The blogosphere is buzzing over Bart Ehrman's new book, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. Historicists are crowing and mythicists range from disappointed to outraged. Unfortunately, my copy hasn't arrived yet so my ability to comment on Ehrman's arguments is limited. From what I have seen, however, I doubt that Ehrman will push me off the fence of historical Jesus agnosticism.
There is one claim that I see repeatedly in comment threads that I can address though. It goes like this: "There is much more evidence Jesus existed than just about any other historical character from that period." I hope that Ehrman doesn't make this claim in his book because it is profoundly silly.
Consider for a moment the kinds of people that you would typically find discussed in a book about the history of ancient Rome. There would be emperors and kings and generals and senators. There would be people whose activities had a widespread impact on prominent and literate people of their day. They would be people who were well known to prominent and literate people of their day. These are certainly not the only people who lived in ancient Rome, but they are the kinds of people who leave a mark in the historical record. You are far less likely to find discussions of particular slaves or peasants unless it is someone like Spartacus who attracted the attention of the prominent and literate people of his day by leading a rebellion.
The kind of people you are least likely to find discussed are people who passed their lives unnoticed by anyone outside a relatively small group of illiterate peasants. There can be no doubt that many such people existed, but they tend not to have left individual or unique marks in the historical record. When it comes to such people, we tend to be limited in our knowledge to the general conditions under which they lived. We tend to be ignorant of the specific things that particular people said and did. That's the problem with our evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus. To the extent that historians think he existed, they think that he hung out with a group of illiterate peasants. To the extent that he attracted any attention during his life from anyone in a position of prominence, he was just another troublemaker put to death by the Roman Empire.
When Jesus first enters the historical record, it is because--to put it crudely--his ghost appeared to someone. The man who first puts Jesus in the record didn't know him, didn't say where or when he lived or died, and said little to nothing about what he said or did during his life. Paul's sole concern was with the theological significance of supernatural events that occurred to Jesus after his death. I can't think of anyone else who made that kind of initial mark in the historical record about whose existence I would be confident
Historicists like to point out that the earliest extant writings about Jesus were composed nearer to the time he lived than those for other people about whose existence we are confident. While its true that the earliest biographies that we have for Alexander the Great were written hundreds of years after his death, their authors tell us that the got their information from biographies that were written by Alexander's contemporaries. Where does our earliest extant source for Jesus say that he got his information? Divine revelation. Where do the subsequent sources tell us they got their information? They don't say.
Does any of this provide proof that Jesus didn't exist? Of course not. But it should be enough to deter those who believe he did from making glib claims about how much more convincing the evidence is than for others of that time.