Very few scholars hold the view that Jesus never lived. This conclusion is generally regarded as a blatant misuse of the available historical data. Even Rudolf Bultmann, in his program of demythologizing the New Testament, said, “By no means are we at the mercy of those who doubt or deny that Jesus ever lived.”^1
However, this idea is a persistent one and does appear from time to time. This especially seems to be the case with more popular treatments of the life of Jesus. What would such an argument look like? Here we will examine the views of two scholars who hold such a position.
In several recent writings,^2 G.A. Wells has explained his position that Jesus may be a historical personage, although an obscure one. He even asserts the possibility that Jesus never existed at all, but that New Testament authors patterned his story after the ancient mystery religions.
A central theme in Wells’ writings is the chronological order of the New Testament books, an arrangement that supposedly reveals much Christological development. Wells delineates four stages, the earliest being Paul’s epistles, all of which were written before AD 60. These are followed by the non-Pauline canonical epistles, then the pastoral epistles and non-canonical writings of Ignatius, with the fourth stage being the Gospels. With the exception of Paul’s epistles, Wells believes that the rest of these books are rather late. He dates the last three stages between AD 70 and 120.
Wells believes that the comparative lack of historical details about Jesus in Paul’s writings meant that he knew virtually nothing about Jesus’ life, including neither the time of his birth, death, nor when the reported resurrection appearances occurred. Paul is said to have conceived of Jesus as “a supernatural being who spent
1 Rudolf Bultmann, “The Study of the Synoptic Gospels,” in Form Criticism, transl. by Frederick C. Grant (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1962), p. 60.
2 Wells’ thesis is set forth in several writings, such as: Did Jesus Exist?(Buffalo:Prometheus, 1975); The Historical Evidence for Jesus(Buffalo: Prometheus, 1982); “Was Jesus Crucified Under Pontius Pilate? Did He Even Live at All?” The Humanist, vol. XXXVIII, no. 1, January-February, 1978, pp. 22–27.
From Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus – Ancient Evidence For The Life Of Christ (in print at Amazon)
a brief and obscure period on earth in human form and was crucified,” perhaps even centuries before Paul’s own time.^3
The second stage of New Testament writings, the non-Pauline epistles, denotes a slight shift in thinking. They assert that Jesus lived on earth recently, an element that Wells believes is absent from Paul altogether. The pastoral epistles and Ignatius’ non-canonical writings indicate a later stage in the early second century when Jesus was linked with the governorship of Pilate, meeting his death at Roman hands. The Gospels, which are more-or-less fabricated, represent the fourth stage in which there is an interest in a full history of Jesus. According to Wells, the early church simply accepted any reconstruction of Jesus’ life as long as there was no conflict with other well-established beliefs. Mark was the earliest Gospel (AD 90), followed by Matthew and Luke, with John being the last one written (early second century).^4