Christians and non-Christians alike have argued over the "real" Jesus since the first century. Conclusions have ranged from the merely odd (like the Gnostic Jesuses who spoke with mystical vagueness) to the absurd (some have argued Jesus didn't even exist).

Recent historical scholarship has narrowed our options substantially. Ironically, we now know more about Jesus and his world than we have in centuries. "One scholar poignantly joked that the third quest for the historical Jesus threatens to become a quest of the historical Galilee," remarked a book reviewer recently. "But the joke is based on stunning success."

The first quest ended at the beginning of this century, when Albert Schweitzer showed that nineteenth-century biographies of Jesus merely made Jesus into a nineteenth-century person. The second quest began in the middle of this century and ended with skepticism: Rudolph Bultmann and his disciples believed nothing historically reliable was to be found in the Gospels.

We're now on our third quest for the historical Jesus. Though it's gained notoriety because of the skeptical conclusions of the Jesus Seminar, it has been a stunning success indeed. In the last 50 years, manuscript discoveries and archaeological finds have enlarged our understanding of Jesus because they've helped us understand the world of first-century Palestine as never before.

As we embark on the third millennium since Jesus' birth, then, we can know not only that Jesus really walked the land of Palestine, but we can imagine, with historical accuracy, what it would have been like to walk with him.