How NOT to Prove the Ancient Jesus Cult

Making up stuff doesn’t mean you win
According to the resurrected Jesus, speaking in Mark 16, baptized Christians should be able to cast out demons, drink poison unharmed, pick up snakes, heal people by touch—and “speak in tongues.” But the faithful can breathe a sign of relief: This is a fake Jesus quote, included in the fake ending of Mark’s gospel, 16:9-20; these verses were added later, by whom and when, we do not know.

This list gives us an idea, however, of the mindset of the early Jesus cult that wanted Jesus to preach this message. Christians today—those outside Pentecostalism, that is—may draw a blank about “speaking in tongues.” But it’s not hard to find the apostle Paul’s guidance on the topic, in I Corinthians 14. Richard Carrier has defined “speaking in tongues” as “babbling in random syllables,” and it would appear that Paul was less than enthusiastic about it himself, although he bragged that he spoke in tongues more than anyone else (v.18).

He made a distinction between “prophesying” and “speaking in tongues,” preferring the former.

• “If in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the air.” (v.9)

• “If then I do not know the meaning of a sound, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.” (v.11)

• “In church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (v.19)

So this was a thing: babbling in random syllables, believing that it was the Holy Spirit at work.

This article on Acts 2 is a continuation of my series on all 28 chapters of The Book of Acts. The Introductory article is here. The article on Chapter 1 is here.

But what did the author of Luke-Acts do with this? In his highly idealized account of the first days of the church, Luke gives us the following account in Acts 2:1-4:

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

The signs of the Holy Spirit are a wind-like sound (origin: heaven), fire-like tongues resting on everyone, but now the babbling-random-syllables are other languages. So these Galilean peasants are speaking a host of foreign languages, more than a dozen actually, so that the foreign Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the festival can understand them.

“Thus Acts has taken this real phenomenon and exaggerated it into a legendary power. But we know from Paul that it operated differently. And in fact, the phenomenon Paul describes is known across the world, in countless cultures and religious traditions, and has been extensively studied…the first Christians had some social and anthropological similarities to other cults that practiced glossolalia.” (Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 124-125)

“…only Luke makes it a miraculous gift to speak ‘in other tongues, i.e., other human tongues, not the ‘tongues of angels’…[Luke] modifies the tradition he inherits, transforming ‘tongues’ into ‘other tongues,’ i.e., speaking in foreign languages, a miracle suited to the theological thrust of the episode, which is interested in the universality of salvation to which testimony is being made.” (Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Anchor Yale Bible, Volume 31, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 239) “Modifies the tradition”: Yet another example of a theologian making things up to suit his agenda.

There are probably countless devout religious scholars—who believe with all their heart in the Holy Spirit—who dearly wish that the spirit really did work this way. It could bestow on them instant knowledge of ancient Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic? That would have saved a lot of work! Moreover, if the Holy Spirit can cram human brains with so much data, why doesn’t it get to work adjusting the brains of every racist on earth? It’s a charming story, but the theology is incoherent.

Episode 20 in my series of Flash Podcasts, Things We Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said is here (under 5 minutes).

Of course, Luke was writing fantasy, very much in keeping with the methodology in his gospel. After this episode, he takes fantasy in another direction; he presents a speech of Peter, which is the bulk of Chapter 2, vv. 14-36.

The gospel writers never bother to inform readers of their sources: where does the account/story/episode come from? That should alarm conscientious readers. Richard Pervo (The Mystery of Acts) dates Acts to early in the second century, while other scholars suggest maybe a decade or two earlier. That’s a long time—at least half a century—after the supposed events. In the absence of contemporary records, i.e., verifiable sources, it was common in the ancient world for writers to invent speeches of main characters—which falls far short of what we consider history. If you can’t cite the sources, you don’t have history. Full stop.

And Luke is very much the theologian here. He uses Old Testament texts exactly as one would expect a promoter of the Jesus cult to do. He includes a quote from the book of Joel to explain why the Galileans were speaking foreign languages: “…this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel…” (v. 16) How many Christians are impressed? “Wow, Joel! That clinches it!” It’s more likely readers working their way through Acts will say, “Who the hell was Joel?” Actually, he was a poet/theologian who wrote perhaps in the 4th century BCE, and in the text quoted, he anticipates, in hyper-idealized fashion, the blessing that can flow from Yahweh: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” It was probably “pour out my spirit” that caught Luke’s eye, because his point was that the Galileans were speaking foreign languages via the Holy Spirit.

But Luke actually tampered with the text, i.e., he wrote, “It shall happen in the last days, God declares…” which is not in Joel, the Hebrew of which is “And it shall come to pass afterward…” (Joel 2:28) “Luke thus gives to the quotation a new eschatological orientation and ascribes the prophet’s words to God himself. For Luke this is a new period in God’s salvation history: the Period of the Church, under the guidance of the Spirit.” (Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 252) “…gives a new eschatological orientation…” Again, making up stuff. We can be pretty sure that Joel didn’t have the church in mind.

Luke’s choice of the Joel text was arbitrary, and he adjusted the wording to make it fit, by adding “it shall happen in the last days…” The early Jesus cult was convinced that the last days were here: Jesus would soon arrive on the clouds of heaven. It was the practice of the gospel writers to sift through the Old Testament looking for quotes that looked suitable for building the case for salvation through Jesus.

But wait, it gets worse.

After Peter finishes the Joel quotation, he mentions the deeds of Jesus made possible through God, and his being killed by “lawless men.” And in verse 24 we find the key tenet of the Jesus cult: “But God raised him up, having freed him from the pangs of death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.”

Please note that this claim, that it was “….impossible for Jesus to be held in death’s power,” has been falsified. Because Jesus did indeed die. His body could not have left planet earth (as reported in Acts 1); so any real Jesus, who really lived, and by some miracle was resurrected, would have died again. Hence the New Testament lies to us about what actually happened to Jesus “at the end.”

But the early Jesus cult was committed to its myth, and Luke was one of its primary champions. He pursues it now by slipping in a quote from Psalm 16 to prove that King David—a thousand years earlier—had spoken about Jesus: “For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced…” Luke was using the Greek text of the psalm, with “the Lord” rendered by kurios. But the original Hebrew has the divine name here: Yahweh, i.e., this text actually reads, “I saw Yahweh always before me…”

Obviously, the psalm had nothing whatever to do with Jesus, but Luke decided to use it because it references rescue from death: “Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. for you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.” (Psalm 16:9-10) Then comes Luke’s biggest lie—the ultimate in making stuff up: “…[David] foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.” Well, no it’s not really a lie; it was just Luke’s assumptions about how scripture could be used to advance his agenda. Yes, he was sincere. But wrong.

He gets away with the same thing as well by quoting Psalm 110:1: “The Lord says to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool.’” In the original Hebrew, this is about Yahweh inviting the Israelite king to sit at his right hand. Luke reimagines this as God inviting Jesus to sit at his right hand.

Peter’s address had the desired impact: “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Brethren, what shall we do?' And Peter said to them, 'Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'” (vv. 37-38)

Luke reports that about 3,000 people were won over to Jesus that day, and the little cult grew: “…all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.” (vv.44-45)

But “you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” seems to have been Luke’s main point in this chapter, and “speaking in tongues” was evidence of its presence. Many Christians may regard this as a quaint vestige of the old time religion; if only that were true. Pentecostalism brings it vigorously into the present, as James A. Haught illustrates in his article, One-Fourth of Christians “Speak in Tongues.”

Pay attention if you want to grasp the dismal impact of this early cult theology.

• Haught describes the resurgence of the phenomenon in 1906: “Just over a century ago, a little-educated evangelist named William Seymour, a son of ex-slaves, preached that modern Americans could ‘get the tongues’ as the apostles did. In a Los Angeles slum, he led followers in ardent prayer, hoping for the ‘rushing mighty wind’ from heaven.”

• According to one L.A. newspaper at the time: “They cry and make howling noises all day and into the night. They run, jump, shake all over, shout to the top of their voice, spin around in circles, fall out on the sawdust-blanketed floor jerking, kicking and rolling all over it. Some of them pass out and do not move for hours as though they were dead. These people appear to be mad, mentally deranged or under a spell.”

• “Pentecostalism became the name of the practice, and it snowballed into a national, then worldwide, movement. The Assemblies of God was established in 1914, followed by the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World in 1916 and the Pentecostal Church of God in 1919.”

Where are we now?

“An estimated 35,000 people join the Pentecostal church each day. Of the world’s 2 billion Christians, a quarter are now Pentecostal—up from 6 percent in 1980. As most of Christianity shrinks, Pentecostals are the fastest-growing group. A Wheaton Theology report says: ‘There were 631 million Pentecostals in 2014, comprising nearly one-fourth of all Christians. There were only 63 million Pentecostals in 1970, and the number is expected to reach 800 million by 2025.'”

Haught sees a far better alternative: “Will much of Christianity be transformed into jerking, howling, swooning congregations who utter incoherent sounds? If so, that’s one more reason for thinking people to renounce irrational supernaturalism.”

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.

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