From time to time I get asked this question–Did Jesus really exist? Recently, a student of mine in a University of Manitoba class more than a dozen years ago wrote to me to ask the same question. So here are two answers: one short, and the other long–in the form of two book recommendations:
No serious scholar that I know of disputes the idea that Jesus existed–only nuts on the fringe who advertise their own books at the back of magazines! The gospels have been fought over for a few centuries as to just how much they record that can be taken as historically accurate, but no one in that long dispute has ever doubted that there is someone, Jesus, behind them as the source of at least the authentic sayings and stories.
For that matter, how does the Christian religion begin, with all its fresh ideas and energy, without a Jesus at its heart? How do all the apostles tell such different stories in the various books of the New Testament that nonetheless cohere so well unless there is a Reality (Jesus) to which they all correspond?
For some good discussions of the historicity of the New Testament, I’d start with these fine books, written by scholars I know and whose scholarship is beyond dispute:
Paul Barnett, Finding the Historical Christ (Eerdmans, 2009)
Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (InterVarsity, 2008)
There is a lot to ponder in the career of Jesus and there is lot to argue over regarding the records we have of his life. But whether there was such a person? I think it’s more likely to assert that Moses or Plato or Julius Caesar or Muhammad didn’t exist.