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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly, but difficult to read, April 11, 2006
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This review is from: The Historical Evidence for Jesus (Paperback)
Professor Wells was a professor of German at Birkbeck College in London and produced several books on the life of Jesus (The Jesus of the Early Christians in 1971, Did Jesus Exist in 1975, The Jesus Myth 1999), of which this book is the 3rd and perhaps best known. Obviously a bright scholar, his writing style tends toward the academic, with endless summaries of other people's opinions along with the appropriate citations. This can be extremely valuable to researchers, but it makes for difficult reading. In this particular case, the poor quality of the book adds to the difficulties.

Laying aside the aesthetics and writing style, Wells provides an excellent description of the difficulties in using New Testament material for biographical purposes. From there he proceeds to identify the Jesus of Paul and other first Century pre-Gospel writers, who is very different from the Jesus of the Gospels. Wells tends to believe that there is little we can really know about the historical Jesus, and he goes to great lengths to explain the reasons why it is unlikely that Jesus performed miracles, had brothers and sisters, spoke in parables, etc.

Wells is excruciatingly fair in his approach, usually giving both sides of the argument, and explaining his own position.

In summary, this is a scholarly book that has good material, but it suffers from an academic penchant to spend too much time offering other people's research. Were Professor Wells able to take his enormous knowledge and advance his own theory, this book would offer a greater contribution.
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 4, 2009 7:21:34 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 4, 2009 7:22:41 AM PDT
D. M. Ohara says:
Dr Gardner says: "In summary, this is a scholarly book that has good material, but it suffers from an academic penchant to spend too much time offering other people's research."

The reason for this is that Wells has done no original research of his own, and therefore has none to offer the reader.
He comes to the subject as an amateur, with his mind already made up. He is interested in the work of genuine NT scholars only in so far as they can be quote-mined [often out of context] to support his own procrustean views. Since this book was published he has published two further books - The Jesus Legend and The Jesus Myth [both of which I first read in MS draft] - in which he has made a few minor concessions to his critics: but they really amount to very little.
He still to this day considers that Paul believed in a Jesus who had lived and died unknown a century or more earlier than history teaches: the Gospel Jesus - whom he considers a different person - he has more recently come to regard as a composite figure based in part on Q, but largely on imaginative ruminations on the OT and Wisdom literature.
The 'Third Quest' has completely passed him by; a beached whale on the dry sands of 19th century rationalism.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 12, 2009 3:01:20 PM PDT
Hi D.M. Thanks for this very useful addition.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 2, 2012 6:24:22 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 7, 2013 6:26:09 PM PDT
Roo.Bookaroo says:
D.M. Ohara:

What a spiteful comment, and what a distorted presentation of Wells's views.
And how come Dr. James Gardner, who is a reasonable and judicious reviewer, has not protested against this biassed comment? Probably judging it not worth his time.

This commenter was allowed to see the manuscripts of Wells, (perhaps as a fact-checker, or proof-reader, assigned to pointing out superficial mistakes to Wells or the editor at Open Court, the publisher), and now here he is, spending his time badmouthing Wells all over the Amazon reviews. And always with the same litany of grievances.

Look closely at his denigrations. They are all empty of content, with not a single justification. And look at his final sarcasm "a beached whale on the dry sands of 19th century rationalism." No doubt, this brilliant piece of creative writing must leave him smugly self-satisfied. Hey, he too is a writer.
He should vent his bitterness into writing his own book of critique of Wells: "G.A. Wells Exposed!" Let's see if he could get it published anywhere!

Also, a sign of devious approach: why does D.M. Ohara hide in comments to others' reviews? Why does he not write his own review for each book that he so gleefully maligns? Each of his reviews would probably get a one-star rating from him, raising an alarm bell in readers. Who is this unknown reviewer who systematically badmouths each of Wells's books? Why this uniformly unfair vilipending? A review would force him to show some knowledge of the contents of each book, which he seems incapable of grasping.

"[Wells] comes to the subject as an amateur."
Which is technically correct. But he acquired advanced degrees in German culture and civilization, in philosophy, and has been a tenured professor at Birkbeck College, a famous part of London University. He first encountered the masterpiece of Schweitzer, "The Quest of the Historical Jesus" (1906), when he was a 20-year old student spending a year abroad in Switzerland in 1946, and devoted more than 20 years to studying the immense literature of the German historical criticism school, a unique feat among English-language scholars. This is a very advanced "amateur", indeed.

Ohara accuses Wells of "quote-mining (often out of context)" "genuine NT scholars".
But this is a gratuitous and empty criticism. Ohara wants to make it sound as a sweeping insinuation of malpractice, but this is totally groundless and ignorant of the rules of the game in NT research.
In fact, ALL NT scholars, not just Wells, are "interested in the work of genuine NT scholars." Real scholarship consists of knowing the full extent of past and competing works. They now spend 90% of their time studying the writings of other scholars, past and present! And they devote a major portion of their own writing space to discussing quotations from other scholars, either in supporting or criticizing the views of all these other scholars. This is a vital part of the profession, not a refutation or rebuttal of Wells's views. And it is clear that Ohara has never done any research of his own in this field.

And it is not true that Wells offers only quotes "to support his own procrustean views."
On the contrary, Wells is a rationalist, not interested in pushing phony arguments à la Ohara, but animated by a spirit of fairness, which usually leads him to granting a huge space to the opposing views of theologians and academic scholars, in order to offer a reasoned evaluation of both sides of any argument.
(This scholarly bias of fairness proving an annoying feature to unlearned readers eager to get a primer or to read digestible romances on Jesus! Which they can easily get from popularizers.)

Ohara criticizes Wells for "having made a few minor concessions to his critics: but they really amount to very little."
But he is unwilling or incapable of saying what those concessions are, who those critics are. In reality, those concessions are significant, since they amount to a radical new phase in Wells's thesis.
Wells is willing to give extra weight to the possible existence of the hypothetical "Q document", a mere construction of scholars, without any external evidence, collecting the sayings put in the mouth of Jesus common to both Matthew and Luke (the famous "logias" of Jesus's preaching). Wells is also willing to accept that "Q" may be the witness of a hypothetical roving Galilean, cynic-like preacher whose memory has been infused into the figure of Jesus in the gospels.

This is a radical admission for Wells, considering his past insistence on the supernatural Jesus of Paul and the early epistles (with about 4 books on his original thesis). NT scholars everywhere have trumpeted the change of tune, that the former inveterate Jesus denier has now become a "historicist", admitting the existence of Jesus (which is not exactly the case).
Labeling it a "minor concession" is a sign of Ohara being completely at sea. No wonder that Wells must have noticed his limited mental capacity, and stopped using him as a fact-checker.

Ohara says that "the 'Third Quest' has completely passed [Wells] by".
But again this is empty rhetoric. What has the "Third Quest" ever found about the historical Jesus? What has the famous "Jesus seminar" of Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan ever achieved, with its 150 top-notch critical scholars over a span of 20 years? They went into all the details of the NT, turning over all the stones, examining each fragment of ancient text with microscopes, only to end up with the figure of a roving Galilean Jewish/Hellenistic preacher, which is not markedly different from the assumptions of David Strauss and Bruno Bauer in the 19th c.
The "Jesus Project", which took the relay, led by R. Joseph Hoffmann, disbanded without adding anything new. And Hoffmann's current "Jesus Prospect" may reach the same result.

In a field where every square inch has been searched by thousand of modern researchers over the last 200 years (not mentioning past critics over the 2,000 years of NT scrutiny), it is simply not possible to deliver another radically new view of the figure of Jesus. All research focusses on details, of which there are myriads. The amount of speculations in NT research, splitting hairs in finer and finer strands, is astronomical. Every new scholar, and every new amateur reader, develops his own ideas about this or that angle of the Jesus saga.
Wells's assumption of a composite figure resulting from the fusion of two totally distinct personages (Paul's Jesus and the roving Galilean preacher) under the same name in Mark's gospel, followed by the next three, is interesting and worthy of examination.

As R. Joseph Hoffmann, an uncontested authority in the field of the origins of Christianity, has remarked in his foreword to "The Jesus Legend" (1996), it is Wells's knowledge of German that has given him a privileged access to the immense scholarship developed by 150 years of German Historical Criticism.
Few of those publications (an immense treasury of German books and articles in German professional theology, mythology, and history reviews) have been translated into English, with the result that most English-American scholars have not had the ability to access this goldmine of the most thorough biblical research.

Wells published his first study in 1971, "Jesus of the Early Christians", and his most recent, "Cutting Jesus Down to Size: What Higher Criticism Has Achieved and Where It Leaves Christianity" in 2009.
His review of all the scholarship available, in German, English, and French (occasionally in italian) and the scrutiny of the primary sources (including the Dead Sea Scrolls, not available to older scholars before 1950), are as extensive and thorough as those of any other scholar in the world.
His research has convinced him that the Jesus figure of the earliest Christians was not based on a historical character, but was a pure myth. He has published his thesis in a total of 8 books of rigorous historical criticism on Jesus and the Origins of Christianity, 4 books of speculative, but fascinating, "Reflections" on mythology, religion, belief, and language, plus two high-quality books on David Strauss and John M. Robertson.

Wells was thus following in the footsteps of the pioneers who planted the first doubts on the historicity of Jesus, a group that comprises many "genuine NT scholars" such as Hermann Reimarus, F.C. Baur, David Friedrich Strauss, Bruno Bauer, William Wrede, Albert Kalthoff, William B. Smith, John Mackinnon Robertson, Arthur Drews, Maurice Goguel, Paul-Louis Couchoud, and all the professors of the famous Dutch Radical School, including the two van Eysinga brothers, etc.

Wells came to his recent view that the hypothetical Q document may offer a valid historical reference to an anonymous itinerant Galilean miracle worker/cynic-sage like preacher (whose sayings are found only in Matthew and Luke and attributed to their Jesus figure) only because of his open mind, and lack of dogmatism: He's given credence to the arguments developed by the theologian scholars supporting the Q hypothesis.

Ohara misses all those aspects entirely.
My own suspicion is that there's obviously some bad blood between the two men, and Ohara has a personal axe to grind. He probably was expelled from his job as fact-checker or proof-reader in Wells's editing team.
In any event, he does not seem to be mentally equipped to offer any valid evaluation of Wells's work. He is obviously emotionally motivated by a spirit of vengeance against Wells, obsessed with the desire to misrepresent his work without any warning.
His evaluation can be dismissed out of hand. It is a small-minded hatchet job.

Posted on Apr 4, 2013 3:02:42 PM PDT
Dr. Gardner,

Kudos on your rainforest work. Good review. I need to talk to you. Email me at sahansdal at yahoo dot com. Your Jesus Police site is difficult to navigate to. I got misdirected. My book may interest you:
The Bible says 'Saviors' - Obadiah 1:21: The New Testament coverup of saviors John the Baptist and James the Just

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 4, 2013 6:39:39 PM PDT
Dr. Eisenman mentions a Jesus of Galilee who died a martyr as a revolutionary before 'Jesus'. It's in his Vol II, but I would have to dig:
James the Brother of Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls II: The Damascus Code, the Tent of David, the New Covenant, and the Blood of Christ

Posted on Nov 14, 2013 2:32:34 AM PST
Roo.Bookaroo says:
Concerning D.M. Ohara's spiteful comment.

I finally was able to locate the passage where I remembered having seen this name in Wells's books.
It's in the preface of "What's in a Name?: Reflections on Language, Magic, and Religion." (Open Court, Chicago, 1993).
"I am grateful too to Mr. Daniel O'Hara for his helpful comments on a draft of my manuscript". (Page XII).
So Mr. O'Hara's comment was obviously written in a spirit of spite and rancor.
"Rancor" is defined as "Bitter, long-lasting resentment; deep-seated ill will. See Synonyms at 'enmity'. [Middle English, from Old French, from Late Latin, 'rancid smell', from Latin rancre, 'to stink, be rotten'.]
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