My thesis is that any quest for a historical Jesus is irrelevant to an understanding of the earliest social movements that evolved into the religion now called Christianity. This is the case even if a historical Jesus existed and made an effort to found a movement of some kind. Several essays in this volume question the existence of Jesus, and others plead agnosticism. For my part, I can assume for the sake of argument that Jesus existed (which is, after all, a very reasonable option). That assumption enables me to demonstrate from evidence that Jesus was functionally irrelevant to the earliest stages of what contemporary researchers call the Jesus movement, or the Christ cult, or the Jesus-confessing communities (and that I will call early Christianity).
My thesis unfolds in four stages. First I describe my research method, then I evaluate two recent publications about early Christian literature in order to expose a key question, one that is frequently overlooked. With this key question in place, a historical analysis of earliest Christian literature demonstrates that Jesus, even if he existed, played no role in the formation of the movement that bears his name. Last, a comparison of this evidence with earliest Muslim traditions provides an alternate explanation for the data, an explanation that, if correct, renders superfluous any questions about a historical Jesus.