George Albert Wells

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George Albert Wells
Born (1926-05-22) 22 May 1926 (age 90)
Occupation Professor of German, London University
Known for Atheism and rationalism
Academic background
Education University of London, Bern University
Influences Bruno Bauer, Paul-Louis Couchoud, Arthur Drews, Ludwig Feuerbach, Albert Kalthoff, Albert Schweitzer, William Benjamin Smith, David Strauss, William Wrede
Academic work
Sub discipline Historical criticism
Main interests Non-historicity of Jesus, origins of Christianity
Notable 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
Notable ideas Jesus is a composite from two sources: Hebrew wisdom and Galilean miracle-worker/cynic-sage preacher
Influenced Earl Doherty, Alvar Ellegård, R. Joseph Hoffmann, Michael Martin

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 Jewish Wisdom figure.[6]

In his early trilogy (1971, 1975, 1982), Wells denied Jesus’ historicity by arguing that the gospel Jesus is an entirely mythical expansion of a Jewish Wisdom figure—the Jesus of the early epistles—who lived in some past, unspecified time period. And also on the views of New Testament scholars who acknowledge that the gospels are sources written decades after Jesus's death by people who had no personal knowledge of him. In addition, Wells writes, the texts are exclusively Christian and theologically motivated, and therefore a rational person should believe the gospels only if they are independently confirmed.[7] Wells clarifies his position in The Jesus Legend, that "Paul sincerely believed that the evidence (not restricted to the Wisdom literature) pointed to a historical Jesus who had lived well before his own day; and I leave open the question as to whether such a person had in fact existed and lived the obscure life that Paul supposed of him. (There is no means of deciding this issue.)"[8]

In his later trilogy from the mid-1990s, The Jesus Legend (1996), The Jesus Myth (1999), and Can We Trust the New Testament? (2004). Wells modified and expanded his initial thesis to include a historical Galilean preacher from the Q source:[9]

"I propose here that the disparity between the early documents and the gospels is explicable if the Jesus of the former is not the same person as the Jesus of the latter. Some elements in the ministry of the gospel Jesus are arguably traceable to the activity of a Galilean preacher of the early first century, who figures in what is known as Q (an abbreviation for Quelle, German for ‘source’). Q supplied the gospels of Matthew and Luke with much of their material concerning Jesus’s Galilean preaching. [...] 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 [there is also a historical Galilean preacher from the Q source] (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 [human] personage who is not to be identified with the [mythical] dying and rising Christ of the early epistles." (Can We Trust the NT?, 2004, pp. 43, 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.

What we have in the gospels is surely a fusion of two originally quite independent streams of tradition, ...the Galilean preacher of the early first century who had met with rejection, and the supernatural personage of the early epistles, [the Jesus of Paul] who sojourned briefly on Earth and then, rejected, returned to heaven—have been condensed into one. The [human] preacher has been given a [mythical] 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 Galilean preaching. The fusion of the two figures will have been facilitated by the fact that both owe quite a lot of their substance in the documents—to ideas very important in the Jewish Wisdom literature. (Cutting Jesus Down to Size, 2009, p. 16)

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, writing, "if I am right, against Doherty and Price - it is not all mythical." However, Earl Doherty presented it as another example of the view that the Gospel Jesus did not exist.[10][11] Wells notes that he belongs in the category of those who argue that Jesus did exist, but that reports about Jesus are so unreliable that we can know little or nothing about him.[12][13][14] Wells argues, for example, that the story of the execution of Jesus under Pilate is not an historical account, writing, "I regarded (and still do regard) [the following stories;] the virgin birth, much in the Galilean ministry, the crucifixion around A.D. 30 under Pilate, and the resurrection—as legendary".[9]

Reception[edit]

Co-author R. Joseph Hoffmann has called Wells "the most articulate contemporary defender of the non-historicity thesis."[15] Wells' claim of a mythical Jesus has received support from Earl Doherty, Robert M. Price and others.[16][17] 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."[18]

However, Wells' conclusions have been criticized by biblical scholars and ecclesiastical historians such as W. H. C. Frend and Robert E. Van Voorst.[19][20] Voorst further critiques Wells work as "[Wells] advanced the non-historicity hypothesis, not for objective reasons, but for highly tendentious, anti-religious purposes."[20] 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." [21]

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".[22]

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.[23]

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.

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. ^ G.A. Wells. "Earliest Christianity (1999)". infidels.org. Retrieved 23 September 2016. [This article was originally published in The New Humanist Vol. 114, No. 3. Sept 1999, pp. 13-18.] I have argued that there is good reason to believe that the Jesus of Paul was constructed largely from musing and reflecting on a supernatural 'Wisdom' figure, amply documented in the earlier Jewish literature, who sought an abode on Earth, but was there rejected, rather than from information concerning a recently deceased historical individual. The influence of the Wisdom literature is undeniable; only assessment of what it amounted to still divides opinion. ...The Jewish literature describes Wisdom as God's chief agent, a member of his divine council, etc., and this implies supernatural, but not, I agree, divine status. 
  7. ^ Martin, Michael (March 1993). The Case Against Christianity. Temple University Press. p. 38. ISBN 978-1-56639-081-1. [Per the canonical Gospels] According to Wells they [Christian theologians and biblical scholars] also admit that there is much in these accounts that is legend and that the Gospel stories are shaped by the writers' theological motives. Furthermore, the evidence provided by the Gospels is exclusively Christian. Given this situation, Wells says, a rational person should believe the accounts of the Gospels only if they are independently confirmed. [...] He points out that it is acknowledged by all biblical scholars that the earliest Christian writers—Paul and other epistle writers—wrote before the Gospels were composed. ...Wells maintains that they do not provide any support for the thesis that he [Jesus] lived early in the first century. Thus, those Pauline letters now admitted to be genuine by most scholars, and those letters that are considered probably or possibly authentic, are silent about the parents of Jesus, the place of his birth, his trial before Pilate, the place of his crucifixion, and his ethical teachings. 
  8. ^ Wells, George (1 December 2013). The Jesus Legend. Open Court Publishing Company. p. 19. ISBN 978-0-8126-9872-5. Paul sincerely believed that the evidence (not restricted to the Wisdom literature) pointed to a historical Jesus who had lived well before his own day; and I leave open the question as to whether such a person had in fact existed and lived the obscure life that Paul supposed of him. (There is no means of deciding this issue.) 
  9. ^ a b Wells, George (1 December 2013). Cutting Jesus Down to Size: What Higher Criticism Has Achieved and Where It Leaves Christianity. Open Court Publishing Company. p. 16. ISBN 978-0-8126-9867-1. [F]rom the mid-1990s I became persuaded that many of the gospel traditions are too specific in their references to time, place, and circumstances to have developed in such a short time from no other basis, and are better understood as traceable to the activity of a Galilean preacher of the early first century, the personage represented in Q (the inferred non-Markan source, not extant, common to Matthew and Luke; cf. above, p. 2), which may be even earlier than the Paulines. This is the position I have argued in my books of 1996, 1999, and 2004, although the titles of the first two of these—The Jesus Legend and The Jesus Myth—may mislead potential readers into supposing that I still denied the historicity of the gospel Jesus. These titles were chosen because I regarded (and still do regard) [that the following stories;] the virgin birth, much in the Galilean ministry, the crucifixion around A.D. 30 under Pilate, and the resurrection—as legendary. 
  10. ^ Doherty, Earl (1999). "Book and Article Reviews, The Case of the Jesus Myth: Jesus — One Hundred Years Before Christ by Alvar Ellegard". Retrieved 2011-10-07. 
  11. ^ Eddy and Boyd (2007), The Jesus Legend, p. 24.
  12. ^ For a more brief statement of his position, Wells refers readers to his article, "Jesus, Historicity of" in Tom Flynn's The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Prometheus Books, 2007, p. 446ff. - Per Wells, G. A. Cutting Jesus Down to Size. Open Court, 2009, pp. 327–328.
  13. ^ Wells, G. A. "A Reply to J. P. Holding's 'Shattering' of My Views on Jesus and an Examination of the Early Pagan and Jewish References to Jesus". The Secular Web. 2000. Retrieved 2010-08-03.
  14. ^ Wells, George (1 December 2013). Cutting Jesus Down to Size: What Higher Criticism Has Achieved and Where It Leaves Christianity. Open Court Publishing Company. pp. 201–202. ISBN 978-0-8126-9867-1. [Eddy and Boyd (2007)] distinguish (pp. 24f) three broad categories of judgment, other than their own, concerning Jesus: 1. that “the Jesus tradition is virtually—perhaps entirely—fictional.” 2. that Jesus did exist [but with limited historical facts]... 3. that a core of historical facts about the real historical Jesus can be disclosed by research... Eddy and Boyd are particularly concerned to refute the standpoint of those in category 1 of these 3, and classify me as one of them, as “the leading contemporary Christ myth theorist” (p. 168n). In fact, however, I have expressly stated in my books of 1996, 1999, and 2004 that I have repudiated this theory, ...I have never espoused this view, not even in my pre-1996 Jesus books, where I did deny Jesus’s historicity. Although I have always allowed that Paul believed in a Jesus who, fundamentally supernatural, had nevertheless been incarnated on Earth as a man. 
  15. ^ R. Joseph Hoffmann's foreword in "The Jesus Legend," xii
  16. ^ 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. 
  17. ^ Flemming, Brain (July–August 2005). "No god in the details". 120 (4). The New Humanist. Retrieved 2007-11-17. 
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ 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. 
  20. ^ 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. 
  21. ^ David Aikman, The Delusion of Disbelief (Nashville: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 201.
  22. ^ Martin, Michael (1991). The Case Against Christianity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. p. 67. ISBN 0-87722-767-5. 
  23. ^ 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]