I’ve been asked about it a lot. So here’s a handy guide to all the tricks pulled by the Jehovah’s Witnesses on their website (JW.org) aimed at fooling people into being sure some Jesus behind the Gospels really existed. I didn’t dive into the whole rabbit hole, articles about the reliability of the Gospels or the Gospels proving Jesus is the Son of God and nonsense like that. Of course those I’ve written on quite a lot already (e.g. see On the Historicity of Jesus, Chapter 10; and The End of Christianity, Chapter 2; and really, the whole of Not the Impossible Faith and Why I Am Not a Christian). But just the stuff about a historical Jesus specifically and principally.
Does the Bible Contain an Accurate Record of Jesus’ Life?
The “Bible’s answer” to this question (yes, we are starting with a circular argument: that the Bible’s accurate because the Bible says so; JW’s must be easy marks for every con artist on earth if they buy wonky logic like this) is that “Luke said regarding his account of Jesus’ life: ‘I have traced all things from the start with accuracy’.” And, they say, we have scraps of sentences from the Gospel of John that (they claim) were written on papyrus around 125 A.D. Both are false. And both are non sequiturs.
Of course this is not a logical argument. “Joe didn’t lie, because Joe said he didn’t lie” is the most gullible reasoning anyone could possibly lean on. But also, Luke actually did not say that. This is the problem of trusting translations instead of reading what Luke actually wrote, in its original language. Translations are always “interpretations” and as such often go beyond what the author really meant and deceive the reader into thinking what the author meant is what the translator wants the author to have meant.
The word “traced” is not in Luke’s text, for example. Yet that word implies investigation and research. Not in Luke. The actual word Luke used was “followed” (parakaloutheô). And he says he did this without deviation and in order (“from the start” meaning the start of the story, i.e. the nativity). Meaning, he slavishly followed a tradition handed down to him. Not that he researched or fact-checked it, or actually received it directly from anyone who was there. Rather, we know Luke means just the written Gospels of Mark and Matthew (or Q, if you buy that theory), which he copies verbatim, then changes and alters—there is no evidence Luke had any other sources for his Gospel, oral or written, and Luke never says he did (despite his cagey phrasing aimed to trick you into thinking he did). It’s just all the more alarming to notice that when Luke claims to have followed his sources “precisely” (meaning slavishly, rather than critically or with any investigation), we know he lied. Even about that! Because Luke deviates from and alters his source material freely. For a complete analysis of all these facts and their context, see Chapter 7 of Not the Impossible Faith.
So much for trusting the unknown Luke because he said “trust me!”
The second point they make is about a papyrus. The papyrus they mention is the famous Rylands Papyrus, which they declare “many scholars believe…was written about 125 C.E.” But that date is bogus. It was based on faulty, obsolete reasoning (an alarmingly common thing to do, sadly). Recent applications of sound methodology have re-dated it to the late 2nd or early 3rd century. The JW site hides this fact from you, and thus deceives you with its cagey phrase “many scholars believe” (most of whom dead; none of whom using sound logic or evidence; all of whom relying on refuted scholarship), rather than “the latest scholars using the most reliable methods believe.”
They also declare “the text of the fragment agrees nearly exactly with that in later manuscripts.” Wait. Nearly exactly? What do you mean? It doesn’t match!? Another example of deception by cagey phrasing. Like a con artist, what they’ve done is taken the fact that this papyrus actually exhibits multiple disagreements with other manuscripts, and tried to wave you past that fact by spinning it as being a “near” match—when in fact, as this papyrus contains only a few and only partial sentences, for there to be so many disagreements in so tiny a piece of just one Gospel, there must have been a large amount of distortion in the New Testament’s transmission. Not a small amount. That should worry, not comfort you.
The fact is, the text of John, and every other Gospel, was not preserved with 100% accuracy. The New Testament is plagued with countless examples of unresolvable transmission errors, forgeries, alterations, and interpolations (see Three Things to Know about New Testament Manuscripts). One cannot gainsay that well-documented fact by citing just a tiny handful of incomplete verses in one shred of a copy made several lifetimes after the original. Even at all. Much less given the fact that the Rylands text actually disagrees in its content with several other early manuscripts of John! That just makes it worse. Not better.
The fallacies here also abound. Textual accuracy is being confused with content accuracy. Even a text that is 100% false could be preserved with 100% accuracy. So saying “we preserved it without error” (even if that was true) does not make anything in it true. (See my discussion of this point in respect to the historicity of Julius Caesar.) And of course the evidence the content of John is bogus is extensive (see Chapter 10.7 of On the Historicity of Jesus). We don’t know who wrote it; it was edited multiple times by yet other unknown people (we do not have any copy of the original text); and the people who did write or edit it fabricated a fake unnamed witness for some of their claims (and cited no other source for any of their claims), thus demonstrating how dishonest and unreliable the text is (Ibid., pp. 500-05). The text is also full of novel absurdities never heard of by previous authors and abundantly contradicting them.
John also lacks any passage like the JW cites for Luke. Hold on. Did you catch that? They tell you we can trust the Gospels because Luke says so, and that we can trust Luke said so because…we have a few sentences on a manuscript of some other Gospel that never said what Luke is supposed to have said? What about manuscripts of Luke? Oh right. We don’t want to mention that, because the manuscripts of Luke-Acts are the most variable and divergent of all the books of the entire Bible! They contain far more disagreements and evidence of transmission distortion than any other book in it, some versions being as much as 20% longer than the one that just one sect of Christians arbitrarily picked and edited for the canon (OHJ, p. 268, n. 30).
So let’s not buy this nonsense about “we can trust the Gospels.” The reasons not to trust them are abundant and demonstrable. Whereas the reasons the JW’s give here are factless fallacies, intelligently designed to deceive and manipulate readers with cagey wording. Fact is, the Gospels were written by unknown persons, using unknown sources, a lifetime and more after the fact, and were never vetted or fact-checked by anyone who could have known the truth, yet filled with implausible tales. This is the worst as source situations go.
Do Scholars Believe That Jesus Existed?
Their answer to this question, quotes the Encyclopædia Britannica declaring that non-Christian references to Christ from the second century “prove that in ancient times even the opponents of Christianity never doubted the historicity of Jesus.” One reason not to trust reference books that aren’t specialized or subject to adequate corrective oversight, is that they make mistakes like this. For the statement they quote, simply isn’t true. We have several items of evidence indicating there were people who doubted the historicity of Jesus (see OHJ, pp. 349-56). And those who didn’t, didn’t merely because they had no access to the truth of the matter; so their testimony adds no weight to the fact. So once again we have a fallacy, resting on a falsehood.
They offer only two other items of evidence.
First, they cite a book called Jesus and Archaeology whose author declares, “No reputable scholar today questions that a Jew named Jesus son of Joseph lived.” Which is, of course, false. Nearly a dozen fully qualified experts now concede that it is at least plausible to doubt the historicity of the Christian Jesus. But one might already be suspicious of a website citing this particular book as saying otherwise. Because it’s a book written by James Charlesworth, a Christian fundamentalist, who attempts to hide his tinfoil hat in formal scholarship, but who is in truth just another whackadoo. This is the guy who seriously, with a straight face, argued that Lazarus cannot have been the Beloved Disciple (and thus the fictional source for the Gospel of John) because Lazarus had recently been resurrected from the dead, and people recently resurrected can’t have outrun Peter to the tomb at the end of the story (OHJ, pp. 500-01, n. 225).
Like I said. Whackadoo.
The facts, BTW, pretty securely establish that Lazarus was in fact the originally intended identity of the Beloved (Ibid., pp. 500-06). As several scholars have independently confirmed—which fact is what prompted Charlesworth to come up with this zany, bizarro argument against their conclusions in the first place—conclusions they based on actual demonstrated facts, not weird, unsourced speculations about the paranormal capabilities of miraculously risen fictional characters. This is the difference between Christian apologetics, which tends to be a whole lot of whackadoo, and real, honest, evidence-based scholarship.
Second, they assert “the Bible portrays Jesus as a real person,” because it gives “the names of his ancestors and immediate family” and “the names of prominent rulers who were contemporaries of Jesus.” And “those details allow researchers to verify the accuracy of the Bible accounts.” This is false. None of these details allow researchers to verify the accuracy of the Bible. We have no independent sources by which we can confirm that anything said about Jesus’s family or ancestry in the Gospels is true or even had any source whatever. Indeed, the earliest public ‘history’ of the Church, the book of Acts, weirdly lacks any mention of Jesus having any family at all (as soon as the public history of the church begins in Acts 2, all the way to its close in Acts 28: OHJ, Ch. 9.3). Even the letters of Paul are hopelessly ambiguous on the point (OHJ, Ch. 11.9-10).
In reality, the names of Jesus’s family and ancestors could be just as fake as the the names of Moses’s family and ancestors, also completely fabricated, along with Moses himself, whom mainstream experts now agree likely never existed. So that the Gospels make Jesus out to be like Moses, with named family and ancestry, is not evidence Jesus existed, any more than it is evidence Moses existed. Or Hercules for that matter, who also had named brothers and ancestors. And didn’t exist.
It’s likewise of no help to say that the Gospels portray Jesus as living alongside known famous persons. Many a fictional tale throughout history has someone interact with a famous person. A flying wizard named Simon, we are told, once met the Emperor Nero. Does Nero being real then mean that that flying wizard was real? Um. No. Fact is, we have no independent corroboration that Jesus did live at that time, or ever met any of those people. So the one thing we would need to confirm to evince the real existence of Jesus, is the one thing we curiously can’t find any evidence to confirm. That’s a problem. It’s all the worse that Christians outside the Roman Empire were claiming Jesus lived a hundred years earlier than our Gospels claim, and thus he can’t ever have met the famous people the Gospels claim (OHJ, Ch. 8.1). In fact that’s the only version of Christianity known to the Rabbis who composed the Talmud! What do you do with that information?
In truth, many scholars agree it’s at least plausible to doubt the historicity of Jesus. And those who don’t agree with that, typically have never read the latest peer reviewed research on it, and thus have no properly informed opinion of the matter.
Did Jesus Really Exist?
Their answer to this question, finally cuts to the chase of trying to present actual evidence Jesus existed. Well, sort of. They start with a fallacy of Argument to Authority, by quoting a bunch of long dead men who had never read the latest peer reviewed study of the subject (because they couldn’t: they’re dead). So, basically a bunch of obsolete, useless opinions. That’s not evidence.
It’s just worse that the opinions they quote are also whackadoo, and thus not even credible when they were written. Michael Grant’s old claim that Jesus is as well attested as other persons is wildly and indisputably false. Bultmann’s similarly hyperbolic opinion that only crazy people would doubt it, had no basis beyond the inaccurate and obsolete work of S.J. Case (OHJ, pp. 592-93). Durant’s claim that inventing the teachings and tales of Jesus would require a supernatural miracle is just ridiculously contrary to all the evidence of human history. In fact, very little about Jesus is even new: nearly all his teachings have Jewish and pagan precedents or parallels, as does nearly every story about him (see Elements 30-33 in Ch. 5 of OHJ and the whole of Ch. 10). Finally, Einstein wasn’t a historian, and is quoted giving no logically valid argument for any historical conclusion in the matter (but show him instead using what’s known as the Affective Fallacy).
This is what passes for Christian apologetics these days: quote a bunch of ignorant dead guys making ridiculously crazy assertions of how insane you’d have to be to doubt. This is an attempt to argue by shaming: to make someone feel like only an insane person would dare doubt; therefore you’d better not! This abusive, manipulative trick defines quite a lot of Christian apologetics in fact.
Eventually they do try to get around to something that could actually count as evidence:
- They cite Tacitus. But Tacitus gives no source for anything he says on this, and his most likely source was simply the Gospels, or Christians quoting the Gospels (see demonstration in OHJ, Ch. 8.10). He therefore cannot be cited as corroborating evidence. Tacitus therefore carries zero weight as evidence for Jesus. At most his testimony can establish the Gospels were circulating by the early second century when he wrote. But we already knew that. And that’s even if the passage is authentic. Yet Tacitus might never have even mentioned Christ—the evidence that the only brief line making that claim is a fourth-century Christian insertion, is actually very compelling, and has never been formally rebutted (see my peer reviewed article on the matter reproduced in Hitler Homer Bible Christ).
- They cite Suetonius. But Suetonius never mentions Christ. The JW site claims that, “Although wrongly accusing Jesus of creating disturbances, Suetonius did not doubt his existence.” But that’s false. Suetonius only talks about a man named Chrestus (not Jesus, nor Christ) who was in Rome instigating riots there (not in Judea) twenty years after the Gospels claim Jesus died. Suetonius therefore knew nothing about the Christian Jesus, and recorded no true fact about him. So we have zero evidence here, too.
- They cite Pliny the Younger. But Pliny never says Christ was a historical person. He only mentions him as a worshiped deity. He makes no mention of his ever being on earth. His only source were second century Christians anyway, who would just have been quoting the Gospels at him even if they did claim Jesus was an earthly man. So Pliny would have had no way of knowing if Jesus was historical, and thus could not have corroborated the Gospel claim that he was, even if Pliny had ever heard that claim. And we have no evidence he did. So we have zero evidence here, too.
- They cite Josephus. And cleverly leave out any mention of the infamous Christian forgery of the Testimonium Flavianum. They only quote the line about some James being executed as the brother of a certain Jesus, whom the text now says was “called Christ.” But we have abundant evidence the phrase “called Christ” was not written by Josephus and was only inserted by Christians in the 3rd century (see my peer reviewed article on the matter reproduced in Hitler Homer Bible Christ). Overall, there is no good evidence Josephus ever mentioned Jesus. But even if he did, he cites no source for the claim that some random James was called the brother of a Jesus Christ, or what that meant. We therefore cannot connect this to any real James connected to Christianity, or any real brotherhood, or any real Jesus. As evidence, this line is too ambiguous, unsourced, and compromised to carry any weight.
- They cite the Talmud. But neglect to tell you the Talmud is talking about a Jesus stoned for sorcery a hundred years before Pontius Pilate. Which puts a Christian in an awful pickle. You can’t cite the Talmud as evidence for Jesus, because it only knows of a different Jesus from a different century—so the Talmud clearly had no reliable source whatsoever regarding Jesus. It can therefore not corroborate anything about him.
They also repeat the fallacy from earlier that because Luke gets some historical facts unrelated to Christianity correct—facts he easily gleaned from other histories (like Josephus himself!)—that therefore Jesus must have existed. But that’s a non sequitur. As already explained above. It’s only worse that Luke also gets things wrong: he badly botches the historical date of the Jewish rebel leader Theudas, and in such a way as to demonstrate he was fabricating his story (see Luke and Josephus); his narratives of events are often anachronistic and implausible (OHJ, e.g., p. 363); indeed, so resembling fiction as to be deeply suspicious (OHJ, pp. 359-68); and he outright lies about nearly everything he says about Paul for which we have any independent check (see OHJ, pp. 362-63). As already noted earlier, neither the author nor the text of Luke is trustworthy.
Other Watchtower articles elaborate or repeat the same arguments. But what I’ve surveyed is pretty much it. For example, Christianity’s Non-Christian Witnesses is really only about evidence of people in the second century knowing about Christianity, not the historicity of Jesus. And Jesus Christ—A Historical Personage and Jesus Christ—Evidence That He Walked the Earth is just more of what I’ve already surveyed. So that’s it. Just factual inaccuracies, manipulative cagey language, and logical fallacies.
Indeed notice how weak, compromised, and fallacious their case is. Why should we have such certainty Jesus existed, if this is the best that can be marshaled in its defense? Why are such manipulations, distortions, and illogical moves needed? If Jesus was indisputably historical, none of those moves should be required. So why is that all that historicists have? It’s as if they need the same specious Christian apologetics to defend historicity as they need to defend the resurrection, a patent absurdity no mainstream scholar deems confirmed by historical evidence.
Why is that? Is it that historicity is as poorly verified by evidence as the resurrection? Almost quite. It gets better odds only on account of the fact that a mundane nobody with no real powers about whom wild legends came to be spun is at least the sort of thing we know happens (unlike resurrections). But apart from that, there is barely any more evidence for the actuality of Jesus than his resurrection. And we need to start being honest about this.