If I were in facetious mood, I would say: If only people were as interested in things that really matter, like the existence of Q! I must admit that the question of the existence of Jesus strikes me as an extraordinary one. Are there any other ancient figures about whom we torture ourselves in this way? In my podcast on the topic, I said that in some respects it is a good question because it can keep us honest. It pushes us to wrestle with the primary sources and to reflect on the nature of ancient history. These are good things. But good academic study is often a matter of asking good academic questions and it is not clear that the question "Did Jesus exist?" always produces the best academic discussions.
I am tempted to say that the problem with the question "Did Jesus exist?" is that it depends what we mean by "Jesus". Where mythicism has popular appeal is in providing an antidote to fundamentalist Christianity and a particular version of a wonder-working superman. Most scholars don't believe in the fundamentalists' Jesus, practically by definition. For those who do not know a lot about New Testament scholarship, mythicism can provide a refreshing one-stop shop for dealing with something they find problematic on other grounds. I am not here talking about those who publish on mythicism as much as those who find their works appealing.
Even if we refine the question to "Did the historical Jesus exist?", we still don't have an easy time of it. There are so many different reconstructions of the historical Jesus, each one only an approximation of what the historian can know on the basis of the extant sources. There are lots of historical Jesuses that I do not believe in. I don't believe in Crossan's historical Jesus because I don't believe in his sources. I don't believe in Wright's historical Jesus because he believes all his sources. I don't believe in Morton Smith's historical Jesus because he composed one of his sources.
And in this context, the word "exist" means what? There's a kind of absurd reductionism in trying to load complex historical analysis of ancient source material into one natty little question. I don't have any doubt whatsoever that the primary sources are, ultimately, witnessing to traditions some of which emerged in connection with Jesus of Nazareth but the really interesting work is not going to emerge from asking the question "Did Jesus exist?"
I wonder what Jesus would have made of the question? How would he have established his own existence? Herod the Tetrarch was rumoured to have worried that the figure they were calling Jesus might actually be John the Baptist risen from the dead. John the Baptist is reported to have worried about who Jesus was too -- was he the coming one, or should they expect somebody else? And according to the accounts of Jesus' arrest, they needed Judas to identify which one was Jesus, like Spartacus, or Brian.
There is a delightful Roman joke that Mary Beard tells in her fantastic recent series Meet the Romans, here reported in The Guardian,
Beard tells me a Roman joke. "A guy meets another in the street and says: 'I thought you were dead.' The bloke says: 'Can't you see I'm alive?' The first replies: 'But the person who told me you were dead is more reliable than you.'" It slayed them in 4BC Rome. Beard takes the joke to have a serious point: "You realise that in Roman society, where there were no ID cards or passports, proving your existence required different criteria. The evidence of a reliable person was perhaps the strongest you had. It was very different from our society, but who's to say it was worse?"I love this joke, and I like the lesson that Beard draws from it. And it reminds us once again, as if we needed it, that doing ancient history is not like doing modern history. The vast majority of ordinary punters made no impact on the archaeological record from antiquity. Their impact, their "existence", if you like, can only be measured in so far as they influenced the memories of those who told their stories, and only in so far as those embellished, interpreted, creative memories ultimately found their way into the texts that managed to survive.