Atheists may be somewhat surprised to find that the most rigorously-skeptical group that is trying to reconstruct the life of Jesus is the Christian scholarly community. Of course, that community doesn't actually cut across all denominations. Those who oppose scholarship in general are inclined to complain loudly when it is pointed out by someone like Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Church that there is no proof that their dogmatic teachings are true.
That is different from saying that all of Christianity was made up, or that Jesus never lived, or some of the more wildly-inaccurate statements that come from "scholars" who actually don't do very much research. Even so, there are basically two versions of Jesus' life, that reflect two points of view.
The first or traditional story of Jesus is that all kinds of miraculous things marked his birth, life and death. These miracle stories range from the absurd--like all the flowering plants blooming on the night of his birth--to the divine, such as the Virgin Birth.
Going on from his birth, there is the story of the Holy Spirit appearing over him at his baptism, miracles of feeding and healing, and finally the Resurrection, followed by the Ascension in which Jesus rose into the heavens and vanished as he was engulfed in a passing cloud.
These are the stories that are as familiar to us as the light shining "round yon Virgin Mother and child..." Many of them have been targeted by research, and Bishop Spong in particular makes a point of remarking that there is no corroboration that any Roman Governor ordered a census to be taken that would have required every Jew to return to the village of his family origins.
This kind of debunking is different from the angry denial of all that is miraculous. For that reason (and others) I think that every religious claim ought to be handled on a case-by-case basis. For example, mental illness can manifest itself in almost any behavior; those who know nothing except the idea of demon possession can become convinced that they are possessed, whether we believe in demons (or possession) or not.
I do not allow circular arguments. You cannot do this:
"There are no such things as miracles."
"But what about the Resurrection?"
"It didn't happen."
"How do you know?"
"Because miracles don't happen."
Human beings commonly fear that demons and devils are far more powerful beings than we are, so the idea of being targeted by an evil supernatural spirit is quite intimidating. Anyone who comes along and says, "I am more powerful than your demon. I can command it to leave you and it will obey and go away," can have a strong influence on the person who believes s/he is possessed.
Because we no longer believe in possession, we believe that is is a psychological process that liberates a person from the possession that they fearfully believe in. And we also see people who demand endless time and attention with their claims of possession by one entity after another, every time things get dull. We simply cannot deny that it happens.
About Jesus' miracles of healing, the thing that I understand best about it is that there is a real mind-body connection. I have experienced it myself. My doctor and nurse friends tell me that if patients believe that they will get better, they get better. The most important thing is whether the body can overcome the state that it is in, but if you read the cancer literature, for example, you will read amazing things. And that isn't to go into nutrition--there is hardly an illness that has not been alleviated by changes in lifestyle.
I think that leaves us with important things to contend with, though, like the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. I will begin my next article with a discussion of the second collection of beliefs about Jesus' life and death.