Jesus continues to fascinate and enthrall our society, more so than any other historical or religious figure.

Browse the religion section of your local bookstore, and you will find dozens of recent books about Jesus. Every Christmas and Easter bring cover stories about Jesus in major magazines.

Why the continued interest?

"This unlikely character has long been accounted the central figure of Western civilization," says Thomas Cahill, author of "Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus." "Even now, as we cross to the beginning of the third millennium since his birth, we count our days by his appearance on earth. And, though our supposedly post-Christian society often ignores and even ridicules him, there are no serious suggestions for replacing him as the Icon of the West."

But that doesn't mean the image of Jesus has remained the same through history. Every year, it seems, some scholar makes a new controversial claim about Jesus.

Jesus, the revised version
The most visible of these revisionists is the Jesus Seminar. In 1993, this group of scholars published "The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus," which claimed that Jesus did not say most of the things attributed to him in the Gospels. It also highlighted a "new" gospel, the Gospel of Thomas, which quotes Jesus as saying strange, unfamiliar things, like "I will guide her [Mary] to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the domain of Heaven."

Since then, other Jesus Seminar volumes have appeared on The Acts of Jesus, speculating whether his deeds actually took place, and The Complete Gospels, which provides other controversial texts such as the Gospel of Mary, the Sayings Gospel Q, the Signs Gospel, and the Secret Book of James.

Another revisionist writer is the Episcopal Bishop John Spong, whose books argue that Jesus was not the product of a virgin birth, that Jesus was conceived illegitimately, and that Mary was possibly the victim of a rape. Among Spong's other theories are that Jesus was married, perhaps to Mary Magdalene, and that the Apostle Paul was a frustrated, closeted homosexual.

Also, many of the new Jesus scholars say that Jesus did not rise from the dead. John Dominic Crossan thinks Jesus' corpse was thrown into a Roman garbage dump where it was eaten by dogs and birds.

Marcus Borg says that the resurrection could not have been captured on videotape, since it was not a historical event, merely a subjective reality experienced by the early church. What was important to the first Christians, says Borg, was not that the tomb was empty but that they had mystical experiences of Jesus' ongoing presence, much like those who grieve recent deaths imagine that their loved ones speak and appear to them.

Caught off guard
Redefining Jesus--and questioning his historicity--have been a favorite pastime of scholars for more than a century. But this latest round of revisionism is different because it's playing out on a very public stage. By writing for a popular audience and maneuvering for wide media exposure, these Jesus scholars have brought the debate right into American living rooms.

The popularity of the "alternative Jesuses" has caught many traditional Christians off guard. While some tend to ignore the debate, orthodox scholars have risen to defend the traditional Jesus.

In a postmodern world, where faith is built on experience more than rational proof, defending the validity of the faith would seem to be a relic of days past. The challenge of postmodernism will be more than rational--"Could Jesus have risen from the dead?" It will also be moral--"Why are Christians intolerant?" "Why do they suppress women?"

But while postmodern faith will rightly expand the criteria for judging faith to include community, experience, and relationship, even postmodern Christians need to anchor their experience in a historical Jesus.

Defending the faith in the context of the new Jesus scholarship becomes more complicated, however.

Consider C. S. Lewis' classic "Mere Christianity," which presented the famous "trilemma" about who Jesus was. If he wasn't really God, then he was either a liar who deliberately misrepresented himself or a lunatic who was mentally deluded about his own identity. But if he was who he said he was, then he must be Lord and God.

Today the trilemma of liar, lunatic, or Lord is not quite so simple. Now there is a fourth alternative: legend.

Lewis' trilemma depends on the assumption that the Gospels are straightforward, historically reliable accounts of this first-century Jew from Nazareth. But revisionist scholars claim that the Gospels as we have them do not accurately record the words and deeds of Jesus.

They attribute the Gospels' contents not to truthful history but to later invention by the early church.

So today, when non-Christians read the Gospels, many are skeptical of the records of Jesus. While previous generations accepted the Bible's information about Jesus as reliable, today's culture raises the question, "How do we know Jesus really said and did all this?"