Who Was Jesus--Prof. G. A. Wells

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Who Was Jesus:  a Critique of New Testament Records

Open Court, La Salle, Illinois, 1989

George Albert Wells




Non-Christian evidence is too late to give any independent support to the gospels.  When Tacitus wrote (about AD 120) that “Christ” was executed under Pontius Pilate, he was merely repeating what Chris­tians were by then saying (HEJ, pp. 16—17; France, pp. 21-23).  The other pagan writer commonly adduced is Suetonius who wrote, also around AD 120, that Claudius (who reigned AD 41-54) expelled Jews from Rome because “they constantly made disturbances at the in­stigation of Chrestus”.  Many commentators think that, by ‘Chrestus’, Suetonius really meant ‘Christus’ (the Messiah); and Watson has con­vincingly argued that the disorders to which Suetonius here refers were caused by controversy between orthodox Jews and Jewish Christians at Rome about the truth or falsehood of Christianity.30 No more about the ‘historical’ Jesus need have been included in this Christianity of Claudius’s day than what extant Christian writers (Paul and others) were saying on the subject before the gospels became established much later in the first century; and that, as we saw (above, pp. 6f) does not confirm the gospels’ portraits of Jesus. Suetonius also mentions Nero’s persecution of Christians at Rome, but, as France notes, tells us nothing more than what we already know about this from Tacitus, and “nothing about Jesus himself” (p. 42).  Pliny, as I have noted elsewhere (HEJ, p. 16), is equally unhelpful in the latter regard, as France (p. 43) agrees.

Rabbinic references to Jesus are entirely dependent on Christian claims, as both Christian and Jewish scholars have conceded.  I quote Sandmel and Bornkamm, among others, to this effect in DiE, p. 12.  France, who gives no indication that this is the view of reputable scholars, regards what I say there as “dogmatic scepticism” (p. 39).  Catchpole, however, in a thorough survey, gives the arguments of seven Jewish scholars who, between 1929 and 1963, totally dis­missed, with varying degrees of firmness, the Talmudic evidence on Jesus.3’ I note in DJE (pp. 12, 16) that even Goldstein, who accepts as “authentic” five passages about Jesus in the “vast” rabbinic literature of the first two and a quarter centuries AD, admits that they do not conclusively establish even that he existed at all, as none of them can be shown to be sufficiently early.

Appeal is still commonly made to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, in whose Antiquities of the Jews it is suggested that Jesus was more than human, and where he is said to have been “the Christ”, a “doer of marvellous deeds” condemned to crucifixion by Pilate “upon an indictment brought by the principal men among us”.  But a Pharisee such as Josephus would not have written so admiring­ly of him, nor have dropped the subject abruptly had he believed all this of him.  The passage as it stands was obviously interpolated by a Christian writer there are only three manuscripts of the chapter in which it occurs, none of them earlier than the eleventh century and the only remaining question is whether the whole is an interpolation, or whether Josephus at this point made some mention of Jesus which was later reworked by a Christian hand.  Conzelmann, in a standard religious encyclopaedia, says that the whole is an interpolation;” and Paul Winter; in the recent revision of Schurer’s book (p. 433), names other “scholars of established reputation” who likewise consider the passage a complete fabrication”.  Even if, as Winter himself and many others suppose, part of the passage was written by Josephus, its date (about AD 93) makes it too late to be of decisive importance, for the gospel account was already in written form by then, and Josephus could, like Tacitus, have taken his information from what Christians were by then saying.33

            Winter allows that, even though the passage includes what he regards as “certain terms of speech, however fragmentary that can be ascribed to Josephus, it is not possible to reconstruct what Josephus may originally have written at this point (pp. 434, 438).  The Josephan ‘terms of speech’ may, as Herrmann holds, be there because the passage was added by someone who knew Josephus’s style and made a pastiche from it.34   France (p. 28) distorts the case I have made elsewhere for excising the whole passage when he says that my argu­ment implies that all Josephus’s stories about Pilate must occur together, in unbroken sequence, so that everything after the Jesus passage but in the same chapter will also have to go, as Josephus returns to Pilate only at the beginning of the next chapter. In fact my argument (in JEC, pp. 191—92 and DJE, p. 10) was that the Jesus passage occurs in a context which deals exclusively with the misfortunes of the Jews (only some of which are attributed to Pilate) and that Jesus’s condemnation by Pilate at the behest of the Jewish leaders has no connection with such misfortunes except from the standpoint a Christian, who would naturally regard this crime as the greatest misfortune ever to have befallen the Jews.  If the whole passage is removed, there remains a coherent account of a series of their misfortunes—first, two instigated by Pilate, then (after the passage about Jesus) “another sad calamity which put the Jews into disorder”, followed by yet another (4,000 Jews banished from Rome for the wickedness of four).35

Josephus’s only other mention of Jesus occurs in a statement about the killing of James, “the brother of Jesus, him called Christ”.  This, if genuine and not a Christian interpolation, does nothing to confirm the gospel accounts of Jesus, and its late date makes it only marginally relevant to the question of his historicity.  France, like many others, has pleaded (p. 27) that no Christian interpolator would have been content to designate Jesus as ‘him called Christ’.  In fact, however, Matthew, in a passage where he introduces Jesus to his readers, refers to him with these very words (1:16); and at John 4:25-26 Jesus claims to be the person who has just been referred to as “him called Christ”, so that Christian use of the phrase is well at­tested.  Indeed, it would be remarkable from an orthodox Jew such as Josephus, who might be expected to have qualified it with something like ‘called Christ by some’.  (Cf. Herrmann, pp. 101—02 for this and further evidence for interpolation).  Also, Origen’s comments on Josephus’s mention of James do not really square with this passage (see JEC, pp. 193-94 and France’s concession, p. 172 n.14).  It is readi­ly understood as a marginal gloss, from a Christian hand, incor­porated innocently into the text by a later copyist (see DJE, p. 11).

The manner in which apologists exaggerate the significance of non-Christian evidence which they take as pertaining to the events recorded in the gospels is well illustrated by Habermas’s statement that “within 100 to 150 years after the birth of Christ approximately eighteen non-Christian . . . sources from secular history mention . . . almost every major detail of Jesus’ life, including Resurrection, and his claim to be deity”.36 It is all the more striking that so many of the earliest Christian documents do not do the same, but say nothing of any item in his biography except his crucifixion and resurrection (both in unspecified circumstances). And contrary to Habermas’s suggestion, there is no early non-Christian evidence concerning the Resurrection.  As the theologian Ulrich Wilckens has noted, “for the first century we are, without exception, forced to rely on the testimony of the Christians” on this matter: “There are no non-Christian witnesses of any sort who could give us information about the resurrection of Jesus and his appearances, or comment from a non-Christian aspect on the statements made about the resurrection by the early Christians” ~ As for Jesus’s “claims to be deity”, these are not merely absent from but even incompatible with the earliest Chris­tian documents, where he figures as a supernatural personage higher in status than the angels, yet subordinate to the Father, to whom he will finally deliver up the kingdom (1 Corinthians 15:24 and 28), and himself then be merely the first-born among many brothers (Romans 8:29).38

          One of Habermas’s 18 secular sources on the life of Jesus is Thallus, who, he claims, mentioned “the darkness and the events sur­rounding the Crucifixion. . . about AD 52” (p. 106).  Thallus’s History has not survived, and only a few references to it in Christian writers are extant.  Of these the one that Habermas has in mind is Julius Africanus’s statement in the third century, apropos of the three-hour darkness from noon which covered the earth at Jesus’s crucifixion (Mark 15:33): “Thallus says—wrongly it seems to me—that this darkness was an eclipse of the sun”.  Jacoby, who prints Africanus’s quotation and who comments on it in a companion volume, notes that Thallus may in fact have made no mention at all of Jesus or Jewish history, but simply have recorded (as other chroniclers did) the eclipse in the reign of Tiberius for which astronomers have calculated the date 24 November AD.  It may have been Africanus who introduced Jesus in retorting that this was no eclipse but a super­natural event.  If, however, Thallus did mention the death of Jesus, then his testimony would be important if it antedated the gospel traditions.  But all we in fact know of him is that he wrote later than the eclipse he mentions and probably before Phlegon, the freedman of Hadrian (if Eusebius is right in asserting that Phlegon drew his in­formation about the same eclipse from Thallus).  Jacoby says that Christian writers were drawn to Thallus’s History because it “was the latest thing and appeared only in the second century”.  Thus if he mentioned the crucifixion at all, he probably derived his information from what Christians were already saying, and is therefore not an in­dependent witness.  Conzelmann’s article on Jesus in a standard religious encyclopaedia notes curtly that ‘Thallus cannot be con­sidered as witnessing” to events in the life of Jesus.40

The three-hour darkness at Jesus’s death cannot, in the passover context in which it is set in the gospels, have been a solar eclipse, as the Passover is celebrated about the time of the full moon, and solar eclipses can occur only at the time of the new moon.  The evangelists of course do not intend to represent the darkness as naturally caused, but as “a miraculous portent, no doubt signifying the judgment of heaven on what was taking place” (Nineham, p. 426).  Nineham adds that similar portents are said to have marked the deaths of Julius Caesar and other pagan figures, and also of some of the great rabbis.




According to Karl Barth, we “rightly turn up our nose” at the many inconsistencies “in the attempts of liberal theologians to explain belief in the resurrection naturalistically”1 If inconsistencies are a ground for scornful rejection, then it will fare ill with the New Testament ac­counts of the Resurrection.  A. E. Harvey notes in his The New English Bible Companion to the New Testament (Oxford and Cam­bridge University Presses, 1970, p. 297)--hardly a sceptical work that “all the gospels, after having run closely together in their accounts of the trial and execution, diverge markedly when they come to the circumstances of the resurrection, and it is impossible to fit their accounts together into a single coherent scheme”.  Fuller gives a brief summary of what he calls the “palpable inconsistencies” (pp. 2—5), and early this century they were set out in detail by the Zurich theologian P. W. Schmiedel, who gives ample evidence that on this matter “the canonical gospels are at irreconcilable variance with each other” and that the non-canonical notices “serve to show how busily and in how reckless a manner the accounts of the resurrection of Jesus continued to be handed on”.2 Karl Barth’s way out of all this is that we ought not to ask for evidence for the Resurrection, but should believe on faith alone; to which another theologian, Paul Badham, has appositely replied: “A faith which claims something which happened in the past is important cannot evade historical scrutiny of that claim.”3

            Strauss emphasized how glaring the contradictions are when he declared, of the Resurrection; “Rarely has an incredible fact been worse attested, and never has a badly attested one been intrinsically less credible”.4  Matthew makes Jesus’s appearances to his disciples oc­cur exclusively in Galilee, while Luke sites them exclusively 80 miles away at Jerusalem.  (The final redactor of the fourth gospel tries to harmonize such discrepant traditions by appending a chapter of Galilean appearances, John 21, to a chapter of Jerusalem ap­pearances.) I know that witnesses of an event can give discrepant ac­counts of it, but one would not expect the discrepancies to extend to essentials.  If one witness of a street accident affirmed that it took place in London, we should not expect another to site it in Birm­ingham.  If we were faced with such discrepant reports, and also had no other evidence that there had been any accident, we should dismiss the whole thing.  But this is our position in regard to the Resurrection.  As Elliott has said: “There is no independent witness to the Easter events outside the New Testament” (p. 84).

The documents make it clear that the Christophanies were not vouchsafed to enemies, only to those who either already believed or subsequently became believers.  As Elliott puts it: “Jesus in his resur­rected state is visible only to those who have faith” (p. 86); or, in the wording of the New Testament itself, only to “witnesses who were chosen before of God” (Acts 10:40-41).  According to Acts, the ap­pearances of the risen Jesus went on for 40 days.  This feature con­tradicts even Luke (by the same author), which ends with Jesus leading his disciples on Easter day, after numerous appearances to them, from Jerusalem to the neighbouring locality of Bethany, where he solemnly blesses them with uplifted hands before “he parted from them and was carried up into heaven”—on that same day.  Some manuscripts have only “he parted from them”, but Fuller concedes, after discussing the manuscript evidence, that the words reporting the ascension are “textually Lucan and integral to the narrative” (p. 122).  Evidently some copyists deleted them in order to represent the parting as only temporary and thus avoid contradicting Acts where the author seems to be drawing on a tradition not available when he wrote his gospel, and one on which he gladly seized because, while occasional appearances of the risen one might be dismissed by scep­tics as hallucinations, a sojourn of forty days, during which he presented “many proofs” (Acts 1:3), was more substantial.

Conservative apologists admit what they call “apparent dis­crepancies” in the evidence for the Resurrection, but point out that certain cardinal facts are independent of them: all the accounts agree, for instance, that Jesus was crucified and subsequently raised.  But this amount of agreement is frequently found in stories admittedly mythical.  Historians agree that Wilhelm Tell is a legendary figure, but there are chronicles enough telling discrepant stories of how he founded the Swiss Confederation.  Reverting to my example of a street accident, I would note that the conservative position implies that, although those who claim to be witnesses disagree even as to where it happened, and although there are no injured people, damaged vehicles or indeed any evidence apart from their discordant testimony, we are nevertheless to believe that an accident did occur.  Scholars who today still defend Jesus’s virgin birth as historical fact are obliged to resort to this manner of arguing: as we shall see, the event is documented only in the two nativity stories of Matthew and Luke (not elsewhere in the New Testament), and each of these stories is incompatible with the other, as well as being full of its own dif­ficulties.  But they agree in alleging that Jesus was virgin born.  Such minimal agreement between narratives with.  no historical basis is, however, what one would expect if for some reason certain beliefs about Jesus and about Tell had come to be accepted and if believers then, independently of each other, tried to envisage historical circumstances which would justify these beliefs.

The discrepancies in the gospel accounts of the Resurrection events are not mere muddle but arise because one evangelist pursues theological purposes alien to another.  For Luke, Jerusalem is of great theological importance,5 and in order to place the appearances there he amends the Marcan narrative at two points.  First he omits the record at Mark 14:28 of Jesus’s prediction (during the walk to Gethsemane after the Last Supper) that after his Resurrection he would go before his disciples into Galilee.  Then he rewords what Mark had recorded as the instruction to the women at the empty tomb.  Mark has:


Go, tell his disciples and Peter, He goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him, as he said unto you (16:7).


In Luke this appears as:


Remember how he spake unto you, when he was yet in Galilee, saying that the Son of man must be . . . crucified, and the third day rise again (24:6-7).



Having thus eliminated the instruction that the disciples should go to Galilee, Luke goes on to make the risen Jesus tell them to remain in Jerusalem “until ye be clothed with power from on high” (24:49), which he represents (at Acts 2:1—4) as happening at Pentecost, that is, some fifty days later.

          Theologians speak in this connection of Luke’s ‘editing’ of Mark; but we can hardly feel confidence in a writer whose theological pur­pose leads him to adapt a source so as to obliterate its plain meaning.  As Evans has said, “it is not natural confusion but rather the lack of it, and the influence of rational reflection and apologetic” which have given rise to such contradictions (p. 129).

The best manuscripts of Mark end at 16:8.  The remainder of chapter 16 is an appendix (distinguished as such in the RV, the RSV, and the NEB) which makes the risen Jesus promise (among other things) that believers will be able to handle snakes and drink deadly poison without coming to harm.  Up to 16:8, there have been no ap­pearances of the risen one.  The women visitors to the tomb have discovered it to be empty, and have been instructed there by “a young man arrayed in a white robe” to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to experience an appearance.  In Luke, the “young man becomes “two men in dazzling apparel”, and in Matthew he is called an “angel”.  Commentators point out that this is the meaning in all three gospels, as ‘young man’ sometimes designates an angel in an­cient Jewish literature, and in the New Testament men in white and/or radiant clothes are always heavenly beings. In John (20:12) there are two angels.  Commentators are apt to say that we have here various accounts, the exact details of which are not important.  Of course the details are unimportant if the important fact is admitted that Jesus had risen from the dead and that real angels stood by his tomb and spoke to the women.  If we accept all this, it does not mat­ter whether there was one angel or two, whether they were outside the tomb or within.

Mark continues by representing the women as too afraid to deliver the young man’s message to the disciples, so that “they said nothing to anyone”.  Fuller, like many others, thinks that the empty tomb story is no part of the early tradition, but “a later legend, in­troduced by Mark for the first time into the narrative” (p. 52).  And it has often been suggested that Mark’s motive for making the women keep silent was to account for the fact that, as he well knew, there was no already existing tradition about an empty tomb when he wrote.  As Lampe says: “The fact that the women do not pass the message on may suggest that the evangelist, or his source, knew that the story of the tomb and the angel was not part of the original Easter proclamation and had only developed at a relatively late stage in the tradition” (p. 48).

Whatever Mark’s motive may have been, Luke reworded this passage so as to make it lead in to the Jerusalem appearances he has added to Mark:


Mark 16:8

And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and aston­ishment had come upon them: and they said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid.

Luke 24:9

And they returned from the tomb and told all these things to the elev­en, and to all the rest.


         I do not mean to suggest that Luke is here concocting a narrative he knew to be false. As he was convinced that it was “beginning from Jerusalem” that the Christian mission went forward to “all the nations” (Luke 24:47), he will naturally have supposed that his predecessor had got his facts a bit wrong, and so will have amended the Marcan narrative in perfectly good faith.  One thing that this kind of ‘editing’ clearly indicates is that Mark’s gospel was not regarded as authoritatively based on reliable eyewitness information.

If we turn from Luke to Matthew, we find similarly a narrative shaped by conscious purpose.  Matthew has decided to have the sepulchre guarded by Jewish (or Roman) soldiers so as to prevent the Jews from alleging, when it is later seen to be empty, that disciples stole their master’s body and merely pretended that he had risen from the dead (Matthew 27:62—66).  In consequence, Matthew cannot ac­cept Mark’s statement that the women expected to enter the tomb (to anoint the body) and has to represent them as intending merely to visit it (28:1).  Before they can look inside it, the guard has to be put out of action; hence the need for the “great earthquake” of the next verse caused not by any natural seismic conditions, but by the de­scent from heaven of “an angel of the Lord” who both rolls away the stone sealing the tomb and pet rifies the guards with fear.  But why did not these soldiers, once they had recovered, tell of what they had seen and thus make it difficult for the Jews to deny the fact of the Resurrection?  To provide a plausible answer to this question, Mat­thew has it that the chief priests persuaded the guards with bribes to pretend that they had slept on duty and thus given Jesus’s disciples a chance to steal the body.  The guards “took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying was spread abroad among the Jews and continueth until this day” (28:15).  This is psychologically quite {29}



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