What to Do about Your Dead-Again Jesus?

The New Testament excels at self-sabotage
Knowing what we do about the Cosmos, what happens with cherished Bible stories? The British scholar A.N. Wilson remarked, about the Ascension of Jesus in Act 1, “…a man ascending vertically from the Mount of Olives, by whatever means of miraculous propulsion, would pass into orbit.” (Jesus, p. 3) In response to my Flash Podcast on the ascension, Scott McKellar wrote, “In the course of his ascension, at around 15,000 feet, Jesus began to wish he had brought a sweater. At 30,000 feel he felt weak from lack of oxygen. By 100,000 his bodily fluids were boiling away from every orifice. If he ever did return, it would be as a fifty-pound lump of bone and frozen jerky.”

So, we obviously can’t take many Bible stories literally. This is hardly news: preachers and theologians accepted this ‘new rule’ a long time ago. Of course, apologists assure us that farfetched stories have spiritual meanings, and that seems to fly with most of the laity. Nonetheless, this is a confession that many Bible events didn’t happen as depicted. For a faith that’s celebrated for being ‘grounded in history’—the faithful are proud that so much about Jesus really happened—how is this not a slippery slope? Where do you draw the line? Can everything in the Bible be transferred from the ‘factual’ to the ‘symbolic/spiritual truth’ column? What has to be retained in the ‘factual’ column to keep the faith?

There has been a lot of debate and controversy about this concerning the gospels, with most New Testament scholars granting, for example, that the birth stories in Matthew and Luke fail as history, but can be cherished for their symbolism and beauty (not really, but that’s an argument for another time). When we move just beyond the gospels, to the fifth book in the New Testament lineup, The Book of Acts, the challenge is every bit as daunting.

This is an article on The Book of Acts, Chapter 1, the first in a series on each of its 28 chapters. The Introductory article is here.

Flash Podcast, Episode 17, Things We Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said is here.

Flash Podcast, Episode 4, Bible Blunders & Bad Theology is here.

The gospels preserve the illusion that there’s lots of Jesus history to study, but then we enter a bumpy single lane highway, this one account of early Christianity.

• “The major but almost never stated reason for reliance upon Acts is that without it we should have nothing else—that is, no sustained account of Christian origins. Everyone prefers that the emperor have something to wear, even if the fabric and tailoring, color choice and ensemble, fall below sartorial ideals…although Acts is far from naked, much of its attire is, historically speaking, threadbare, poorly coordinated, and incomplete.”

• “Acts is a beautiful house that readers may happily admire, but it is not a home in which the historian can responsibly live.” (Richard I. Pervo, The Mystery of Acts, p. 5)

Richard Carries explains why this is the case: “The book of Acts has been all but discredited as a work of apologetic historical fiction. Nevertheless, its author may have derived some of its material or ideas from earlier traditions, written or oral. But the latter would still be extremely unreliable and wholly unverifiable (and not only because teasing out what Luke inherited from what Luke chose to compose therefrom is all but impossible for us now). Thus, our best hope is to posit some written sources, even though their reliability would be almost as hard to verify, especially, again, as we don’t have them, so we cannot distinguish what they actually said from what Luke added, left out, or changed.” (p. 359, On the Historicity of Jesus)

But you don’t have to be trained in the use of historical method to sense that Acts fails as history. The elements of folklore and fantasy predominate, as do superstition and magical thinking. Apologists and lay readers alike work overtime to salvage the ‘spiritual’ meanings of the stories in Acts. But, we have to wonder, is that game really worth it?

The Prologue

At the opening of Acts, as was the case with Volume 1, his gospel, Luke addresses Theophilus, whom he wishes to enlighten with his account. We read that Jesus, “…after his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs…” (v. 3) One of the themes in the gospel resurrection stories is that even the disciples didn’t believe it had happened, e.g., Luke 24:11, upon hearing the report of the women who had gone to the tomb, “…but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

So here Luke speaks of “many convincing proofs,” an assurance aimed at the Jesus cult he was instructing. The apostle Paul tried the same thing, in I Corinthians 15:6, “Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time…”

A friend of mine told me recently that this text had been read in church on Easter morning, and he thought it carried weight. I asked him, “If your neighbor came home from a healing service at a nearby church, and reported that more than five hundred people had seen the pastor restore a man’s amputated arm—the arm grew right back before their very eyes!—would you believe him? Would you be impressed?” He took my point. Beware of preachers who brag about “many convincing proofs.”

The Ascension

At the very end of Luke’s gospel, there is a textual problem, reflected in a footnote at 24:51 (in my old RSV). The verse reads, “While he blessed them, he parted from them…” The footnote tells us, “…other ancient authorities add and was carried up into heaven.” So if the ascension wasn’t explicitly stated in his gospel, Luke includes the full story here in Acts 1, i.e., this happened forty days after the resurrection:

“…as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’” (verses 9-11)

Father (i.e., Jesuit priest), Joseph Fitzmyer, in his monumental commentary on Acts, writes:

• “The account is…a description of the exultation of Christ that uses apocalyptic stage props to present in visual form Christ’s final departure from his assembled disciples. Luke stressed the visual perception of Christ’s leave-taking…the apocalyptic stage props are the clouds, the passing up through the heavens, and the message of the angelic interpreters.” (pp. 208-209)

• “…Luke is almost alone among NT writers to assert that the exalted Christ will ‘come in the same way you saw him go,’ i.e., with clouds and from the heavens. Compare Paul’s affirmation in I Thess 4:16, equally accompanied by apocalyptic stage props.” (p. 209)

But, of course, the quotes I included at the top of this article show why it is impossible to take the ascension literally, which Fitzmyer himself seems to concede: “These are time-conditioned ways of speaking about the transit of Christ to the Father’s presence, wherever that may be.” (p. 210, emphasis added) Wherever cannot include in orbit, or even at 100,000 feet. The story is fantasy, with stage props from other genres of literature.

Digging for the spiritual meaning, apologists may say that ascension is a metaphor for Christ’s unity with the Father, or his full participation in the Holy Trinity—whatever. But that doesn’t eliminate a big problem. If Jesus really existed, and really did resurrect bodily—his dead body started breathing again, blood flowed again, he walked out of the tomb—then what happened to that body? Whether it was active again for four or forty days—but it didn’t leave Planet Earth—then Jesus died again. The ‘spiritual’ meaning of the ascension be damned: Christians have a dead-again Jesus on their hands. So his victory over death was…what, temporary? This theology fails to make any sense at all.

On this key point alone, Christianity is falsified.

Notice too that the gospels don’t acknowledge the problem of the dead-again Jesus; they fail to tell us that this happened. But this is not really a cover-up, because fantasy literature doesn’t have to measure up to rules of logic and history.

The Founding Myth Continues

After Jesus disappeared into the clouds, the disciples returned to an ‘upstairs room’ in Jerusalem. Bear in mind again that Luke was addressing the Jesus cult—maybe Theophilus was a leading player—perhaps a half-century or more after its beginning. Hence Luke idealizes those early moments; he names eleven disciples, and “…all these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer,” thus representing the ideal, setting an example for the faithful cult followers of his day.

A nice touch is the inclusion of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Despite the exaggerated piety about Mary, especially in Catholicism, she is a minor character in the gospels, and doesn’t always come off so well. Fitzmyer: “In Mark 3:21 Jesus’ mother is among those who are said to think that he was ‘beside himself’…” Fitzmyer notes (p. 216) that Luke omitted this when he copied the story from Mark.

And it’s a puzzle that this is the last mention of Mary:

“After the report of her being with the congregation in Acts 1:14, mother Mary is never mentioned again. She never says or does anything, is never spoken to or heard of again, and nothing ever happens to her. We aren’t even told when or why or where she lived or died. She literally disappears from history—as if she never existed.” (Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 372)

Luke was the one who had written the most about Mary, in the first two chapters of his gospel, so not surprisingly he included her in this cast of characters in Acts 1.

What Happened to Judas?

What more hideous crime could there be than betraying the Son of God? Hence folklore invented different revenge scenarios. Here in Acts 1:18:

“Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.”

In Matthew 27:5, a remorseful Judas regretted taking money for betraying Jesus: “Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself.”

Fitzmyer cites the story preserved by Papias: “Judas, having become so swollen in flesh that he could not pass when a wagon was easily coming by, was struck by the wagon, and all his inwards emptied out.” (p. 224) These texts, Fitzmyer notes, “were not meant to be harmonized; they merely echo different legends about Judas’s death.” (p. 224) “All the different forms of the story of Judas’s death are folklore elaborations recounting his death in a stereotypically literary form, otherwise known as the horrific death of a notorious persecutor.” (pp. 219-220)

The Selection of Matthias

We might wonder why it was necessary to replace Judas. Most of the eleven disciples listed in Acts 1 play no further role as the story unfolds in this book, and Matthias is never heard of again. Fitzmyer points out that Chapter 2 is the key to understanding this. The apostles had to be at full strength of Twelve, to address The Twelve Tribes of Israel on the day of Pentecost, which is described at length in Chapter 2. “To prepare for that proclamation, ‘the Twelve’ had to be reconstituted.” (p. 221)

This is a continuation of the Founding Myth.

There were actually two candidates, both of whom had been part of the Jesus crowd from the days of John the Baptist: “…one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” Fitzmyer acknowledges that this is a bit awkward: “…no NT writer has ever depicted or described Christ’s resurrection; nor does any NT writer ever portray people witnessing the resurrection.” (p. 226)

So it came time to take a vote. Well, not quite (vv. 24-26):

“Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.”

Magical thinking is at full strength here. Why couldn’t they just share with each other what was in their hearts and take a vote? No, there’s a more circuitous route. God knows what is in their hearts (which is a brutal invasion-of-privacy feature of personal monotheism), and thus he will determine the throw of the dice. Prayer + Dice = magical thinking. I wonder if Christian apologists have the theology for that all worked out.

There is plenty more fantasy to come in the Book of Acts. We’ll find angels showing up at critical moments, miracle folklore (what else is new?), and manipulation of events by the Holy Spirit. Fitzmyer lists 57 occurrences of “the Spirit” in Acts. “Luke does not tell us how the spirit ‘instructed’ the apostles, but that is something that we learn as we read between the lines of the developing story in Acts.” (p. 196).

Theologians specialize in reading between the lines, i.e., they freely make stuff up, imagining they have seized God’s truth. What else can they do, without reliable, verifiable data? But our journey through Acts will demonstrate, on the contrary, that the New Testament itself sabotages the Christian faith.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His took, 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.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library© is here. A short video explanation of the Library is here.