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Review of Can We Trust the New Testament? (2005)

Robert M. Price


 Review: G. A. Wells. 2004. Can We Trust the New Testament?: Thoughts on the Reliability of Early Christian Testimony. Chicago, IL: Open Court Press. xii+242 pp.

I must admit I await each new book by G. A. Wells with the same eager anticipation as some do the latest Harry Potter book. Only whereas Harry Potter books are exercises in fantasy, Wells's erudite volumes are critiques of it. And the fantasy I have in mind is twofold: the miracle myths of the New Testament (in themselves as innocent and fascinating, at least, as Harry's adventures), and the apologists' attempts to vindicate the Gospel material as sober history. I leave it to you to decide which is the more fabulous and implausible.

Any reader of Wells's books on the Jesus legend expects a familiar ring to resound in each new one. In every volume Wells reiterates his case for a mythic Jesus, but this is hardly "vain repetition." In fact it is a diving board for new critical surveys of and interactions with the growing apologetical and exegetical literature. There is no substitute for trying one's best to keep up with important new works oneself, but who has the time to read every one? And so those who take Wells as their guide are fortunate. As always, he responds both to criticisms of his own work and to new developments in historical Jesus studies in general. Even where one may not agree with Wells, he provides an invaluable perspective for analyzing the material. In fact, the less one agrees with him, one may hazard, the more valuable his work may be, since it lets the reader see the matter with a new pair of eyes. Don't be surprised if, sooner or later, you find his conclusions more agreeable. I recall filling the margins of my copy of The Jesus of the Early Christians with notes challenging its author's theses back in 1985, only to find myself so many years later the object of Wells's friendly criticism for going too far in his own direction!

A couple of books ago Wells did what scholars are popularly suspected of being constitutionally incapable of doing: he changed his mind. Accepting insights from James D. G. Dunn, Burton L. Mack and others, Wells came to agree that there was most probably a historical Galilean Jesus at the bottom of the hypothetical Q document. This allowed him to admit that the Synoptic Jesus material had not suddenly appeared ex nihilo after Paul to fill the vacuum of a "life of Jesus." No, the chastened Wells admitted, there had indeed been a historical wisdom teacher named Jesus, some of whose sayings survive in the Gospels via Q. But this historical Jesus had nothing to do with the legendary savior Jesus whom Paul preached about. The legendary figure owed the name "Jesus" to its definition as "salvation" and perhaps to Joshua traditions from the Old Testament. In time, the two Jesuses became fused together. The Q sage was not originally held to have been crucified and resurrected, nor was the Pauline savior Jesus hitherto supposed to have been a teacher. One might think momentarily of Rudolf Steiner's arcane notion that the Matthean and Lukan nativity stories recount the births of two separate Jesus children, each descended from David along a different route, whose spirits merged after the death of one of them in adolescence. But there is nothing arcane about Wells's suggestion that two different sects with "Jesus" figureheads found it advantageous to merge, and so merged their Jesuses, reasoning that each sect had part of the truth. This is one of the ways that ancient scriptures received new textual material (including "corrections") and new layers of interpretation. We must not overlook the sociology of redaction and interpolation.

Wells specifically addresses the parallel cases made by Earl Doherty and myself to the effect that the Q source need not go back to a single teacher at all, much less one named Jesus. On the one hand, Wells rejects the claim of Mack and others that Q may be divided between three successive strata, the first purely sapiential and Cynic-colored wisdom literature, the second tinged by apocalyptic doom-saying and appeals to John the Baptist, and the third explicitly Christological. This is ironic. Wells wonders why the Q group would have subsequently incorporated into their compendium new material of so alien a cast. But there is no mystery here; we need think only of his own suggested fusion of the very different Jesuses. It might be a simple matter of two groups merging, or of a second (apocalyptic) group merely getting hold of a copy of Q, deciding they liked it, and making it their own by adding apocalyptic materials, and so on. Wells appeals to a supposed parallel adduced by J. J. Collins to show that "the mixture of sapiential and apocalyptic material in Q does not mean that the former type must derive from an earlier stratum" (p. 47). He quotes Collins's conclusion "that ancient writers could sometimes juxtapose materials that seem ideologically incompatible to us" (Collins, in ibid.). What is this cautionary example? The second Sibylline Oracle, which Wells no sooner mentions than he characterizes as "a Christian adaptation of a Jewish source" (ibid.). In other words, the document stems from one group but was adopted by another. He explains that in this text "sayings representing everyday wisdom have simply been inserted unadapted into an apocalyptic context" (ibid.). But isn't this precisely what is being suggested for the stratification of Q? He and Collins really want a case of an integral document balancing seemingly disparate elements.

Further, one might have expected Wells to rejoice in the suggestion of Doherty and me that the sayings of Q, typical Cynical material demanding no single author, were only subsequently ascribed to Jesus, having perhaps originally been attributed to Dame Sophia. In fact, wouldn't this reconstruction better fit his theory that the heavenly savior Jesus was a concretization of the Jewish Wisdom myth attested in Proverbs, Wisdom, 1 Enoch, and Philo? Yes--at least the first stratum of the Q material might easily have been pre-Pauline with plenty of time to develop before being assimilated into the "historical Jesus" tradition. And there would be no great gap between the sayings' Jesus and the Pauline cult's divine Jesus.

Wells moves to other subtopics, such as the Catholic belief that Peter visited and ministered in Rome (especially interesting for its application of critical method to pseudo-historical faith claims not usually contested between evangelicals and their opponents) and the (lack of) historical authenticity of the Acts of the Apostles. The section on Acts is a masterful introduction to the topic, reminiscent of the merciless scrutiny of F. C. Baur, Edward Zeller, Charles Guignebert, and Ernst Haenchen. It is amazing that so many supposedly critical scholars continue to make Acts the basis for their reconstructions of church history while recognizing its tendentious--and even downright fictive--character.

Wells has long contended that, had the New Testament epistolarians known the Gospel traditions, they would have made frequent reference to them, hence they did not know them. And that is most likely because they did not yet exist. Perhaps one of the strongest arguments mounted against this contention is the appeal to the second-century Apologists who also make little mention of the deeds and teachings of Jesus, though such traditions certainly existed in their day. If they saw fit not to mention them, why make much of the similar silence of Paul and 1 Peter? Wells addresses this argument, basically, by showing how the Apologists styled themselves as philosophers defending a Christian philosophy, to which the Gospel traditions were not strictly relevant. The New Testament epistolarians, on the other hand, wrote with no such agenda and instead discussed various practical and theological matters where numerous Jesus traditions known to us would have come in mighty handy. It is a good objection, but Wells's answer is better.

The final section of the book surveys recent attempts by British theologians to minimize the impact of critical results on faith. Whereas Wells's usual targets are conservative apologists who are trying to twist the results of criticism in order to preserve an essentially pre-critical estimate of Scripture, this time he is going after liberal and radical theologians who readily admit that the damage to traditional views has been devastating. These are apologists of a different sort altogether; they try to redefine doctrines and creeds in figurative or existential ways. This appears to be the latest round of debate over the "Walter Kaufman syndrome." One finds non-Christian critics making themselves strange bedfellows with fundamentalists in the attempt to rule out the demythologizing, deliteralizing middle ground as illegitimate. The fundamentalists want liberal Christians to straighten up and fly right, while the anti-Christians want them to straighten up and fly left. But liberals and radicals like Don Cupitt and Richard Holloway see themselves as transcending the categories of the old debate. Wells performs a service by holding their feet to the fire.

There was a time, not long ago, when George Wells was a lone voice crying in the wilderness. It is significant that these days radical hypotheses about Christian origins are more plentiful, diverse, and widely debated. One suspects we have Wells in large measure to thank (or to blame!) for it. We who await his latest word mediating the ongoing critical debates will much appreciate it if he gives us another book, this one examining the arguments of William Lane Craig, Craig Blomberg, N. T. Wright, Ben Witherington III, and their fellows among the latest crop of apologists.

Copyright ©2005 Robert M. Price and Internet Infidels, Inc.