In the atheist/"freethought" movement, there exist a growing subset of activists who voice the belief that Jesus (aka "Christ") never existed. The proponents of this idea make arguments, that, on the surface, appear to be valid to ask:
- There are no documentation to suggest Jesus existed up until the writings of the Gospels
- The divine characteristics attributed to Jesus (e.g. the virgin birth, resurrection, his miracles) are found again and again throughout the mythologies of other people in the Near East and the wider Greco-Roman world.
- The imagery used to depict Jesus during early Christian era varies depending on the culture Jesus is worshiped in: as Apollo-like in Greece, to a black man in Ethiopia, to the bearded man we know emerging from Byzantium
- The myriad of contradicting texts that does not give a clear picture on the life of Jesus
I will admit that when I first became an atheist (which is more me leaving the Catholic church than anything else), I was kinda swayed by these arguments. Thinking back on it now, I was so enthused about discovering I was not alone in having non-beliefs that I jumped right into the exact counter of what I used to believe: from believing in the divinity of Christ to the rejection of the existence of Jesus. People tend to over indulge on a new found belief more out of validation and insecurity than anything else...
But enough of that tangent, back on topic:
These arguments against the historicity of Jesus, as I said, sound good, at first blush. In fact, most of these arguments are true. The deities worshiped in the ancient world did have many of the attributes that Jesus is said to have had. Not only that, many so-called "prophets" went around preaching their own ideas and wowing audiences with supposed "miracles". Much of the arguments and rationalizations of Jesus deniers is true that it is kind of hard to disprove them wrong. And there lies the problem with the premise of the jesus deniers.
The deniers do not contend that he is not divine or endowed with supernatural powers; rather, they insist that Jesus/Yeshua never existed. That's the claim they make, not that he was a mortal, but that the idea of Jesus as both a man and as the messiah were concocted by the leaders of the early church.
Let me just get this out of the way: I do not believe that Jesus is the messiah or a prophet from God. Rather, he was just one of many apocalyptic preachers roaming around Roman Judea foretelling an end of the Roman occupation and the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel on earth. Obviously, I believe that Jesus was a historical person, if not a deluded person. But a person nevertheless.
The Jesus deniers will respond to any criticism of their views by asking for evidence of the existence of a person called Jesus. It seems like a reasonable proposition to make; the burden of proof lies on the claimant, right? Yes, but only insofar as the claim is beyond belief. For example, if I claim I saw a cat running across the street on my way home, no one would ask me to prove my claim, as it is not much of an extraordinary claim to see a random cat. However, if I claim instead that I saw a pride of lions chasing an emu on my drive home, then yes, it is perfectly reasonable for someone to ask me for evidence. It is the degree of ridiculousness of my claim that warrants proof. So it is perfect admissible to ask for evidence and proof on the claim of the divinity/sanctity of this Jesus fellow; however, the fact we know that there were many self-proclaimed prophets in Judea during the rule of Augustus is not far fetched at all. There really is not reason to deny the existence of this Jesus fellow, especially when the initial followers of Jesus would interact with historical documented individuals like Saul of Tarsus, not to mention the accounts of Tacitus and Josephus on the existence of the Jesus movement spreading around the Roman world as early as the reign of Nero.
As for Josephus' documentation during the First Jewish War (circa 70 CE): while it is popular for Jesus deniers to claim that Josephus' writings on the "followers of Christus" is a medieval forgery, there is no actual debate among classicists and historians as to the validity of this claim. In this case, the burden of proof does lie with the Jesus deniers to prove.
The insistence of the Jesus deniers to ask for proof of Jesus' existence is spurious. If I were to ask for proof of Socrates existence, then other than the writings of Plato and a handful of writings from other Athenians, there is no physical evidence that Socrates existed. Hell, if I want to ask for proof of Phillip II of Macedon's existence or the existence of Scipio Africanus, then you'd be hard pressed to find any physical proof of the existence of these persons. Rather, such pressing for evidence would seem absurd and paranoid; why would I doubt the existence of these ancients figures to begin with?
My own personal opinion is that many proponents of Jesus denialism do so out of a sense of vindication of their newly found non-belief and non-theism. If Jesus never existed, then the rejection of a long-held belief is even more justified. The uncertainty of leaving a previously held worldview is diminished if the central figure of that worldview is just a myth. The anger in believing in a falsehood can be directed at the creators of the Jesus myth rather than one's own incredulity for believing in the divinity of a jewish carpenter.
Jesus denialism, then, is more about combating one's own insecurity with their newly found conversion story rather than any meaningful or substantive historical debate.