[Taken from Wikipedia (accessed April 2010), specific articles given in square brackets below excerpts.]
Although the historicity of Jesus is accepted by almost all Biblical scholars and classical historians, a few scholars have questioned the existence of Jesus as an actual historical figure. ... The views of scholars who entirely rejected Jesus' historicity then were based on a suggested lack of eyewitnesses, a lack of direct archaeological evidence, the failure of certain ancient works to mention Jesus, and similarities early Christianity shared with then-contemporary religion and mythology.
More recently, arguments for non-historicity have been discussed by authors such as George Albert Wells and Robert M. Price. Additionally, The Jesus Puzzle and The Jesus Mysteries are examples of works presenting the non-historical hypothesis.
Proponents of the theory emphasize the absence of extant reference to Jesus during his lifetime, and the scarcity of non-Christian reference to him in the first century. They give priority to the epistles over the gospels in determining the views of the earliest Christians, and draw on perceived parallels between the biography of Jesus and those of Greek, Egyptian, and Roman gods. They argue that, while some gospel material may have been drawn from one or more preachers who actually existed, these individuals were not in any sense the founder of Christianity; rather, they contend that Christianity emerged organically from Hellenistic Judaism.
So far as is known, Jesus never wrote anything, nor did anyone who had personal knowledge of him. There are no court records, diaries, unvarnished eyewitness accounts, or any other kind of first-hand record. The gospels themselves, even though they may contain earlier sources or oral traditions, all come from later times. The earliest writings that survive are the letters of Paul of Tarsus, and they were written 20-30 years after the dates given for Jesus's death. Paul was not a follower of Jesus; nor does he ever claim to have seen Jesus.
[The arguments for the theory are summarised as follows:]
Christ myth theorists often cite the lack of contemporaneous non-Christian sources that mention Jesus. The few non-Christian sources that do refer to Jesus are reject[ed] as corrupt (such as the remarks of Josephus) or viewed as dependent on the beliefs of later Christians (such as Tacitus's passing reference to a Christ), and thus providing no independent corroboration.
Advocates also sometimes reject the testimony of the Apostolic Fathers such as Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, which seem to indicate an early belief in a historical Jesus. Their writings are either dismissed as forgeries, or the most pertinent passages in their works are bracketed as later interpolations.
Proponents of the Christ myth theory note that among the New Testament documents, the epistles-specifically the undisputed epistles of Paul-constitute the oldest sources related to Jesus. Advocates also note that within this earliest stratum of Christian literature, references to biographical details and teachings associated with Jesus are relatively rare. Further, the fuller depictions of Jesus' life and ministry found in the gospels demonstrate a textual interdependence which Christ myth theory advocates argue undermines the notion that multiple independent sources stand behind the accounts. On this basis, proponents often theorize that the epistles present an early belief in a purely mythical savior-figure who was subsequently historicized (perhaps in a conscientiously allegorical fashion) by the Gospel According to Mark, with Matthew, Luke, and John further imaginatively embellishing Mark's narrative in their own derivative gospels.
An argument commonly presented in connection with the Christ myth theory is that the biblical material related to the life of Jesus bears allegedly striking similarities to both Jewish and pagan stories which preceded it. Parallels are often cited between Jesus and Old Testament figures such as Moses, Joseph, and Elisha and a wide range of pagan mythological personages. For example, proponents have claimed that, according to classical mythological sources, Mithras was born to a virgin mother, Horus had twelve disciples, Attis was crucified, and Osiris was resurrected from the dead. Sometimes appeal is made to broader anthropological understandings of religion and ritual patterns of human behavior as postulated by James Frazer and others in such works as The Golden Bough. Christ myth advocates believe that the parallels demonstrate borrowing, with the early Christian community adapting existing mythologies to their particular socio-religious tastes. These parallels are further thought to extend to every identifiable element of Jesus' biography, rendering the biblical portrait of Jesus entirely explicable by reference to literary antecedents and thus making a historical figure superfluous.
['Christ myth theory']
While this does not demonstrate conclusively that Jesus did not in fact exist (and this theory is not widely accepted), it should make clear how little we can possibly hope to know about him with any certainty. Of primary relevance is the scarcity of information from non-Christian sources. For obvious reasons, Christian sources cannot be taken seriously as accurate, historical accounts.
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From the New York Times review (by Michael Massing) of Etz Hayim (ed. David Lieber):
‘Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.
Such startling propositions -- the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years -- have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity -- until now.
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called ''Etz Hayim'' (''Tree of Life'' in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine document.’