Jesus, most scholars agree, existed–in the sense that Yeshua the Nazarene wandered around, said some of the things attributed to him, made an impression, locally; drew some followers, was crucified. (See, the “Book of Q” for some sayings by Jesus which scholars feel certain of, and see also, in my opinion, the Gospel of Thomas.)
He may not have died during crucifixion, according to one story, which is more believable than resurrection–he simply looked dead. The Bible, as I recall, does say they got permission to take “his body down early”. But dead on the cross or not, he was likely just a “wisdom teacher” of the time, perhaps a bit mad, in some ways, but brilliant, quite possibly a genius. And well meaning. He was likely not nearly so apocalyptic in his oracular sayings as later evangelists, pissed off at their persecutors, liked to make him out. And it is those later evangelists we can likely blame for the fabrication of most of the fantastic elements of the Jesus mythology.
I believe Jesus was likely more of an Essene-flavored gnostic than a teacher of what people now think of as Christianity, and likely never claimed he was the son of God. He called himself the son of man. He seems to have had deep insights into man’s nature, a philosophy of life that was rather like Lao Tzu, and not far from Buddha. He may have had enlightenment experiences.
He did believe, apparently, that he had a divinely ordained mission. He may well have been the bastard son of a Roman soldier, whom Mary explained as a miraculous birth. Joseph had to tolerate him but probably never accepted him as his own child, leading to Jesus having a neurotic attachment to his “divine father”, a projection on the supposed father of the universe, the only one he could psychologically accept.
Jesus seemed to like children, the poor and oppressed–and Mary Magdalen. A gnostic text mentions him kissing her on the mouth and in another he defends her worthiness to his male followers.
Jesus was called “the annointed” by his followers–that is, Cristos–and the Romans (Tacitus) record him as having been executed for insurrection. “…Christus, from whom the name [Christian] had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus…”
Sometime after the execution of Jesus, elderly Jewish writers rolled their eyes at the recollections of him, saying they remembered him well, as a “sorcerer”, a trickster, and the bastard son of a Roman soldier named Pantera. “Him? We remember, already–he was a schmuck!” (Okay, so I’m paraphrasing).
There are in some texts two references to him found in Antiquities, attributed to the Jewish historian Josephus, but the more enthusiastic one was clearly interpolated–an out and out fraud, simply inserted in the text–by a later Christian copyist.
However there was one text, likely authentic, attributed to Josephus, that has the ring of authenticity:
At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous.
But I find this reasoning from secular historian Will Durant convincing: The Christian evidence for Christ begins with the letters ascribed to Saint Paul. Some of these are of uncertain authorship; several, antedating A.D. 64, are almost universally accounted as substantially genuine. No one has questioned the existence of Paul, or his repeated meetings with Peter, James, and John; and Paul enviously admits that these men had known Christ in his flesh. The accepted epistles frequently refer to the Last Supper and the Crucifixion….
The contradictions are of minutiae, not substance; in essentials the synoptic gospels agree remarkably well, and form a consistent portrait of Christ. In the enthusiasm of its discoveries the Higher Criticism has applied to the New Testament tests of authenticity so severe that by them a hundred ancient worthies — for example, Hammurabi, David, Socrates — would fade into legend. Despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists, they record many incidents that mere inventors would have concealed — the competition of the apostles for high places in the Kingdom, their flight after Jesus’ arrest, Peter’s denial, the failure of Christ to work miracles in Galilee, the references of some auditors to his possible insanity, his early uncertainty as to his mission, his confessions of ignorance as to the future, his moments of bitterness, his despairing cry on the cross; no one reading these scenes can doubt the reality of the figure behind them. That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospel. After two centuries of Higher Criticism the outlines of the life, character, and teaching of Christ, remain reasonably clear, and constitute the most fascinating feature of the history of Western man.
The Story of Civilization, Volume 3: Caesar and Christ (p. 555)