The argument that I make in this post is, I believe, as close to definitive as one can find outside of mathematical proof. All of traditional, ecclesiastical Christianity is based upon a fundamental error: a belief in the historicity of Jesus. And all the proof that any reasonable person should require in order to be satisfied of the erroneousness of this belief can be found in the New Testament itself.
In Galatians 1:11-12 the apostle Paul writes,
For I make known to you, brothers, that the gospel preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received [para-lambanō] it from man, nor was I taught (it), but (I received it) through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
Notice that Paul seems to be implying that a gospel received “from man,” at second hand, is inferior to a direct revelation from Jesus Christ. And that idea seems to be consistent with Galatians 1:15-20, in which Paul goes on to write,
But when it pleased God—the one who separated me from my mother’s womb and who called me through his grace—to reveal his Son in me [!] so that I might announce the good news about him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to the apostles (who were apostles) before me, but I went off into Arabia, and again returned to Damascus. Then, after three years [!!!], I went up to Jerusalem to become personally acquainted with Cephas [i.e., “Peter”; see John 1:42], and I stayed with him for fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the brother of the Lord [which is almost certainly a kind of metaphorical “title,” not the literal description of a biological relation; cf. John 20:17, Philemon 1:1, and Galatians 1:11, quoted just above]. And take heed, (in) the things I write to you, (I swear) before God, I do not lie.
Notice that Paul is saying all this as if it gave added credibility to his claim of having received a revelation from Jesus Christ, and to the content of that revelation. He apparently didn’t want people to think that he was just passing along second-hand “revelation stories” that he had heard from others. Moreover, it seems that Paul didn’t feel that he had much to learn from the other apostles, since anything he learned from them would have been merely “according to man.” He had already had his own personal, direct revelation—just as the other apostles had had theirs. (In fact, I think it’s reasonable to surmise that having had a personal, direct revelation from “Jesus Christ” is what was considered to make an “apostle” an apostle.)
As far as I am concerned, this passage provides virtually irrefutable proof that Paul did not regard “Jesus Christ” as an actual, historical, flesh-and-blood individual. Note that Paul makes a point of saying that after Jesus was revealed to him, he did not go to see any of the other apostles in Jerusalem. Instead, he waited three years before going to see them. If Paul understood Jesus to be an historical individual, one whom Paul now believed to be the one and only eternal Son of God, wouldn’t he have made it his absolute top priority in life to go as quickly as possible to the disciples/apostles who personally knew Jesus and spent time with him, so that he could learn everything that he possibly could about Jesus’s life and teachings from those who had witnessed everything first-hand? Wasn’t Paul concerned that some of them might die or forget some important things during that lengthy period of three years? Not all that much, it seems.
A Christian may be inclined to suggest that Paul, as a result of his personal revelation from Jesus Christ, must have already learned everything about Jesus Christ and his teachings that was possibly worth knowing. But how could he have known that to be true without first having spoken with the other apostles to find out what exactly Jesus had taught them, and what they had personally witnessed of his life, death, and resurrection? I would also ask that same Christian why, according to the traditional Christian account, God bothered to reveal himself in the flesh at all—if that is indeed an inferior and unnecessary way of going about revealing himself to human beings. Why didn’t God just reveal himself directly to all of the apostles in the form of “visions”? Well, I am arguing that—at least according to how Paul saw things—that’s exactly what God did.
Galatians 1:15-20 shows that whatever exactly Paul understood “Jesus Christ” to mean—and it is admittedly evident that some notion of “Jesus Christ” did have great significance for Paul—it is not even conceivable to the mind of a reasonable person that Paul understood him to be an historical, flesh-and-blood, individual human being.
But if it would be correct to conclude that that was not Paul’s understanding of what “Jesus Christ” meant, then it is similarly inconceivable that the other authors of the New Testament, taken as a whole, believed in the historicity of Jesus. That is because, for one thing, we know from 2 Peter 3:14-18 that the author of that passage was personally acquainted with Paul, and was willing to “vouch for” and “endorse” him as an authentic apostle. And it is impossible to believe that the author of Second Peter (as well as of First Peter) would have been willing to vouch for and endorse someone who did not believe in the historicity of Jesus—IF that belief was considered by early Christian leaders to indeed be correct, and IF the holding of that belief was considered by those Christian leaders to be something essential in any true Christian. Therefore we are forced to conclude that the author of the epistles First Peter and Second Peter did not believe, at the very least, in the essentiality of that belief—and hence very likely did not believe in its correctness either, since a strong conviction of the correctness of such an unusual and extraordinary belief would presumably give rise to an insistence on its essentiality as well.
For another thing, consider that the Gospel of Luke appears to have been at least partly derived from the writings of Paul. To be more specific, in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 Paul writes,
For I received [para-lambanō] from the Lord what I also delivered [or transmitted: para-didōmi] to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night on which he was betrayed [or delivered, or handed over: para-didōmi] took bread, and, having given thanks, he broke (it) and said, “This is my body, which (is given) for you; do this in [or unto: eis] remembrance of me.” And in the same way (he took) the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do [or make: poieō] this as often as you might drink in [or unto: eis] remembrance of me.”
And Luke 22:19-20 says,
And having taken bread, having given thanks, (Jesus) broke (it) and gave to (his disciples), and said, “This is my body, which is being given for you; do this in [or unto: eis] remembrance of me.” And in the same way (he took) the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup (is) the new covenant in my blood, which is being poured out for you.”
Now, if this had been an actual historical event, one would expect that the story would have been “delivered” by, or “transmitted” from, persons who had witnessed the event to persons who had not witnessed it. But we know—by Paul’s own stipulation—that Paul never witnessed any such event (except in his own mind), since he claims to have “received” this knowledge directly “from the Lord”; and yet Paul also claims to be the person who initially “delivered” or “transmitted” this knowledge to others before any other human being was aware of it. Therefore, since the wording in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 and Luke 22:19-20 is so similar, the most likely explanation would be that the wording we find in the Gospel of Luke was obtained from Paul’s writing—and therefore that no historical event ever occurred that was capable of being witnessed through the use of a person’s physical senses.
A Christian might try to object that one reason for the extreme similarity of wording in Corinthians 11:23-25 and Luke 22:19-20 may be that the author of Luke 22:19-20, just like Paul, directly “received from the Lord” his knowledge about this episode. But such an argument would prove too much. It would show that not only did the author not obtain first-hand knowledge of the episode by witnessing it himself, whatever knowledge he did have was also not obtained through ordinary “human” means (i.e., by hearing accounts of the episode from other human beings who did witness it in person). But in that case, there would be no good reason to assume that any of the other episodes narrated in the Gospel of Luke were not similarly “received from the Lord” (i.e., imagined in the mind of the author). (Incidentally, notice Paul’s use in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 of the word “received” [Greek paralambanō], reminiscent of Paul’s use of the same word in Galatians 1:11-12, quoted above—and then also recall that what Paul in Galatians 1:11-12 said he “received” “through a revelation of Jesus Christ” was “the gospel preached by me.”) So either way—whether the author of Luke 22:19-20 “received” the specific wording found in that passage indirectly from Paul’s writings, or directly “from the Lord”—it would be unreasonable for anyone to suppose that the author of the Gospel of Luke meant for readers to accept the historicity of the “events” described therein.
But if that conclusion is correct, then the close similarities between the Gospel of Luke and the other synoptic gospels (viz., the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Mark) should lead a reasonable person to further conclude that the authors and/or editors of those gospels were also not claiming historicity for the “events” narrated in those writings.
Furthermore, a textual comparison between Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1-2 strongly indicates that the Gospel of Luke and the Book of the Acts of the Apostles were produced by the same authors and/or editors (which also happens to be the traditional Christian belief). So if the authors/editors of the Gospel of Luke did not believe in the historicity of Jesus, then neither could the authors/editors of the Book of Acts have believed in the historicity of Jesus.
It would thus seem that at least the following books from the New Testament were written by persons who did not believe in the historicity of Jesus: all of the epistles attributed to Paul; the epistles 1 Peter and 2 Peter; the Gospel of Luke; the Gospel of Matthew; the Gospel of Mark; and the Book of Acts. The result is that there is remarkably little material left in the New Testament that wasn’t written by persons who, it can be reasonably determined, did not believe in the historicity of Jesus. And even in the case of these remaining writings, there is no more reason to think that their authors believed in the historicity of Jesus’s life than did the authors of the writings I have enumerated. Indeed, the fact that so many people have been fundamentally misreading the writings that I have enumerated significantly increases the likelihood that they have also been fundamentally misreading those remaining writings, since all of these New Testament writings employ similar motifs and metaphorical symbols. If the intended meanings of those metaphorical symbols have been misunderstood in certain New Testament writings, then the intended meanings of those same symbols when found in other New Testament writings have very likely been misunderstood as well.
In sum, I am not arguing that Paul and the other authors of the New Testament were trying to deceive readers, by trying to lead them to believe that Jesus was an historical person. What I am instead arguing is that those authors have been fundamentally misunderstood—insofar as the claim that Jesus was an historical person was never a claim that they were even trying to make. And we can know that simply by paying close attention to what the writings of the canonical New Testament are actually saying.