Whether there was a historical Jesus or not, the earliest Christians believed he was an extraterrestrial who descended from outer space and then reascended into the stars to communicate with them from beyond the grave. Once we accept this, the proposal that Jesus never even existed becomes more intelligible and more coherent with the surviving evidence.
See Also: Jesus from Outer Space: What the Earliest Christians Really Believed about Christ (Pitchstone Publishing, 2020).
By Richard Carrier, Ph.D.
Recently, even Bart Ehrman has come around to the view of a growing number of scholars that the earliest Christians believed Jesus was a preexistent divine being.  And with good reason: the evidence is overwhelming. We see this in the earliest Christian creeds and doctrines that we have any evidence of (e.g., Philippians 2:5-11; Romans 8:3; Galatians 4:14; 1 Corinthians 8:6, 10:1-5). Not one of these did Paul have to defend or argue for because they had already been firmly accepted. They, therefore, predated even Paul and must have been advocated even by Peter and the first Apostles since there is no recorded quarrel over those doctrines, despite other quarrels being noted (e.g., Galatians 1-2; 1 Corinthians 1, 3, 9). Still, all these imagined that Jesus was an archangel from the heavens, who (in the currently popular view) descended to Earth, became incarnate, lived as the historical “Jesus” various theorists now attempt to reconstruct, and then was executed by the powers-that-be according to a hidden divine plan (1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Romans 16:25-26), only to be resurrected and ascend back into the heavens to communicate with his faithful through revelations from above (1 Corinthians 15:1-8; cf. Galatians 1; 1 Corinthians 9; 2 Corinthians 12; 1 Thessalonians 4).
However, many remain uncomfortable with restating this fact in terms less anachronistic and more accurate to ancient understanding. In that context, these Christians literally said that Jesus was an extraterrestrial who descended from the stars and there returned; that while on Earth, he merely wore a mortal human body, like an environment suit he eventually discarded (1 Corinthians 15; 2 Corinthians 5; Romans 8; Philippians 2; Galatians 4); and that he now lives in—and communicates telepathically from—what we call outer space, the very place he came from in the first place.
This is the realization I build on in Jesus from Outer Space: What the Earliest Christians Really Believed about Christ (Pitchstone 2020). Though that is a shorter, colloquial summary of my formal peer-reviewed case in On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield-Phoenix 2014), it adds to the latter in two respects. First, it details in the simplest possible terms why its theory makes sense without allowing distracting ancillary details to steal the attention of critics uncomfortable with its thesis, instead presenting the bare minimum needed to see how the conclusion follows. Secondly, it reframes those fundamental arguments in terms designed to dispatch the criticisms they originally evoked. Accordingly, anyone who wishes to challenge the theory—that Jesus began as a mere revelatory being (and, as such, was wholly imaginary) and was inserted into Earth’s history a lifetime later in biographical fiction—will have to begin with dispatching the arguments in Jesus from Outer Space (hereafter JFOS). One can then follow the rabbit hole deeper in the original treatise, On the Historicity of Jesus (hereafter OHJ), for which purpose JFOS includes a concordance to OHJ for requisite details and references.
The title “Jesus from Outer Space” is not intended to mock or be frivolous. It is intended, rather, to pull away the veil of euphemisms and explain ancient history correctly. We cannot claim to understand the origins of Christianity if we do not admit what it was actually claiming to the people of the time. And that means admitting the earliest Christians taught that Jesus came from and continued to speak to them from outer space. Not in a fully modern sense, of course, but in every relevant sense. By the time Christianity arose, it was common to believe “the heavens” were visible realms above the Earth, held up by gaseous or ether-filled spaces, and extended all the way to the moon, the planets, and ultimately the stars—all of which encompass what we mean today by outer space. Therefore, that remains the most accurate English translation of the words that meant “the heavens” in antiquity.
That doesn’t mean they believed in an extraterrestrial vacuum (although some then did, just not Jewish theologians). But that’s not what we even mean by “outer space.” We mean everything above Earth’s atmosphere—all the space “out there.” And that’s what they believed, too. Many imagined a thinner kind of material occupied the remainder of the universe, whether some kind of invisible fire or ether, notions we didn’t even abandon until the end of the nineteenth century. In addition, they imagined creatures of various kinds inhabited every level thereof—which we would call extraterrestrials today. This only means they had different beliefs than we do about what exactly was in outer space, but they certainly had the same concept as we do of what was outer space. We ought to refer to their ideas just as they would have understood them and not obscure their beliefs behind inaccuracies. The modern idea of “heaven” is of an other-dimensional space that has no physical location inside our universe—an idea that bears no resemblance at all to what they believed in antiquity. Hence, “heaven” has become an inaccurate and misleading translation. “Outer space” is much closer in meaning to what their real beliefs were. And this is exactly the point of the title: when we translate the words of the earliest Christians to reflect better what they actually said, things look very different than one might assume. Much of modern biblical scholarship stumbles on anachronistic translations or understandings of ancient words, concepts, and phrases.
The subtitle of JFOS, then, captures a dual fact: this might have been all that the first Christians really believed (with no conception of this extraterrestrial [italics]]having visited Earth[/italics]); but even if Jesus was a historical man who somehow inspired these bizarre beliefs about him, it remains the case that the first Christians genuinely believed (or at least claimed) that this extraterrestrial—now having shed his earthly, mortal body and resumed his status as an exalted stellar being—continued speaking to them from the stars beyond. This is what Paul meant when he said all the Apostles, himself included, “saw” Jesus after his death (1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:3-8) and “did not receive” the gospel teachings “from any man” but “by revelation from Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:12; Romans 16:25-26)—because Jesus would not descend from outer space again until the very end and even then he would not return to Earth but descend only so far as the aer, the entire expanse below the moon (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
In ancient parlance, a “revelation” or “vision” or “appearance” of a celestial deity (whether it be a god, demigod, angel, or demon) could refer to a dream, as well to waking hallucinations, ecstasies, and reveries.  Such distinctions were rarely made, leaving us uncertain about which one(s) Paul exactly meant. When he (or whomever he is talking about) says they visited “the third heaven” (indicating a visit either to Venus or the Sun, depending on which geocentric scheme he had in mind) and later had a whole ongoing conversation with Jesus, did Paul mean in a dream—or a waking vision? Was he dreaming and regarding his dreams as real communications from beyond as many ancients then did? Or was he outright seeing things and hearing voices? We don’t know; the vocabulary he employs is not specific enough to inform us. 
It doesn’t matter, though, because either way, Paul means Jesus was communicating from outer space. Indeed, Paul believed that it was only by that mechanism Jesus ever preached the gospel (per any attentive reading of Romans 16:25-26 and Galatians 1, particularly given its near-exact wording to his opening of 1 Corinthians 15:1-8) or gave any commands or instructions. Paul, after all, had never met a real Jesus, so all the information he says he received directly from Jesus, per 2 Corinthians 12 and Galatians 1, had to be by revelation. Therefore, we should understand that 1 Corinthians 7:10-25, 9:14, 14:37, and even 11:23-26 were disclosed in this same manner. Indeed, even Romans 10:14-15 implies the gospel had only ever been preached to the Apostles—no other Jews ever heard Jesus, which sounds a great deal more like a revelatory channel than a public ministry. Herein lies only one among many reasons to suspect that that is, in fact, how Jesus began—not as an actual historical preacher.
The case for that conclusion I have already summarized for Bible & Interpretation in a previous article, and you can head there if you want to begin examining the case for such a controversial conclusion (rather than dogmatically rejecting it outright without considering any evidence presented, as critics have done so far).  But it’s important to connect the commonalities here: even if Jesus did exist as a historical person, it is still the case that no real man “appeared” to anyone from beyond the grave. However, it is only that non-existent version of Jesus that actually launched the religion (1 Corinthians 15; Galatians 1; Romans 16:25-26). Had there been no imaginary Jesus, there would have been no Christianity. Thus, the historicity hypothesis doesn’t really do all that much work to explain the origins of Christianity: we all agree it originated from the teachings of a non-existent Jesus, so why do we need to cling so desperately to a real Jesus, who didn’t even invent the religion? Only his imaginary counterpart did, and it’s folly to continue pretending that’s not the case. Once we get over that stumbling block and admit that Christianity was originated by a non-existent Jesus (just as Mormonism was by a non-existent Moroni and Islam by a non-existent Gabriel), then we can more capably see how it could be that there wasn’t ever any Jesus at all. If all they needed was a revelatory Jesus to launch their faith, and that is historically the case, the possibility that that’s all they had returns to the table as a viable hypothesis. It simply remains to ask whether the evidence supports that theory or any other.
And that question must be asked without misrepresentation, or dogmatic or institutional presuppositions or anachronistic readings of ancient texts.  Yet it appears to date that that’s all the critics of this theory are hung up on, typically ignoring the actual arguments and evidence I present that renders historicity unlikely and attacking instead mere incidental details or points I never even argued. Such behavior calls into question the reliability of the consensus on this point: if one cannot examine the actual case but instead must ignore or misrepresent it, historicity is more in crisis than assured.  It’s also telling that many well-qualified scholars now admit that the historicity of Jesus is not so certain.  I am not the only one to have recently published a peer-reviewed academic case for doubting it.  Nor am I the only one to have publicly admitted that such doubts deserve serious consideration; indeed, granting them a place “would nudge Jesus scholarship toward academic respectability.” 
In Jesus from Outer Space, I outline the essential reasons for that doubt, including how it aligns with the timeline of evidence and better explains various oddities and deficiencies in that evidence while requiring fewer ad hoc assumptions than any theory of historicity actually does. I then compare the revelatory-Jesus theory with the “zealot” hypothesis that Jesus not only existed but was also a violent revolutionary, later whitewashed as a pacifist in gospel fiction.  If that strange theory earns respectability and consideration as a plausible, academically-reasoned-even-if-false position—and indeed it has—then the revelatory-Jesus theory should even more so since it outperforms the zealot hypothesis on every relevant measure. That the Gospels are simply historical-seeming mythologies of Jesus is already widely agreed upon.  Attempts to “extract” historical truths hidden within those myths suffer from catastrophic flaws admitted by every dedicated peer-reviewed study of the methodology employed.  I also survey how the extra-biblical evidence for Jesus simply goes back to the Gospels and thus cannot corroborate them, while nothing peculiarly historicizing in the Gospels is corroborated in the Epistles.
I also devote an entire chapter in JFOS to what I call the “Argument from Spartacus,” which manifests as an insistence that “we have as much or more evidence for Jesus as we have for [ … ],” where at [ … ] we find somewhere inserted not only Spartacus, but Tiberius, Alexander the Great, Socrates, Pontius Pilate, Herod Agrippa, Hannibal, Caligula, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and even Julius Caesar. I show none of these claims are true. It is perplexing that scholars making such claims don’t know this—and evidently didn’t even think to check. To remedy that, I show why we are so certain of the existence of such historical persons as these and why we have nowhere near the same kind, quantity, or quality of evidence for Jesus. I also explain why we shouldn’t be treating Jesus—a worshiped, preexistent savior deity who launched his religion through mystic revelations and whose earliest historical accounts are elaborately mythical—as if he were like any mundane political or military leader about whom none of those things are the case.
Yet those things happen to be the very ones that warrant doubting the historicity of personages more similar to Jesus, so I devote another chapter to illustrating that in JFOS as well: Osiris, Aesop, Romulus, Hercules, Dionysus, Adonis, Baal, Inanna, Zalmoxis, even Moses and the Patriarchs. I show how the Gospels established Jesus with more tropes (pagan and Jewish) peculiar to mythical people than any other attested person from antiquity. We cannot dismiss that observation as irrelevant. We need some exceptional evidence to conclude Jesus is the exception to all these other equally mythologized figures—just as we would need to be assured of the historicity of any of them. And yet for Jesus, we just don’t have any evidence near that secure—whereas for all the figures inserted into any Argument from Spartacus, we do. And yet, they don’t share markers of being mythical comparable in scale or scope to what we have for Jesus. This would warrant suspicion for any other person—and would for Jesus, too, if he weren’t the object of a major, powerful, socially influential religion today. Doubting his existence comes at a social and professional cost that cannot be claimed for Homer or even Confucius. Admitting this is the first step to overcoming it.
I also devote a chapter in JFOS to outlining how Christianity could have evolved from a revelatory religion to a historicizing one and how the timeline of evidence supports that very transition. In the process, I demonstrate that there is no pertinent difference between accepting this happened for Jesus altogether and accepting it happened for his post-mortem imaginary counterpart, “the risen Jesus,” who began solely in isolated, private dreams or visions (1 Corinthians 15; Galatians 1). However, by the end of the first century, the only version of the risen Jesus promoted or even mentioned is a physically reanimated corpse who hung out with the Apostles for weeks at dinner parties (John 20-21; Acts 1). If a historical, post-mortem Jesus could be invented and eclipse the original in so short a time so could a historical pre-mortem Jesus. The process would be the same.
I then close with entire chapters on why Paul’s references to “Brothers of the Lord” are too vague to establish the historicity of Jesus and why Paul’s references to Jesus’ incarnation are even more so. The only Brothers of the Lord Paul clearly describes in his letters are baptized Christians—cultic, not biological brothers. I show in JFOS how every typical pushback against this realization fails on facts or logic—mere rationalizations for denying the obvious, not sound reasons to maintain Paul “must” have meant Jesus’ actual kin (a concept found nowhere in the letters of Paul). Likewise, in his actual Greek, Paul does not clearly say Jesus was descended from David in any terrestrial sense or that he had a biological mother. Again, to aver these things requires ignoring the actual language and context of the pertinent verses and replacing straightforward evidence with a whole slate of ad hoc presumptions entirely recruited from the very Christian faith tradition that tried to erase these facts to begin with. And if you don’t believe me, you really need to read these chapters before you can claim to be so sure. I suspect you won’t have heard many of the facts in them. They change everything.
I propose that any Jesus scholar pose a serious question to himself: are you going to maintain your assumptions without ever examining the facts that challenge them, or are you going to actually confront and consider those facts before deciding what to conclude? You should not allow institutional inertia, academic pride, social pressure, or Christian faith to motivate your avoiding the actual evidence and arguments presented for this theory. Instead of reacting as other critics have done and producing rebuttals that don’t even represent the actual evidence and arguments made and thus never respond to them, it is high time scholars did their jobs—take the evidence and arguments seriously and actually respond to them, rather than avoid or misrepresent them. I hope that Jesus from Outer Space will help motivate more scholars to do that.
 Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (HarperOne 2014); a conclusion multiply-corroborated: Andrew Chester, “High Christology—Whence, When and Why?” in Early Christianity 2 (2011), pp. 22-50; Susan Garrett, No Ordinary Angel: Celestial Spirits and Christian Claims about Jesus (Yale 2008); Adela Yarbro Collins, “Psalms, Philippians 2:6-11, and the Origins of Christology” in Biblical Interpretation 11 (2002), pp. 361-72; James Dunn, “Christ, Adam, and Preexistence,” in Martin & Dodd, Where Christology Began (W.J. Knox 1998), pp. 74-83; Charles Gieschen, Angelomorphic Christology: Antecedents and Early Evidence (Brill 1998); Ralph Martin, A Hymn of Christ: Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Interpretation and in the Setting of Early Christian Worship (Intervarsity 1997); and Jonathan Knight, Disciples of the Beloved One: The Christology, Social Setting and Theological Context of the Ascension of Isaiah (Sheffield Academic Press 1996), pp. 135-39 and 296-303.
 William V. Harris, Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity (Harvard 2009).
 I survey the science and biblical evidence regarding all these possibilities in On the Historicity of Jesus (Sheffield-Phoenix 2014), pp. 124-37.
 Richard Carrier, “Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt: Should We Still Be Looking for a Historical Jesus?” at Bible & Interpretation (August 2014) [https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/2014/08/car388028]
 And serious, peer-reviewed arguments against the historicity of Jesus should not be conflated or equated with amateur crank proposals of any similar kind (such as those of Joseph Atwill, James Valliant, Dorothy Murdock, or Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy).
 To date, there have been only two substantive academic critical reviews of OHJ—Daniel Gullotta in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 15.2-3 (2017), pp. 310-46; Simon Gathercole, “The Historical and Human Existence of Jesus in Paul’s Letters,” Ibid. 16.2-3 (2018), pp. 183-212—and neither ever correctly describes the case made in OHJ. Instead, they respond to arguments not made or not even presented as relevant to reducing the probability of historicity, but mostly they ignore every substantive argument in OHJ: see Richard Carrier, “On the Historicity of Jesus: The Daniel Gullotta Review” (16 December 2017) [https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/13573] and “The New Gathercole Article on Jesus Certainly Existing” (27 February 2019) [https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/15086], both at Richard Carrier Blogs. The purely polemical review of Christina Petterson in Relegere 5.2 (2015) doesn’t even describe any of the arguments in OHJ, much less critique them (with one odd exception which she doesn’t critique).
OHJ has also been criticized at least twice so far in academic monographs—in M. David Litwa, How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths (Yale 2019), pp. 22-45 and Antonio Piñero, Aproximación al Jesús Histórico (3rd ed., Trotta 2019), pp. 19-23, 43-44—but again in neither case is anything I argue in OHJ correctly or even informedly described, much less addressed: see Richard Carrier, “Litwa’s Confused Critique of Mythicism” (29 April 2020) [https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/16658] and “Antonio Piñero: Raving Historicist” (31 July 2020) [https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/17021]. They again chose not to read, much less respond to the actual content of OHJ.
See my complete and frequently updated “List of Responses to Defenders of the Historicity of Jesus” at Richard Carrier Blogs (18 June 2014), which includes non-academic and amateur critiques [https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/5730].
 Other fully qualified experts (including sitting and emeritus professors) who openly doubt the historicity of Jesus today include Arthur Droge, Thomas Brodie, Robert Price, Thomas Thompson, and Hector Avalos: see §22 in Richard Carrier, “Ehrman on Historicity Recap” at Richard Carrier Blogs (24 July 2012) [https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/1794#22].
 Raphael Lataster, Questioning the Historicity of Jesus (Brill 2019), inspired by his positive reception of OHJ as detailed in his critical review thereof in the Journal of Religious History 38.4 (December 2014), pp. 614-16. See Lataster’s summaries at Bible & Interpretation: “Questioning Jesus’ Historicity” (August 2019) [https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/questioning-jesus-historicity] and “When Critics Miss the Point About Questioning Jesus’ Historicity” (August 2019) [https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/when-critics-miss-point-about-…].
 Quoting the late Philip Davies (then Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield), “Did Jesus Exist?” at Bible & Interpretation (August 2012) [https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/opeds/dav368029]. There, Davies calls out his own field for its behavior, lamenting the fact that:
“[T]he whole idea of raising this question needs to be attacked, ad hominem, as something outrageous. This is precisely the tactic [that the Old Testament] anti-minimalists tried twenty years ago: their targets were ‘amateurs’, ‘incompetent,’ and could be ignored. The ‘amateurs’ are now all retired professors, while virtually everyone else in the field has become minimalist (if in most cases grudgingly and tacitly). So, as the saying goes, déjà vu all over again. [I] don’t think, however, that in another 20 years there will be a consensus that Jesus did not exist, or even possibly didn’t exist, but a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship toward academic respectability.”
 The most recent and prominent defender of the zealot hypothesis is Fernando Bermejo-Rubio; see his article at Bible & Interpretation, “Why is the Hypothesis that Jesus Was an Anti-Roman Rebel Alive and Well?” (April 2013) [https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/2013/ber378008] and his case in “Jesus and the Anti-Roman Resistance: A Reassessment of the Arguments,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 12 (2014), pp. 1-105.
 See Litwa, op. cit., and Ehrman, op. cit.
 See Richard Carrier, “Bayes’s Theorem and the Modern Historian: Proving History Requires Improving Methods,” at Bible & Interpretation (April 2012) [https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/sites/bibleinterp.arizona.edu/files/ima…], summarizing the pertinent points from my own peer-reviewed study in Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus (Prometheus 2012).
I don't think it is possible to disprove a religion from it's Bible based on the stories. I was wondering how you would disprove an imaginary future religion based on the Harry Potter books or how would you convince people in a few hundred years that the novel "Forrest Gump" was not about a real person based on the stories. If a novel is well-written, then I don't think you can disprove it from the stories in it. I am not Christian, and I have never even read the New Testament, so I don't actually care if JC actually ever existed. I just don't think you can show that he never existed based on the New Testament. My understanding of your article is that you are saying that it is possible that the writers of the NT made up JC and somehow how you can show that to be true. I am sure that the stories of the NT could have been made up, but I don't see how that proves they were.
"I am sure that the stories of the NT could have been made up, but I don't see how that proves they were."
That isn't my argument. I nowhere argue "the Gospels are made up, therefore Jesus didn't exist." I don't argue that here, or in either book (Jesus from Outer Space or On the Historicity of Jesus). In fact, in OHJ I score that fact ("the Gospel stories are made up") as having zero weight in determining the probability Jesus really existed (see Chapter 8).
If you will read the article you are commenting on (or better yet, either book it is merely a précis of) you will see the argument I am summarizing here is twofold:
(1) The Gospels are the only definite source for a historical Jesus we have (everything else either derives from them or is too ambiguous to determine the question), yet they portray Jesus more similarly to other mythical persons than any historical person (even historical persons we know were also mythologized), therefore we need good evidence to prove Jesus is the exception among those similar characters; otherwise, we should conclude he is just like all the others, i.e. just as mythical as they are.
(2) The Epistles that predate the Gospels should provide such evidence, but instead exhibit no clear evidence that Jesus was ever known to have visited Earth; they appear only to know of a revelatory Jesus who was only ever met or spoken to in visions.
(1) + (2) = Jesus was more likely mythical than historical.
Note this is not "Jesus was mythical." Rather, "more likely" to be. In OHJ I still conclude with a 1 in 3 chance there was a historical Jesus.
Also note that (1) is crucially distinct and different from "the Gospel stories were made up." A biography merely being made up is not the same thing as fashioning a character entirely according to pagan and Jewish tropes for mythical persons.
For example, the ancient biography of Euripides is believed to be possibly entirely fiction, but the overall evidence is sufficient to establish he nevertheless existed (evidence we don't have for Jesus); moreover, the fiction written of him is more typical of fiction written about historical persons than of mythical ones (measuring by the various characteristics distinguishing each kind of fiction in antiquity).
See my references on the Argument from Spartacus.
The categories of ‘being much more than human, sent by God into the world’ and ‘human being making many controversial statements’ are not mutually exclusive. We may well think that the first category is empty but if people do consider it to be populated and describe an individual they think belongs to both categories they do not necessarily contradict themselves. If we encounter their literature it is not out of the question for us to think that their descriptions were in fact influenced, even determined, by elements of the real history of a controversial person.
On the other hand I don’t see a way of making it probable, simply from the content of these descriptions, that this sort of ‘determination by reality’ is taking place. There is debate about whether the message attributed to Jesus is political - but if it is that does not show that the writers of the story had a real historical record before them. Angels can give political advice. I’d probably ask for some if an angel walked into the room.
I don’t see why an angel should not be, if he chooses, to all appearances the brother of a real person, full of family resemblance and speaking freely of family history. (My projected best-seller ‘An Angel Stole my DNA’ will cover this possibility in more modern terms. Like my other project, ‘Jesus: Caesar’s Double Agent’, it will make me very rich.). The statement ‘your bro was really an angel’ is very hard to subject to Popperian falsification, at least if you are in a culture where angels are believed in.
So I don’t think that there’s any use in trying to prove that Jesus really existed by considering just what was said about him and I don’t think that the fact that the status attributed to ‘Jesus’ from an early date was a supernatural one shows strongly that those referring to ‘Jesus’ had no remembered or recorded real individual in mind. Existence is not a predicate, as Kant insists so boringly. What predicates need to be true of a person for that person to be/have been Jesus? I don’t think we have got as far as an answer to that question - and that is partly because of the heterogeneous mixture of human and supernatural predicates that have become associated with that name?
The related question of how those who spoke of Jesus knew whereof the spoke has troubled thoughtful Christians from a very early stage, I think.
Just to forestall any misunderstanding:
(1) I nowhere argue that "Jesus was assigned superhuman traits, therefore he didn't exist." Indeed in my peer reviewed work I score that fact as having zero weight in determining such a conclusion (see my reply to the preceding comment).
(2) That it is "possible" stories or sayings attributed to Jesus derive from an actual controversial person does not logically produce a "probability" that they do. For that we need evidence, not just a possibility (like the evidence we have for other, definitely historical persons).
Hence my point is that we don't have any evidence capable of making that explanation any more likely than the other (the other being that those sayings and stories derive from edifying fiction or revelation, not a real man). Which it is is at best 50/50 on present evidence. Then when we add the evidence against historicity, its probability drops below 50/50. For the details, and how these probabilities get measured, see the books referenced.
(3) The Gospels lather Jesus with tropes more typical of mythical persons than mythologized historical persons; and that makes Jesus just as likely to be mythical as all those other mythical persons. For the details, see the books referenced.
(4) There is actual evidence Paul and the Apostles only ever met Jesus in dreams or visions; so the argument is not "maybe they met a real person and mistook him for an angel." The evidence is, in other words, that they well understood they did not meet a person on Earth, but were having visions of a celestial person, someone speaking to them from heaven. The idea that he was ever a person walking around on Earth would seem to have been invented a lifetime later (it first appears in the Gospels). For the details, again, see the books referenced.
(5) All of the above is falsifiable and thus does not run afoul of Popperian epistemology.
(6) Likewise the contrary argument, e.g. the evidence establishing the historicity of Spartacus et al renders their historicity falsifiable (as we have in the case of more-likely-mythical persons, and especially definitely nonhistorical persons: I give many examples of both in the books referenced); hence it is precisely our not having any such evidence for Jesus, and having actual evidence to the contrary for Jesus, that falsifies claims of his historicity.
Although remember, "falsification" is relative. I conclude in On the Historicity of Jesus that there could still be a 1 in 3 chance there was a historical Jesus. Mine is thus not a claim to have "refuted" historicity; rather, to only have reduced its probability--and by exactly as much as better evidence would have increased it.
Richard Carrier, thanks for your analysis. When you write (in comment above), "The Gospels are the only definite source for a historical Jesus we have (everything else either derives from them or is too ambiguous to determine the question)", have you considered and excluded the possibility that Jesus ben Sapphat active in the 60s ce of Josephus became understood to be Jesus Christ? If that were so, then there would be contemporary source material on the historical Jesus not derivative from the Gospels.
Obviously if the chronological framing of the Gospels/Acts for Jesus is unquestioned, then the Gospels/Acts' Jesus could not have derived from Jesus ben Sapphat. But if the chronological framing of the Gospels/Acts is not assumed as a prior starting-point or premise for the question of the earthly existence of the Jesus believed to be Christ; and if per argument the letters of Paul are dated ca. 70-100 ce (with the exception of reading Aretas of 2 Cor 11 as Aretas IV, does anything internal to those letters indicate pre-70 composition or pre-70 activity of Paul believed to have written some of them, at the time of those letters? [and as for Aretas, why not an Aretas V 69-70?]); Revelation is 90s reflecting source visions from ca. 70; and gospels/Acts 2nd ce ... could it be source material for the historical Jesus unaffected by Christian portrayal has been in open view all this time, but unrecognized based upon uncritical assumption of late and actually questionable chronological-structuring portrayals of Gospels/Acts?
I suppose a first question would be: is there evidence that meets historians' criteria that Christian belief in Jesus existed predating 70? Can that be established as a fact by historians' standards?
Then a second question might be: is it plausible, or can it be excluded, that under the right circumstances a figure could immediately, following a death or disappearance of that figure, come to be regarded as divine in heaven and a source of channeled visions of seers (as opposed to assumptions that that process takes some time to develop)?
Suggested answers to these two questions, respectively: no, and plausible. But what would you assess, if you care to say or comment?
I hope everyone here has had a good, even slightly merry, Christmas. Just to say that to my mind the question ‘Did X exist?’ is, since existence is not a predicate, to be regarded as ‘what predicates - or about how many of what reasonable list of predicates - need to be true of some subject for that subject to have, in normal understanding, been X?’. Not all of us might draw up the same list and the normal understanding of what X refers to may be changeable - so there needs to be some discussion at that point. In respect of our list we then need evidence for each predicate which we assign and evidence is harder to evaluate, though not impossible to use, if it comes with a strong and visible ideological purpose. We should note the possibility that many of the predicates are true of more than one subject, that is that ‘X’ may be a composite character.
A thought experiment may shed some light on this issue. Suppose that Christianity had died out at an early stage, all trace of it had been lost and no one had ever heard of Jesus. Now suppose that Mark's Gospel was discovered. What would we make of it? Clearly, it would be possible to regard it as a work of complete fiction. On the other hand it might have at least some basis in fact. So let's test these interpretations. According to Mark, Jesus attracted followers. So if Jesus was a real person, then there must have been some kind of Jesus movement in the first century. But what if Mark is complete fiction? In that case we have no reason whatsoever to think there was ever a Jesus movement. This is a crucial point. If we assume that Mark is fiction, we must have zero expectation of any Jesus movement.
In reality, we have always known that there was a Jesus movement, therefore we rarely stop to consider whether or not this is something that should or should not be expected. If we adopt a mythicist approach to Mark, it is very unexpected indeed. In spite of this it might still be possible to argue that Jesus is a mythical character, but on what basis? If the Jesus movement began in the way that Richard Carrier suggests then the "true" origins of the movement must have been forgotten at an early stage. But why should we believe that? According to Carrier, the Jesus "myth" is similar to other myths - so we have an argument from analogy. But how good are the analogies.
Let's consider what features an analogous case would need to have. The Gospels place Jesus in a clearly recognisable historical setting. Is that the case with the other "similar" myths? According to the Gospels, Jesus attracted followers and we have good evidence of a Jesus movement at exactly the time we would expect. Can we say the same about Hercules and other mythical figures? Only if these conditions can be met would there be a genuine analogy with Jesus. And I don't believe that they can be.
But perhaps it is the case that Paul's letters show us the "truth" about Jesus. Unfortunately, I can't see it. Nor can any expert in New Testament studies. So I for one remain unpersuaded by Richard Carrier's theory.