G. A. Wells Replies to Criticisms of his Books on Jesus
My views on Christian Origins have met with a number of adverse criticisms on the Internet. I am not on-line and have not seen them all, but a sympathizer has kindly sent me printouts extracted from “The Errant Skeptics Research Institute” (errantskeptics.org). They comprise “Who is G. A. Wells”, by Rev. Dr. Gregory S. Neal, Pastor, Beverly Drive United Methodist Church, and “The Errancy of Silence”, where Dr. Neal engages in debate with a defender of my views named as Achrachne. The articles can be found at:
Dr. Neal repeats the substance of his criticisms in his brief ‘customer review’ of my 1999 book (actually published in October 1998) on Amazon.com.
Dr. Neal’s criticisms are of the type to be expected from conservative Christians, and it is because they are thus characteristic that I am responding to them here. I refer to the two most relevant books of mine, The Jesus Legend (1996) and The Jesus Myth (1999) by the abbreviations JL and JM. Both are published by Open Court, Chicago and La Salle, Illinois.
Dr. Neal holds that I have the wrong academic qualifications (no degree in theology), the wrong publishers (my books are not issued by university presses), and am consigned to deserved “abject obscurity” by “the REAL scholars” (his emphasis). I also “twist” critical scholars whom I quote, and “only search under certain rocks”. (Which ones have I missed out?) I “utterly fail to apply the standard tools and controls of the Historical-Critical Field”, and “assume” all manner of unwarranted things, even my conclusion before I began investigations. What basis he can possibly have for this conviction that I worked simply from prepossessions escapes me, but it is always easier to impute bias than to dissect someone’s reasoning. And as bias is not uncommon, the imputation is readily believed.
Neal, like many of my critics, makes plausible-sounding objections to my views, as if I were unaware of such obvious obstacles and had made no attempt to respond to them. When his interlocutor pointed out that I had so responded, Neal declared that he does not propose to address my responses “at this time”, because it is up to the interlocutor to state them and so give him occasion for finding them wanting. And so he is content to press objections which I have answered in detail and to take no cognisance of these answers.
Neal also tries to discredit me by mentioning the names, rather than the arguments, of scholars who have criticised me. Dunn and Theissen, we learn, have disposed of me, the latter “with devastatingly convincing acumen”. I have replied to the relevant book by Dunn in my Religious Postures of 1988 (pp. 19 f.); and in JM I have responded in some detail to later books by him. Theissen’s main point against me is to interpret Paul’s reference to the archontes responsible for the crucifixion as an allusion to worldly rulers and hence to Caiaphas and Pilate. But he must know that most scholars allow that the contexts in which Paul uses the term “rulers of this age” and similar terms show quite clearly that he means them as designations of supernatural forces which have long harassed humanity, but have now been subjugated by Christ’s saving act. The article archōn (ruler) in Kittel’s standard Theological Dictionary of the New Testament observes that “Paul is not referring to earthly rulers”, and that arguments to the contrary “are not convincing”.
My view of Christian origins is based on the fact that the earliest extant Christian documents (comprising the seven genuine letters of Paul, the deutero-Paulines Ephesians and Colossians, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter and 1, 2 and 3 John) fail to confirm the gospel portraits of Jesus. Only when the gospels had become generally known (i.e. from the early second century) do we find other Christian documents depicting him as they do. This overall disparity between the earlier documents and the gospels, and its abrupt termination from the early second century, is something that many NT scholars have been unwilling to face. Those who have done so have admitted it to be serious. For instance, the Toronto theologian S. G. Wilson –surely one of Neal’s “real” scholars — has surmised, with candour characteristic of him, that the whole topic is often “instinctively avoided because to pursue it too far leads to profound and disturbing questions about the origin and nature of Christianity”. (Quoted in JL, p. 18.)
Neal devotes a good deal of space to criticism of my appraisal of the Pauline letters. He dismisses those NT scholars who admit to perplexity over what Paul says (and does not say) on the ground that none of them are “Pauline-field scholars”. So it is not merely necessary to have academic qualifications in theology, but also to be a Pauline specialist if one is to be taken seriously on this matter. He calls in Prof. Furnish as an ally against my assessment of Paul. It would be good to have his comment on the passages I have quoted from Furnish in JL, pp. 16, 215 n. 7 and JM, pp. 56, 64 f.
Neal also writes as if my case were built entirely on the failure of this one early writer to confirm what the gospels say of Jesus. The interlocutor reminds him that other early Christian authors write as Paul does and not as the gospels do (cf. JM, p. 67). Neal retorts that only Paul and James need be considered, as only they wrote before A.D. 70. But although the earliest gospel (Mark) may have been written at that date (or a few years later — I shall return to this question), it was some time before the gospels became generally known, as Neal himself is aware. This is why first-century epistle writers other than Paul and James continued to write in the pre-gospel manner about Jesus.
Neal’s comments — again like those of other of my critics — include a good deal of misrepresentation. He takes me to hold that “Paul didn’t know anything about a real-life historical Jesus”, and retorts that he “did know a few historical facts about him”, as if this were something I have denied, whereas in fact I have stressed that Paul regarded him as a descendant of David, born of a woman under the (Jewish) law, who lived as a servant to the circumcision, was crucified on a tree and buried. What Paul does not do is to set this life in a specific historical situation. He never mentions John the Baptist, or a ministry in Galilee, or a Passion in Jerusalem, or Pilate. It is not true to say, as Neal does, that “Paul knew that Jesus lived and died at a real identified time and space”. Paul gives no such identification. According to Neal, I believe that he “cooked up Jesus out of the Jewish figure ‘Wisdom'”, an absurdity because Wisdom was female. One might suppose that this objection had not occurred to me (see JL, pp. XXV f. and JM, pp. 96 f. for my discussion of it); but as we saw, Neal does not propose to concern himself with my answers to obvious criticisms. The influence of Jewish ideas of Wisdom on Paul’s view of Jesus is real and considerable, and not disputed even by many orthodox scholars.
In so far as Neal admits to some silence in Paul, he explains it by claiming that he “only rarely addresses matters that had proximate reference to the extant teachings of Jesus”. “Jesus’ teachings didn’t touch on the matters that Paul was addressing.” I have shown that this is not true (JM, pp. 58 f., 94 f.). And Neal himself shows that it is not true, for he gives a whole list of Pauline ethical teachings which resemble what is ascribed to Jesus in the gospels. What is so significant is that Paul nevertheless gives them as his own teachings, not as teachings of Jesus. I have repeatedly pointed out that it is much more likely that these precepts, concerning forgiveness, civil obedience and other matters, were originally urged independently of Jesus, and only later stamped with his supreme authority by being attributed to him, than that he gave such teachings and was not credited with having done so by Paul, nor indeed by other early epistle writers. For Neal to say that the relevant precepts show that “Paul appears to have had access to … [a] Jesus-teaching source, one quite similar to Q”, even though Paul does not in any way suggest that the precepts derive from Jesus at all, is quite arbitrary.
Returning now to those passages where Neal does admit a “near-silence” in Paul, we find him explaining it as due to an “overriding interest in the post-resurrection Jesus”. But Paul does say that the content of his preaching was “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23 and 2:2), so one might expect him to be forthcoming at least about the when, the where and the attendant circumstances of the Passion. That this expectation is disappointed is well brought out by the Furnish whom Neal so much respects, with the following formidable catalogue:
“No cleansing of the Temple, no conflict with the authorities, no Gethsemene scene, no trial, no thieves crucified with Jesus, no weeping women, no word about the place or the time of the crucifixion, no mention of … Judas or Pilate.” (Quoted in JM, p. 56.)
It is no answer to silence over this and other clearly relevant issues to say that the early epistle writers cannot be expected to “lay out the detailed content of the kerygma” or to write “long-winded disconnected treatises on the teachings of Jesus”. How many more times do I have to respond (as in JL, p. 15 and JM, p. 68) to the charge that this is what my argument unrealistically expects them to do? I do not, pace Neal, assume that “Paul wrote everything that he knew”; but I do expect him to adduce what Jesus material was known to him in so far as it was relevant — as according to the gospels it often was — to the issues under discussion. Prof. Stanton — surely a real scholar — frankly calls it “baffling” that Paul fails to “refer more frequently and at greater length to the actions and teachings of Jesus”, particularly at points where “he might well have clinched his argument by doing so”. (Quoted in JM, p. 95.)
Neal claims that I rely exclusively on arguments from silence, that what I need, but do not supply, is “direct evidence from Paul which contradicts the contents of the gospels”. In fact, however, I have given evidence that Paul, with other early epistle writers, views Jesus in a substantially different way from the gospels, namely as a basically supernatural personage only obscurely on Earth as a man at some unspecified period in the past, “emptied” then of all his supernatural attributes (Phil. 2:7), and certainly not a recently active worker of prodigious miracles which made him famous throughout “all Syria” (Mt. 4:24).
According to Neal, Paul “nowhere asserts that Jesus wasn’t a healer”. But I give evidence in JM, pp. 156 f. that there is incompatibility between Paul and the gospels here. For him, Jesus was declared to be the Son of God with power by dint of his resurrection (Rom. 1:4), not by manifestations of power during a ministry. That he does not represent Jesus as a miracle worker is particularly noteworthy, not only because the gospels emphasize the miracles so strongly, but also because Paul himself is well aware of the importance of miracles for the Christian mission.
Another line of attack is Neal’s charge that I assume that “we have all that Paul wrote”. Of course I do not say this, and am well aware, from what he himself says, that he wrote more than what has survived. But Neal believes that my argument requires the assumption, otherwise what I say about Paul’s silences cannot stand; for his extant letters show that he knew something about a Jesus who lived on Earth as a man, and so the non-extant material might show knowledge of very much more. “The discovery of one new letter” might show that he was aware of considerably more. The obvious answer to this is that the extant material is considerable, even if one restricts it to the substantial letters generally accepted as Pauline (viz. Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians and 1 Thessalonians). It is also varied, in that it addresses manifold doctrinal problems that have arisen in diverse Christian communities. It may therefore fairly be taken as properly representing the author’s Christological opinions.
As I have already intimated, Neal alternates between allowing that Paul was “near silent” and finding him quite knowledgeable about the historical Jesus. In support of the latter position he claims that Paul “gives clear evidence of knowing members of the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples”, viz. James and Peter. Paul in fact never speaks of Jesus’ “disciples”, although there are of course statements in his letters which, if read from prior knowledge of the gospels (which did not exist when he wrote), would seem to imply knowledge of this kind. It was a very important part of my task to show that such interpretation of the relevant material can be challenged (JM, pp. 52 ff.). Neal of course ignores what I have said on this account.
Neal naturally makes much of Paul’s half-dozen “words of the Lord”, but does not even mention that some of them are quite obviously words of the risen Christ, not of the historical Jesus (cf. JM, p. 60). A good case can be made, and has been made by NT scholars, for regarding most of them in this way, as words the risen one gave to early Christian prophets speaking in his name. Furnish points to the significant fact that these are words of “the Lord”, not of Jesus, which in itself suggests that the appeal is not to an earthly teacher, but to “the risen, reigning Christ, the church’s Lord“. (Quoted in JM, p. 61. Furnish’s italics). Furnish and Eugene Boring, drawing on earlier work by Käsemann and others, showed that early Christian prophets, prominent for instance in the Pauline community at Corinth, spoke messages from the risen one (JL, p. 28; JM, p. 62). The “word of the Lord” on divorce and the one concerning payment claimable by Christian missionaries may well be community regulations made firm by such supposed derivation. And the eucharistic words in 1 Cor. 11:23-25, which Paul himself says he “received of the Lord”, have been understood by numerous commentators as quotation from a liturgical tradition (JM, pp. 63 f.). Once a eucharistic practice had been established, it would be natural to suppose that Jesus had ordained it. The Dead Sea Scrolls have shown that a cultic act of this kind already existed in the Jewish background to Christianity.
Turning now to the gospels, we find Neal very exercised by the question as to what dates may plausibly be assigned to them. He devotes considerable space to dismissing as “an error” my suggestion that Mark can be put at ca. A.D. 90, instead of at shortly after 70. I give evidence (on which Neal does not comment) for the later date, but make it clear that my overall thesis does not require it (JM, pp. 16 f.). What is of importance is that Mark was writing after (if only shortly after) Roman armies had begun their devastation of Palestine in A.D. 66, and was writing perhaps as a gentile and certainly for a gentile Christian community. (He found it necessary to explain Jewish customs to them.) In consequence, he was not in a good position to glean reliable information about the Palestine of A.D. 20-30. His knowledge even of the geography of the area was defective, as Christian commentators have admitted (JM, pp. 15 f., 260).
Neal says that absence of citations of Mark in the 70s and 80s do not prove that it did not then exist. I agree, and have said as much, noting in my Did Jesus Exist? of 1986 (p. 78) that such absence is what one would expect; for once Matthew had become available it would naturally be preferred, since it includes nearly all Mark’s material and very much more besides.
As for Matthew, Neal does not dispute that Ignatius may not have known it, but adds: “This does not prove that it had not then been written”. I agree, and have not in fact drawn this “erroneous conclusion based on silence (and on no other evidence) that is glaringly present in Wells’ work”. Neal is so convinced that I rely on silence for almost everything I say that he does not read me very carefully. I date Ignatius’ letters at ca. A.D. 110 (JM, p. 58), and Matthew after A.D. 70 but within the first century (JM, p. 6). Neal seems to have forgotten that he earlier chided me for “putting forward dates in the 90s for all the gospels”.
Concerning Luke, Neal maintains that the title of this gospel was known by Papias. But C. F. Evans’ 1990 commentary on Luke in the Trinity Press International series states the well-known fact that, although Papias made statements about the authorship of Mark and Matthew, which are preserved by Eusebius, the latter “does not reproduce any such statement on Luke’s gospel” (p. 2) — even though he promises to record what ecclesiastical writers had said about canonical and “disputed” books (cf. JL, p. 73). Conservative Christian scholarship has long maintained that the anonymous works which, in the course of the second century, came to be called the gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were written, admittedly not by a companion of Jesus, but at any rate by someone who had travelled with Paul. And Neal believes that their author “could well have been Dr. Luke”, “the Syrian-born physician named Luke whom we know about from Paul’s letters”. That Luke was a Syrian (from Antioch) is not alleged before the so-called Anti-Marcionite Prologue, which Evans (op. cit. p. 7) says may be as late as the fourth century. As for reference in “Paul’s letters” to “Dr. Luke”, Coloss. 4:14 mentions “Luke the beloved physician” and 2 Tim. 4:11 reads: “Only Luke is with me”. C. K. Barrett wryly observes, in his recent two-volume commentary on Acts in the International Critical series: “It should be noted that the former reference is in an epistle of doubtful authenticity, the latter in one almost certainly pseudonymous” (vol. 1, 1994, p. 30 n. 3). This leaves a single Pauline reference to a certain “Luke” as a “fellow worker” in Philemon 24. The medical knowledge evident in Acts is inconsiderable and much less than that of other books of the time, whose authors were certainly not doctors. Ernst Haenchen’s scholarly commentary on Acts states that the American NT scholar H. J. Cadbury long ago “put an end to the legend” that the language of Acts is medically informed. Neal is impressed by what he calls “the quality of knowledge that the author (of Acts) seems to have of Paul’s travels and ministry. But many scholars have found that this knowledge falls far short of what is to be expected of a companion of Paul. Barrett sums up the facts in an article following the publication of his commentary, saying that the author
“picked up what recollections he could find. But he does not tells us of the circumcising mission which Paul fought tooth and nail in Galatia (and in Philippi), which brought him to the verge of despair (Gal. 4:20). He does not tell us of the pseudo-apostles (2 Cor. 11:13) who came near to breaking his heart and destroying the church in Corinth. He does not tell us of the confrontation with Peter in Antioch, and finds a different reason for the break with Barnabas (Gal. 2:11-14; Acts 15:37-40). He does tell us that Paul not merely accepted but disseminated a Decree which made some features of the Law necessary for salvation, though Paul does not mention the Decree and wrote against some of its provisions. He does tell us that Paul took part in Temple procedures in order to prove that he had never taught apostasy from Moses, though he had in fact taught that circumcision was a matter of indifference.” (Journal of Theological Studies, vol. 50 (1999), pp. 523 f.).
More important than all this, apropos of the gospels, is that Neal ignores the change in my position concerning the traditions on which they drew which is clearly stated in my two most recent books, JL and JM. Recent work on Q led me to accept that the gospels (unlike the Pauline and the other early epistles) may include traditions about a truly historical itinerant preacher of the early first century. So it is not true to say, as Neal does, that I deny this. Likewise, my acceptance of recent Q scholarship means that I am no longer asserting that all the traditions about Jesus in Mark must have evolved after the Pauline period — a position which Neal nevertheless imputes to me. His interlocutor takes him to task for ignoring my change, but is rebuffed with the comment that my new arguments are “LEAST likely”, are “not supported by ANY historical evidence” and “violate parsimony, so much so that William of Ockham must have cut himself shaving as Wells was formulating them!”
The “law of parsimony” is something to which Neal at every turn appeals in his criticisms. He states it as: “The least complicated argument is most likely to be correct”. It would be more accurate to formulate it as: The true account is likely to be the simplest one that does justice to all the relevant evidence. It is usual to suppose, with Neal, that Christianity is most simply understood as arising from a Jesus who preached and worked miracles in Galilee, was baptized by John and died in Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate. My case is that, while some elements in the gospels may have elaborated the career of an actual itinerant Galilean preacher (who was not crucified and certainly not resurrected), the dying and rising Christ of the earliest extant Christian documents cannot be accounted for in this way; and that not until the gospels are these two very different figures fused into one. I cannot here repeat all the details of my argument. They are summarized in the section headed “The Origins and Development of Christology” in JM.
Neal makes only brief mention of “historically relevant data” about Jesus from “non-Christian sources like Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny” and complains that I “always lean toward the least likely, anti-Christian conclusions” concerning such material. He might note that even the Catholic scholar J. P. Meier allows that Tacitus and Pliny do not help to establish Jesus’ historicity. They “reflect what they have heard Christians of their own day say”, and so are not “independent extracanonical sources” (art. in Biblica, vol. 80 (1999), p. 466). As for Josephus, few now believe that the obviously Christian words in the paragraph in his Antiquities are from the pen of this orthodox Jew. Had he believed what is here ascribed to him, he would not have confined his remarks on Jesus and Christianity to these few lines (cf. my detailed discussion in JM, ch. 4).
I conclude that I have in Dr. Neal yet another conservative critic who to some extent misrepresents me, dwells on some marginal matters as if they were of fundamental importance to my case, and deals with the more central ones by mounting plausible-sounding objections while ignoring the answers I have repeatedly given to these very points. His polemical tone and confident emphases do not improve his case. His acerbity increases as his dialogue with my defender proceeds and is obviously in part the result of sheer exasperation with an interlocutor who continually comes back at him. But it is partly prompted by his concern to deter potential readers from my books by persuading them that they are unworthy of serious attention.
The theological world is now in the midst of what is known as “The Third Quest for the Historical Jesus”. J. P. Meier allows that “all too often the first and second quests were theological projects masquerading as historical projects” (art. cit., p. 463). We shall see whether their successor fares any better.
G. A. Wells, February 2000.