The question of whether Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical person or not has been debated by scholars for generations, and for good reason: after all, if he is simply an allegorical person, the very underpinnings of Christianity come into question, making deciding this question of paramount importance.

Of course, I assume a good number of my readers imagine the question to be nonsense. How could Jesus not have been a real person, many ask? In fact, he seems to be about the most famous person in all of history—even rivaling figures like Julius Caeser and Alexander the Great in terms of fame and popularity. However, considering that this itinerant Galilean rabbi is nowhere mentioned in contemporary secular histories of the time, one can make the case that he is an allegorical figure, not unlike Santa Claus or Ebeneezer Scrooge. In fact, such "mythologizing" is not unheard of, especially in religious circles. For instance, scholars are generally agreed that the figure we know as Lao Tzu—the person behind a set of philosophical writings we know today as the Toa Te Ching (the basis for the religion known as Taoism)—was probably not a real person but was either a pen name or a collection of wisdom writings put together by a number of ancient Chinese philosophers over 2,500 years ago, so it is not necessary that a person exist in the flesh to be used as a allegory for a body of literature. (There as a few scholars who maintain the same is true of Confucius, Moses, and Krishna, among others, though these remain minority views.) It's also important to recognize that such would not have been considered dishonest or unusual; many ancient teachings were attributed to certain "schools of thought" whose founder remains obscure or even entirely unknown, so it is not necessary that a particular philosophical or religious concept have a flesh-and-blood founder for the teachings themselves to be impactful and even life changing. After all, it is the message that is important—not the messenger.

But was the same true of the figure we know as Jesus of Nazareth? Was he a real man or merely a fictitious person who served as a metaphor for a particular body of first century teachings? This latter prospect seems to be suggested by authors Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, who have written several books that suggest that Jesus was merely a fabrication used by a number of ancient teachers and rabbis to give a Jewish context to the mystery religions prevalent in the day.

What is a mystery religion? According to Freke and Gandy, there were a number of religious concepts competing for dominance in the known world around the time of Christ called "mystery religions"—named so because of their esoteric nature that required their followers to be initiated into the structure of the faith in order to learn its "deeper secrets" or "divine mysteries." They also point out that many of these religions—from the Egyptian religions to the worship of Dionysis and Mithra—in that they all contained similar elements in regards to an incarnate God, virgin births, vicarious atonements and such—echoed the basic teachings of Gnostic Christianity (a major branch of the early church popular in the first centuries of Christianity), thereby suggesting that Christianity—at least the mystical branch of it—may have been merely a Judaized version of these religions that had been around for centuries prior to the time of Christ. The only difference between Gnostic Christianity and the other mystery religions, then, was the fact that while they eventually died out (or were supplanted) Christianity survived to become the last remaining relic of these earlier religious concepts. As such, Freke and Gandy argue, no actual person was necessary for Christianity to get its start as it actually got its start much earlier from the worshipers of Mithra, Dionysis, Osiris, and the other mystery gods. Jesus of Nazareth, then, may have simply been a pseudonym for a belief system rather than a real person—the words attributed to him in the Bible simply made up by others and put into his mouth. (Some have even noted that Jesus—the Greek equivalent of Joshua—may echo the Old Testament figure of Joshua in that both men were conquerors; the OT Joshua of the land of Canaan, thereby establishing the Jewish homeland, and the NT Joshua of the known world, thereby establishing God's kingdom on Earth.)

Some secularists—and no small number of atheists—hold to this idea, and also submit that since there is no demonstrably authentic references to Jesus of Nazareth in the contemporary histories of the time, this would seem to imply the man to have been entirely fictional. After all, it is reasoned, if the man was that famous, there should have been some reference to him outside the gospels. They also point out that other characters named in the gospel accounts—Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, Tiberius Caesar, and Herod the Great—were known historical figures, suggesting that the absence of any reference to the Galilean rabbi may be significant or, at least, suggestive of a fictional character.

However, this is a two-edged sword. It could be reasonably argued that if the other characters mentioned in the gospel accounts are known historical figures, doesn't that suggest that Jesus was as well? In effect, if one found a contemporary history that mentioned that Sherlock Holmes was a close and personal friend of Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and Alexander Graham Bell, wouldn't that suggest there must've been a real person named Sherlock Holmes? Otherwise, one is mixing fictional characters in with real characters, creating all sorts of confusion, one might imagine. (However, this device is not unheard of. There are numerous historical novels which integrate fictional and nonfictional characters all the time, so this argument doesn't carry the weight one might imagine.)

But back to the question of whether a lack of historical reference demonstrates—or at very least at least adds weigh to the argument—that Jesus of Nazareth was a fictional character. Clearly this seems to be a seemingly insurmountable problem until we consider the circumstances. First, it has to be understood that at the time Jesus of Nazareth walked the Earth, he was considered, at best, an insubstantial character by the aristocracy and academic community (who were the ones that wrote the histories). Consider that he was an itinerant rabbi from some backwater colony of the mighty Roman Empire who probably never had more than a few hundred hard-core followers during the height of his ministry (the accounts of him feeding the 5,000 likely being an exaggeration, and we don’t know how many of them were real followers and how many were merely curious about the man or were hoping to see him perform a miracle, making them more spectators than true disciples). Additionally, his execution for sedition was a common fate shared by many self-proclaimed prophets and holy men of his era (apparently Palestine at the time was overrun with such characters) making him hardly noteworthy. Further, since historians tend to only record the works of “important” people—kings, generals, wealthy aristocrats—and usually confine their observations to Rome or other important parts of the empire (where the "action" is) instead of writing about the going ons in some minor province somewhere, it’s not remarkable that no one made note of the man at the time. As such, he was, from the perspective of his era, a nobody from nowhere who ended up sharing the same fate of many thousands of non-Romans (crucifixion), making him scarcely worthy of mention. (It's unlikely he was even recorded in Roman records of the time, so minimal was his importance to the greater scheme of things at the time.)

Another point to consider is that it took several decades before the Jesus mythology to evolve, and by the time he became "the Christ" (a title, by the way, and not his name), many years had passed since he had actually been alive. Historians, however, do make note of the existence of “Christians”—literally, Christ Ones (or followers)—in the mid to late first century, so while there is no reference to the man personally, there is evidence that he had accumulated a considerable following by 50 AD (remember, Nero blamed the Christians for the fire that destroyed Rome in 64 A.D.), suggesting that there had to be a real person behind the phenomena.

Finally, it should be recognized that we actually know comparatively little about what happened 2,000 years ago in any case; records have been lost or intentionally destroyed over the centuries, or events that later turned out to be significant were simply not recorded at the time they occurred. Further, it should be noted that probably 95% of the people named in the Bible are not mentioned in contemporary/secular histories either, though scholars accept that many of these people actually existed at some point, even if the only reference to them is in the Bible itself (which is itself part historical discourse). (Consider that the High Priest Caiaphas, who was so instrumental in Jesus' execution, is mentioned briefly only once in the secular record—by the Jewish historian Josephus forty years after his death—yet no scholar maintains that he was fictional.)

The real question, of course, is would it really have been possible for Christianity to have taken root without Christ? While I suppose anything is possible, it seems highly unlikely a movement on such a scale could have emerged spontaneously without preface and grown so substantially so quickly. There simply is no precedence for something of that nature ever having happened before. As such, it appears most likely that there was a Galilean rabbi somewhere in the mix. Whether his name was really Jesus and he really heralded from Nazareth is a matter of faith, but that there was a real man behind all the hype seems as self-evident as anything from the distant past can be. One can always maintain that the man's a work of overzealous religionists of the past, but I suspect they will always hold the weaker hand.

Who Jesus was and what he actually taught is a source for another debate, of course, but the fact that he actually existed seems beyond doubt. The only question left to be asked, then, is what do we do with the man—which is a question I am content to leave for my reader to decide for him or herself.