George Albert Wells

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George Albert Wells
Born (1926-05-22) May 22, 1926 (age 88)
School or tradition Historical criticism
Main interests Non-historicity of Jesus, origins of Christianity
Notable ideas Jesus is a composite from two sources: Hebrew wisdom and Galilean miracle-worker/cynic-sage preacher
Major works The Jesus of the Early Christians,
Did Jesus Exist?,
The Historical Evidence for Jesus,
Who Was Jesus?,
Belief & Make-Believe,
The Jesus Legend,
The Jesus Myth,
Can We Trust the New Testament?,
Cutting Jesus Down to Size

George Albert Wells (born May 22, 1926), usually known as G. A. Wells, is an Emeritus Professor of German at Birkbeck, University of London. After writing books about famous European intellectuals, such as Johann Gottfried Herder and Franz Grillparzer, he turned to the study of the historicity of Jesus, starting with his book The Jesus of the Early Christians in 1971.[1] He is best known as an advocate of the thesis that Jesus is essentially a mythical rather than a historical figure, a theory that was pioneered by German biblical scholars such as Bruno Bauer and Arthur Drews.

Since the late 1990s, Wells has said that the hypothetical Q document, which is proposed as a source used in some of the gospels, may "contain a core of reminiscences" of an itinerant Galilean miracle-worker/Cynic-sage type preacher.[2] This new stance has been interpreted as Wells changing his position to accept the existence of a historical Jesus.[3] In 2003 Wells stated that he now disagrees with Robert M. Price on the information about Jesus being "all mythical".[4] Wells believes that the Jesus of the gospels is obtained by attributing the supernatural traits of the Pauline epistles to the human preacher of Q.[5]

Wells is a former Chairman of the Rationalist Press Association. He is married and lives in St. Albans, near London. He studied at the University of London and Bern, and holds degrees in German, philosophy, and natural science. He has taught German at London University since 1949, and has been Professor of German at Birkbeck College since 1968.

Work on early Christianity[edit]

Wells's fundamental observation is to suggest that the earliest extant Christian documents from the first century, most notably the New Testament epistles by Paul and some other writers, show no familiarity with the gospel figure of Jesus as a preacher and miracle-worker who lived and died in the recent decades. Rather, the early Christian epistles present him "as a basically supernatural personage only obscurely on Earth as a man at some unspecified period in the past".[2] Wells believed that the Jesus of these earliest Christians was not based on a historical character, but a pure myth, derived from mystical speculations based on the Hebrew wisdom figure. Wells has summarized his argument about the original, pre-gospel, source of the Jesus figure as follows:

I have argued here that, if we arrange extant early Christian documents into a chronological series, we find that only from about 90 did Christians regard Jesus as a teacher, miracle-worker and a near contemporary, crucified under Pilate. In the earliest documents (which do not include the gospels, which I give reason for dating from 90 to 110) Jesus figures simply as a supernatural personage whom God had sent in human form into the world to redeem it and who was crucified there in unspecified circumstances. These early writers are so vague in what they say about his life that they may well have believed only that he had been crucified in obscure circumstances long ago. I show that such a view is likely to have been suggested to them by the Jewish wisdom literature they knew well and by traditions they must have known concerning actual crucifixions of living men in Palestine one and two centuries before their time. And I argue that they were in fact probably wrong in believing this much of him. (The Historical Evidence for Jesus, 1988, p. 217–218).

According to Wells, the gospels' composition was a later stage of the development of the Jesus myth, which was given a historical setting and a figure subsequently embellished with ever increasing details. In his books The Jesus Legend (1996) and The Jesus Myth (1999), Wells modified and expanded his initial thesis, and indicates his disagreement with Robert Price:

"In my first books on Jesus, I argued that the gospel Jesus is an entirely mythical expansion of the Jesus of the early epistles. The summary of the argument of the Jesus Legend (1996) and the Jesus Myth (1999) given in this section of the present work makes it clear that I no longer maintain this position. The weakness of my earlier position was pressed upon me by J.D.G. Dunn, who objected that we really cannot plausibly assume that such a complex of traditions as we have in the gospels and their sources could have developed within such a short time from the early epistles without a historical basis (Dunn, [The Evidence for Jesus] 1985, p. 29). My present standpoint is: this complex is not all post-Pauline (Q, or at any rate parts of it, may well be as early as ca. A.D. 50); and if I am right, against Doherty and Price - it is not all mythical. The essential point, as I see it, is that the Q material, whether or not it suffices as evidence of Jesus's historicity, refers to a personage who is not to be identified with the dying and rising Christ of the early epistles." (Can We Trust the NT?, 2004, pp. 49–50).

Wells now allows for the possibility that the central figure of the gospel stories may be based on a historical character from first-century Galilee: "[T]he Galilean and the Cynic elements ... may contain a core of reminiscences of an itinerant Cynic-type Galilean preacher (who, however, is certainly not to be identified with the Jesus of the earliest Christian documents)."[2] Sayings and memories of this preacher may have been preserved in the "Q" document that is hypothesized as the source of many "sayings" of Jesus found in both gospels of Matthew and Luke. However, Wells concludes that the reconstruction of this historical figure from the extant literature would be a hopeless task. The updated position taken by Wells has been interpreted by other scholars as an "about-face", abandoning his initial thesis in favor of accepting the existence of a historical Jesus.[3] However, Wells insists that this figure of late first-century gospel stories is distinct from the sacrificial Christ myth of Paul's epistles and other early Christian documents, and that these two figures have different sources before being fused in Mark.

In the Gospels, the two Jesus figures — the human preacher of Q and the supernatural personage of the early epistles who sojourned briefly on Earth as a man and then, rejected, returned to heaven — have been fused into one. The Galilean preacher of Q has been given a salvific death and resurrection, and these have been set not in an unspecified past (as in the early epistles), but in a historical context consonant with the date of the Galilean preaching. (Can We Trust the NT?, 2004, p. 43)

Reception[edit]

Co-author R. Joseph Hoffmann has called Wells "the most articulate contemporary defender of the non-historicity thesis."[6] Wells' claim of a mythical Jesus has received support from Earl Doherty, Robert M. Price and others.[7][8] The classical historian R. E. Witt, reviewing The Jesus of the Early Christians in the Journal of Hellenic Studies, offered some criticisms but concluded that "Hellenists should welcome the appearance of this challenging book."[9]

However, Wells' conclusions have been criticized by biblical scholars and ecclesiastical historians such as W. H. C. Frend and Robert E. Van Voorst.[10][11] Voorst further critiques Wells work as "[Wells] advanced the non-historicity hypothesis, not for objective reasons, but for highly tendentious, anti-religious purposes."[11] Historian Dr. David Aikman from Patrick Henry College criticizes Wells' lack of expertise and objectivity: "Wells is not a New Testament specialist at all but a professor of German and a former chairman of the Rationalist Press Association. He has written several books rejecting the historicity of Jesus, a position almost no New Testament scholar endorses, even those who are radically opposed to Christianity." [12]

After reviewing criticisms from several authors, atheist philosopher Michael Martin said that although "Wells's thesis is controversial and not widely accepted," his "argument against the historicity of Jesus is sound".[13]

Bart Ehrman, in his Did Jesus Exist? (Ehrman) (2012) stated: "The best-known mythicist of modern times — at least among the NT scholars who know of any mythicists at all — is George A. Wells...He has written many books and articles advocating a mythicist position, none more incisive than his 1975 book, Did Jesus Exist?. Wells is certainly one who does the hard legwork to make his case: Although an outsider to NT studies, he speaks the lingo of the field and has read deeply in its scholarship. Although most NT scholars will not (or do not) consider his work either convincing or particularly well argued." (p. 19). Wells, 86, provided an answer to these points in an article in Free Inquiry.[14]

Books[edit]

German intellectual history[edit]

His major works in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German language thought and letters are

Early Christianity[edit]

Editor[edit]

  • F.R.H. (Ronald) Englefield, Language, Its Origins and Relation to Thought (Pemberton, 1977)
  • F.R.H. Englefield, The Mind at Work and Play (Prometheus, 1985)
  • J. M. Robertson (1856-1933): Liberal, Rationalist and Scholar (Pemberton, 1987). More than half the book (p. 123-259) is Wells's presentation of Robertson's work: ch. 7, "The Critic of Christianity", and ch. 8, "The Philosopher"
  • F.R.H. Englefield, Critique of Pure Verbiage, Essays on Abuses of Language in Literary, Religious, & Philosophical Writings (Open Court, 1990)
  • Carl Loftmark, A History of the Red Dragon (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 1995) ISBN 9780863813177
  • David Friedrich Strauss, The Old Faith and the New - Two volumes in one, with a 14-page introduction by G.A. Wells (Prometheus, 1997) [1st ed. Berlin, 1872] ISBN 978-1-57392-118-3.

Articles and other media[edit]

  • "The Critics of Buckle", Past and Present (1956), pp. 75–84
  • "Criteria of Historicity", German Life and Letters, New Series, vol. XXII, No.4 (Oct. 1968)
  • "Stages of NT Criticism", Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. XXX, No. 2 (April 1969), pp. 151–155. [Discusses the view of Volney on the origin of astrology in early agriculture and its extension to stars' influence on human affairs.]
  • "The Myth of the Mushroom", Humanist, 86 (1971), pp. 49–51.
  • "The Holy Shroud of Turin," Question 9 (1975), pp. 24–37.
  • "Miracles and the Nature of Truth,", Question 10 (1977), pp. 30–41.
  • "Was Jesus Crucified Under Pontius Pilate? Did He Even Live at All?”, The Humanist, vol. XXXVIII, no. 1, January–February, 1978, pp. 22–27.
  • "More on the Holy Shroud," New Humanist 94 (1978), pp. 11–15
  • "Paul Valéry on the Importance of the Poet", Modern Languages 66 (1985), pp. 186–191
  • "Burke on Ideas, Words, and Imagination", British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 9 (1986)
  • "The Historicity of Jesus", in R. Joseph Hoffmann & Gerald A. Larue, ed. Jesus in Myth and History (1986), pp. 27–45.
  • "Robertson as Critic of Christianity", in ed. G.A. Wells, J.M. Robertson, 1856-1933, Liberal, Rationalist, and Scholar (Pemberton, 1987), pp. 123–196
  • "Wilhelm Wundt and Cultural Origins", Quinquereme, 11 (1988)
  • "Criticism and the Quest for Analogies", New German Studies, 15 (1989)
  • "The Bible With or Without Illusions?", New Humanist, 105 No. 1 (1990)
  • Jesus: What Evidence?, debate between John Warwick Montgomery & G.A. Wells, London, Feb. 10, 1993 (2 CDs, Canadian Institute for Law, Theology and Public Policy)
  • "German Bible Criticism & the Victorian Church", Journal for the Critical Study of Religion, Ethics and Society 2(1) (1997), pp. 55–67.
  • "Don Cupitt's Religion of Language", Theology 105, (2002), pp. 201–210
  • "A Critique of Schopenhauer's Metaphysic", German Life & Letters, 59 (2006) pp. 379–389. Wells relates Schopenhauer's view of the primacy of the will to Albert Schweitzer's claiming that the will is a transcendent reality at the basis of self-consciousness that provides immediate certainties — allowing us to connect with the "mighty spiritual force streaming forth from [Jesus Christ]", needing no longer to rely on the uncertain results of historical criticism concerning Jesus's message.
  • "Historicity of Jesus", in Tom Flynn, The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (Prometheus, 2007), pp. 446–451
  • "Is There Independent Confirmation of What the Gospels Say of Jesus?", Free Inquiry 31 (2011), pp. 19–25.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "An Interview with Prof. Wells - Jesus: There Was No Such Person", Freethought Today, April–May 1985
  2. ^ a b c Wells, G. A. (September 1999). "Earliest Christianity". The New Humanist 114 (3): 13–18. 
  3. ^ a b Van Voorst, Robert E (2003). "Nonexistence Hypothesis". In Houlden, James Leslie. Jesus in History, Thought, and Culture: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO. p. 660. ISBN 1-57607-856-6. 
  4. ^ Can We Trust the New Testament? by George Albert Wells (Nov 26, 2003) ISBN 0812695674 pp. 49–50
  5. ^ Can We Trust the New Testament? by George Albert Wells (Nov 26, 2003) ISBN 0812695674 p. 43
  6. ^ R. Joseph Hoffmann's foreword in "The Jesus Legend," xii
  7. ^ Price, Robert (Winter 1999–2000). "Of Myth and Men A closer look at the originators of the major religions-what did they really say and do?". Free Inquiry 20 (1). Retrieved 2007-11-17. 
  8. ^ Flemming, Brain (July–August 2005). No god in the details 120 (4). The New Humanist. Retrieved 2007-11-17. 
  9. ^ R. E. Witt, "Reviewed Work: 'The Jesus of the Early Christians' by G. A. Wells" The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 92 (1972), pp. 223-225.
  10. ^ Frend, W. H. C. (April 1972). "Review of 'The Jesus of the Early Christians.' by G. A. Wells". The English Historical Review 87 (343): 345–348. "Though Professor Wells has written a shrewd, challenging and entertaining book, his case fails." 
  11. ^ a b Van Voorst, Robert E. (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 0-8028-4368-9. 
  12. ^ David Aikman, The Delusion of Disbelief (Nashville: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 201.
  13. ^ Martin, Michael (1991). The Case Against Christianity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. p. 67. ISBN 0-87722-767-5. 
  14. ^ G.A. Wells, "Ehrman on the Historicity of Jesus and Early Christian Thinking", Free Inquiry, June–July 2012, p. 58-62. It is a 5-page, 4,100-word answer to Ehrman's book. Excerpts available online (1,000 words only).

External links[edit]