Armed with his own reconstruction, Wells concludes that the historical facts of Jesus’ life were mostly a later addition to the New Testament, since Paul, the author of the earliest books, did not know and was not too interested in such details. Neither did the earliest Christians emphasize the historical Jesus, but only the divine Christ who was little different from the mystery gods of other ancient peoples. Besides the mystery religions, Jewish wisdom concepts helped to inspire the early picture of Jesus.
It is thus possible that Jesus never existed at all or, if he did, that he attracted very little attention. At any rate, Christianity got its start, according to Wells, without any contact with a historical Jesus who supposedly died about 30 AD, because “only in later documents is his sojourn on earth assigned to a specific time and place.” Nothing precise was known about him, since no firsthand information is presented in the New Testament.^5
1. Early interest in historical Jesus
Of the numerous problems with Wells’ thesis, we will mention five major points here. First and perhaps most important, the earliest books of the New Testament exhibit sufficient interest in the life of the historical Jesus, especially in his death and resurrection. This includes the preservation of eyewitness testimony to these facts.
It is no coincidence that Paul is the author who includes one of the most important indications of this interest in 1 Corinthians 15:3ff.,^6 where he incorporates a very early Christian creed that is much older than the book in which it appears.
3 Wells, “Was Jesus Crucified Under Pilate?” pp. 22, 25. Details are included in Did Jesus Exist?, chapter 5.
4 Besides his discussion in Did Jesus Exist?, cf. “Was Jesus Crucified Under Pilate?” pp. 24, 26.
5 Wells, “Was Jesus Crucified Under Pilate?” pp. 22, 24–26.
6 This text is so important and figures so prominently in contemporary critical discussions, that we will devote a lengthy portion of chapter 7 to the subject. Here we will only be able to hint at some of the relevant details. The reader interested in some of the more scholarly particulars should consult the later chapter.
Such early traditions appear frequently in the New Testament and consist of oral teachings and proclamations that were repeated until recorded in the book itself. These creeds, then, actually predate the New Testament writings in which they occur. This particular tradition reports the death, burial, resurrection, and appearances of Jesus, reciting that he rose the third day after his death. A list of persons to whom he appeared then follows.
This confession links the historical life of Jesus, and the central Christian message of the gospel, in particular (vv. 3–4), with those eyewitnesses who testified to his resurrection appearances, beginning on the third day after his death (vv. 5–7). In addition, Paul had not only met some of these witnesses personally (Gal. 1:18–19; 2:9), but he explains that his message concerning these facts is identical with their eyewitness testimony (1 Cor. 15:11; cf. 15:14, 15). So the eyewitnesses of Jesus, and especially of his resurrection, were relating the same findings as Paul. It is crucially important that this information is very close to the actual events, and therefore cannot be dismissed as late material or as hearsay evidence. Critics not only admit this data, but were the first ones to recognize the early date.^7