Jesus in History and Myth

By R. Joseph Hoffmann; Gerald A. Larue | Go to book overview

G. A. Wells


The Historicity of Jesus

It is customary today to dismiss with amused contempt the suggestion that Jesus never existed. The question was hotly debated at the beginning of this century, 1 and scholars who at that time denied his historicity impaired their case in three ways: they tried to explain away his biography by unduly stressing its parallels with the lives of pagan gods, thus obscuring the fact that, as Christianity is Jewish in origin, it is its Jewish background that is primarily important; they set aside as interpolations all passages they found inconvenient, particularly those in the New Testament books written earlier than the gospels that might be taken as confirming the record of the gospels; and they were sometimes badly wrong in their dating of the documents, misled here by radical Dutch theologians of the day (e.g., W. C. van Manen) who regarded all the Pauline letters, the earliest witnesses to a human Jesus, as second-century forgeries. The tone of the whole controversy was also highly polemical and lacking in the detachment necessary for fruitful inquiry. Because a defective case was argued seventy years ago, most scholars today think it certain that Jesus did exist. I shall try to show that, whatever the final upshot of the debate may be, there are good reasons for at least doubting this.

The sparse notices of Jesus from pagan or Jewish writers are too late in their dates of origin to be accepted as evidence independent of Christian tradition. Tacitus, for instance, merely repeated in the second century what Christians already believed about Christ. The references to Jesus in the Talmud also date only from the beginning of the second century. 2 There are admittedly two passages about him in the first-century Jewish historian Josephus. But no one can accept the glowing paragraph that is the longer of these two as from the hand of this orthodox Jew, and it has to be regarded as being at best a Christian reworking of a passage original

____________________
G. A. Wells is Professor of German at Birkbeck College, University of London.

-27-

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