There are no eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus Christ and no contemporary writer who was not a follower makes any mention of him whatever. So did he in fact exist at all? We are forced to rely on the testimony of believers. Strangely, the man who lived nearest in time to the Jesus of tradition tells us least about him. Paul's Epistles date from about AD 50-60, but he must have been a Christian by AD 40 because he informs us (2 Corinthians 2. 32) that the governor of Damascus under King Aretas, who is known to have died in that year, tried to have him arrested for his Christian activities. If Jesus was crucified around AD 30, then Paul was a contemporary. Yet he supplies us with astonishingly little details about the man. He says nothing about the time and place of Jesus’ existence., nothing about his parents or indeed about the so-called virgin birth; and nothing about his miracles or ethical teachings. He does mention death by crucifixion and a resurrection several times, but he says nothing about when, where and in what circumstances these momentous events occurred. In fact, the Jesus of Paul is not a recognisable person at all but instead a supernatural, pre-existent being. It is an essentially mystical vision, which is all the more curious for being about someone who supposedly lived, not in some vague, distant past but contemporaneously with the writer.
As for the Gospels, they are a mass of contradictions and confusions. It is perhaps a sad reflection on human credulity that so powerful a force in human history as Christianity should be based largely on the testimony of a quartet of incompetent charlatans. Consider, for example, the time and place of Jesus’ birth. According to Matthew (Matthew 2. 1) and Luke (Luke 1. 5), he was born in the reign of King Herod. Since Herod died in 4BC, his birth could have been no later than that date. However, Luke also tells us that he was born at the time of the census conducted by the Roman governor of Syria, Quirinius (whom Luke calls Cyrenius). But this census occurred shortly after Judaea had been annexed by Rome in AD 6, and it certainly could not have happened in the reign of King Herod when Rome had no jurisdiction over the area. This census story is mentioned only in Luke and it smacks of fiction. But why did Luke consider it necessary?
The answer brings us to the question of Jesus’ birthplace. Mark says that he 'came from Nazareth of Galilee' (Mark 1. 9). Matthew, however, says that he was 'born in Bethlehem of Judaea' (Matthew 2. 1). It is Luke who tries to reconcile these two traditions by suggesting that Mary and Joseph had indeed been living in Nazareth but that the census required everyone to return 'into his own city'. (Luke 2 . 3), and Bethlehem was where Joseph had been born. But no such census was conducted in the reign of Herod and in any case such an order would have been plain silly. One of the purposes of a census is to record the movement of people, so why on earth should it require them to move back? Moreover, Joseph would have paid his taxes where he lived and worked, so it would have been totally unnecessary for him or anyone to undertake such a journey. Bethlehem is 70 miles as the crow flies from Nazareth, a long and hazardous trek in those days, especially for someone like Mary in late pregnancy.
The real reason for giving Jesus a Bethlehem birth is provided in John's Gospel. He reports that many Jews of Jesus’ time disputed whether or not he was the Messiah because he came from Galilee, whereas "hath not the scripture said, that Christ cometh out of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was? (John 7. 42). Luke and Matthew were thus clearly anxious to establish that Jesus had fulfilled the Old Testament prophets such as Micah: "Yet out of thee (Bethlehem) shall he come forth unto me so that is to be the ruler in Israel" (Micah 5. 2). As with so many of the Gospel narratives, it is not unreasonable to suspect an invention, either by Luke or his source, to ensure a prophecy.
To give substance to the prophecy that Jesus came 'out of the seed of David', both Matthew and Luke provide a genealogy. Matthew starts with Abraham but Luke daringly takes it all the way back to Adam! Ignoring such implausibilifies, let us stick to that part of each linking Jesus and David - a period of about a thousand years. Whether there was a real David is far from certain, but anyway these two Gospel writers differ in the number of generations, Matthew offering 25 and Luke 41. And apart from Joseph, only two names are identical in both lists. They do not even agree on the name of Joseph's father, whom Matthew calls Jacob and Luke calls Heli.
This anxiety to provide a Davidic lineage for Jesus by both Matthew and Luke goes hand-in-hand with the startling claim of a virgin birth. On the one hand, Joseph's paternity and Jesus's Davidic ancestry are dwelt upon, while on the other it is denied that he had any earthly father at all. Now the virgin birth myth is very old. The ancients concluded that an offspring of a god should have a, purer, higher and holier maternal origin than that of ordinary mortals. So, for example, Juno bore Mars by touching a flower and gave birth to Vulcan by being overshadowed by the wind - or conceived of 'The Holy Ghost' if you like, since 'ghost' originally meant 'wind'. The Mexican god Quexalcote also had an immaculate conception and coincidentally was crucified and rose again from the dead after three days. Osiris of Egypt, Krishna of India are two other cases of immaculate conception.
The New Testament presents us with different Resurrection stories. According to John, it is Mary Magdalene alone who discovers the empty tomb. According to Matthew, it is she and 'the other Mary' who come to see the tomb, while in Mark it is three women who come to anoint the body with sweet spices. In Luke there are several women and two men in 'shining garments'. Neither Mark nor Luke mentions a great earthquake, which is recorded in Matthew. There are also different versions of Jesus’ supposed appearance after death. Paul has him appearing not only to the disciples but also to "above five hundred brethren at once" (1 Corinthians 15. 6), and "last of all he was seen of me also" (1. Corinthians 15. 8). But he implies that these appearances were spiritual: "Now 1 say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Corinthians 15. 20). In the Gospels, however, his presence is clearly physical. In Luke, for example, we have Thomas feeling the wounds of the cross and Jesus insisting that a spirit has flesh and bones "as ye see me have" (Luke 24. 39). Again, while Paul says nothing about the locality of his appearances, Matthew locates them in Galilee while Luke has him appear in Jerusalem, 70 miles away.
But what does all this tell us about the real Jesus? Nothing, of course, for the simple reason that we know nothing. Whether he was a carpenter, a holy man, a rebel, or even a nonentity, we simply cannot say. There is insufficient evidence to enable us to sort out the fact from the fiction. All the Gospel stories should be approached with extreme scepticism, not least the alleged miracles the man is alleged to have performed. The man of the Gospels is really a man of his time, who believed as they did that the world was about to end and that diseases are caused by evil spirits which enter the body and need to be cast out.
And what should we make of the claim that Jesus would save mankind? The idea of a divine self-sacrifice is frankly absurd. God's justice made him require the death of his innocent son in order to defeat human sin (inherited from Adam). God apparently needs to have a sacrifice before he can forgive us. And what of all those who have never heard of Jesus’ sacrifice? As Jean Meslier put it, "What are we to think of a God who comes to be crucified and to die to save the world, and who leaves so many nations to damnation?"