A commenter on another blog challenged me to explain the reasons why I think it reasonable to be agnostic about the existence of a historical Jesus. As the blogger didn’t want to get into the substantive issues, I decided to make my response a post here even though these are all points I have made in previous posts.
Most historical figures from the ancient are known to us today because they were literate or prominent people or they did things during their lives that had an impact on their literate or prominent contemporaries. It was the impact of their lives that caused information about them to be preserved. Information about Jesus of Nazareth, on the other hand, was preserved because some person or persons claimed to have encountered him after he was dead. Had it not been for a belief that arose in supernatural events occurring after his death, we cannot be certain that Jesus would have left any mark in the historical record that would be discernible two thousand years later.
There is nothing out of the ordinary in supernatural events being associated with historical figures in the ancient world. Fantastic supernatural stories about Alexander the Great spread after his death, but it was a result of the impact of the things he accomplished during his natural life. Stories about Jesus’ natural life, on the other hand, were preserved and perpetuated as a result of the belief that arose in the things he accomplished supernaturally after his death. If you strip away the supernatural stories about Alexander the Great, you still have a significant historical footprint. If you strip away the supernatural stories about Jesus of Nazareth, you strip away the reason that any information about him was preserved in the first place.
None of this constitutes evidence that Jesus didn’t exist or that the mythicism is likely true. However, I do think it creates unique problems for the historian insofar as historians reason by analogy. If a historian wishes to evaluate data concerning a poorly documented general or king from the ancient world, he can compare it to the data for many other generals and kings, some of whom will be much better documented. On the other hand, the reason a first century itinerant preacher like Jesus couldn’t be expected to leave much of a historical footprint is because no first century itinerant preachers left much of a historical footprint. As a result, it becomes very hard to reason by analogy.
I don’t think that I have seen any historical Jesus scholar adequately address these issues, but what troubles me even more is how often they will compare doubting the existence of a historical Jesus to doubting the Holocaust or the moon landing on the grounds that the consensus of scholars on all these issues is so strong that to doubt any of them is to engage in nihilistic skepticism. This strikes me as ridiculous as little that happened in the ancient world is as certain as anything that happened in the twentieth century.
History is about establishing what probably happened and probability is determined by the quantity and quality of evidence, not by the number of scholars who look at the evidence. Doubting that Shakespeare wrote The Tempest is not comparable to doubting that Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address regardless of how strong the consensus of scholars might be on the former. It is perfectly sensible to be more certain about the latter.
It may be that it is objectively more likely than not that a historical Jesus existed. However, until I encounter historical Jesus scholars who have a little better grasp of probability, I think I will remain agnostic.