G. A. Wells on mythical and historical Jesus’s

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

I have frequently encountered claims that George Albert Wells has somehow had his Damascus Road experience and now believes that there was a historical Jesus somewhere at the start of it all. It is certainly a misrepresentation of what one reads in Wells’ own writings of 1999 when he was supposed to have published the details of his conversion in The Jesus Myth.

What Wells argues is that the Jesus of Paul and most early Christians was not historical. For Wells, Paul’s Jesus was a pre-existent being who descended to earth briefly in the flesh before returning to heaven. This was the Jesus of most of the earliest Christians. He was not historical.

There was one exception, and that was a Galilean community who produced Q.

In sum, the religious community responsible for Q cultivated the memory of a Jesus as their founder figure, an authoritative teacher who should be obeyed. (p.102)

Something like the Jesus of Q, rather than the Pauline Jesus, seems to have been what minority groups of Jewish Christians — branded as heretical by the Fathers — persisted in worshipping. (p.103)

Wells goes to pains to stress that the Jesus of Paul and most early Christians was not the same as the Jesus of Q. The name Jesus means Saviour and is a natural one to apply to any figure seen to be performing this role. Paul warned vociferously against others teaching another Jesus. So there was more than one floating around.

I have treated both the Galilean and the Cynic elements less skeptically in The Jesus Myth, allowing that they 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). (Earliest Christianity)

Wells also suggests that the author of the Gospel of Mark fused the two in an attempt to bring the minority Galilean community over to the majority Christian view of Jesus. Unlike the Q Jesus, Paul’s Jesus was a pre-existent being who descended to earth to die a salvific death. He was modelled on Jewish Wisdom figures and influenced by pagan mysteries.

the Jesus of the early epistles is not the Jesus of the gospels. The ministry of the latter may well be modelled on the career of an itinerant Galilean preacher of he early first century; the former derives largely from early Christian interpretation of Jewish Wisdom figures, with some influence from redeemer figures of pagan mystery religions. (p.112)

The Jesus of the religion of Christianity, the one who was crucified for our sins and resurrected, is the Jesus of Paul and, according to Wells, mythical. Mark attempted to fuse this Jesus with an itinerant Jesus of Galilee who left teachings in Q. Matthew and Luke incorporated those teachings in their gospels. But Christianity was widespread quite independently of any Q teacher, and the Q followers always remained a minority sect until their extinction.

The details of Jesus’ career in the gospels are so redolent of Elijah and Elisha and other OT figures, though, that I can’t see any room for a real person behind them at all. Otherwise, why not refer also to that person somewhere in there to which one is applying all those OT types? And if Q falls, then so does this small glimmer of a historical Jesus who seems to have accidentally intruded into a historical movement, a bit like Brian did in the Monty Python film of the Life of Brian.