The Jesus of the early Christians: A study in Christian origins Hardcover – January 1, 1971
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- Publisher : Pemberton; 0 edition (January 1, 1971)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 362 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0301710147
- ISBN-13 : 978-0301710143
- Item Weight : 1.19 pounds
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After WWII, with Kalthoff, Robertson, W.B. Smith, Drews dead, Couchoud retired, Schweitzer in Gabon, the debate went into dormancy.
THE PERSONAL GENESIS OF WELLS'S IDEAS.
Wells's interest started with his year abroad in Switzerland in 1946 as a 20-year old student of German, lodging with a Swiss Protestant pastor who was a pupil of Albert Schweitzer (still very much alive then, d. 1965). Wells was introduced to Schweitzer's momentous "Von Reimarus Zu Wrede - Eine Geschichte Der Leben-Jesu-Forschung" (1906), transl. " The Quest of the Historical Jesus - A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede " (1910), leading him to reflect on the question of the historical evidence for Jesus, and the lack of it, in the early Christian documents.
It took Wells 20 years to complete his first book, and three years to find a publisher, Pemberton, a traumatic experience. But the 3,000-run sold out quickly, and his second book, " Did Jesus Exist? " (1975/87) ["DJE?"], was easily accepted.
IMPORTANCE OF GERMAN
Wells found German even more important than ancient Greek: His expertise allowed him to read in the original the great German historical critics (mostly never translated into English): a massive amount, on both sides of the debate, of the most comprehensive scholarship in the world (stamped with the famous "Deutsche Gründlichkeit", "German thoroughness") -- giving him a marked advantage in promoting the non-historicity thesis to modern English readers.
He also gained exposure to the Dutch Radical School, through German translations (and English ones in "Encyclopaedia Biblica", and Thomas Whittaker's book).
RESPECT FOR PAST SCHOLARSHIP
Remarkably, JEC also uses generous quotations from the 19th and 20th c., including key figures of the "Religionsgeschichliche Schule" (School of History of Religions), like Hermann Gunkel, Johannes Weiss, Wilhelm Bousset, William Wrede, and Dutch radicals like Willem C. van Manen. Among other past scholars cited are Dupuis and Volney, Edward Gibbon, Wallis Budge, Thomas H. Huxley, James Frazer, Franz Cumont, Adolf Jülicher, G.R.S. Mead, Adolf von Harnack, Joseph Klausner, Maurice Goguel, Alfred Loisy, and Paul-Louis Couchoud.
These fascinating references to the iconic originators of ideas of the 19th and early 20th c. nearly vanished in Wells's subsequent books, replaced by modern scholars.
JEC includes a convenient Index of Biblical References (OT and NT), regrettably reduced in later books to just NT References.
INTEREST IN CONTEMPORARY QUOTES
Wells also pays close attention to contemporary scholarship, and sprinkles his book with the names of obscure modern academics, unknown to lay readers -- either as punching bags, or unwitting endorsements of his own ideas -- whose contributions may remain marginal (and soon forgotten) for historical criticism, not comparable to the iconic scholars of the past.
CONFRONTING THE BIASES OF ACADEMICS
This was Wells's major problem in presenting a new theory. Most writers on Christian origins "are trained theologians, committed to certain conclusions before they begin." They react by "brushing aside any thesis more radical than is compatible with the tenure of a theological chair."
"That Jesus is [also] what Christians suppose other deities to have been -- a figment of human brains" is usally met with an attempt "to dismiss this suggestion with amused contempt on the ground that it has already been discussed [in the past] and found untenable." (p. 6)
DAVID STRAUSS AT THE ORIGIN OF THE CHRIST MYTH THESIS
Although Albert Schweitzer was Wells's initial introduction, his key inspiration remains David Strauss, who is at the origin of the Christ myth idea. Strauss applied to the NT the historical criticism techniques that De Wette had previously applied to the OT, and, similarly, in a "cold-headed" spirit, revealed, in his revolutionary " The Life Of Jesus Critically Examined " (1835), the mythology of all the supernatural events in the NT.
NOT WORKING IN A VACUUM
Wells did not start from scratch. That Jesus Christ never existed had been explicitly formulated by Bruno Bauer ("Critique of the Gospel History of the Synoptics", 1841) as a 32-year old lecturer in theology at Bonn University.
It didn't pick up steam until the turn of the 20th century, when it became internationally publicized by:
- John Mackinnon Robertson (" Christianity and Mythology ", 1900/1910, "The Historical Jesus", 1916, "The Jesus Problem", 1917);
- Arthur Drews (" The Christ myth ", 1909, " The witnesses to the historicity of Jesus ", 1912);
- William Benjamin Smith ("The Pre-Christian Jesus", 1906, " Ecce Deus, studies of primitive Christianity ", 1913);
- and Paul-Louis Couchoud ("The Enigma of Jesus", 1923, "The Mystery of Jesus", 1924, "The Book of Revelation" (1932), and "The Creation of Christ", 1939).
Wells's goal was not to prove that Jesus never existed, but to follow Strauss and Bruno Bauer in subjecting to historical criticism the claims of Christianity, and DENYING that it could have started with the historical Jesus of the Gospels and Acts.
REVIVAL OF THE DEBATE OVER "DIE FRAGE NACH DER HISTORIZITÄT JESU"
Still, in 1971, Wells was the lone researcher willing and able to reopen the debate.
In the method of authentic scholarship, on the very first page of JEC, Wells starts with acknowledging his sources and paying homage to his precursors, even though "[r]ecent apologetic literature has obscured the seriousness of the case presented by [David] Strauss and his school" in initiating the first global doubt about the Christian story (1835), and the pivotal role of the German school of historical criticism in the 19th century in raising "serious historical objections" to the stories of the Gospels and the Acts (p. 2).
PART I: "THE HISTORICAL JESUS"
Wells begins with reviewing all the claimed evidence supporting the case for a Historical Jesus.
Wells looks first at the Gospel MIRACLES as the first reason for doubt (Ch. 1, p. 11-54). Following a well-trodden road, he points to the blatant contradictions, and the lack of external evidence. Strauss had been the first theologian to seriously criticize the stories, arguing that Jesus's followers conflicted with rival prophets, and proclaimed that Jesus was a Messiah, inventing sayings and deeds to look like fulfillments of prophecies.
PUZZLING LACK OF JEWISH WITNESSES -- THE STRANGE SILENCE OF PHILO, JUSTUS, AND JOSEPHUS
Already, Arthur Drews had started his "Witnesses to the historicity of Jesus" (1912) on p. 2 with mentioning the extraordinary silence of Philo and Justus of Tiberias.
Remarkably, also on p. 2 of JEC, the very first fact Wells invoked upfront, as a justification for his radical premiss of denying Jesus's historicity, was the extraordinary silence of the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, and of the Jewish historians Josephus and Justus of Tiberias, concerning any historical Jesus.
"If there was a historical Jesus who preached in Galilee and was crucified under Pilate about AD 30, we should expect the authors who at that time wrote about the state of Palestine to say something of him. In fact, however, the extensive rabbinical literature of the time does not mention him [a historical Jesus], nor does Philo of Alexandria; of the two passages in Josephus about Jesus the Christ, one is admitted to be a Christian interpolation and the authenticity of the other is disputed; and there are no pagan references which can be construed as relevant to Jesus's historicity until Tacitus, about AD 120, explained to his Roman audience that Christians are disreputable people who worship someone who was executed under Pilate." (p. 2-3)
Wells comes back to the fundamental fact of Philo's silence in Ch. 7, "Pagan and Jewish Testimony" (p. 185-203), indubitably, historically, the most significant telltale lack of evidence.
"The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria never mentions him [Jesus]; he travelled in Palestine and speaks of the Essenes he saw there, but he says nothing of Jesus and his followers." (p. 195).
Nothing in Philo, Justus, and two passages in Josephus, one an interpolation, and the other a disputed one. Tacitus simply repeats allegations from Christians.
THE SILENCES EXPLAINED BY "DELIBERATE PURPOSE"
The well-known case of Justus, already noted by Arthur Drews, is revisited:
"We know too that the historian Justus of Tiberias, writing about AD 80, was equally silent about Jesus and primitive Christianity, for though his books have been lost, Photius, Christian patriarch of Constantinople, who read them in the 9th century, remarks, with surprise: 'This Jewish historian does not make the smallest mention of the appearance of Christ, and says nothing whatever of his deeds and miracles' (quoted in Rev. S[abine] Baring-Gould, "The lost and hostile gospels: an essay on the Toledoth Jeschu, and the Petrine and Pauline gospels of the first three centuries of which fragments remain", London, 1874, p. 10-11)".
Sabine Baring-Gould went into a long song-and-dance to "explain what he calls 'THE STRANGE SILENCE OF PHILO, JOSEPHUS AND JUSTUS' as due not to 'ignorance of the acts of Christ and of the existence of the Church', but to 'DELIBERATE PURPOSE' ". (p. 195, emphasis added).
This interesting mention of Baring-Gould does not resurface in later books. However, this "deliberate purpose" has also become the classical explanation of historicists for the silences of all early Christian documents about the historicity of Christ: Repeating the details of Jesus's life was not appropriate; not the point of the letters; everybody knew about them anyway; why repeat all the details? (Even though Paul and the others never tire of rehashing the crucifixion and resurrection).
"JESUS AS TEACHER AND PROPHET"
Ch. 2 (p. 55-92). The emphasis on "purity of living" led to the sprinkling of ethical teachings.
Budge's papyrus of "Negative Confessions" (14th c. BC) lists 42 morality injunctions more comprehensive than Jesus's. (p. 55-56).
No discussion of Q in JEC.
"EVIDENCE OF EARLY CHRISTIAN WRITERS"
Ch. 6 (p. 131-184) is the "pièce de resistance" of JEC. It makes the vital argument of silence in Paul's epistles, and repeats the laundry list, first appearing on p. 2, of all the events of the gospels never mentioned in Paul and other early epistles: no parents, virgin birth, place of birth or residence, Nazareth, Son of Man, John the Baptist, baptism of Jesus, Judas, Jesus's miracles, Jesus's ethical teachings, Peter's denial, trial, historical setting of the crucifixion, and place (not even Jerusalem) or time. (p. 131).
Most significantly, all early epistles (17 documents, 9 authors, pre-95 AD) "refer to Jesus in essentially the same manner as Paul does." ( Who Was Jesus? , [WWJ?], 1989, p. 188, where the same litany of bewildering silences is recited nearly verbatim.) This sustains the conviction that Paul knew nothing of the details of Jesus's existence, not even the when? and where? of his death .
Historical details on Jesus's incarnate life only appear with later writings (22 documents, 14 authors, including "Jude"), once the Gospels have been in circulation (between 90-110 AD), and the later, the more details.
Even the "Straighforward Gospel Narratives" (Ch. 3), of the trial and crucifixion are so full of contradictory details, miraculous events, and references to the OT that they "seem in fact to be of literary origin." (p. 93). Wells reproduces Couchoud's proposed construction of Jesus's biography with 18 extracts from the OT, in "Le mystère de Jesus" (1924, never translated) (p. 109-111) -- even more detailed in "The Creation of Christ" (1939).
Interestingly, Wells reveals an open mind:
"All this evidence does not exclude the possibility that there was a preacher who was tried and executed and that his career formed the basis of the existing narratives. Although any detailed knowledge of his career is impossible because of the contradictions and implausibilities in them, the muddle we find in the gospels does not in itself point to the conclusion that he never existed." Sectarians advocating purer living, "would cast about for traditions on which to base their precepts. They would, perhaps, fasten on one particular man of the past who led a pure life, and, being semi-literate, they would not check details, but father all sorts of deeds on him" perhaps confused with other men. "The sheer delight of telling and listening to stories -- felt at all times -- would lead to their embellishment." (p. 111).
Wells's same openess will lead him in the late 1990s to accept the hypothesis of the Q document of the "sayings of the Lord" as possibly referring to a roving Galilean cynic-like preacher.
But the "assumption of an initial 'great personality' " so dear to the Romantics and liberal theologians of the 1880-1939 period is unnecessary since the cults of Mithra, Dionysus and Osiris never needed one. (p. 112).
To be decisive, the only corroboration of the historicity of Jesus must be outside evidence.
PART II, "CHRISTIAN ORIGINS"
Wells shows how the stories about Jesus came to be believed as history, and how Christianity could have originated without a historical Jesus. Again, with the same lack of dogmatism:
"As this evidence is regrettably scanty, I cannot claim to demonstrate what actually did happen, only what might have happened...But even so, the paucity of the evidence is such that no one theory can be established to the exclusion of all others, and if the hostile eader objects that my hypotheses are speculative, I can reply that in this field nothing else is possible. " (p. 4).
Wells had the use of the Qumran documents not yet available to previous Jesus deniers.
"THE DYING GOD"
Ch. 9 (p. 225-259). Paul's Jesus, "a god who died that we might live" combined two separate strands:
- 1) the common idea of a pagan dying god, in all pagan cultures of the time. "Attis, Tammuz, Adonis and Osiris were then widely worshiped as victims of an untimely death, resurrected for the salvation of the mourning world." "Jesus" came from Greek "Iesous" (Jesus), and Hebrew "Ieshouah" (meaning "salvation", Joshua).
- 2) a Jewish suffering Servant of God who was a liberating Messiah. The Dead Sea scrolls showed that the pre-Christian Essenes had a Messiah (the Teacher of Righteousness) who was killed shortly before 63 BC.
Paul's Jesus is also connected to the MYSTERY CULTS.
"The old gods were developing into saviours who died for mankind: Their worship was becoming secret and was carried on in special brotherhoods, where rites...assured the initiates of resurrection in another kind of life...The catechumen of the mysteries did not ask where and when his god died. He was seeking ecstasy and an assurance of salvation rather than enlightenment." (p. 5).
The challenge was to develop arguments to defend one's cult from the "counterattractions of rivals."
- One way was by searching the Jewish scriptures for proof that they "fulfilled the prophecies" of the OT.
- Another was to claim special revelations from the god -- Paul's method.
- A final method was anchoring the death in a historical setting. Once Pontius Pilate was chosen as a nucleus, the stories started flourishing.
THE RITES OF COMMUNION WITH JESUS CREATED A JEWISH VERSION OF THE MYSTERY CULTS
Ch. 10, "Christian Origins", (p. 260-317). The "evolution of the Lord's supper" is an expansion of the primitive rite of a ceremonial meal insuring a mystic communion with the god -- well documented in the cults of Mithra, Dionysos -- which became the common meal, love-feast or Agape of the early Christians (p. 262).
"It is part of the argument of my preceding chapters that the biographical details of Jesus were built up by the imagination of the early Christians. One of the challenges such a theory has to meet is : Whence the community of early Christians if there had been no Jesus? In this and the previous chapters I have outlined a possible answer; namely that the community held pre-Christian ideas of the Messiah and copied a pre-Christian Eucharist." (p. 276-7).
The Christian rite may have derived from the Jews, perhaps the Essenes, acquiring features of the pagan sacrificial meal, eventually connected with the sacrifice of the god.
"The story of the institution of the rite by the Messiah can be regarded as a later fiction to explain the ritual." (p. 277).
The DIDACHE, discovered in 1875, listed "ethical precepts outlining a 'way of life' contrasted with the 'way of death', and implied love of one's neighbour and reciprocity" -- likely a 2d-c. adaptation of a Jewish manual of religious instruction. The Christian "Church decided to drop the document because its purely Judaic origin and drift were too plain (just as the book of Enoch was dropped after having long been regarded as genuine and respectable.)" (p. 278)
"THE JESUS OF THE APOCALYPSE"
"In the earliest days of Christianity, Apocalypses formed the most important literature." (p. 279).
Daniel 7 is the most visible precursor. The Similitudes (or Parables) of Enoch was originally quoted as sacred book. In the second half of the 2d c. apocalypses had gone out of fashion, and admission to the canon was granted, reluctantly, only to the REVELATION OF JOHN, placed at the end of the canon. (p. 280).
This apocalypse "is interested almost exclusively in Jesus's second coming, which he thinks is very near...Jesus spent some time on earth as a descendant of David and met a violent death. That this death occurred by crucifixion in Jerusalem is a late gloss. The author...seems to have only the haziest notions of Jesus's career on earth, and does not give it any historical setting."
Like Paul, the author of Revelation supposed that Jesus had already visited the earth and had been put to death there, without indicating any historical setting.
THE RELATION OF "PAUL'S JESUS AND THE ANGELS"
This is vital (p. 288-297). Paul's central dogma of "Christ crucified" is the guarantee of his "mystical connection with Christ". Wells re-examined this topic, 20 years later, in " Belief and Make Believe - Critical Reflections on the Sources of Credulity " (1991, Ch. 4, ii. "The Significance Originally Assigned to the Crucifixion," p. 96-106).
Jewish literature had developed a complex angelology. Daniel (ca. 165 BC) had given angels names and titles. Enoch, giving imagination free rein, had seven classes of angels. Different levels (tiers) of the cosmos became specified:
- the abyss (prison of the dead),
- the earth,
- the firmament (Satan and cruel invisible princes)
- and seven heavens, visited by Enoch.
- above all is God "surrounded by the celestial beings called his powers, his throne, his spirit, his wisdom, his glory, his name." (p. 289).
Paul's sketchy picture of the angels and the multi-layered universe (Phil. 2:5-11) is illustrated by the science-fiction apocalypse of "The Ascension of Isaiah", a delight for all NT scholars. Couchoud and Dibelius suppose that Paul had a similar revelation to Isaiah's in his "Ascension". (p. 294).
The crucifixion is to be essentially understood in Paul's ancient view of the world (kosmos) subjected to the hostile influence of supernatural powers and invisible cosmic forces (Satan, "demons", "spirits", "angels", "powers", "principalities", "authorities", etc. -- all "curiously abstract terms").
"Paul holds these supernatural powers ultimately responsible for [the crucifixion]... The evil spirits ["archontes", "rulers of this world", or "rulers of this age"] instigated the crucifixion because they were ignorant of Jesus's true identity." "For had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory." (1 Cor 2:6-8). "The failure of forces hostile to Christ to recognize him in his disguise" likely was a current theme in Paul's world.
"The rulers of this world are coming to nought", a belief that the world will soon end with the second coming. (p. 295).
"The later development of Christianity can be understood as an attempt to explain the repeated failure of the final judgment to materialize...Christians would begin to think less about his victory over the angels at his second coming, and more about the victory already gained over them [in his first coming] at the crucifixion." (p. 296).
In "Belief", Wells raises a major problem: "Such an assessment...is incompatible with stories in the gospels where he is recognized by demons when he works prodigious miracles...Ancient apologists tried to harmonize the data by denying that 'the rulers of this age' of 1 Cor 2:8 refers to supernatural forces".
This is just another example that "it is not possible to reconcile the obscure and unrecognized earthly Jesus of the earliest Christian documents with the influential teacher and miracle-worker of the Gospels."
This also explains the central value that Paul assigns to the crucifixion: "as a result of the crucifixion, man can now commune with God without intermediaries other than Jesus."
But to complete the victory over the supernatural powers, Paul leaves their final fate to Jesus's second coming.
"PAUL'S JESUS AND THE JEWISH LAW"
The atoning sacrifice was already a Jewish idea (Isaiah 53, Maccabees 2 and 4), but Paul added that Jesus's death negated sin itself, freed us from the Jewish Law, from the spirits, angels and demons, allowing men to commune directly with God through Jesus. (p. 298-303)
Gilbert Murray, in "The Five Stages of Greek Religion" (1935) had shown that a personal relation to a god was in line with the whole trend of Greek thought.
The linking of two sources, "pagan dying God" and "Jewish suffering Messiah", shows how the idea of a crucified Messiah could have arisen without any historical basis. The "mystae" (followers of a mystery cult) claim "to receive private revelations when in ecstatic union with their god, and the devotees...are apt to be scornful of the claims of others, even other initiates."
Gilbert Murray again describes the many Gnostic sects "scattered over the Hellenistic world before Christianity as well as after, [which] believed in a Saviour modelled partly on the Jewish Messiah and partly on the suffering God of the mysteries." (p. 306).
WHY EXACTLY CRUCIFIXION?
First, the idea was not exactly the modern one. Latin "crux" and Greek "stauros" meant a gallows, frame, or tree, implying torture or misery. The idea was not precise, as betrayed in Gal. 3:13:
"Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us: for it is written, 'Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree'." The reference is to Deut. 21:22, the hanging coming after execution. (p. 307).
The example of contemporary crucifixions by the Romans led to a refinement of the concept.
Pilate, described by both Josephus and Philo as "a notorious shedder of Jewish blood" was an ideal historical anchor.
THE RIVAL LITERATURE WAS DESTROYED BY THE ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS
"It is evident that each of the rival sects supposed that it alone held the key to salvation." (p. 311).
- Paul warned against those who preached another Jesus (2 Cor. 11:4).
- Jude 19 complains of "mockers, walking after their own ungodly lusts."
- 2 Peter 2 vilifies other sects.
- 1 Tim 6:20 urges Timothy to "turn away from the profane babblings and oppositions of the knowledge [i.e. gnosis] which is falsely so called; which some professing have erred concerning the faith".
HUMAN NATURE AND DIVINE NATURE OF JESUS
Once granted a biography, the "original idea" of Jesus as "a supernatural being wearing a temporary disguise" was forgotten. The belief became that Jesus had started as a man only later raised to godly status. "Such squabbles went on for centuries" over "the conflict between the human and the divine parts" of Jesus. [And no formal decision was finalized until the Council of Chalcedon (451).]
JESUS REMAINS A MEDIATOR OF SALVATION
Schweitzer observed that "Paul talks repeatedly of mystic union with Christ, but never with God." The elect are "one with Christ, who 'stands at God's righthand to plead their cause'." (p. 312). J.M. Robertson has shown that the invention of mediator gods had been a general tendency. The Greek gods, Apollo, Athena, Attis, Herakles, Dionysus figured as "children of the remote Zeus" as "this Judaeo-Greek Logos had to become the son of Yahweh." (p. 313).
"All these strands -- the Messianic redeemer, the Saviour of the world with his blood [Isaiah 53, Psalm 22], and the teaching God -- became fused in a composite biography." (p. 316).
THE EXPERIENCE OF THE "CHRIST-SPIRIT" IN THE EARLY CHRISTIANS
Wells closely parallels Couchoud's distinction of "myth" versus "religious conception" as the psychological energy of the spiritual engine driving the cult of Christ. ("Creation of Christ", Appendix II, "The Historicity of Jesus").
"The historical figure of Jesus, the life...lived in the flesh, is of little importance in comparison with the experience of the 'Christ-Spirit' possessed by primitive Christians."
This relation of history to spiritual experience is common in the Greco-Roman mystery religions, where ATTACHMENT "TO SOME STORY OF A HERO GOD", is not for "pretense to show the validity of the story as history", but for the PROSPECT OF ATTAINING SALVATION through "certain rites and dramatizations of the story of their god." (p. 317).
THE CONTINUITY OF THE STORY MAKES JEC MORE READABLE AND EXCITING
The progression of the story is somewhat maintained in Wells's three following books, DJE? (1975/87), " The Historical Evidence for Jesus" [HEJ] (1982/88) and WWJ? (1989), with Wells discussing further aspects not covered deeply enough in previous books.
The forward movement of the text, the continuity of the story, so exciting in JEC, is somehow lost in later books. Titles don't accurately indicate content anymore, and buyers looking for a primer on Jesus ("The Jesus Legend", 1996, "The Jesus Myth", 1999) are in for a disappointment.
The overabundant citations of unknown academics, nearly on every page, makes Wells's scholarly erudition a more strenuous and rebarbative exercise for unlearned readers, who much prefer a smoothly flowing story with a sense of progression towards some revelation.
Again, Wells is pursuing excellence in scholarship, not producing popularizing primers.
CAUTION NOT TO CONFUSE JEC WITH POPULAR SPECULATIONS ON THE ORIGINS OF CHRISTIANITY
Wells cautions us not to confuse JEC with many of the "present-day rationalist writers on the NT". His concern is about avoiding the "disdain" of biblical academics, gaining their respect as an honest, thorough, and reliable NT exegete himself, free of wild speculations, and getting his work effectively read and discussed, instead of being dismissed out of hand, even if his conclusions end up getting rejected on ideological or theological grounds.
Wells has been consistently wary about any confusion of his claims with the wild speculations of popular "mythicists." In the last pages of JEC (1971), Wells issued a stern warning:
"All the writers I have discussed in this epilogue simply take for granted that the gospels can supply some reliable information about a historical Jesus. It is time this assumption was challenged.
Even with its aid, much speculation is needed to supplement the records. Those who deny the historicity of Jesus have so often been accused of basing their case on wild speculations, of constructing, in Loisy's phrase, `air-drawn fabrics'. But it should now be obvious to the candid reader that an intelligible Jesus can be extracted from the gospels only by the kind of speculative inferences that have been held to discredit the mythicist case".
("Epilogue: Some Recent Studies of Jesus", 1971, p. 331-2).
The quote is from Alfred Loisy, "The Birth of the Christian Religion", (1933, transl. L.P. Jacks, 1948, p. 11, available online.)
MISTAKES OF POPULAR JESUS DENIERS
Wells goes on to pinpoint the "two mistakes" made by other Jesus deniers:
" They set aside as interpolations all NT passages they found inconvenient,
 and they tried to explain Jesus away in terms of pagan parallels (as simply another Osiris or Hercules), when the Jewish background is clearly of greater importance.
The negative view gained some support from radical Dutch theologians of the day (for example W.C. van Manen and G.A. van den Bergh van Eysinga) who regarded all the Pauline letters, the earliest witnesses to a human Jesus, as 2d-c. forgeries."
"One reason why NT scholars of today treat present-day rationalist writers on the NT with some disdain is that so many of the latter continue in the mistakes made early in this century. This is particularly true of French rationalism." (HEJ, 1988, p. 218-9).
Wells, as examples of objects of "disdain", points his finger at Guy Fau ("La Fable de Jesus-Christ", 1964), William B. Smith ("The Birth of the Gospel", 1957), and John Marco Allegro ("The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross", 1970). (HEJ, 1988, p. 219-223).
"SUBSTANTIALLY JUST CRITICISMS"
In HEJ (1988, foreword, p. ix), Wells explains:
"Of the many critiques which were made of my first book on Christian origins, JEC, (London, 1971), three were substantially just:
(1) The work relied more on the pioneer critics of the 19th and early 20th centuries than one would expect of a book published in 1971. [They vanish in later books.]
(2) It gave too much attention to (and was not entirely accurate in its representation of) the pagan background of earliest Christianity, thus neglecting some of the Jewish factors in the origin of this undoubtedly Jewish sect.
(3) It too readily posited interpolation (rather than redaction of traditions of different provenance) to account for unevennesses and contradictions in early Christian documents.
I was able to profit from these criticisms when I wrote the sequel volume, "Did Jesus Exist?" (London, 1975)...
My fundamental theses remain the same: namely, the earliest references to the historical Jesus are so vague that it is not necessary to hold that he ever existed; the rise of Christianity can, from the undoubtedly historical antecedents, be explained quite well without him and reasons can be given to show why, from about AD 80 or 90, Christians began to suppose that he had lived in Palestine about fifty years earlier."
JEC SUPERSEDED BY TWO FOLLOWING BOOKS
The cover of DJE? (1987) alerts readers that JEC (1971), "has been superseded by the two successors".
Wells decided to address all the questions confronting his first book, JEC (1971), not by re-editing and revising it, but by publishing this second book, DJE? (1975), and its revised version, DJE? (1987).
WHY NO SECOND EDITION?
Wells has avoided a second edition of JEC (1971), because of its partiality to the "substantially just criticisms" [2 or 3?] now spotlighted in HEJ (1988). Yearning for acceptance by publishers and scholars, Wells paid too much attention and gave too much credence to the criticisms of JEC.
Wells never used computer and Internet, communicating by mail through his secretary. Which explains his relative obscurity among the younger generation raised on the Web.
One way to combat this ignorance among the young and relaunch interest in his elite scholarship would be an elegant new edition of JEC (1971), or, better, to post it online. An idea that, so far, does not seem to have generated any enthusiasm in his publishers nor Wells himself.
Any study of Wells's ideas should overlook his later qualms and start with the original JEC (1971) -- as the unaltered, genuine, matrix leading to the ulterior expansion of his examination. Particularly significant are topics and names appearing in JEC (1971) but neglected in Wells's later books.
March 24, 2013
The truth is that almost none of the serious historians, theologians, or scholars within the Christian churches believes that the doctrines proclaimed from the pulpit every Sunday are actually true.
G. A. Wells' book, "The Jesus of the Early Christians," explains in layman's terms why it is that no competent and honest scholar within the Christian churches can any longer be a true believer.
This is not a bitterly polemical book out to destroy all vestiges of Christianity or Christian behavior: As Wells has written elsewhere, "I have tried to avoid the rancor which mars much that atheists have written on Christianity...Nearly all the authorities whose views I quote...are Christian theologians...In the few instances where I have been able to meet some of these theologians personally, I have learned to respect them not only as scholars but as men."
While critical of the contemporary Christianity of the Sunday pulpit, Wells' book is therefore neither an attack on Christian ethics nor an expose of Christian practices. Wells is solely concerned with the factual, historical claims made by the New Testament about Jesus of Nazareth and with the historical and textual evidence uncovered by scholars concerning whether those claims are true. To those with no concern as to whether the Gospel reports are actually true, Wells has remarked, in a different context, "If however the believer is prepared to disregard questions of mere historical fact, and concentrate on some kind of 'higher' truth which is embodied in the gospels, then my views need not concern him, any more than his concern me."
What "The Jesus of the Early Christians" does do is reveal in straightforward, readable prose all of the little secrets which the Christian theologians have kept out of the Sunday sermons.
For example, as Wells presents in detail (p.34) Matthew i and Luke iii both present detailed genealogies for Jesus; unfortunately the two genealogies contradict each other. Grossly. At least one of the evangelists was faking it.
Similarly, Wells shows that the census under Caesar Augustus "that all the world should be taxed" "when Cyrenius was governor of Syria" and "in the days of Herod the king of Judaea" was simply an historical fiction constructed by the author of Luke to get the Holy Family from Nazareth to the Biblically blessed City of David. Wells further shows that the slaughter by Herod of all children two and under described in Matthew ii is also contrary to history: somebody made the story up.
But the book goes beyond merely exposing Biblical errors and contradictions. Wells discusses in detail the origin of the Gospels, explores the relation of the letters of Paul to the Gospels, explains pagan precedents and sources for Christians' beliefs, and discusses more broadly the issues of how we can discover historical truth and untangle myth from reality.
In short, this is, for the layperson, simply the best and most readable introduction to New Testament studies and the historical origins of Christianity that I have yet seen (and I have looked at many). It is the only such introduction that I know of which is based neither on a religious precommitment to Christian dogma nor on a dogmatic hatred or contempt for Christianity but which is rather based on a desire to simply and uncompromisingly explore the unvarnished truth.
Twenty years ago, a friend of mine who was a committed evangelical fundamentalist entered (a very conservative) seminary with the goal of becoming a preacher. By the time he had completed his studies, he confessed to me that he no longer had his fundamentalist faith: after learning New Testament Greek, studying the original texts of the Gospels, and being exposed to the scholarly research of the last three centuries, it was impossible for him any longer to believe in the literal truth of the New Testament.
What my friend learned traumatically and painstakingly through his seminary experience, you can learn less painfully by reading "The Jesus of the Early Christians."
You may not end up agreeing with all of Wells' conclusions: Wells himself, in later books, changed his opinions on various points (the relative importance of pagan vs. Jewish influences on Christian myths, the likelihood that Jesus was purely mythical rather than a real figure about whom various legends later grew up, etc.).
But, if you read this book, you will no longer be in the dark concerning information which all serious scholars of Christianity take for granted but which is rarely mentioned to the ordinary man or woman sitting in the pew on Sunday morning.
As the Man from Galilee is said to have declared long ago, "The truth shall make you free."
(Sadly, this book is currently out of print. Although Wells' later books on this subject are also worth reading, this is still the best introduction and is worth obtaining from a university library or a used book shop. I also recommend Dungan and Cartlidge's "Documents for the Study of the Gospels," which nicely complements Wells' book and is happily available here on amazon.)
-- David H. Miller