I was saddened to learn of the death of George Albert Wells via a Facebook friend. The Guardian has an obituary by Martin Jones. Wells’ books challenging the historicity of Jesus were among the first that I read on the question and I have never found their basic arguments overturned. Earl Doherty had quite a different view of the Jesus of earliest Christianity and I enjoyed reading some of the exchanges or criticisms of each other’s arguments that appeared online. In later years Wells did accept that the Q sayings of Jesus originated with some form of “historical Jesus” — but I found his arguments there less cogent than his earlier work.
He became a lecturer in German at UCL in 1949, and was appointed head of department at Birkbeck in 1968. He retired in 1988.
George’s views on the historicity of Jesus – which he first denied, then accepted in a qualified form – were controversial. He published nine books on this subject between 1971 and 2009, most notably The Historical Evidence for Jesus (1982). His work in this field generated debate in the US, where he was awarded the title of Humanist Laureate by the International Academy of Humanism in 1983.
Robert Price includes a packed selection of arguments commonly raised to affirm Paul’s awareness of the teachings of Jesus along with the counterarguments. Little of this is new to many readers, but it seems appropriate to list the details as a sequel to my previous post that covered the main thrust of his argument in his chapter in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’
But first, I’ll cover the evidence he piles up in response to two reasons often given to explain why we don’t find explicit references to Jesus’ life and teaching in the letters. Price is collating these from G. A. Wells’ The Jesus of the Early Christians. (As Earl Doherty has further noted, the argument becomes even stronger when it is realized it applies not only to Paul’s writings but to the entire corpus of New Testament epistles.)
Jesus’ biographical details were irrelevant to the matters that happened to arise in occasional letters
Although I have encountered this assertion many times I have never seen it demonstrated. Without demonstration the statement becomes a mere brushing-aside of a serious question.
On the other hand, one readily finds cases raised that do support the counter-claim. Price several the following from Wells’ early book. It’s easy to make a list of these here as I do below, but that is only for the sake of information. What really counts is some way to test the alternative hypotheses. Before reading the list it is a good idea to do two things.
One, think through what one would expect to find in the data IF there were oral traditions making the rounds that relayed what Jesus was supposed to have said and done.
Two, think through what we would expect IF sayings were imputed to Jesus by various churches to add authority to their customs or teachings. (This was the conclusion of form critics like Rudolf Bultmann.)
In other words, ask what each hypothesis predicts we will find. It’s a while since I’ve posted on Richard Carrier’s Bayesian theory and when I resume (I still hope to resume posting on his book) the next post will discuss the importance of testing the hypotheses that oppose your own. The best way to strengthen your own argument, Carrier points out, is to demonstrate the inadequacies of those of your opponents. (This, by the way, is one reason I am slow on the uptake with theories of Christian origins that are heavy on proofs or arguments for their own point of view but almost totally ignore alternative explanations. Think of the caricature of the boy who looks only for hints that a girl likes him but ignores all evidence that points to a different state of affairs.)
So it always pays to be slightly more generous to the arguments for the side you are against if you want to demonstrate their comparative inadequacy to your own. Of course, there is always a risk that you’ll end up not being quite so dogmatic for one point of view as when you started, but life is full of risks.
This is an extract from my previous post. Since that post is very long there is a significant section there that I fear could easily be overlooked. Bart Ehrman has indignantly declared he read all of the books he discusses in his book Did Jesus Exist?
How, then, could he possibly have confused the mythicist argument of Wells with that of Doherty. The two are opposed to each other. But Ehrman appears to have picked up a garbled account and attributed half of Doherty’s argument to Wells!
Carrier says he could have kicked many more but that it was getting dark and the referee told him he had limited time.
Since beginning to write this post I have learned Richard Carrier has posted his own reply to Ehrman. But I have avoided reading his response so as to continue with my own thoughts for my own “review” of Ehrman’s book.
Here are the “errors of fact” Carrier kicked at Ehrman’s book, in order:
The Priapus Bronze
The Doherty Slander
The Pliny Confusion
The Pilate Error
The “No Records” Debacle
The Tacitus Question
The “Other Jesus” Conundrum
That Dying-and-Rising God Thing
The Baptism Blunder
The Dying Messiah Question
The Matter of Qualifications
Here are the “errors of fact” Ehrman attempted to defend, in order:
The Priapus Bronze, or Cocky Peter (Or: “A Cock and Bull Story”) (in a separate post)
The Matter of Qualifications
The Pilate Error
The Tacitus Question
The Dying and Rising God
The “Other Jesus” Conundrum
“No Roman Records”
The Doherty “Slander”
The Pliny Confusion
That means goalie Ehrman stood there texting on his mobile while two went through uncontested:
The Baptism Blunder
The Dying Messiah Question
Keep in mind that these “Errors of Fact” in Carrier’s critique of Ehrman’s book are not the only, nor even necessarily the most, serious faults in Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? But I cannot cover everything in one post so I deal with these before moving on in a future post to the even more significant errors and fallacies of Ehrman’s work. Continue reading “The Facts of the Matter: Carrier 9, Ehrman 1 (my review, part 2)”
I asked Earl Doherty a few questions about his background and what led him to his Christ myth views; his understanding of the relationship between atheism and mythicism, and atheism in genera; influences leading to his own distinctive views and public/scholarly reactions to the mythicism, and towards him personally; his place in the history of the Christ myth idea and what he sees as the future status of Christ-mythicism. I also asked him about his website and books, including his novel.
His responses address other mythicists such as G. A. Wells and Paul-Louis Couchoud, a few mythicism’s current critics, and his views on American novelist Vardis Fisher. (The name of this blog, Vridar, is taken from the autobiographical character in Vardis Fisher’s final novel in his Testament of Man series, Orphans in Gethsemane.)
I am sure others will find his replies as interesting as I did.
And a special thanks to Earl for making time to respond as he did. I include a link to his Age of Reason and Jesus Puzzle websites at the end of his responses to my questions.
1. What led to your interest in the Christ myth theory?
Earl D: In 1982 I read a couple of books by G. A. Wells, and I was quite taken aback. While I had vaguely heard of the ‘no historical Jesus’ idea during the 1970s, I tended to regard it as unlikely. Not, however, based on any particular knowledge of the subject. But that has enabled me to understand the automatic dismissal which the Christ myth theory usually receives from those who really know very little about it. In 1984, after finishing a novel I had been working on for some time, I began to read more widely, and soon decided I would undertake my own research of the question, perhaps with a view to writing my own book. While I have a high respect for Prof. Wells, I felt that the subject could use a different approach. Fortunately, I had studied ancient Greek in university during the 1960s, as part of a degree in ancient history and classical languages. I could build on that earlier education and supplement it with my own private study. Before long, I guess you could say it became an obsession. Continue reading “Interview with Earl Doherty”
I have been recently addressing some common misconceptions about mythicist arguments. Another one is that “mythicism” places strained interpretations on passages that refer to Jesus as “the seed of David” and as being “born of a woman.” This post does not explore all the ins and outs of the arguments, but briefly points to what is overlooked by many of the historicist critics.
Other misconceptions I have recently addressed:
Mythicism’s alleged reliance on arguments from silence and too many assumptions:
Anyone who is familiar with Earl Doherty’s site will probably find this post superfluous.
The mysterious origin of R. Joseph Hoffmann’s views of Doherty
Dr Jeffrey Gibson is on record as saying he has no intention of reading any of Doherty’s books but that did not prevent him from pulling out a critical line from Dr R. Joseph Hoffmann’s preface to a publication reissuing Goguel’s rebuttal of mythicism, and placing it in a Wikipedia article.
A “disciple” of Wells, Earl Doherty has rehashed many of the former’s [Wells’] views in The Jesus Puzzle (Age of Reason Publications, 2005) which is qualitatively and academically far inferior to anything so far written on the subject. . .
To call Doherty a “disciple of Wells” who has “rehashed” many of Wells’s ideas actually indicates that Hoffmann has never really read Doherty’s books at all. Maybe Hoffmann was relying on something he read by Eddy and Boyd who in The Jesus Legend very often append Doherty’s name to that of Wells when discussing the argument that Jesus was fiction. But read what Wells says about Eddy and Boyd’s confusion:
Earl Doherty belongs unequivocally in category 1 of Eddy and Boyd’s 3 [categories — category 1 includes those who think Jesus perhaps entirely fiction], and they make it easier for themselves to suggest that my ideas seem at first sight strange by repeatedly grouping me with him, even though they are in fact aware that I differ from him significantly. Doherty argues that, for Paul, the earliest witness, Jesus did not come to Earth at all, that, under the influence of the Platonic view of the universe, salvic events such as his crucifixion were believed to have taken place in a mythical spirit-world setting. I have never espoused this view, not even in my pre-1996 Jesus books, where I did deny Jesus’ historicity. (p. 328 of Cutting Jesus Down to Size by G. A. Wells)
So if Wells finds little in common between his arguments and Doherty’s, what does he say about Doherty’s work?
“In spite of our differences, Mr. Doherty has appraised my work generously, and for my part I regard his book as an important contribution…” (From Wells’ summation of a couple of give-and-take articles appearing in the British magazine “New Humanist” 1999-2000)
In this important book [Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle], the whole of this chapter on these second-century apologists repays careful study. But I find his conclusion too radical . . . (p.202)
Anyone who has followed Wells’ books over the years may well come to the conclusion that it is Wells who has come to rely quite heavily on Doherty in some aspects of the mythicist case — particularly the second-century apologists. As for the work being “academically inferior”, again one wonders if Hoffmann ever did read the same book that . . .
— Professor of Religious Studies at Misericordia University, Stevan Davies, read. Davies said of Doherty’s work:
But in going along with Earl I’ve learned more than by going along with anybody else whose ideas I’ve come across anywhere. . . .
Crossan, or Johnson, Allison or Sanders, can give you slightly different views of the standard view. Earl gives a completely different view. His is a new paradigm, theirs are shifts in focus within the old paradigm. From whom will you learn more? (See Crosstalk #5438 for the full quote)
— Or that Professor of Biblical Criticism with the Council for Secular Humanism’s Center for Inquiry Institute, Robert M. Price, read. Price has the strongest praise for Doherty’s books, especially his recent one in the Youtube video linked at my earlier article on Robert Price’s view.
— Or that Professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University, Hector Avalos, read. Avalos writes:
Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle outlines a plausible theory for a completely mythical Jesus. (See earlier post Legitimacy of questioning)
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.