changers, preaching publicly) for the week of Passover, and nobody--not the Temple police, not even the Romans
--dared try to arrest him because "they were afraid of the crowd," then why should we believe them when they claim that Jesus could contravene physics at will? We have a lot
of evidence that the surface tension of water is insufficient to support the weight of a full-grown man!
of a fringe religion
In the Gospels, Jesus is regularly called "Rabbi," that is, a preacher of the recognized official religion of Judea, which had as the center of its worship a massive
Temple and the holy city of Jerusalem, a metropolis of around 100,000 people at the time. He is portrayed reading scripture and preaching in a synagogue, and in the Jerusalem Temple itself.
in a far-flung outpost of the main empire
To the contrary, Roman Judea was a very strategic province, the crossroads between Egypt, Babylon/Mesopotamia, and Asia Minor (Turkey). Whenever their control of it was threatened, the Romans pulled out all the stops to hold it. Emperor Hadrian even went there at the head of his Legions to fight for it. The region where Jesus was supposed to have traveled and preached contained ten prominent Roman cities known as the Decapolis. Judea was not the Roman equivalent of Outer Mongolia. Just a few days' journey away by foot was the greatest center of learning and philosophy and religious studies in the world at the time: Alexandria, Egypt. There was even a well-known Jewish writer there during the alleged time of Jesus named Philo, who taught ideas very similar to those of early Christianity...yet, he makes no mention of Jesus.
of the time would have been recorded by any contemporaneous third-party sources? Not to mention of course that those sources may well have existed once, but now no longer exist. Lack of evidence is not the same as evidence to the contrary.
It is, if the claims in question would have left evidence if they were true. For example, the present pristine existence of New York City is evidence that it was not destroyed by the Cloverfield Monster a few years ago, despite what appears to be a found video recording of such a destruction. In the case of the Gospels, events such as the Sun turning off for three hours while Jerusalem was packed with 800,000 Passover pilgrims from all over the Empire, the "great earthquake" that allegedly happened at the same time, the mini zombie apocalypse (dead people crawling from their graves and entering the city) that also
supposedly happened then, would
have left evidence in the historical record outside of the Gospels. Even Paul
doesn't mention any of those things when he's trying to argue for the resurrection of Jesus in his epistles! How could that be?
All of your points can be put back on you of course. If Christ never existed, and the disciples were going around Jerusalem telling about Christ performing miracles and rising from the dead, why is there no documented evidence that survives that they made it all up?
The earliest Christian writings we have are the authentic letters of Paul. He claims to have experienced Christ in revelatory visions, and found him alluded to in the Hebrew Scriptures. He makes no mention of a Jesus who ever taught crowds in Galilee, or in the Temple in Jerusalem, or worked miracles among people on Earth. If Christ did not exist as a man on Earth, the "disciples" (aka apostles) could have had the same sort of mystical experiences of Jesus that Paul did, and sincerely believed in his existence as a celestial intermediary between Yahweh and humanity. That sort of belief was actually quite common in religious thought, including Judaism, at the time that Christianity got its start.
Surely it would have been in the interests of the Pharisees to issue public proclamations in the news of the time that it was all a load of baloney? And yet nothing like that survives?
If the worship of Jesus began as the Jewish version of the Mystery School dying-and-rising god-man theology that already existed in multiple versions based on other exotic Eastern (to the Romans) religions (the Eleusian Mysteries, the cult of Attis, Dionysus, Mithras, Osiris/Isis/Horus, etc.), then the Pharisees would have had no alleged "historical" claims to debunk. Also, it should be pointed out that the Christians who became history's winners were not terribly interested in preserving the writings of Christianity's critics.
We can argue back and forth on this all day - the key fact is, that you have no counter-evidence to the testimony of Christ - only speculation. The gospels however remain as a recorded historic testimony.
Do they? The Gospels themselves contain a great deal of evidence that they were not written as "historic testimony." Gospel writers thought nothing of reworking their source material in completely divergent ways in order to make their own literary points. For example, the synoptic Gospels place Jesus' "cleansing" of the Temple at the end of his career, while the Gospel of John places it at the beginning. In Luke, "Lazarus" is a character in a parable in which it is said that even if he rose from the dead (i.e., was sent back to preach to the rich man's brothers), people would not believe. In John's Gospel, "Lazarus" becomes a close friend of Jesus whose resurrection does
cause people to believe (John 12:9-11). In other words, John takes Luke's Lazarus story and completely turns it on its ear. This is literature (we might even call it "fan-fiction" today), not dutifully-recorded eyewitness accounts of Historical Truth.tm
Aside from that, what is most likely:
1) Christ never existed - then how do you explain away the rise of Christianity? It is not as simple as comparing to the rise of other religions as a parallel, because what the Disciples claimed was easily falsifiable by the people in the region.
Sure it is. Every religion starts at some point. Wsar (Osiris) reigned as a king in Egypt before he was murdered by his brother Set. Set cut his body into pieces and scattered them through the length and breadth of the land. Wset (Isis) sought them out, and the Egyptians built a temple for Wsar at the site where each body part was found. Surely that couldn't have happened unless the story was Really True, right? The Greeks said that Zeus & Co. lived on Mt. Olympus. Must
have been true, otherwise mountain climbers would have debunked it.
Also, why would the disciples suffer persecution, torture and death for their beliefs rather than admitting that they made it all up? It would take quite a committed conman to willingly die for something they knew to be false, and the sheer number of disciples makes the odds against not a single one of them capitulating under pressure almost non-existent.
Jonestown, Heaven's Gate, Branch Davidians. Also, how do you know that not one early Christian ever recanted? Furthermore, how do you know that they didn't believe in a celestial Christ revealed in visions and esoteric interpretations of Scripture, as we see in the authentic letters of Paul and the Book of Hebrews? In other words, they could have sincerely believed, just not in a "historical" Jesus who lived on Earth. The Gospels were all written after the Jewish War, during which the population of Judea was massacred and scattered. It is not necessarily even the case that the Gospels were originally intended, or understood as literal history until decades, even centuries later, when the emerging Roman Catholic Church had a need to establish a doctrine of "apostolic succession" going back to an earthly Jesus and his disciples, as the basis for their legitimacy as the "true" Christian sect.
2) Christ believed he was God, but was just mentally unhinged.
3) Christ knew he wasn’t God, but was a clever illusionist.
The ol' "Liar, Lunatic, or Lord" chestnut, eh? Other possibilities (if Jesus existed as a historical man) would include Legend (stories about him grew in the telling until he was deified after his death), and Lore (he was a mythical being who as later historicized). We have historical examples of both: the Ethiopian king Haile Salassie was deified by the Rastafarians against his own wishes, while a number of Hindu gurus such as Sathya Sai Baba gained reputations as miracle-workers, and were deified by their followers. On the other end of the scale, mythical figures like Romulus and Hercules were regarded as historical by some thinkers in Greco-Roman times, such as Euhemerus
. Romulus must
have been historical, otherwise, how could he have founded Rome?
Since we have a lot more examples of mythical god-men (Attis, Dionysus, Mithras, etc.) and historical men who either deified themselves (Sathya Sai Baba, Sun Myung Moon, David Koresh, Charles Manson) or were deified during their lifetime (Haile Salassie) or after their deaths (Imhotep) than we do of actual incarnate gods, the prior probability that Jesus should be the one
example of the dying-rising god-man trope that was a real, live, in-the-flesh dying-and-rising god-man must be given a low prior probability. Exactly the same way you'd assign a low prior probability to "eyewitness reports" of UFO's (right?), even though we also have photographs
. The only evidence you have in favor of your claim is: ancient sectarian literature that was arguably not even written as putative news reports, any more than the story of the Tortoise and the Hare was written as a sports story about a race (but tortoises and hares are real animals!