Response to a critique of G.A. Wells

March 2012

Earl Doherty has commented at length on Robert Van Voorst's Jesus Outside the New Testament (William B. Eerdmans, 2000) on his "Jesus Puzzle" website ( Without claiming to add anything of substance to Doherty's analysis, I will indulge myself in some commentary of my own, limiting myself to Van Voorst's response to mythicist arguments (pp. 14-16).

He begins:

On what grounds have New Testament scholars and other historians rejected the nonexistence hypothesis?

That’s a revealing way to put the question. It presupposes a default position of historicity, putting the burden of proof on ahistoricists. Now, a case can be made for this presupposition. It is not indefensible. But it does need some defense if we are to have something like a real debate. The problem then becomes, though, that a defense of the presupposition is just a defense of historicity. And so we may rephrase Van Voorst’s rhetorical question thus:

On what grounds have New Testament scholars and other historians defended the hypothesis that Jesus actually existed?

He introduces his response in the next sentence:

Here we will summarize the main arguments used against Wells’s version of this [nonexistence] hypothesis, since his is both contemporary and similar to the others.

He is referring to G.A. Wells, the main proponent of ahistoricism before Doherty came along. Actually, Wells is no longer in the ahistoricist camp, but that’s OK. It is true, as best I can tell without having read his work, that some of his earlier arguments are fairly representative of those that ahistoricists in general still find persuasive. At any rate, I think that, in treating Van Voorst as typical of historicists, I’m at least as justified as he is in treating Wells as typical of ahistoricists.

We see again the presuppositional tactic. Historicists think it sufficient, as a defense of their position, to question the arguments of their opponents. That is to claim, in effect, that we should believe Jesus existed unless someone can prove otherwise. And that is quite arguably true outside the scholarly community. Most lay people are indeed justified in presuming that the scholarly consensus is correct, and the scholarly consensus does indeed affirm that, beyond reasonable doubt, Jesus did exist. But an appeal to scholarly consensus is not itself a scholarly argument. It works for lay people, but real scholars do not say, “All the authorities say X, therefore X,” if X is what they're trying to prove.

Let us then examine Van Voorst's case for the scholarly consensus. He begins:

First, Wells misinterprets Paul's relative silence about some details in the life of Jesus: the exact time of his life, the exact places of his ministry, that Pontius Pilate condemned him, and so forth.

But Paul is not relatively silent about some details. He is absolutely silent about almost all details. Unless one reads him with a presupposition that the gospel authors were writing about the same Jesus about whom Paul was writing (what Doherty calls "gospel-colored glasses"), one finds not a single assertion about anything Jesus said or did prior to his crucifixion. Paul is not inexact about the time of his life; he says not a word about his life. Paul is not inexact about the places of Jesus' ministry; he says not a word to the effect that Jesus even had a ministry. This is so anomalous that it has drawn expressions of puzzlement even from scholars who have no doubt of Jesus' historicity.

Next we get:

As every good student of history knows, it is wrong to suppose that what is unmentioned or undetailed did not exist. Arguments from silence about ancient times, here about the supposed lack of biblical or extrabiblical references to Jesus,  are especially perilous.

Quite so, although as Doherty points out, Van Voorst has no problem arguing from silence when it suits him.

Van Voorst is quite correct that we should not suppose that if X is not mentioned, then there was no X, but a proper argument from silence is not that supposition. A proper argument from silence goes like this: "We have good reason to believe that if X had been so, then we would have certain evidence for X. We don't have that evidence, so it is reasonabe to doubt that X was so." Of course a detractor can argue against the antecedent. Maybe we really don't have a good reason to expect the evidence, but that case needs to be made. The mere assertion, "We have no reason to think Paul should have mentioned X," counts for nothing against a good prima facie expectation of his mentioning X.

Finally on this point, Van Voorst tells us, "Almost all readers of Paul assume on good evidence that Paul regards Jesus as a historical figure, not a mythical or mystical one." This is rank question-begging. The only evidence that could possibly bring a reader to this conclusion is Christianity's historic orthodoxy: The church has always said so, therefore it is so. Aside from his own writings, we have zero evidence for what Paul could have been thinking. Other than his own words, all we have are the exegeses of the church fathers, and they don't start showing up until well over a century after Paul's lifetime.

We move on now to Van Voorst's next point.

Second, Wells argues that Christians invented the figure of  Jesus when they wrote the gospels outside Palestine around 100. Not only is this dating far too late for Mark . . . , Matthew, and Luke . . . , it cannot explain why the gospel references to details about Palestine are so plentiful and mostly accurate.

It certainly is not the consensus dating, but that doesn't falsify it. This is just more question-begging, proving orthodoxy by assuming orthodoxy. So is the assertion that "the gospel references to details about Palestine are so plentiful and mostly accurate." There are plenty of competent New Testament scholars who beg to differ about that. Even if it were provably true, there is no confirmed historical detail in any of the gospels of such a nature that it was improbable for a second-century writer to have been aware of it. Alleged counterexamples are only that: alleged, not demonstrated. The argument "They had to have been there" simply assumes its conclusion.

Then comes: "Third, Wells claims that the development of the Gospel traditions and historical difficulties within them show that Jesus did not exist." I have not read Wells, so I do not know whether he actually claims this. Shame on him if he does. Van Voorst is quite correct when he asserts, "However, development does not necessarily mean wholesale invention, and difficulties do not prove nonexistence." Of course they don't, but they do weaken the case for existence. There is no single datum in the historical record that proves Jesus' nonexistence, but the ahistoricist argument is a cumulative case. There are numerous facts in evidence that collectively entail, from a skeptical perspective, a high probability that Jesus of Nazareth, ostensible founder of Christianity, was not a real person. Those facts include, but are not limited to, those that show how the gospel traditions developed, because they give us reason to doubt that gospel authors were even attempting to write factual history.

Van Voost's next point is:

Fourth, Wells cannot explain to the satisfaction of historians why, if Christians invented the historical Jesus around the year 100, no pagans and others who opposed Christianity denied Jesus historicity or even questioned it.

What was he saying a minute ago about arguments from silence? To be fair, he does say, as he must, that the silence is inexplicable if there was no historical Jesus. But that is all he does. There is nothing here to indicate why the silence ought to surprise us. And, as it turns out, there is no reason we should be even a little bit surprised by the lack of any surviving documents in which Christianity's adversaries disputed Jesus' existence.

To begin with, I do not believe that "Christians invented the historical Jesus around the year 100." An early version of Mark's gospel might have been circulating in some Christian communities around that time, but even if it was, that did not constitute the invention of the historical Jesus, because Mark did not intend for his readers to think that the central character in his story was a historical person. What I think happened was that during the course of the second century, as Mark's and the other gospels gained in popularity, some Christians, first a few, then later more of them, came to believe that they were about the man who had founded their religion.

If this is what happened, we need to ask a few questions. Who would have argued with those Christians about the existence of their religion's founder? Who, among those who did argue with them, would have had factual evidence on which to base their disagreement? Who among them would have expressed their disagreement in writing? And who would have preserved those documents for long enough that they would have showed up in the historical paper trail?

If Paul had ever preached "Jesus of Nazareth suffered under Pontius Pilate," then some of his hearers might have been in a position to respond, "No, he didn't, because there was no such man." But Paul never said any such thing, and neither, so far as we can tell from the surviving documents, did any other Christian say it during the first century. By the second century, a few Christians were starting to say it, but then there was nobody still alive who could have known anything to the contrary. And neither did anyone need to know it if they wanted to discredit Christianity. To discredit Christianity, all that anyone has ever had to do was deny the resurrection. To any non-Christian during the second century, it was not prima facie implausible that Christianity had been founded by a charismatic Jewish preacher who was ignominiously executed by a Roman governor famous for his brutality toward Jews, given that Christians themselves were saying that that was how their religion got started. Second-century skeptics had no reason to doubt that part of the Christian story.

We can stipulate that there could have been a few exceptions. Perhaps a few people whose grandparents lived in Palestine before the First Jewish War would have thought, "How come we never heard about any of this until just now?" It seems improbable to me, but let's go with it. We still need to establish a motivation for some of those people to have put those thoughts in writing, and then for one or both of two things to have happened next: (1) Other people in later years would have copied those writings or (2) Christians would have responded to those writings. If neither of those things happened, then any number of people could have been saying "We'd have heard about him if he been real" without our having a shred of evidence for it.

We do know about some writings against Christianity that were not preserved for the historical record. We know about them because, in writings that did get preserved, Christians responded to them. Thus we know, for example, about Celsus, because Origen, in the mid-third century, decided (with some reluctance, to hear him tell it) to write a rebuttal to something Celsus wrote in the late second century called The True Word, of which no copies survive. Had Origen decided instead not to bother, we would not even know that Celsus ever existed. Now, The True Word seems to be the earliest known writing in which anybody presented an extended argument against Christianity. It appeared at around the same time that Irenaeus was working on his Adversus Haereses, which contains the earliest unambiguous reference to the canonical gospels. By Celsus' time, then, Christians, or at least a great many of them, had accepted the gospels as a true history of their religion's beginnings, and although anybody, including Celsus, might have questioned many of the specifics of the narratives, none would have had reason to think that the central character of those narratives never even existed. But the main point here is: It took over half a century for any Christian to even write a response to Celsus, or at least a response that did not vanish without a historical trace. Thus it hardly defies imagination to think that if there ever was a second-century document challenging Jesus' historicity merely on the basis of "We never heard about him," Christians would either have ignored it entirely or, if they wrote a response, that response was not preserved.

We now come to Van Voorst's next point.

Fifth, Wells and his predecessors have been far too skeptical about the value of non-Christian witnesses to Jesus, especially Tacitus and Josephus. They point to well-known text-critical and source-critical problems in these witnesses and argue that these problems rule out the entire value of these passages, ignoring the strong consensus that most of these passages are basically trustworthy.

Calling them "witnesses to Jesus" is more question-begging. There is no way either of them could have been a witness to Jesus himself, because neither was alive at the time Jesus allegedly was. I won't argue here about the authenticity of the Josephan references, since that has been done to death elsewhere. What I say here about Tacitus will apply as well to anything that Josephus or any other non-Christian might have said about Jesus. And that is this: We do not know where Tacitus got his information, because he does not say where he got it, but it is reasonable to suppose that he got it from Christians. And what that means is: He is a witness to what Christians believed at the time he was writing, and nothing more than that. I am not one of those skeptics who dismiss anything any Christian ever said as a lie, but neither can I assume that whatever a Christian says must be true. If Christians in Tacitus's day believed their religion's founder was crucified by Pontius Pilate, then maybe they had good reason to believe that. Or maybe they didn't. Whether they did or did not is a question that needs answering, and we cannot settle the issue by saying, "Well, Tacitus took their word for it, so it must have been true." We need to settle it by examining evidence that is independent of what Tacitus was prepared to believe about a religion that was, in his own opinion, a "mischievous superstition."

We now come to the genetic fallacy. According to Van Voorst:

Sixth, Wells and others seem to have advanced the nonhistoricity hypothesis not for objective reasons, but for highly tendentious, anti-religious purposes. It has been a weapon of those who oppose the Christian faith in almost any form, from radical Deists, to Freethought advocates, to radical secular humanists and activist atheists like Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

I never paid much attention to Madalyn O'Hair. I have heard that she came to doubt Jesus' existence during the later part of her life, but I also remember reading an interview she did during the 1960s in which she expressed a firm belief in his existence. That, obviously, did not make her feel the least bit friendly toward Christianity. Neither does anyone else need to question Jesus' existence in order to debunk the religion he is supposed to have founded.

Whether we have any objective reasons for questioning it is not an issue to be settled by impugning our motives. Those objective reasons either exist or not, and they either prove or don't prove what we think they prove, quite regardless of our personal reasons for accepting them. I lost my faith in Jesus 30 years before I started doubting his existence. There are plenty of unkind things I could say about why Christians think the Bible is the inspired word of God, but I don't often say them because, even if they are true, they have nothing to do with whether anyone might be justified in believing that the Bible is the inspired word of God.

Van Voost concludes:

Finally, Wells and his predecessors have failed to advance other, credible hypotheses to account for the birth of Christianity and the fashioning of a historical Christ.

Obviously, those other hypotheses are not credible to Christians. Neither, we may note, are they credible to the vast majority of non-Christians, who for the most part are hardly less contemptuous of us ahistoricists than are hard-core fundamentalists.

In one sense, credibility is strictly in the eye of the beholder. If you are unable to believe a hypothesis, then by definition it is not, for you, a credible hypothesis, and that will be so regardless of whatever might be the reason for your inability. In a broader sense, though, a claim that some hypothesis is not credible needs a better defense than the simple observation that hardly anyone does believe it. The claim needs to demonstrate some problem with the hypothesis that renders it logically inconsistent with one or more facts that are generally uncontested—facts that are accepted, antecedently to the debate, by both sides of the debate. Van Voorst has offered no such demonstration, and neither to my knowledge has any other historicist.

Van Voorst also pokes at a straw man with his reference to "the fashioning of a historical Christ." It suggests that an ahistorical Jesus would have been a fradulent Jesus. Responsible mythicists are not claiming that the gospel stories were told originally to make anybody think that the Christ had been a man of history. The transition in Christian thinking from a fictional Jesus to a historical Jesus was a mistake, nothing more, and there is nothing prima facie improbable, absent orthodox presuppositions, about their having made such a mistake. Of course Christians won't find it credible, but nobody else has any good reason to think it couldn't have happened, and there are plenty of reasons to think it probably did happen.

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