I’ve long been of the opinion that a historical person on whom the Jesus stories were based never actually existed. Too many elements of the Jesus myth are borrowed — in some cases, outright stolen — from older myths, even to similarities in names.
Twelve apostles, virgin birth, being the Son of God, raising someone from the dead, being killed and coming back to life, ascending to heaven, leaving behind a ritualistic eating of the flesh and drinking of the blood in order to take on his mystical qualities… all were common elements of hero/messiah myths for a thousand years before the time of Christ. In that culture, it was a very familiar story.
For a quick overview of the evidence that Jesus never existed, see the film “The God Who Wasn’t There.” It’s a good place to start before further study.
Another good place to start is this article from Alternet.
Most antiquities scholars think that the New Testament gospels are “mythologized history.” In other words, they think that around the start of the first century a controversial Jewish rabbi named Yeshua ben Yosef gathered a following and his life and teachings provided the seed that grew into Christianity.
[...] But other scholars believe that the gospel stories are actually “historicized mythology.” In this view, those ancient mythic templates are themselves the kernel. They got filled in with names, places and other real world details as early sects of Jesus worship attempted to understand and defend the devotional traditions they had received.
The notion that Jesus never existed is a minority position. Of course it is! says David Fitzgerald, author of Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All . For centuries all serious scholars of Christianity were Christians themselves, and modern secular scholars lean heavily on the groundwork that they laid in collecting, preserving, and analyzing ancient texts. Even today most secular scholars come out of a religious background, and many operate by default under historical presumptions of their former faith.