Opinions among skeptics about the historicity of Jesus range from a verdict of totally fictitious to a suspicion that the gospels may be based to some degree on historical reality. Determining what degree of fact or fiction, however, is the real challenge. How much of the story is true and how much is based on legendary amplification, doctrinal distortion, and evangelical embellishment have perplexed anyone who examines the matter beyond an idiot-fundamentalist level of total mindless acceptance. The complete absence of historical information about Jesus beyond the gospels and the corresponding lack of inside information about the origins of Christianity make textual analysis the only avenue of approach for serious critical examination.
If Jesus actually existed at all, perhaps the surest authentic detail about him was that he was a Galilean. This is evidenced by the divergent ways Matthew and Luke dealt with his Galilean origin. Luke (2:1-7) contrived to get Jesus's parents from Galilee to Bethlehem so that he could be born there in fulfillment of the Messianic expectations. Matthew (2:1-2,11) had Jesus born in a house in Bethlehem, where his parents apparently had been living all along and then contrived to have them subsequently settle in Galilee to avoid a purported royal threat (2:19-23).
While Matthew and Luke resorted to totally different contrivances, both point to an underlying awareness of the Galilean origin of Jesus and a need to account for this somehow. The fact that there was no Messianic oracle that predicted a Galilean Messiah made this all the more essential to account for and less likely to be a fictionalization.
Providing further support is the ironic reference (John 7:52) to the standard belief that no prophet would come out of Galilee, a notion refuted by the presence of a Galilean prophet as it was being repeated. Only for an actual Galilean would his origin need to be so addressed. Were the story entirely fictional, they wouldn't have made him Galilean to begin with and would not have needed to resort to contrivance to explain it.
However, the very existence of contrivance and contradiction underscores the fictional nature of perhaps most of the gospel details, and the difficulty of isolating any authentic information. It is easier to identify and account for false information than true. Most pertinently, it is likely that the story of Jesus's being born in Bethlehem is purely fictional, since this idea had been suggested by Micah 5:2. This passage created an expectation that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and the gospelers, knowing this, may well have inserted it into their narratives, assuming it must have been the case. Since the scriptures were assumed to be the word of God, the events they purportedly foretold and the details they suggested had to have occurred, according to the gospelers' line of thinking.
What makes fabrication the more likely here is the fact that this particular Messianic oracle--like virtually all others--was badly misunderstood. According to the standard Christian interpretation, Micah is predicting the town where Jesus would be born. But Bethlehem here actually referred to a person, not a place. First Chronicles 2:51, 54 both contain references to a man named Bethlehem. Matthew, who wrote from the Septuagint, took unwarranted liberties with the Septuagint text, changing the actual phrase "Bethlehem of the house of Ephrathah" to "Bethlehem, in the land of Judah." The fact that there was a house of Ephrathah is confirmed by 1 Chronicles 2:50, and supports the proper reading of the text of Micah.
The alleged Messianic passages were further distorted by taking them out of context, and this was the case for Micah as well. One need only read further (vs:5-6) to know that Micah was referring to a contemporary situation with the Assyrians and predicting a great military leader who would wreak vengeance on their oppressor. The fact that this did not occur is bad enough for Micah's prophetic credibility, but it clearly cannot be referring to Jesus--unless you take the position that "Assyria" is actually referring to Rome, which would be typical exegetic fudging (also known as "pee wee hermeneutics"). But then, Jesus didn't effect any triumph against the Romans either, so he comes out a loser regardless.
The degree of distortion involved regarding the alleged Bethlehem prophecy can only lead an objective mind to conclude that Jesus's birth in Bethlehem is almost certainly a fictional element. The character may well be based, however loosely, on an actual person, and that he was Galilean is quite plausible, based on how Matthew and Luke contrived their material, but what else about the story may be true, obscured amidst a thicket of legendary accretions, bogus scriptural fulfillments, and dogmatic modifications, will be even harder to establish than that.
(Stephen Van Eck, Rural Route 1, Box 62, Rushville, PA