A Response to George A. Wells’ Arguments that Jesus Never Existed – Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

According to biblical scholar Robert Van Voorst, in his book Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, George A. Wells is the “most prolific and persistent contemporary critic of the historicity of Jesus.”

Van Voorst first lays out Wells’ arguments and then provides summarized responses from biblical scholars. What is Wells’ approach, then?

Wells draws ammunition from much recent Gospel scholarship, which has concluded that the Gospels were written more than forty years after Jesus by unknown authors who were not eyewitnesses to him. Wells argues that the Gospels contain much that is demonstrably legendary, and they are directed by theological (not historical) purposes.

Earlier parts of the New Testament, notably Paul’s authentic letters, presuppose that Jesus existed, but provide no detailed evidence that would make his existence credible. Therefore, Wells argues, we need independent corroboration from other, “objective” sources to affirm his existence.

He minutely examines these proposed other sources, from Tacitus to Talmud, and finds that they contain no independent traditions about Jesus. Therefore, they are not admissible, and the likelihood increases that Jesus did not exist. Wells explains Jesus as a mythical figure arising from Paul’s mysticism, for whom other late first-century Christians had to fabricate a life story.

What has been the reaction from other scholars to Wells?

R. Joseph Hoffmann is correct to call Wells “the most articulate contemporary defender of the non-historicity thesis.” Wells does write in a calm, scholarly tone, in contrast to many others who have advanced this hypothesis. However, Richard France’s conclusion on his method is also correct: “[Wells] always selects from the range of New Testament studies those extreme positions which best suit his thesis, and then weaves them together into a total account with which none of those from whom he quoted would agree.”

Van Voorst continues:

France’s conclusion is widely shared, as most New Testament scholars do not address Wells’s arguments at all, and those who do address them do not go into much depth. Although Wells has been probably the most able advocate of the nonhistoricity theory, he has not been persuasive and is now almost a lone voice for it. The theory of Jesus’ nonexistence is now effectively dead as a scholarly question.

Why has scholarship abandoned the questions that Wells has raised? What are the specific problems with his conclusions? That will be covered in part 2 of this series.