Did Jesus Exist?
LETTER FROM ENGLAND
An absurd question, you may well respond. Why, the longest biographical article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica is devoted to Jesus! But this query is the title of one of four scholarly books by G.A. Wells, Professor Emeritus of German at Birbeck College, London, critiquing Jesus’ historicity, and they have had considerable influence on both sides of the Atlantic. First came The Jesus of the Early Christians (1971), then Did Jesus Exist? (1975; rev. ed., 1986), then The Historical Evidence for Jesus (1982), and finally Who Was Jesus? A Critique of the New Testament Record (1989). In the U.S., Wells’s publications are distributed by Prometheus Books, the major rationalist publishing house, which, by what I have always regarded as strong evidence of temporal judgment, has the misfortune to be located in Buffalo, New York.
It was therefore with considerable glee that I accepted the invitation of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship to debate the good professor at the Inns of Court School of Law (the graduate training college for barristers) on February 10, 1993. Wells’s argument in the debate predictably tracked the case he endeavors to make in his books. As he wrote in The Historical Evidence for Jesus: “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…be explained quite well without him….” According to Wells, it was Paul who in effect created Jesus — but as a divine figure, not a historical personage. After all, Paul’s writings preceded the Gospel accounts, and the Pauline letters are utterly indifferent as to biographical detail on Jesus’ life and ministry. The Gospels themselves are hopeless as historical accounts and really display, not historical facts about Jesus, but a record of the faith experiences of the early Christians.
What had fascinated me about Wells’s approach in his books, and what became my point de depart in the debate, was the fundamental source of his ideas. As a professor of German, emphasizing the history of ideas from the Enlightenment to the present, Wells has immersed himself in German biblical criticism. He has gorged himself on an indigestible diet of radical German critical scholarship and its English-language counterparts (in the latter category, he especially enjoys liberal Roman Catholic New Testament scholars Raymond E. Brown and Joseph A. Fitzmyer). Instead of attempting to look at the primary records of Jesus, he gazes at them through the colored glasses of the documentary, form, and redaction critics — and the Bultmannian and post-Bultmannian efforts to apply existential anti-objectivism to the study of Christian origins.
In the debate, therefore, I insisted upon (1) a strict reliance on the primary sources — the first- and early second-century historical materials themselves, and (2) a moratorium on the use of any and all modern theologians, whether liberal or conservative. If modern scholarship were to be cited, let it be neutral, non-theological scholarship (secular historians, legal scholars, literary specialists).
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