Dylan has some advantages over Jesus in this regard. We know for a documented fact that Robert Zimmerman was born on May 24th, 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, USA. He’s been photographed and recorded to an almost ridiculous extent. On top of that, he’s still alive and breathing. I’ve even seen him myself on several occasions, once from about ten feet away (after some serious pushing). But that’s not what we’re really talking about here. Robert Zimmerman clearly exists. But in many ways Bob Dylan, the fictional character he created in Greenwich Village some twenty years after his biological arrival, is as hard to pin down as Jesus.
To get down to basics, nobody knows for sure when Jesus was born and the Bethlehem story has come under some fire lately. That being said, his birth is the turning point of our entire time measurement system. It’s 2016 because people decided to start measuring time from when they thought he was born. And let’s not even talk about Christmas. If evidence suddenly emerged that Jesus of Nazareth, Mary of Galilee’s flesh and blood baby boy, was actually born on September 22nd, there’d be a major financial meltdown – Macy’s would be out of business. My point is that the biological facts don’t really matter. What matters, and why there are still magazines about Jesus at a Philadelphia Bus Stop two thousand plus years later, is that, whenever and wherever he was actually born, his ideas are still inspiring people. The same thing goes for Dylan. If it came out that Robert Zimmerman was actually born on May 23rd and somebody made a typo on the birth certificate, it wouldn’t change a damn thing.
One of my favorite early Dylan Songs is one called “Long Time Gone”. In it he tells the story of how he ran away from home young and traveled around the country singing songs and working in carnivals. It’s a great song. There’s not a word of historical truth in it, but it’s still a great song – Bobby Zimmerman creating the fictional character Bob Dylan who just won the Nobel Prize, and whose work is still inspiring people. You could say the same thing about the Gospels, and somebody needs to.
The Sermon on the Mount didn’t happen on a mount. I’ve seen it. It’s a great big hill and nobody standing on top of could have been heard by anybody more than ten feet away. Bob Dylan had actual microphones at those open mics - Jesus didn’t. The word that the poor would inherit the earth and that we were all responsible for each other was delivered to small groups on street corners and in houses with dirt floors. Those words inspired the people around him and turned the world upside down long after he was dead. The same thing goes for Dylan (and will keep going long after Robert Zimmerman passes on). There was a biological Jesus of Nazareth. You don’t get this much smoke without some kind of fire. And there is a biological Robert Zimmerman. But it’s what they inspire in other people that matters, not the raw facts.
Jesus exists and, fortunately for us all, so does Bob Dylan.