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This was a minority claim that mostly caught the attention of theological seminarians. The entree into this discussion came, for me, via John Hick's edited collection The Myth of God Incarnate, from which I purchased and read Michael Goulder's edited Incarnation and Myth: The Debate Continued, and Michael Green's The Truth of God Incarnate, and so on and on. The core idea in these texts was: the less grounded in actual history the New Testament documents are (the more "legendary" they are), the more fictive Jesus is. By logical extension, if the NT documents were 100% disciple-invented legends then, as far as we know, "Jesus" is 0% historical.
I ended up rejecting this bunny-trail as unscholarly. For this reason (and some others) I do not invest in current "mythical Jesus" studies, even though they are still there, to a small degree. (By "to a small degree," I mean that 99.999% of the world knows nothing of them. To take a small sample, only 1% of the thousand undergraduate philosophy students I've taught in the past ten years have even heard of these discussions.)
For example, see cnn.com's "The Jesus Debate: Man vs. Myth." There are still people who are "mythicists" in regard to the historical Jesus. People like Timothy Freke and Robert Price. I'd never heard of Freke before this article, because I don't invest my time in a thesis I abandoned years ago. I've heard Price's name but haven't read him, for the same reason.
On the other hand, I have read works written by skeptical NT scholars Bart Ehrman and John Dominic Crossan. I've got old Crossan books on my shelves, having read them many years ago. Ehrman's recent book is: Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth? Note: Ehrman is not a Jesus-follower, and denies core ideas such as the resurrection of Christ. Nonetheless, in the cnn article, he refers to most Jesus-deniers as "internet kooks." Ehrman says "Freke and others who deny Jesus’ existence are conspiracy theorists trying to sell books. “There are people out there who don’t think the Holocaust happened, there wasn’t a lone JFK assassin and Obama wasn’t born in the U.S.,” Ehrman says. “Among them are people who don’t think Jesus existed.”"
In his new book Ehrman writes that every week he receives two or three e-mails asking if Jesus actually existed. He writes:
"I was surprised because I was trained as a scholar of the New Testament and early Christianity, and for thirty years I have written extensively on the historical Jesus, the Gospels, the early Christian movement, and the history of the church's first three hundred years. Like all New Testament scholars, I have read thousands of books and articles in English and other European languages on Jesus, the New Testament, and early Christianity. But I was almost completely unaware - as are most of my colleagues in the field - of this body of skeptical literature.
I should say at the outset that none of this literature is written by scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere else in the world)." (Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? )
Ehrman's book shows that the mythicists "cannot be right about their major contentions. The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist. That is what this book will set out to demonstrate." (Ib.)
Ehrman does not think his book will convince many mythicist "conspiracy theorists," since they hold to their mythicist belief system like someone who has gotten all their knowledge of medieval history from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."
What about the "Zeitgeist" idea? From CNN:
"Some scholars who argue for the existence of Jesus says the New Testament mentions actual people and events that are substantiated by historical documents and archaeological discoveries.
Ehrman, author of “Did Jesus Exist?” scoffed at the notion that the ancient world was full of pagan stories about dying deities that rose again. Where’s the proof? he asks.
Ehrman devoted an entire section of his book to critiquing Freke, the mythicist and author of “The Jesus Mysteries: Was the ‘Original Jesus’ a Pagan God?” who says there was an ancient Osiris-Dionysus figure who shares uncanny parallels to Jesus.
He says Freke can’t offer any proof that an ancient Osiris figure was born on December 25, was crucified and rose again. He says Freke is citing 20th- and 19th-century writers who tossed out the same theories.
Ehrman says that when you read ancient stories about mythological figures like Hercules and Osiris, “there’s nothing about them dying and rising again.”
“He doesn’t know much about ancient history,” Ehrman says of Freke. “He’s not a scholar. All he knows is what he’s read in other conspiracy books.”"
Like Ehrman, but to a far smaller extent, I've respond to a small number of internet-informed mythcists. My academic pursuit is historical Jesus studies, more than ever. The pursuit after the mythicist red herring is akin to my having to read the "Da Vinci Code" years ago so as to respond to the few who bought into it.
Ehrman writes: "Jesus existed, and those vocal persons who deny it do so not because they have consixered the evidence with the dispassionate eye of the historian, but because they have some other agenda that this denial serves. Froma dispassionate point of view, there was a Jesus of Nazareth." (Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?)
And like Crossan, who also thinks the existence of Jesus is "certain," so do I.