I don't believe there ever was a person named Jesus. There was, however, a man named Yeshua. A thousand years after Yeshua died, the first hand-written English translations of the New Testament used the letter “J” to represent the Hebrew sound for “Yod” . Then, in the 400 years after Gutenberg printed his first bible, the entire English language went through “The Great Vowel Shift”, and the vowel “Y” lost its Hebrew roots and sound wise became the consonant “J”. A few more linguistic adjustments and “Yod-shu-ru” became “Gee-zuhs” Back in the first century one in every ten males in Yehudah (Judea) was named Yeshua. And there wasn't anybody named Jesus. But for convenience we'll keep calling him that.
There is only one reliable reference to Jesus outside of the New Testament. At the end of the first century a Roman book appeared, “Antiquities of the Jews”, written by Joseph ben Matityahu, known in the Roman world as Titus Flavius Josephus (above). He was the son of a priest at the Jerusalem temple and his mother claimed to have the royal blood of King David in her veins. In other words he was a snotty entitled rich kid.
In 67 A.D, during the Jewish rebellion, Josephus became the prisoner of the Roman General Vespasian. Hearing that Vespasian was looking for prophets willing to predict his future success, Josephus had an epiphany, and predicted Vespasian would be named Emperor. When that actually happened, Josephus was rewarded with his freedom, moved to Rome and became an historian and a soothsayer. In short, his successful second career was built entirely on telling powerful rich people what they wanted to hear. So everything he writes has to be read with a jaundiced eye, including what he wrote about Jesus.
In his book “Antiquities”, Josephus says that in the spring of 62, Ananus was named the new high priest of the Temple. Josephus describes him as “rash”, but then Josephus knew it was better to blame the Jewish priests for destruction of their temple, rather than the Romans, who had actually knocked it down. But what he says Ananus did, was logical. Seeking to quickly establish his authority and silence those calling for a suicidal Jewish uprising, Ananus ordered the arrest of James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ...” Josephus says James was tried, found guilty of heresy and stoned to death.
Most historians suspect that Jame's execution was quickly followed by the elimination of all of Jesus' apostles still in Jerusalem, which is why the only apostle we definitively hear from after the year 62 was Peter. Earlier he had been sent north to deal with the troublesome new convert, Paul. And this also explains why Paul was able to have such an influence over early Christianity . He was wealthy and connected, while Peter was poor, and connected to nobody but Jesus. The mass execution of first generation Christian leaders also explains why Ananus was high priest for less than four months. All of this supports the accuracy of Josephus' brief mention of Jesus.
There seems no reason to think Jesus was not crucified. Lots of people were crucified by the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Carthaginians, even Judea had been nailing people onto wood long before the Romans took up the practice. When the Persian king Darius I captured Babylon in 519 B.C., he claimed to have crucified 3,000 people. But the Romans got it really organized. After the slave army of Spartacus was defeated in 71 B.C., Crassus crucified 6,000 captives along the 120 miles of the Appian Way between Rome and Capua. So the Romans crucifying Jesus would have been as common-place as Texas executing a random African-American. What made the execution of Jesus special, according to Christians, was that three days later Jesus rose from the dead. Of course that was not unheard of either.
The most Christ-like of all the born again gods was Mithra (above). He was the son of the virgin Anahita, born in a cave on 25 December. He became a traveling celibate Zoroastrian priest, and carried his ministry of peace and forgiveness out of India into the Persian empire. Sacred texts say that having angered Persian authorities in 600 B.C., and after a last meal with his 12 followers, Mithra was crucified on a cross. After he was taken down, Mithra's dead body lay in his tomb for three days, until the spring equinox, when “...the light burst forth from all parts, the priest cried, Rejoice, O sacred initiated, your God is risen. His death, his pains, and sufferings, have worked your salvation." So the idea of resurrection was not new, either. It was a neat literary invention - turning a god into a living man, rather than the usual device of turning a man into a living god.
Robust Mithraism was adopted by enlisted and NCO's of the Roman army, who spread it across Europe and North Africa. Mithra was even worshiped at midnight services on Vatican Hill and at military outposts along the Rhine border and Hadrian's Wall. The omniscient Mithra was the Good Shepherd, the Redeemer, the Savior, the Messiah, the god who became a man so he could die to atone for your sins. Standard Catholic theology is that Mithria was a false god sent by Satan to confuse Christians. That seems to me a convoluted logic, on Satan's part, and it assumes that God's motives can be quantified and comprehended by humans. And requiring such proof seems to prove a lack of faith. But that's just my opinion.
Doubters often suggest that Jesus survived crucifixion by trickery or drugs, and that is certainly possible. But considering the standard crucifixion protocols, it is unlikely. Crucifixion was not just a form of execution. It was also a form of theatre. First, in public, the convicted was stripped, tied to a post and scourged, jaggedly opening his back down to the muscle and bone. It was a bloody mess. This would have left Jesus, in the words of one medical expert, in the initial stages of shock, and in “at least serious and possibly critical” condition. The intent was not to kill him, but to so weaken him so as to make the next day's execution certain and smooth.
After recovering overnight the condemned would have been striped naked again, had a 100 lb cross beam tired across his shoulders, which he then carried to his execution site. There he would have been thrown to the ground onto his back – reopening his wounds - and either had nails driven through his wrists or more likely had his hands tied to the cross beam. The cross beam, with the prisoner attached, was then lifted up and set atop a post, creating either the Roman cross or more likely a “T”. It need only been tall enough to get the victim's feet off the ground.
The Roman guards would remain on watch until the man died. If the weather was unpleasant or dinner awaited them, the guards might break the victim's legs or even stab him in the side, to hurry the process along. Other wise death would eventually occur because of cardiac failure, shock, acidosis, asphyxia, arrhythmia, dehydration, sepsis, suffocation , or even being torn apart by vultures or wolves. You do not survive crucifixion because friends slip you a mickey after you're on the cross. In fact a sedative would more likely suppress breathing and hurry death along.
During the siege of Jerusalem , our old friend Josephus saw three of his frat brothers hanging off their own crosses. He begged the Romans for their lives, and the officer in charge “immediately commanded them to be taken down, and to have the greatest care taken of them, in order to ensure to their recovery, Two of them died under the physician's care, while the third recovered.” So even with the best and prompt medical care available, the survival rate, once you were up on the wood, was only 33%. And the best was certainly not available to Jesus.
So, to put it all together, there very well might have been a man we call Jesus, and he might very well have been a significant religious leader, who might very well have died on a cross. And people were willing to believe such a man, if he existed, had died for their sins. There is no proof that any of that happened, and no proof it did not. It depends on what you believe.