Jesus Doesn’t Want You to Fact-check

The Bible is a fact-checker’s nightmare

We are able to get along in the world to the extent we grasp the importance of fact-checking. Whether it’s buying a house, a new appliance, insurance, or checking out colleges for the kids, we usually aren’t satisfied with taking the word of the salesman. We’re willing to do some research to find out the quality of the product or service. Even if it’s deciding what movies to watch, why not read the reviews? 


But this same level of scrutiny is seldom applied in the realm of religion. Those brought up in religious environments—Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Mormon, Jewish, or whatever—are not usually encouraged to challenge or question the “truth” imparted by parents and religious authorities. Indeed, religious indoctrination from an early age is meant to guard against the invasion of doubt or skepticism: “Here’s our god’s honest truth, hold fast to it your whole life—if you know what’s good for you!”



Chances are, however, this is bluff and bravado—we can see this in our time when fact-checking has become standard practice is so many areas of life. “Take our word for it” has been the appeal of religious leaders for millennia. In fact, we can be sure this is how all religions got off the ground. Richard Carrier has described the situation with Christianity especially:


“When we pore over all the [early Christian] documents that survive, we find no evidence that any Christian convert did any fact-checking before converting or even would have done so. We can rarely even establish that they could have, had they wanted to.” (The End of Christianity, edited by John Loftus, p. 62)


Carrier has described the era when Christianity arose:


“There is abundant evidence that these were times replete with kooks and quacks of all varieties, from sincere lunatics to ingenious frauds, even innocent men mistaken for divine, and there was no end to the fools and loons who would follow and praise them. Placed in this context, the gospels no longer seem to be so remarkable, and this leads us to an important fact: when the Gospels were written, skeptics and informed or critical minds were a small minority.”


Even today, it would seem, there is little skepticism about the gospels among church folks. After all, these documents are part of the inspired word of their god. So they can be trusted, we don’t need to fact-check them. But this is awkward: there are so many gospels texts that many Christians themselves stumble over. Surely something is wrong; in this case they might welcome fact-checking. Let’s look at a few examples.


Mark 4:10-12:

“When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret [or mystery] of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything comes in parables, in order that they may indeed look but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”

Is it really possible that Jesus bragged to his disciples that he taught in parables to prevent people from repenting? The main thrust of Mark’s gospel is the message that the kingdom of god was about to arrive at any time. People had to be warned to be prepared. So these two verses make no sense. We might wonder instead how the author of Mark’s gospel came up with this idea. Devout New Testament scholars have struggled with these verses for a long time. We would dearly like to do some fact-checking here. But how would we do that? We don’t know who the author of the gospel was, we don’t know his sources, which is what any historian would want to check first. There are no letters, diaries, or transcriptions available. Instead theologians are left to guess and wonder what the gospel author had in mind.   


Matthew 12:36-37:


 “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”


I suspect many Christians would dearly love to fact-check this. Do they live in constant panic that the god of the Cosmos is monitoring everything they say? That this deity is doing the same thing with more than seven billion humans? I refer to this as totalitarian monotheism: you’re being spied upon constantly. There is no evidence whatever that this is the way any god operates. But how would anyone fact-check that? This text is found only in Matthew’s gospel, but given the wrathful god of the Old Testament, it’s no surprise that it shows up here—completely undocumented as anything that Jesus himself said. 


Matthew 27:52-53:


“The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.”


Matthew reports that this is what happened when Jesus died on the cross: his death was so magical that people came alive in their tombs—and on Easter morning walked round Jerusalem. This is pathetic superstition. These two verses are a devastating blow to Christianity. It’s hard to insist that the resurrection of Jesus was “real” if this author—a Jesus propagandist—thought lots of dead people came alive; this was in the context of other cults that worshipped dying-and-rising gods with magical powers. This incident—which includes these newly live dead people “appearing to many”—is not reported by any of the other gospels. Nor was this horde of the walking dead noticed and reported by anyone else. Fact-checkers would say, “Don’t waste our time with this. Use your common sense.” 


Luke 14:26:


“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

I’ve come across Christians who don’t even know this text exists. And those who do know it are ready with excuses, e.g., “Jesus couldn’t have meant that!” “You’re taking it out of context!” …without being quite ready to admit that the Bible got it wrong. Yet the Greek word for hate is right there, although some dishonest Bible translators just remove the word hate. If you can’t believe that Jesus could have said any such thing, then why did the author of Luke’s gospel report that Jesus said it? Note that hatred of family isn’t enough: you have to hate life itself. 


Here is the parallel version of this text found in Matthew 10:37-38:


“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”


Which was written first? It’s hard to know for sure if Matthew was modifying Luke’s text, or if Luke was intentionally intensifying Matthew’s text. There no mention of hating life in the Matthew version. We can assume that devout believers today—those who are not cult fanatics—would be relieved if fact-checkers could show that Jesus has been grievously misquoted. But how would they go about this task? We don’t know the actual authors of either Matthew or Luke, we don’t know their sources. No contemporaneous letters, diaries, or transcriptions are available. There is no way at all to verify—or disqualify—these as words of Jesus. Both gospel authors had creative imaginations and agendas, e.g., membership in the Jesus sect meant that divided loyalties were not tolerated.  


John 6:53-57:


“So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day, for my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”


If modern readers came across these words in a medieval book of magic spells, they might shrug them off, “Oh, how grotesque! You mean people took that seriously?” Or if it these words turned up in Professor Snape’s Potions Textbook at Hogwarts, no one would be surprised: a bizarre touch in a work of entertainment fiction. But no, John 6:53-57 is a text that drags Christian theology to a low point. I wonder how many Christians have seriously pondered this Jesus quote. They are probably more familiar with the words of the eucharist in Mark 14:22-24:


“While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take, this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’” 


There’s nothing here about the bread and wine functioning as magic potions. In fact, Luke 22:19 adds to the words, “Do this in remembrance of me.” But where do these words come from? We find these verses in I Corinthians 11:23-26:


“…the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”


This is a fact-checker’s nightmare: Paul claims that he received these words from the Lord, that is, from his visions of the dead Jesus speaking to him. It’s possible these words of Paul ended up in the gospel accounts of the Last Supper—but Paul doesn’t mention disciples gathered around Jesus in an upper room, the image we are so used to. To top off the confusion, the episode in John 6:53-57 doesn’t happen at the Last Supper; at that event in John, Jesus washes the feet of the disciples; there’s no eucharist. 


Christian laity should be banging on the doors of devout New Testament scholars and theologians, begging them to hone their fact-checking skills and clear up this mess. But there is no way to clear it up, as these scholars and theologians know full well. There are no contemporaneous letters, diaries, or transcriptions for them to consult. Moreover, John’s gospel contains so many long Jesus quotes entirely unknown in the other gospels. Richard Carrier has functioned as a superb fact-checker:


“John’s Gospel contains long, implausible, never-before-imagined speeches of Jesus (and yet, no Sermon on the Mount, or indeed hardly any moral instruction of any sort), and entirely new characters and events also never heard of before (Nicodemus, Lazarus, Cana)… John has thus run wild with authorial gluttony, freely changing everything and inventing whatever he wants. By modern standards, John is lying.” (On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, Kindle, p. 542)


One of John’s major inventions is his story of Doubting Thomas, found in chapter 20—and it’s not hard to see why he invented it. Thomas happened not to be there when the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples, and he didn’t believe them that Jesus was alive. He wanted evidence; he had the instincts of a good fact-checker! Thomas was with the disciples when Jesus showed up a week later. 


“Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’”  (John 20:27-29)


Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.  Jesus didn’t like fact-checkers, but this has been the steady chorus of religious leaders of all brands for millennia: don’t ask for evidence, just trust us that we know what the god(s) want and expect. Humanity ended up with so many different, conflicting religions because nobody, in fact, has such privileged knowledge. It’s all pretend, even if it’s sincere, devout, pious pretend.  





David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


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