A Response to George A. Wells’ Claim that Jesus Never Existed – Part 2

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.”

In part 1, we reviewed Wells’ arguments. In part 2, we’ll look at Van Voorst’s summary of the response that scholarship has given to Wells’ hypotheses.

First, Wells misinterprets Paul’s relative silence about some details in the life of Jesus: the exact time of his life, the exact places of his ministry, that Pontius Pilate condemned him, and so forth. As every good student of history knows, it is wrong to suppose that what is unmentioned or undetailed did not exist. Arguments from silence about ancient times, here about the supposed lack of biblical or extrabiblical references to Jesus, are especially perilous. Moreover, we should not expect to find exact historical references in early Christian literature, which was not written for primarily historical purposes. Almost all readers of Paul assume on good evidence that Paul regards Jesus as a historical figure, not a mythical or mystical one.

Second, Wells argues that Christians invented the figure of Jesus when they wrote gospels outside Palestine around 100. Not only is this dating far too late for Mark (which was probably written around the year 70), Matthew, and Luke (both of which probably date to the 80s), it cannot explain why the Gospel references to details about Palestine are so plentiful and mostly accurate.

Third, Wells claims that the development of the Gospel traditions and historical difficulties within them show that Jesus did not exist. However, development does not necessarily mean wholesale invention, and difficulties do not prove nonexistence. (Some of Wells’s readers may get the impression that if there were no inconsistencies in the Gospels, he would seize on that as evidence of their falsehood!)

Fourth, Wells cannot explain to the satisfaction of historians why, if Christians invented the historical Jesus around the year 100, no pagans and Jews who opposed Christianity denied Jesus’ historicity or even questioned it.

Fifth, Wells and his predecessors have been far too skeptical about the value of non-Christian witnesses to Jesus, especially Tacitus and Josephus. They point to well-known text-critical and source-critical problems in these witnesses and argue that these problems rule out the entire value of these passages, ignoring the strong consensus that most of these passages are basically trustworthy.

Sixth, Wells and others seem to have advanced the nonhistoricity hypothesis not for objective reasons, but for highly tendentious, antireligious purposes. It has been a weapon of those who oppose the Christian faith in almost any form, from radical Deists, to Freethought advocates, to radical secular humanists and activist atheists like Madalyn Murray O’Hair. They have correctly assumed that to prove this hypothesis would sound the death knell of Christianity as we know it, but the theory remains unproven.

Finally, Wells and his predecessors have failed to advance other, credible hypotheses to account for the birth of Christianity and the fashioning of a historical Christ. The hypotheses they have advanced, based on an idiosyncratic understanding of mythology, have little independent corroborative evidence to commend them to others.

After this analysis of the grave weaknesses in Wells’ arguments, VanVoorst concludes with the following:

The nonhistoricity thesis has always been controversial, and it has consistently failed to convince scholars of many disciplines and religious creeds. Moreover, it has also consistently failed to convince many who for reasons of religious skepticism might have been expected to entertain it, from Voltaire to Bertrand Russell. Biblical scholars and classical historians now regard it as effectively refuted.