"Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God." (1 John 4:2-3)
The debate as to whether Jesus Christ was an actual historical person or not seems to go back all the way to the New Testament. If people who lived during Christ's lifetime weren't sure if he existed or not, how can we be sure?
When reading the New Testament, people tend to read the gospels before the epistles. After all, that’s the order in which they’ve been arranged. However, Paul’s epistles were actually written between 48-62 CE while the gospels were written sometime between 70-150 CE. To get a true look at the early stages of Christianity, one needs to read the epistles first and leave any gospel preconceptions behind.
Among epistles attributed to Paul, most scholars agree that Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and possibly Colossians were written by him. 2 Thessalonians and Ephesians probably weren't written by Paul, while 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus were written after Paul's death and were falsely attributed to him.
If Jesus did exist, and if we had only the first century epistles to go on, the only thing we would know about the historical Jesus was that he was crucified. We wouldn’t know where he was born, what era he lived in, what he preached or even if he preached. We wouldn’t know that Judas betrayed him or that John baptized him. We wouldn’t know the names of his parents. We wouldn’t know that he healed the sick or performed miracles. We wouldn’t know that he visited Jerusalem. We wouldn’t know where he was crucified or where he was buried.
Paul and the other early epistle writers speak of Jesus as a divine intermediary figure between man and God and discuss personal revelations they’ve had about him, but they’re completely silent about his life on earth. If Jesus were an actual historical person, wouldn’t Paul and the other epistle writers want to tell Christian converts about his life?
Some historicists say that Paul didn’t refer to the life of Jesus for his own idiosyncratic reasons, but if this is the case, why are all of the other epistle writers equally silent? Other historicists claim that the epistles don’t discuss the life of Jesus either because everybody already knew about it or only his crucifixion and what happened after his death were important.
Historicists contend that the Mythicists’ argument from silence is invalid. If, for example, I write a letter to my friend and don’t mention that I’m married, it doesn’t prove that I wasn’t. Scholars studying the letter could just say that my friend already knew I was married and there was no need for me to mention it.
However, in situations where Paul is trying to convince a group of Christians about the importance of a doctrine, it would be absurd for him not to mention that Jesus preached it. That would be like me writing several letters to my friend encouraging him to get married and never once making a passing reference to my own marriage. A scholar would be right to conclude that I wasn’t married based on repeated silences in situations that called for it to be mentioned.
“But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another.” (1 Thessalonians 4:9)
Here, as well as in numerous other passages, Paul attributes the commandment to love one another to God, not Jesus. He never attributes any of Jesus’ teachings to Jesus. Historicists claim that since Jesus is speaking in God’s name, anything Jesus said should be attributed to God. Perhaps we could put it down as one of Paul’s idiosyncrasies if he was the only one who did it, but again, the other epistle writers follow suit. Why would none of them attribute the sayings of Jesus to the man himself?
"Take, my brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience." (James 5:10)
Wouldn't Jesus be a better example of one who has suffered than the prophets? There are numerous other scriptures like this one that call for a comparison to Jesus, and yet don't mention him.
"But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ." (Galatians 1:11-12)
“Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God; Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:25-27)
Paul often refers to his own ministry as a fulfillment of ancient scripture without ever mentioning the life of Jesus. Paul claims he is the one who has revealed Christ. Didn’t Christ reveal himself? Paul often speaks of the day of salvation as being near and being ushered in by his ministry. Didn’t the day of salvation already come when Christ was crucified? Paul leaps directly from ancient scripture to the present day without so much as a glance at Jesus’ own ministry.
"When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory." (Colossians 3:4)
"That thou keep this commandment without spot, unrebukable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ: Which in his times he shall shew, who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords."(1 Timothy 6:14-15)
"And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels." (2 Thessalonians 1:7)
If we read passages like those above with the gospels in mind, we’d probably interpret this as a reference to the second coming of Christ, however since Paul never speaks of a first arrival, how can he be referring to a second coming? According to Paul, Christ hasn’t been revealed yet.
"For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him." (1 Thessalonians 4:14)
"Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?" (1 Corinthians 15: 12)
"For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures." (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
According to Paul, Christ’s resurrection from the dead is a matter of faith, not historical record. Why would people need faith to believe in something that happened during their lifetimes? He exhorts his followers to believe that Christ was raised from the dead because it was preached and because the scriptures say so, not because it actually happened.
The Platonic idea that there was an upper world which corresponded to our world below was very popular in Paul's time. It's difficult for a 21st century person to put themselves in a 1st century mindset, but as one reads through the epistles without the preconceptions of the gospels in mind, it becomes evident that the death and resurrection of Jesus spoken of by Paul and the other epistle writers took place in a spiritual realm, not upon the earth.
Historicists who seek to discredit the Mythicists’ argument point to scriptures that seem to imply that Jesus did walk upon the earth:
"Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh." (Romans 1:3)
"For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh." (Romans 8:3)
"Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever." (Romans 9:5)
By speaking of flesh, Paul may not have meant that Jesus walked upon the earth. He could be referring to Jesus coming in the flesh to an upper spiritual realm. Jesus could be "of the seed of David" in a spiritual or metaphorical sense.
"But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother." (Galatians 1:19)
Does this mean James was the brother of Jesus, or is "the Lord's brother" simply a title such as calling a priest "father" or a nun "sister"?
"But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law." (Galatians 4:4)
Does "made of a woman" mean Jesus was born on this earth or in the spiritual realm? If Paul knew that Jesus was born on earth, why does he not know the name of Jesus' mother? Even if Paul did mean that Jesus walked upon the earth, he doesn't give us any specifics as to time or place. Jesus could have lived in Rome in 100 BCE for all Paul tells us.
None of the scripture Historicists bring forward mention any specific events relating to the biography of the gospel Jesus. As strange as it may seem to those of us who’ve grown up with it, the Jesus of the epistles and the Jesus of the gospels have very little in common with each other.
Obviously, there are much more scriptures relating to this question than I have addressed here. For more a more thorough and in depth look at the silences found in the epistles, see http://jesuspuzzle.humanists.net where Earl Doherty lists the top 200.