Wednesday, November 2, 2016

G A Wells Is No Longer A Mythicist

Since this post has to do in large part with clarity and its lack, let me begin by explaining once again how I define historicism and mythicism, and by warning my readers that others may not always define these terms exactly the same way I do.

Historicism is summed up in the last 3 words of Bart Ehrman's book Did Jesus Exist, which would have made a much better, much less-misleading title for the book: "Jesus certainly existed."

Mythicism contains every other possible viewpoint on the matter: if you're convinced that Jesus never existed, you're a mythicist. if you're not sure whether he existed or not, like me and many of the most prominent mythicists, you're a mythicist.

In the 1970's and 1980's G A Wells was a mythicist, someone who said that it wasn't certain that the stories of Jesus were based on a real person.

In the 1990's he changed from a mythicist to an historicist, convinced that these stories began with an actual 1st-century Galilean preacher.

Many people have not noticed Wells' change from mythicism to historicism and continue to refer to him as a mythicist. Up until this post, I mistakenly referred to him as a mythicist, not having noticed his change. mea culpa. Last week, in the comments to my post 126 Writers Who, According To Michael Paulkovich, Should Have Mentioned Jesus If Jesus Existed, the irascible Tim O'Neill said to me that Wells has switched from mythicism to historicism, that he has become convinced that the hypothesized Q document, drawn upon by the authors of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, was based upon the life and teachings of a real person. I quoted a passage from Wells' 2004 book Can We Trust the New Testament? which, to me, seem to indicate that Wells had still been a mythicist when he wrote it.

O'Neill said, of the very same passage, that it demonstrated that

Wells abandoned the Mythicist position and admitted that the evidence is best explained by a historical figure.

That's right: I read a passage by Wells, and to me it seemed to say that he was a mythicist; O'Neill saw the very same passage and said it confirmed what he was saying: that Wells was now an historicist.

I decided that I had better read some more material by Wells before responding to Tim. So I read his book Cutting Jesus Down to Size, published in 2009, and sure enough, Wells not only said that he now believed that the Q document was based on an actual person. He also said:

"This is the position I have argued in my books of 1996, 1999, and 2004, although the titles of the first two of theses -- The Jesus Legend and The Jesus Myth -- may have mislead potential readers into supposing that I still denied the historicity of the Gospel Jesus." (Cutting Jesus Down to size, p 15)

Well, I had been, in fact, mislead. But I was hardly the only one: besides "potential readers," whoever wrote the book-jack blurb of The Jesus Legend, which begins: "Did Jesus actually exist as a historical personage[...]", as well as Wells' colleague R Joseph Hoffmann, who wrote the book's Foreword, which begins: "It is no longer possible to dismiss the thesis that Jesus of Nazareth never existed as the 'marginal indiscretion of lay amateurs,' (to paraphrase a sentence once imposed on Matthew Arnold’s biblical criticism by his theological critics). The direction of biblical criticism since Albert Schweitzer's day has circled back with dizzying regularity to the implied question of Jesus's existence but has sought without success to answer it." -- were either misled, or themselves seriously misleading, concerning Wells' place on the mythicist-to-historicist spectrum, or so it seems to me, harrumph harrumph.

In Cutting Jesus Down to Size, Wells repeatedly complains about both historicists and mythicists having misunderstood his position, and it would be hard, I should think, to read this most recent book of his and still be unclear on the matter. On p 327 Wells, complaining about P R Eddy and G A Boyd still think he's a mythicist, says that he belongs in their category 2: people who believe "that Jesus did exist but, as Bultmann argued, 'the reports we have of him are so unreliable and saturated with legend...that we can confidently ascertain very little historical information about him.'"

I apologize for my part in spreading the misconception that Wells has remained a mythicist, and I hope this clears that up.

And in case anyone was wondering: although Wells is no longer a mythicist, and hasn't been for 2 decades, I still am. It still seems to me that the default position of academia regarding Jesus is to assume that he existed, and to take any fairly reasonable hypothesis about how this may have been the case as evidence that it was the case. It still seems to me that there is much special pleading and begging the question going on here. I still have not experienced anything remotely resembling an "Aha! it DOES make sense, what they're saying when they insist Jesus existed!"-moment.

Not even close. Not any closer when Wells says so than when anybody else says it.

So: Wells was the last mythicist known to me whom I felt was doing solid work, except that he wasn't doing what I thought since the 80's. Now it turns out he's just one more historicist doing solid work, and I disagree with him on this one issue. I am isolated and embarrassed here. This exhaustion I'm feeling right now: is this anything like what Hoffmann has referred to as "Jesus fatigue"? (No, probably not.) In any event, I don't really feel like throwing myself wholeheartedly and full-time into Jesus Studies, to straighten this all out once and for all if no-one else will.

For now I think I'd rather spend some time boning up on my Livy. Unlike Q, his missing 136.95 books are much more than merely hypothesized. They did exist, and some part of them may well exist still.

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