For each of the past 10 years, the media have given American audiences the unhappy Easter season message that "the Jesus that Christians believe in is a hoax," complains Bill Donohue of the conservative Catholic League.
He cites presentations by ABC, NBC, PBS, Discovery Times Channel, National Public Radio, Newsweek, Time and U.S. News & World Report.
In time for this year's holy season, two well-publicized books offered supposed secrets to supplant traditional accounts about Jesus Christ:
-"The Jesus Papers: Exposing the Greatest Cover-Up in History" (HarperSanFrancisco) by Michael Baigent.
-"The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family and the Birth of Christianity" (Simon & Schuster) by James D. Tabor, who chairs the religion department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
(National Geographic's "The Gospel of Judas" was a different case. It published an odd heretical text that was written too long after Jesus' and Judas' lifetimes to provide authentic material about them.)
Baigent and Tabor differ on many things, but both claim their 21st-century theories are nearer the truth than the first-century's New Testament books.
Tabor reworks an old liberal Protestant scenario, that Paul overturned Jesus' original movement and message. He deals with actual New Testament texts but regards them with considerable suspicion, and his theories dispute what they report.
His assumptions are clear: "Women do not get pregnant without a male - ever. So Jesus had a human father, whether we can identify him or not. Dead bodies don't rise - not if one is clinically dead - as Jesus surely was."
He figures people stole Jesus' corpse from the tomb, most likely Jesus' mother Mary and sister Salome. Tabor assumed there's a "family tomb" containing Jesus' bones somewhere around Jerusalem but - like Baigent and his secrets - tried to track down evidence without success.
Since Tabor deems the virgin birth impossible, he thinks Mary was engaged to Joseph but became "a teenager pregnant out of wedlock with an illegitimate child" by some unknown other man.
From that unpromising start, Tabor contends, Jesus' nuclear family and disciples followed him as a messiah and the "legitimate King of Israel" who unfortunately was executed as a political threat. The alleged "Jesus dynasty" was perpetuated by Jesus' half brothers, who he thinks were actually four of the 12 apostles.
(Here Tabor follows the Protestant view that Jesus had real brothers and sisters; Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy believe Mary remained a lifelong virgin.)
The New Testament identifies Jesus' brother James as a "pillar" of early Christianity who led the Holy Land churches while Peter and Paul took the message elsewhere. Tabor thinks James and the "royal family" didn't worship Jesus as God but that Christians who did eventually took command.
Baigent, whose past writings fed into "The Da Vinci Code" attempt to debunk the Bible and early Christianity, is far less likely to affect serious thinking than is Tabor.
"Jesus Papers" recycles the shopworn "swoon theory," which has Jesus faking his death on the cross, thus eliminating the Easter miracle of resurrection from the grave. Instead, Jesus conspires with Pilate to survive death by crucifixion and becomes a mystery guru in Egypt, living with the Mrs., Mary Magdalene.
There's "incontrovertible evidence" Jesus was alive a decade after the crucifixion, Baigent writes, though it turns out proof is lacking.
Baigent switched signals entirely on NBC, saying "we don't even know really that he (Jesus) existed" because outside the New Testament he's only mentioned by Tacitus. Result: Non-crucifixion and non-resurrection of a non-person.
Actually, Jesus was mentioned early on by four Jewish or pagan writers and in Christian works outside the Bible. For that matter, why exclude the New Testament evidence if other ancient texts are used?
Tabor would laugh off Baigent's "swoon theory" about crucifixion fraud, of course.
Now comes the fun as scholars pick apart the plausibility of both men's speculations.