While there are a few highly contested reference to Jesus in near-contemporary historical sources in general it is accepted that the historical evidence for Jesus is to be found in Christian texts.
The best sources in terms of being close to contemporary with Jesus himself are:
(i) Pauline letters - written within 3-20 years after the crucifixion
Paul's letters describe Jesus as an eternal celestial God-man who created the Cosmos and appeared to people like Paul in ecstatic visionary experiences. There is no indication in the Pauline corpus that his Jesus ever walked the wilderness of Galilee, spoke to large crowds of Jews in Israel, was born in any particular Earthly location, etc.. There are phrases that sound like they're talking about a human (maybe), e.g. "born of (lit. "made of/from") woman," "according to the flesh," and so forth. On the other hand, Osiris was a king in Egypt, had a brother named Set who trapped him in a sarcophagus, dismembered his body and scattered it up and down the Nile, his phallus was swallowed by a fish, and so on. IMO the strongest evidence for historicity in Paul is the "James, the brother of the Lord" reference in Galatians. "Mythicists" interpret this as Paul probably referring to James as the member of a select Christian order ("the Brothers of the Lord"), pointing to other places where Paul uses the term "brother" metaphorically. This does seem like a bit of a stretch (i.e., Peter is not a "Brother of the Lord" even though he's apparently in the inner circle that Paul is arguing against), but IMO there are historicist arguments that are just as "stretchy." I'm not sure either side can really "prove" its case with the data we have.
(ii) The synoptic gospels - the earliest parts of Mark probably date to about 20 to 30 years after the crucifixion.
(iii) The non-canonical gospel of Thomas - earliest parts also probably within 20 to 30 years.
Whether or not these qualify as "sources" for a historical Jesus depends on whether or not they were intended as such when they were written. It's possible, but I think there's some good evidence that they were originally written as parables about
Jesus, rather than "remembered history" of his life. One evidence for this IMO is the way the Gospel writers handle their material. They had no problem taking a "saying of Jesus" and inserting it into a completely different narrative context than a previous Gospel writer used, even when they also copy whole sections of the same source Gospel verbatim. They move periscopes (Jesus stories) around to meet their own literary aims, rather than having any apparent concern for "getting the facts right." If "recording the true events of Jesus' life and teachings" mattered
, I don't think we'd see this sort of thing. The Gospel authros act more like fanfic writers, borrowing and changing at will, crafting "stories of Jesus" to resemble passages from Hebrew scripture (which are then retconned as "prophecies" of Jesus), and so on. There's a video (I'm at work so I can't look it up at the moment) of a talk by Richard Carrier, where he shows how the Gospels often exhibit a "chiasmic" structure, sometimes recursively. "Events" of Jesus' "life" are arranged in symmetrical structures around a pivot, so that the "later" events correspond to and reflect the "earlier" events in order, conveying esoteric meaning. This sort of thing smacks of clever literary construction, rather than writing down the recollections of the elders.
For what it is worth my suspicion is that we can be reasonably sure that there is some historical figure who 'became' Jesus. I have a number of reasons for this:
First, there is a core group of sayings and parables which make it into all of the early sources; while this may have another explanation by far the simplest is that they came from one figure.
These sayings and parables may have been originally circulated independently of any narrative context in a "remembered life of Jesus," as we see in the Gospel of Thomas. I think it is possible that they could have originated as "channeled revelations" from a celestial Jesus like the one in Paul's letters or the Book of Hebrews. The BoH appears to have been written prior to the Jewish War and the destruction of the Temple, since it goes to great pains to argue that Jesus offers a superior "way" than the Jewish Temple and clergy, which it treats as still in operation. Hebrews 8:4 explicitly denies that Jesus could have performed his "priestly" work of paying for sins with his blood on Earth ("For if he were on Earth, he would not be a priest"). The Book of Revelation is (AFAIK) later than the rest of the NT books, but it portrays a completely mystical-visionary "biography" of Jesus, in which he is born from a celestial Woman (clothed with the sun and moon and 12 stars, an archetype of Israel) and snatched up as a baby into Heaven so that the Dragon which waits to seize him at birth is foiled. No Earthly life, no body of handed-down teachings, no miracles in Galilee and Jerusalem, no crucifixion by Romans. Yet the Revelation of John includes whole treatises of "teachings of Jesus" directed to Christian communities (the "letters to the seven churches"). The BoR provides unequivocal proof that at least some Christians believed in a Jesus without a human life, who appeared in visions and "channeled" teachings through certain individuals.
Second, we know there were many historical figures around that time claiming to be Messiah (eg John the Baptist) so it would seem peculiar that the one who 'made it' was fictional.
There were also plenty of non-historical God-men revered in the Mystery Schools: Osiris, Attis, Dionysus, etc.. It was fairly common for these to follow a death-and-resurrection trope just as Jesus does. Also, if the "mythicist" (I really dislike that term) hypothesis is correct, the earliest Christians would not have considered their Jesus to be "fictional" any more than the worshipers of Osiris, Attis, Mithras, etc. considered the God-men at the center of their faiths to be fictions.
Third, there are some aspects to the story like Jesus title of Nazareen (ie born in the obscure backwater of Nazareth) which would not be given to a fictional Messiah; if he were fictional he would have almost certainly have been born in Bethlehem (as later stories in Lk and Jn claim) or Jerusalem.
I don't think this is a good argument. Nazareth was a very
tiny, insignificant village, so small that evidence of its existence in Jesus' time is pretty sparse.
If Jesus or his followers wanted to represent that he'd be born in Bethlehem in order to fit Messianic expectations, he or they could have just said so without much fear of being gainsaid. Only a tiny handful of poor, illiterate peasants would have "known" Jesus from "his Nazareth days," and most of them would stay right there in Nazareth, rather than showing up in Antioch or Jerusalem or Smyrna to call out Christian evangelists and "set the facts straight."
Now let's look at the "cover stories" that are used in the narratives to move Jesus from his "birth in Bethlehem" to Nazareth. In Matthew, it's "Herod's murder of the innocents," a supposed massacre of baby boys and toddlers covering the entire region of Bethlehem. In Luke, it's an Empire-wide "census" that supposedly required everyone in the Empire to go back to wherever their ancestors lived a thousand years ago (the putative reason Joseph and Mary have to go to King David's ancestral birthplace. If the authors of gMatthew and gLuke were worried about being caught with their factual pants down ("Hey, Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem! He was born three houses down from me in Nazareth!"), their "cover stories" are much
bigger albatrosses than origins in Nazareth would have been. Matthew's story could have been contradicted by just about anybody who lived in Judea under Herod. Luke's story is even worse
. No matter where Christians went in the Empire, they'd be met with gales of laughter about the "census" that everyone knew never happened. It would be like trying to convince Americans that President Nixon ordered every American to paint their foreheads purple on June 17th, 1970.
What these stories do is set Jesus in opposition to The Powers That Be from his birth. Matthew's story is a re-casting of Moses' birth legend, with Herod in the role of the evil Pharaoh. "Baby Jesus" becomes the new Joseph, sent into Egypt to flee the persecution of his "brothers," the Jewish establishment in collaboration with Rome. He returns as the archetypal embodiment of the Jewish nation, "for out of Egypt I have called my son." In context, the passage from Hosea that Matthew applies to Jesus is a reference to the Jewish nation in the Exodus story. Luke's story, written for a broader audience, makes Emperor Augustus the "heavy," with a census--the primary vehicle of the Roman taxation system--as his mechanism. Both stories immediately identify Jesus with the lot of the poor and downtrodden.
Why Nazareth? "Nazareen" (someone from Nazareth) is a sound-alike word for "Nazorean," a member of an order of ascetics who took a vow of abstinence, a gesture of devotion and piety. It could have been a play on words that simultaneously pointed to Jesus' holiness (and to a way-of-life example for the Jesus community at the time), and represented the ultimate "underdog origin," not unlike the way Superman's exalted extraterrestrial origin was "hidden" in an origin with an all-American, salt-of-the-Earth Kansas farming family.
Similar are events like Jesus' rejection in his home town and cry of abandonment on the cross - if Jesus were fictional they would almost certainly not be included as they detract from his status.
I think "detracting from his status" is probably the point. Jesus and the "Kingdom of God" he embodied is set against the worldly power-structures and status hierarchies. He grows up in the ultimate underdog town as a resident, but was born in a stable, "has no place to lay his head," etc.. Jesus' "cry of abandonment from the cross" is a quote from Psalm 22, which provides the narrative framework for "the crucifixion story." When Paul describes Jesus' "biography" ("born of woman," "of the seed of David according to the flesh" and so on), he repeatedly uses the phrase "according to the scriptures" to indicate his source of authority for these "facts," rather than "according to James and Peter's eyewitness testimony" or anything along those lines. To me this sounds like the earliest Christians "discovered" the "life and deeds" of Jesus in the higher spiritual realm through esoteric readings of the Jewish scriptures, a "Bible code" of sorts. We see Paul do this sort of thing in the 4th chapter of Galatians, where he says that Sarah represents the Heavenly Jerusalem and [his version of] Christianity, in contrast to Hagar, symbolic of the Earthly Jerusalem and the Jewish law. Obviously the author of Genesis did not have cities--"spiritual" or otherwise--in mind when he wrote the story of Sarah, Hagar, and their sons. The Book of Genesis is written from a perspective that favors pastoral nomads (e.g. Abraham) over city-dwellers. Cities are regularly identified with evil: The first city is built by Cain, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and so on.
In short (yeah, right
), the earliest Christians did not view the Hebrew scriptures as historical-scientific treatises meant to be treated as ironclad Real, True Facts the way modern fundamentalists do. Instead, they treated them as a wellspring of esoterically-revealed spiritual truth, re-casting, retconning, and allegorizing them in ways no one would ever do with Facts. The Gospel writers treat the "stories" of Jesus in the same way.
Fourth, Christianity quickly comes under fire from the traditional Jews they find many reasons for attacking the Jesus-cult, if he were fictional one would expect that they would have at least made the charge. The fact that even his early critics accept the historical reality of Jesus is telling.
Which "early critics" are you referring to? AFAIK we don't have any writings from critics of Christianity within a hundred years or so of its origin, and most if not all of those are "quotes" in Christian writings opposing them, which may not necessarily represent the critics' positions accurately. By the time we start getting records of anti-Christian arguments from traditional Jews and Gentiles, the proto-Catholic Church is cementing its power as an institution, and as the winner, it got to write history. If the "mythicist" position is correct, "Jesus" started out as a spiritual divine figure who was later euhemerized into a human on Earth (some ancient writers did the same thing for Zeus, et. al., claiming that they were originally prominent humans who were divinized over time). One motive for doing this sort of thing would be to legitimize a doctrine of "Apostolic Succession"--the claim that the proto-Catholic leadership represented a "dynasty" of sorts (through "laying-on-of-hands" by older Popes and Bishops to younger ones rather than genetic descent) going back to Jesus and his Apostles. Another would be the fact that a simple, literal "Gospels-as-history" version of Christianity would be easier to market to the masses than the esoteric Mystery School version. It's also much more amenable to being turned into dogma ("you have to believe and what we
say because we have The Truthtm
") than a collection of mystic revelations which invite flexible interpretation and individual ecstatic experience of "the divine" for oneself.
If the mainstream historicist view is correct, then there would have been a movement of equal scope, just in the opposite direction. Early Christians would have taken an obscure, fairly ordinary man and turned him into the One True, big-G God, Maker of Heaven and Earth. That would have represented just as much fodder for critics, especially Jews, but we don't see this either AFAIK. When Paul is arguing against Judaism and the "Judaizers," the Big Issues are things like circumcision, obedience to the Torah, and the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. He never reacts to any Jewish argument against the notion of a man being Yahweh in the flesh, or hurling the Shema ("Hear O Israel, the LORD your God, the LORD is One!") in his face. This makes sense if he and his followers were cosmopolitan, Hellenized Jews similar to Philo of Alexandria, who advocated a reconciliation of Judaism and Greek mysticism (complete with a Divine Intermediary, identified as the Logos), and their debates were against others fairly similar to themselves.