Big news, huh?
I’ve followed this issue from afar from a while, but just can’t get myself to take this point of view (that Jesus never existed) seriously. To anyone very much acquainted with the relevant sources, it is obvious that there was a Jesus – whatever you think about his miracles, his claims, his status as Son of God, etc.
It is so obvious that one of our more important critics of traditional Christianity and the Bible, textual scholar and historian Dr. Bart Ehrman, has recently penned a book refuting Jesus-never-existed claims. See this long interview with fellow scholar Dr. Ben Witherington here. (HT: triablogue)
Honestly, don’t spend too much time on this – it is at bottom a conspiracy theory. But credit to Ehrman and Keener; if one can muster the energy to take it seriously, it brings out the strength of the evidence for a historical Jesus.
It will be more interesting when he wades into more christological territory, into the matter of the historical Jesus’ self-understanding and public teaching about himself. In the Witherington interview linked above he says he’s been meaning to write a book on this. And in last interview linked above (the Religion Dispatches one) he says,
…I don’t think Jesus wanted to start a new religion. Jesus was Jewish and he believed in the Jewish God; he accepted the Jewish law; he practiced Jewish customs; and he gathered Jewish disciples and gave them his Jewish interpretation of the Jewish scriptures.
…I think Jesus thought that God was going to send a cosmic judge of the earth to overthrow these forces of evil and set up a kingdom. I do think that Jesus thought that he, himself, would be made the king of that kingdom. In other words, he thought he was the future Messiah. He probably taught this to his closest disciples and when they came to think that he was brought back to life they naturally redefined what it meant to be a Messiah—defining it as somebody who had died and been raised from the dead.
They knew Jesus had been crucified and they believed he was the Messiah, so they concluded that the Messiah had to be crucified.
What I point out in the book is that Christians did not invent Jesus; what they invented was the idea of a suffering Messiah. This is a view that is not found among Jews prior to Christianity.