Apparently you can't do polls on here.... but

Do any of you think that Jesus actually existed? What do category do you fall into?

A. Believed he existed, claims are false

B. Believed he existed, claims are exaggerated

C. Don't believe he existed

D. Believe he existed, claims are true (sorry had to leave the idiot category open)

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Sure (this'll be a pretty long post).
As it happens, we have more than one historical source regarding Jesus. Not that this is to be expected in the first place, considering Roman and Greek historians really didn't give a crap about what happened in an obscure province like Galilee. Still, we get enough references to be quite convinced about his existence:

First of all, there was one historian in the Ancient world who did care a bit about what happened in Galilee and Jewish affairs, and that was Flavius Josephus. If someone would mention Jesus, it would be him. Unsurprisingly, he does mention Jesus. Twice (one time he refers to the brother of "Jesus the so-called Christ", and another time he tells us precisely this: that he was a preacher and a faith healer, that he was crucified by Pilate, and that he was called the Messiah).
Now before someone starts complaining, one of these passages is indeed in doubt: however the consensus among historians is that while there originally was a passage referencing Jesus, this passage was altered by a Christian transcriber somewhere in the Fourth Century. If you look at the text you can see clearly what was altered: it clumsily says, in the middle of things you'd expect Josephus to say, that "he was the Messiah". This very obvious interpolation does not bring the entire passage into question, however.

Second of all, we get a bonus: Tacitus, arguably Rome's most important historian of all time, also mentions Jesus in his Annales. He mentions, again, that there was someone running around in Palestine who was a preacher, a faith healer, who was crucified by Pontius Pilate, and who was called the Messiah.

Third of all, and perhaps surprising to some of you, we have the gospels. Though they may be biased (let's be honest, we know they are biased), historians are actually quite used to working with biased sources in the Ancient world: objective historical analysis simply did not exist; whether it be political reports, biographies, campaign reports, and even historical works, all of them were done with a certain agenda in mind. However by contrasting various sources and not taking them at face value, even a very biased source (like a Pauline epistle) teaches us a great deal about history.

Take the crucifixion. One argument for its authenticity is that it's mentioned by both Josephus and Tacitus. But another very powerful argument for its authenticity is that early Christians were actually embarrassed about this humiliating event: it was even "a stumbling block for converts", as Paul says. On top of that, this was totally unexpected in Jewish eschatology: according to Jewish beliefs of the time, the Messiah was supposed to come to Earth and start the Kingdom of Yahweh, not get arrested by the Romans and fucking nailed to a cross.
Early Christians had to go through a great deal of trouble in order to pretend that this was really all part of God's plan all along.
The embarrasment and awkwardness alone tells us something: these are not the traces of a made-up person (otherwise the story would be smooth and make sense, instead of being contrived, embarrassing awkward). Combine that with the mentions of Josephus and Tacitus, and we have as clear a historical case for the crucifixion as you can possibly want.

The same goes for the fact that he was probably born in Nazareth (or at least Galilee): Nazareth was a teenie tiny little town in the middle of nowhere, so why would the Messiah come from there?
This again was a real problem for early Christians: not only did Jesus get mocked for coming from such a small and irrelevant town (see the Gospel of John) but there actually was a prophecy that told Jews where the Messiah was going to come from: the City of David, namely Bethlehem. Note how hard the gospels authors try to get Jesus born in Bethlehem: the scenarios are so strange, ahistorical, and mutually exclusive that it's hilarious.
Again, this is not an indication of a character that's simply made up (otherwise he would be from Bethlehem), it is a very clear indication that Jesus was a historical figure who was born in Galilee: the futile attempts of the Gospel writers to make it look otherwise are testimony to this.

And as for the preacher and faith healer status of Jesus, that again gets mentioned in every single source (Christian or otherwise) we have about Jesus. It also explains how the miracles attributed to Jesus arose: the exorcism of demons is a beloved trick by any faith healer (go to the average Episcopelian Church and you'll see that every Sunday) and healing the blind with sand and spittle (Gospel of John) was an ancient remedy against cataract.

All of this might sound like a stretch to you, but the fact of the matter is that in ancient history we have to work with the sources we have, not the sources we would like to have. The thesis that Jesus did not exist has to make all these pieces of evidence go away (the references in Tacitus, Josephus, events related to Jesus in the 40's that are documented by Josehpus, the awkward clues of shoe-horning a historical figure into a Messianic role, etcetera). And it simply cannot do that without making giant leaps of faith based on an anti-Christian bias.
I cannot understand why roman historians might not have mentioned or been interested in things like someone rising from the dead and virgin birth and being lifted up to heaven. Was not Jesus crucified by the Romans. I think a roman historian might have made a note of that. Have you read the Jesus Puzzle. I have just started reading.It appears it is going to be a good piece of non fiction. Why are you here at this site ? The fact that you are here tells me you are not really secure in your leap of faith. If our anti christian bias bothers you go talk to people that don not have that bias.
Errr, you seem to be very confused. I'm here at this site because I am an atheist. I'm not a Christian, so where you get the idea that I simply want to believe Jesus existed, I really have no idea.
However, I do happen to be an atheist who is very fond of history, and likes to do his homework. I share your anti-Christian bias to an extent, but I advise you that if you're going to talk about history in an objective fashion, then you need to leave that bias at the door. Objective historical analysis is a science too (albeit more of a "soft science").

Why do I care? Because (i) I like history and I want to find out what really happened and (ii) because I want atheists to have good arguments, not arguments based on a very biased look at history and on no evidence at all and (iii) historical myths like the "Jesus never existed!" one are the equivalent of "Evolution asks for a crocoduck!" and it bugs the hell out of me. Especially when the ones using these arguments are supposed to be rational.

Speaking of no evidence at all, instead of reading badly researched novels like the Jesus Puzzle by amateur historians, why don't you bother reading real scholars? Like you know, Bart Ehrman, Geza Vermes,... scholars who try to be objective and who, because of not taking a biased look at history, all arrive at the conclusion that a historical Jesus existed.
Sorry, but what you're doing is no better than a Christian reading a book by Ken Ham and thereby thinking that young-earth creationism makes sense. It's no better.

Now as to the point you make, what you seem to forget is that first of all, it's highly unlikely Roman historians of the time would have heard about Jesus, with or without the miracle stories; these guys were Roman or Greek aristocrats that wrote about events in Greece and Rome. That's why our knowledge of obscure provinces like Galilee is so poor.
Second of all, the Romans were extremely superstitious. They believed in miracles. They thought they happened all the time, and miracles were attributed to all kinds of emperors, generals or politicians (Caesar, Vespasian,...). The idea that even if the stories about Jesus made it that far away from Palestine, Roman historians would be able to discern them from the hundreds of other superstitious miracle stories they heard every day, is absurd.
They would not have been aware of those stories unless they attended a Christian liturgy. The gospels and apostolic letters were circulated among local churches. They were not available at the local library. Procurators in outlying provinces like Galilee may or may not have kept records of the local troublemakers they killed, particularly if they were not Roman citizens.
Doesn't sound like a stretch at all to me. This is just the sort of thing I was asking for, my thanks for the information. I now have reason to suspect there was a person this was founded upon. I am still open to the possibility that it was fabricated, but I lean more towards the possibility it was based on some sort of actual movement or event now, with this information.
Much of the evidence is inferential. John Shelby Spong argues that no one would invent a messiah born in Nazareth, the hellhole of Palestine. The gospel of John alludes to Nazareth's bad reputation when one of Jesus' future followers first hears of him:

1.45"Philip found Nathanael and told him, ;We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.'
46'Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?' Nathanael asked."

That is presumably why some traditions changed his birthplace to Bethlehem, the more prestigious birthplace of King David.

The Jesus Seminar (http://www.westarinstitute.org/index.html) is a good source for information on other questions about the historical Jesus. The Acts of Jesus analyzes the first century narrative gospels for clues about what seem likely to be historical events in the life of Jesus. The Five Gospels does the same for the sayings attributed to Jesus.
Having him come from a backwoods area, to me, seems a tactic aimed at attracting the slaves and lower classes of Rome, which the rising seemed to have rose up among. I could see the error in such a setting there if it was meant to start out as a religion to rule or become an institution, but I always imagined the roots to be among small groups of slaves and such who met in secret in the crypts and whatnot, designed to spark an uprising against the upper classes.
Some hypotheses are dismissed out of hand for no better reason than that they do not serve the pet interpretation of the expert in question. For instance: it seems an obvious conclusion to me that Barabbas -- "the father's son" -- aka "Jesus Barabbas" in one gospel is a portrait of "the historical Jesus," a reference to the real reason he was crucified: he was an insurrectionist. When I asked Jesus Seminar scholar John Dominic Crossan his opinion of that possibility at a Q&A, he dismissed it as implausible but gave no reason. My impression was that it did not fit with his contention that Barabbas is purely a literary device to serve the wish to exonerate Pilate of Jesus' death.

The "many Jesuses" conjecture seems so obvious to me, even assuming one of them was known as Jesus of Nazareth, that one would have to present compelling evidence for some of the words and deeds not being borrowed from another person (people's words are frequently misattributed even now) to dismiss it.
That does sound implausible.

The story about Barabbas is certainly not one with much historical value, but that it is a reference to the real reason he was crucified is actually rather absurd: why would they reference that which the Apostles try so hard to deny?

The evidence we have suggests that Jesus was arrested by Jewish authorities for causing a disturbance in the Temple at Passover, and was promptly handed over to the Romans (considering they were the ones who really hated figures that proclaimed themselves "King of the Jews") to appease the Romans.
These events are downplayed by the gospel authors in order to white-wash the Romans and blame Jewish authorities: the goal was to distance Jesus as far as possible from any rebellious role against the Romans. So the idea that they would use the Barabbas story as a kind of "hidden clue" to what really happened stretches credulity.
Unless it was common knowledge among Christians that Jesus was executed for insurrection and they wanted to change the collective memory -- or unless they did not intend the narrative to be taken as factual and wanted to emphasize that the true Christ was not the political zealot the Jews clamored for, but the one who would bring about a spiritual kingdom. Crossan argues that Jesus' disciples did not realize until some time after he was dead that violence was not the way to institute a kingdom of God. They created the Jesus they thought should have been to replace the Jesus who was. They definitely planted clues to that effect. In Mt. 11.12 Jesus says, "From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force." Lk. 22.36 "He said to them, 'But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.'" They apparently wanted people to understand that the historical Jesus failed and they had a better one to offer.
We might be operating around a misunderstanding here.
I would agree that the historical reason the Romans wanted Jesus dead was certainly "insurrection" as in rebelling against the standing authorities (Sadducees and Romans), however I don't think that means imagining a Jesus going around hiring thugs and organising street fights.

The insurrection the Romans executed him for consisted of just calling himself the Messiah, let alone "King of the Jews". In an inflammatory province like Palestine, the Romans were not very interested in theological niceties: if they found a guy screaming about how the Kingdom of Yahweh was coming and would replace Roman rule by divine rule, that was more than enough reason to nail that guy up.

In that sense proclaiming yourself the Messiah was certainly a "political message" (and a rebellious one), albeit an indirect one, which is why the Romans frequently tracked down and murdered preachers that got too dangerous.

What we certainly agree on, however, is that the story the gospel writers conjured up about how Jesus was betrayed by the Jews over theological differences is a false one.
The insurrection the Romans executed him for consisted of just calling himself the Messiah, let alone "King of the Jews".

According to canon gospels (and religious writings are all we really have to go on), it was Jesus' followers who called him King of the Jews, not Jesus himself. A distinction he is careful to make.

According to the Gnostic gospels, he had even less messiah/king complex.

Although all of that from what I can see falls under the realm of mythology and legend. If there was a historical Jesus, who knows what he/his few cult followers thought.

But yeah - declaring oneself or your cult leader a messiah, or any such major heresy, was a capital crime. And quite a common one for people to be accused of.

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