In the midst of the annual battles over how a pluralistic society should properly recognize an important Christian holiday celebrated by 70 percent of the population, there is one question rarely asked at this time of year:
Just who was Jesus of Nazareth, anyway?
Some claim that Jesus didn't exist at all, and that Christianity evolved out of pagan Gnostic redeemer myths or Greek stories about "dying and rising gods." But few mainstream historians take this revisionist stance seriously.
Even Bart Ehrman, the agnostic New Testament scholar famous for his best-selling books debunking conservative Christianity, wrote a book recently proving why the "Christ myth" arguments don't hold water historically.
But if Jesus was an actual historical person, likely born around 4 B.C. in Roman-occupied Palestine and executed in A.D. 30 or 33, who was he really? What was he trying to achieve?
In a series of both scholarly and popular books, Ehrman argues for a portrait of Jesus first presented by Albert Schweitzer in 1906: an "apocalyptic prophet" who believed the world was coming to an end in his lifetime.
This view is often presented in the media as the scholarly or "scientific" view of who Jesus was.
Other popular theories proposed in recent years are that Jesus was really a violent revolutionary, or that he was a traveling "wisdom sage," a kind of early hippie who taught people to live simpler lifestyles.
Some scholars claim Jesus was simply a Jewish holy man executed due to a misunderstanding.
Christians have always believed that Jesus' mission was to save humanity from its sins, to reconcile the human race to its creator.
According to the New Testament, Jesus was the founder of a global movement that set out to bring the good news of the kingdom of God, the truth about what God really wants for his creation, throughout the world (Matthew 24:14).
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, critical scholars doubted this. They believed that the missionary aspect of Christianity was a later development. But today's scholars are having second thoughts.
Jesus may have seen the first phase of his mission as involving primarily Jews and Judaism. But there are many hints in the Gospels, such as his willingness to help Samaritans and Roman officers, of a wider mission.
Whether intentionally or not, Jesus did end up igniting a worldwide crusade. In just three years or less, he gathered together a group of followers that would, after his death, create the largest, most influential, most enduring social movement in history.
While Jesus' followers have never been perfect (one betrayed him to death; another denied even knowing him), only those blinded by ideology or hatred can deny what Jesus' message and example have achieved.
For 2,000 years, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth have built and staffed orphanages, created hospitals, founded universities, abolished slavery, resisted tyranny, fed the hungry, educated the illiterate, championed human and women's rights, and carried the good news of mercy and salvation to every corner of the globe.
Whatever you may think Jesus of Nazareth was -- an ordinary man, or, as Christians believe, the Son of God -- he changed the world more than anyone before or since.
Robert J. Hutchinson, author of "Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth -- And How They Confirm the Gospel Accounts," wrote this for the Philadelphia Inquirer; www.philly.com.