In Ehrman’s brief history of mythicism, he names a few authors with whom I am not familiar:
The first author to deny the existence of Jesus appears to have been the eighteenth-century Frenchman Constantin Francois Volney, a member of the Constituent Assembly during the French Revolution. Volney published an essay (in French) called “Ruins of an Empire.” In it he argued that all religions at heart are the same – a view still wildly popular among English-speaking people who are not religion scholars, especially as articulated in the second half of the twentieth century by Joseph Campbell. Christianity too, for Volney, was simply a variant on the one universal religion. This particular variation on the theme was invented by early Christians who created the savior Jesus as a kind of sun-god.
Apparently Volney was respected by some influential Americans including Thomas Jefferson (who helped translate “Ruins of an Empire” into English) and Abraham Lincoln (who is said to have been an ‘avid reader’ of the work).
Although Volney’s views may be out of favor in today’s climate, he does not appear to have been out of step with the intellectual atmosphere of the Enlightenment.
Several years later a much more substantial and influential book was published by another Frenchman, Charles-Francois Dupuis, who was secretary of the revolutionary National Convention. The Origin of All Religions (1795) was an enormous work 2,017 pages in length. Dupuis’s ultimate objective was to uncover the nature of the “original deity” who lies behind all religions… Dupuis subjected the fragmentary information that survived to his day to careful scrutiny, as he argued that such gods as Osiris, Adonis (or Tammuz), Bacchus, Attis, and Mithra were all manifestations of the solar deity. Dupuis agreed with his compatriot Volney: Jesus too was originally invented as another embodiment of the sun-god.
Likewise Dupuis was a respected intellectual of the Age of Enlightenment whose astronomical work seems to have influenced his views on religion.
Dupuis devoted himself to the study of astronomy (his tutor was Lalande) in connection with mythology, the result of which was his magnum opus: Origine de tous les Cultes, ou la Réligion Universelle. It appeared in 1795 in quarto or octavo format, profusely illustrated (in 12 volumes); an abridgement (1798) spread his system more widely among the reading public. In Origine he advocated the unity of the astronomical and religious myths of all nations, an aspect of the Enlightenment‘s confidence in the universality of human nature. In his Mémoire explicatif du Zodiaque, chronologique et mythologique (1806) he similarly maintains a common origin for the astronomical and religious opinions of the Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese, Persians, and Arabians.
In the first flush of freedom from religious dogma it seems several highly respected intellectuals were willing to go on record considering the notion that Jesus might not have lived at all outside of literature. This was still a time of conflict between dogmatism and rational thought, and those willing to express views in dissent against the assertions of orthodox christians were still in danger of life and limb.
Cayetano Ripoll (allegedly from Solsona 1778 – Valencia 26 July 1826) was a schoolmaster in Valencia, Spain, who was executed for allegedly teaching deist principles. Ripoll was a soldier in the Spanish army during the Peninsular War (1807–1814). He was captured by French forces and was a prisoner of war. While being held by the French he was taken to France and there he became aware of deism. He soon became a deist. Upon returning to Spain, he used his position as a school master to teach others about deism. He was accused by the Spanish Inquisition of being a deist and of teaching his students about deism. He was arrested for heresy and held in jail for close to two years. The clergymen of the Spanish Inquisition demanded Ripoll be burned at the stake for his heresy, however, the civil authorities chose to hang him instead. Allegedly, the Church authorities, upset that Ripoll had not been burned at the stake, placed his body into a barrel, painted flames on the barrel and buried it in unconsecrated ground. Other reports state that the Church authorities placed his body into a barrel and burned the barrel, throwing the ashes into a river.
It is interesting that even in such tumultuous times there were some willing to take the position that not only was Jesus not a god, or the son of a god, or even a wise man, but was very likely a representative figure and not a real historical person at all any more than Osiris, Adonis or Mithras were thought to be.
It was these early thinkers who threw down the gauntlet of treating the christian religion on a level playing field with other religious notions, and treating its literature on a par with devotional literature of the kind christians were accustomed to treating with contempt.