A Summary Critique: Questioning the Existence of Jesus

Garryby Gary R. Habermas
Originally published in the Christian Research Journal / vol. 22, no. 3, 2000.

Seldom have recent scholars questioned or denied the historical existence of Jesus.  Of the very few who have done so, G. A. Wells is probably the best known.  In this article, I will outline and then respond to some of his major tenets.

Before turning to this topic, I will first note that the vast majority of scholars, both conservative and liberal alike, generally disdain radical theses that question the very existence of Jesus.  For example, theologian Rudolf Bultmann asserted, “By no means are we at the mercy of those who doubt or deny that Jesus ever lived.” [i]

Historian Michael Grant termed the hypothesis that Jesus never lived an “extreme view.”  He charges that it transgresses the basics of historiography: “if we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus’ existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned.”  Grant summarizes, after referring to Wells as an example: “modern critical methods fail to support the Christ-myth theory.”  These positions have been “annihilated” by the best scholars because the critics “have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.” [ii]

Digressing to a personal story, a potential publisher once asked me to contact a reviewer.  An influential New Testament scholar at a secular university, he had voted to publish my manuscript, but only if I deleted the section dealing with Well’s hypotheses.  He said that Well’s suppositions were virtually devoid of serious historical content.  He only relented after I convinced him that Wells still had some popular appeal.

Wells is aware of these attitudes towards his works.  He acknowledges that “nearly all commentators who mention the matter at all, [set] aside doubts about Jesus’ historicity as ridiculous.” [iii] He adds, “the view that there was no historical Jesus, that his earthly existence is a fiction of earliest Christianity . . . is today almost universally rejected.” [iv] He concludes the matter: “serious students of the New Testament today regard the existence of Jesus as an unassailable fact” (HEJ 223).  Even Michael Martin, one of Wells’ few scholarly supporters, draws the rather restrained conclusion that “Wells’ thesis is controversial and not widely accepted . . . .” [v]

Of course Wells would be correct to note that scholarly opinions are not formulated by an academic head count.  So the essential question concerns why many scholars find Well’s position to be so fatally flawed.  Why is he so frequently ignored?

This is the focus of this essay.  It is my contention that Well’s theses are a seedbed of informal logical errors, especially begging the question and special pleading.  He must simply bend over backwards at many places in order to maintain his contentions.  Rather than critique his overall proposal, which I have done elsewhere, [vi] I will attempt a different approach here.  I will list and discuss several of these unsupportable claims throughout his works.  Most of these problems have the potential to seriously undermine or disprove his theses.  In fact, in several places, Wells even admits the serious consequences for his view if he is mistaken.

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