Nobody sane believes in the literary figure of Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack who had a colossal pet blue ox. But, it so happens, most folklorists and historians who have looked into the Paul Bunyan figure believe the tall-tales are grounded in the life of a genuine lumberjack. That is, there was an actual human being around whom stories began to accrete and, in the inevitable way of men sitting around a campfire drinking and telling stories, the fantastical figure of Paul Bunyan emerged.
For the record, my favorite Paul Bunyan story is the one that claims it was so cold one winter night that words froze in the air just as soon as they were spoken, and it wasn’t until the next morning that anybody knew what they had been talking about. Heh.
Anyway, I’ve long thought that Jesus is like Paul Bunyan, that the literary Jesus is undoubtedly a fraud but there probably was an actual Jewish rabble-rouser who assembled a small group of followers and came to a bad end. Happens all the time, right? Jim Jones, Charles Manson, on and on.
I’m reading Jesus From Outer Space just now, by Richard Carrier, and he doesn’t go that far; he doubts that there was a historical Jesus at all.
I’m not competent to judge Carrier’s scholarship, so I’m reserving judgment. That said, he seems to make a strong case and, really, the only objection to Carrier’s argument that I can mount is that I have a tough time imagining all the influence Christianity enjoys resting upon no more that a Bronze Age analog to Slender Man. So I’m open to being persuaded, I guess.