When it comes to who Jesus of Nazareth was, I tend to think that there is somebody behind the stories, a real person, not, for example, a mushroom. (Although that would make for great video.)
As Craig Keener argues in this column, it remains the simplest explanation at its counter-intuitive core:
Scholars’ confidence [in the historical Jesus] has nothing to do with theology but much to do with historiographic common sense. What movement would make up a recent leader, executed by a Roman governor for treason, and then declare, “We’re his followers”? If they wanted to commit suicide, there were simpler ways to do it.
It works with grizzly bears.
Last month, on my birthday, M. and I made a sort of pilgrimage to the haunts of Old Mose, the last grizzly bear killed in central Colorado, on 30 April 1904. (The last known grizzly killed in Colorado died in 1979.)
When I lived in that county, I heard and read all the stories about how Old Mose was this terrible bear, killer of several humans and countless livestock, et cetera et cetera, who lived to be at least forty years old.
But a Colorado historian who dug into the story and conducted some elementary scientific research made a good case that Old Mose’s legend conflated the lives of at least three bears between the early 1880s and 1904. The big male grizzly killed in 1904 was simply too young to have done all that.
And this in an era of (by 1904) telephones, telegraphs, electric lights, railroads, and newspapers, not an antiquity of oral wonder stories and hand-copied manuscripts.
If it happens with bears, I wondered at the time, could it happen with prophets?
Still, I lean towards the single-Jesus theory. And if I could choose between bringing a messianic Jewish wonder-worker or a big grizzly bear back to walk this earth, I know which one I would pick.