A Bible Book Of Blunders

Introduction to a new series of articles
It doesn’t take much for the religious impulse to kick in. The thousands of gods that humans have imagined is proof of that, and there’s an episode in the Book of Acts that shows how easy it is to say, “Hey, there’s a god at work here.” In the final chapter of Acts (28), we read that, following shipwreck, the apostle Paul made it to the shores of Malta.

“Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, when a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, 'This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.' He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were expecting him to swell up or drop dead, but after they had waited a long time and saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.” (vv. 3-6)

This might qualify as one of the blunders of the Book of Acts, i.e., it provides one tiny example of how people slide so easily into supernatural explanations. But, in terms of shattering the credibility of Christianity specifically, Acts does a pretty good job of that too. Some of the cringe-worthy stuff jumps right out at us, other flaws become more obvious when readers study the texts carefully and try to align its stories with information in the letters of Paul, who is the main hero of Acts.

Was Acts written 30, 40 or 50 years after Paul’s death? We don’t know, but whenever we read something in Paul’s letters that contradicts Act, we can be sure that it was the author of Acts who got it wrong. “…when Acts can be compared with information derived from the undisputed Pauline letters, there is partial or full disagreement upon most major points.” (Richard I. Pervo, The Mystery of Acts, p. 31)

The Christian ship began to sink when the Bible came under close scrutiny by scholars trained in the historical method; even devout scholars joined in this enterprise, although their mission was to understand and clarify God’s word. After all, on what basis could they argue that the Bible was off limits to skeptical analysis? The folks in the pews, not surprisingly, have been largely unaware of what has happened in biblical studies. And how far the Bible has fallen from grace. Their chant, to ward off the puncturing of faith, is much like that of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, “I do believe in spooks, I do believe in spooks!” And there are plenty of spooks, aka the Holy Ghost and angels, in the Book of Acts.

It is the consensus of Bible scholars that Acts was written by the author of Luke; essentially, it’s Volume 2. There is also consensus that the authors of the gospels are unknown; the iconic names were added later by tradition. For convenience, however, scholars refer to the authors as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Devout scholars sometimes attach the prefix “saint,” which may reinforce the notion that the authors are credible. But that doesn’t hold up; Richard Pervo is explicit: “Read as history, Acts is unsatisfactory.” (p. 17) And he quotes Michael Goulder’s 1964 volume, Type and History in Acts, and it’s worth including the long quote here, in full, as I kick off this series of articles on The Book of Acts. Goulder was an Anglican priest who eventually gave up his ordination.

"No student can read Acts without dissatisfaction: he would not have written it thus. Why does it end where it ends? Why is so much space devoted to the account of the storm and shipwreck? Why are St Paul’s trials described in such repetitive detail? Why so rigorous a subdivision imposed that we hear no more of Philip or Peter when once we have left them, except where their paths cross Paul’s?

“If we take Acts to be straightforward history, these questions can only be answered by one of two suppressed hypotheses. The first is that St Luke was critically short of material…so he wrote all the detail he had heard or could remember. He did not know what happened subsequently to Paul, or Philip, or Peter; but he had been impressed by the shipwreck and the trials.

Alternatively, St Luke was critically short of sense. He could not handle more than one character at a time. The shipwreck was a good story, and deserved space. Paul’s unhindered preaching at Rome seemed a good place to stop. Both of these hypotheses are better suppressed. Not only are they intolerable in themselves, but they lead on to all the notorious historical tangles which in turn cannot be resolved without making St Luke more and more ignorant and stupid.” Pervo, p. 17)

Yes, there are too many blunders in this book. As we make our way through Acts, we have no confidence that the author had access to any contemporary documentation whatever, by which historians mean letters, diaries, scraps of things that end up in archives written soon after the events described. They track down these items to get the story right, or at least come as close as possible to getting the story right.

New Testament scholars have retained the fond hope that stories in the gospels/Acts are based on “reliable oral tradition.” But if the oral tradition is decades old, passed on by dozens or hundreds of tellers, what are the chances that anything ‘reliable’ is left? And how would we even detect the reliable tidbits? Devout scholars seem to rely on their hunches, but no sound methodology has yet been proposed: how can we tell the difference between fact and folklore?

The author of Acts is caught telling in a major lie, one of his most embarrassing, in Chapter 9. Maybe lie is too strong a word, but he got the story wrong. We suspect he was inventing, idealizing. We read that, after his conversion, Paul was in danger in Damascus,

“…but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. When he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.” (vv. 25-28)

Remember that this was written decades after the fact, but Paul himself, in his letter to the Galatians, gave a very different account of what had happened—and he adds, emphatically, that he wasn’t lying:

“But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!” (Galatians 1:15-20)

This is one of the most conspicuous mistakes made by the author of Acts, yet how many Christians read their Bibles carefully enough to spot it? It’s a smoking gun of sorts, a clue that Luke hadn’t quite grasped what it meant to tell the truth. Maybe he thought he was telling the truth, but making stuff up doesn’t quite cut it.

Oh the irony, that the Bible itself gives such a boost to the falsification to Christianity. After reading this phony story of Paul getting along with the disciples, why not be super suspicious about anything we read in Acts? The spooks are a big tip-off as well, that is, the frequent appearances of the Holy Spirit (= Ghost) and angels.

In the fifth chapter of Acts we read that some of the apostles were thrown into prison by the high priest, “…but during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, ‘Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.’” (vv. 19-20) This is a mark of religious fantasy literature. We should know better than to expect history from this author. But he positions himself, right from the get-go, in Luke 1:1-4, as a historian; Christian scholars swoon over this, and it does sound grand:

“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”

But then there’s a huge letdown: his cast of characters in the rest of Chapter 1 includes the angel Gabriel. So this is not history after all. Gabriel appears to both Zechariah and Mary, to announce the upcoming births of John the Baptist and Jesus. We’re told that Gabriel was sent from God to make these announcements, but he has a streak of pettiness: he renders Zechariah mute for not believing him. Mary didn’t believe him either, but he knew better than to punish her.

Where’s the reliable, verifiable data/documentation that historians expect to back up a story like this? No surprise, Luke doesn’t say who his sources were. As Robert Conner has said, “It’s folklore, folklore all the way down.”

So the Book of Acts will be an adventure, an excursion into religious fantasy literature, with several highlights. The book launches with the Ascension of Jesus to heaven, and we’ll see how much this simple story damages Christianity; Peter terrorizes a couple, Ananias and Sapphira, for not giving all the money they got for selling a field to the church. They both drop dead, and there’s not a hint that "saint" Peter is the heavy in the story.

We’ll find three accounts of Paul’s dramatic conversion experience on the road to Damascus. It seems to be an elaborate literary creation, and Paul never mentions it in his letters. In Chapter 16, we find that the Holy Spirit and the Spirit of Jesus have a role in planning the travel itineraries of Paul and Timothy.

And here’s my favorite line in the whole book, Acts 26:24, given to the Procurator of Judea: “Suddenly, Festus shouted, ‘Paul, you are insane.'” But, of course, this isn’t history either. Who was there taking notes? Did Luke—writing well after the destruction of Jerusalem—have access to an archive to find the notes? No. He created a novel about Paul. The assessment of R. G. Price about the reliability of Acts is correct:

“Who was Paul? Nothing is known about him other than what is recorded in his writings, but any objective assessment of his writings reveals Paul to have essentially been a raving lunatic.” (p. 325, Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed)

In my series of articles on every chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, here on the Debunking Christianity Blog, I argued that ‘raving lunatic’ isn’t far off the mark. My label for Paul is ‘delusional cult fanatic.’ So, it’s a mystery: Why don’t Christians walk away when they take a close look—but do they ever?—at what Paul wrote in Romans?

I recently completed my series of articles on every chapter of Mark’s gospel, which is the first story ever written about Jesus of Nazareth—and it also is a novel, with an agenda. The other gospel authors used it as a template for their stories. R. G. Price makes the point that we don’t have loads of information about Jesus just because we have four gospels; we have one gospel that was plagiarized and expanded. But now let’s take a close look at the Book of Acts that stands alone, purporting to tell the story of Paul.

Hmmm…16 chapters in Mark, 16 chapters in Romans. Acts has 28 chapters. So this will take a while, more than a year actually. I’m closing in on my 77th birthday, so…I should live so long! I will do my best to defy Christian apologists hoping and praying otherwise.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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