St. Peter’s Magic-Spell Healing

Can’t Christians today step up their game?

We’re so used to hearing Bible texts recited from the pulpit, hence the aura of holiness surrounding “God’s Word.” And as part of devotional exercise, church folks are commonly urged to read their Bibles to advance their understanding of the faith. Priests and pastors are there to help them deal with rough patches they might encounter; apologists have formulated endless excuses to make the bad stuff in the Bible look good.

Lay people are not usually coached, let alone trained, to come at scripture with a rigorously skeptical, critical eye; a devotional posture doesn’t encourage that. How many of them have the time or inclination anyway? They want to “take it on faith” that each Bible chapter—even the bothersome bad stuff—must have value, must reveal something about God.

Besides, there’s so much of the good stuff, right? The “inspiring” stories, taken at face value, give a boost to faith—why rock the boat? It goes against the grain to question the “amazing grace” on display in so many Bible chapters.

Ironically, however, Christianity takes a direct hit—theism is dealt a nasty blow—when we take a close look, i.e., with a skeptical, critical eye, at stories that were meant to give a boost to the ancient Jesus cult.

The Book of Acts, 3:1-10, is a fine example. We read here that Peter and John, visiting the Temple, came across a man who had been lame from birth. His friends commonly carried him to the Beautiful Gate so that he could beg for alms. Then this happened, vv. 4-8:

“Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.”

Of course, there’s a lot here to be skeptical about, and it doesn’t work to say, “It must be true, it’s in the Bible.” That’s special pleading, i.e., we don’t have to follow the rules of logic and history because our religion is exempt and true. If special pleading worked, we would be obliged to believe every story told by every religion.

This article is another in my series on each of the 28 chapters of The Book of Acts. The Introductory article is here; the one on chapter 2 is here.

When we turn to any chapter in the Bible, curiosity should kick in; questions might fall into four categories.

1. Where did the story come from?

That is, who wrote it, and what sources did the author use? Most of the time, we’re stumped. The gospels and Acts were written decades after the events depicted, and they were penned by anonymous authors. This is hard to grasp because of the four famous names, and they never name their sources. In fact, Matthew and Luke were blatant plagiarists because they both copied Mark, without mentioning they’d done so. But even Mark is not a primary source, because it too was written decades after the events.

Hence, when we look at the Acts 3:1-10, a basic question would be: Was there anyone on hand taking notes? If someone, that very day, had recorded the scene in a diary or letter, that would be a primary source. Lacking any evidence that this happened, sometimes sympathetic scholars push the idea of reliable oral tradition: the story was well remembered and passed along. But how well would that work over the course of fifty years? Did the author even intend to write history? It was common practice in the ancient world for authors to make up speeches for the famous characters in their stories; the bulk of Acts 3 is a speech by Peter.

The bottom line: if primary sources are not cited, if we don’t know who the author was, if we know that elsewhere he naively reports fantasy and folklore as fact, we don’t have history. Outside of the Christian camp, historians have long acknowledged that there’s not much—if any—reliable history to be discovered in the gospels and Acts. The theological agenda is too obvious. Even some Christian scholars admit as much.

2. Does the story look like fantasy folklore found in other religious literature?

The world over, religions specialize in miracle stories. If these tall tales in other traditions are considered real—and validation of claims about the spiritual realm—then pious folks are obliged to consider converting to other faiths, e.g., evangelicals cannot deny the truth of Catholicism, Muslims would be tempted to embrace Mormonism, Episcopalians would consider Hinduism. So, what do we have in Acts 3:1-10? On the principle, “If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, it’s a duck,” the story of Peter and the lame man belongs to miracle-genre, not history.

3. Does the story include magical-thinking markers?

After the healing, Peter addressed the crowd that gathered. He identifies Jesus as the one whom the God of Israel has glorified, and concludes, verse 16, with this point:

“And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know. And the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.”

Got it? “…his name itself has made this man strong…” This is a marker of magical thinking. Right here in the New Testament is a magic spell: By uttering a word, a sacred name, a man is healed. In this case, a congenital birth defect no less, is repaired. That’s not how the world works; that’s how fantasy literature works. Or showbiz TV faith healers.

Luke functions very much here as a cult propagandist.

Please get used to this concept; it will help immensely in understanding what the gospels are.

And a major part of his agenda was pushing faith as a key for full participation in the cult. But note, by the way, a major flaw in highlighting the role of faith in this miracle. It wasn’t the man who was healed who had faith. He was expecting alms when Peter pulled him up. Are we supposed to overlook that? Presumably it was Peter’s faith that was sufficient to make the magic spell work. Luke wanted his readers to know how important faith was…that’s how cult fanatics have always succeeded in pushing their wares.

So doesn’t this beg the question: Why don’t devout Christians today have these powers?

“…the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health…”

Don’t any of them have this level of faith? At the end of Mark’s gospel—in the ending added by someone in the early church (16:9-20)—the resurrected Jesus claims that baptized Christians will be able to heal people by laying hands on them. If we’re to take this seriously, why doesn’t Peter’s successor, Christ’s Vicar on Earth, the Pope, hold healing sessions at the Vatican every week? If this faith in Jesus’ name can bestow perfect health, why doesn’t the Pope step up his game? Why don’t all devout Christians?

I suspect a scam.

4. What are the implications for God’s power and willingness to alleviate suffering?

If a holy man can voice-activate a healing—and surely it is the Holy Spirit, one of the heroes of the Book of Acts, at work here—then presumably God has the power to heal people. In his commentary on Acts, Father Joseph Fitzmyer notes that this miracle continues “…the important Lucan theme of healing wrought through the invocation of Jesus’ name by one of those empowered by the pentecostal Spirit.” (The Anchor Yale Bible, Volume 31, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 276)

But why is this power exercised only in isolated cases? Why isn’t it divine policy to cure as many people as possible, anywhere and everywhere? Why would God let that poor lame man beg for alms for years at the Temple gate? Curing him right after birth would have been the right thing to do. Fitzmyer puts a good spin on it: “[Peter] sizes up the unfortunate condition of this human being and bestows on him what he can by invoking Jesus’ name.” (p. 277) Shouldn’t God have sized up his unfortunate condition a lot earlier?

Based on stories like these, believers are pretty darn sure that God does indeed have the power to cure disease; they muster prayer-marathons to plead with God to cure afflicted friends and neighbors. Why. Is. This. Necessary? If God has the power to cure cancer, why doesn’t he just do it? Quietly, decently? Throughout the world. No prayers required. It is so tempting to “praise the Lord” upon reading Acts 3:1-10, but this text raises too many questions, and exposes the incoherence of theism.

No one has been able to reconcile the concept of a powerful, good, caring God with the horrendous human and animal suffering in the world, every minute of every day. There is no evidence of heaven-engineered intelligent design—or compassion. In Tim Sledge’s recent book, Four Disturbing Questions with One Simple Answer: Breaking the Spell of Christian Belief, one of his four questions focuses on precisely this issue. See “The Germ Warfare Question.” (pp. 35-46)

Three More Strikes against Acts 3


Let’s get back to the issue of cult propaganda. The early Christians were sure that their faith was the culmination of Jewish history and theology, and relentlessly quote-mined the Old Testament to prove their case. They saw Jesus everywhere in the ancient texts—even though he was not there at all. The Old Testament authors could have mentioned Jesus by name if they meant him—and, if they were so good at the prediction business—specified that he would appear after Rome had conquered the world.

But they were possessed of theological certainty, which always clouds rational thought. They knew that the Kingdom of God would arrive soon—a theme hammered by Paul and by Jesus himself supposedly—thus Peter promises the crowd, vv. 19-21 & 24:

“…turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.”

“And all the prophets, as many as have spoken, from Samuel and those after him, also predicted these days.”

This is theological guesswork, the musings of the cult. If you’re not brought up in it, why take it seriously?


File this under “The Damage the Bible Has Done.” When we read Peter’s speech, our respect for the Bible degrades. Peter recounts to the crowd the recent history of Jesus, and says this, vv. 14-15:

“But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” “…you killed the Author of life…” When God inspired/wrote his holy book, did he really mean to include this destructive text? Anti-Semitism has been fueled for centuries by the New Testament, especially John’s gospel. And here is a verse that explicitly identifies Jews as Christ killers. Just what we didn’t need.


Luke’s target audience was the cult, and those who might be enticed to join. But fair warning: it was an authoritarian group. Jesus must be obeyed, even Moses himself said so! Verses 22-23:

“Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you from your own brothers a prophet like me. You must listen to whatever he tells you. And it will be that everyone who does not listen to that prophet will be utterly rooted out of the people.’”

Luke is the author who gave us the Jesus-script about hatred of family as a requirement for being a disciple (Luke 14:26), so this threat that those who don’t listen to the prophet “will be utterly rooted out” is no surprise.

Nothing in this analysis of Acts 3 is hard to figure out. Skeptical analysis and critical study allow us to get behind the aura of holiness. Of course, cult propagandists are still hard at work. Father Fitzmyer concludes his comment on Acts 3:1-10:

“Invocation of the name of Jesus should guide the concern of all Christians for unfortunate human beings (the sick, lame, paralyzed), for it is worth more than silver or gold.” (p. 277)

Ah yes, they still peddle the magic spell: The name of Jesus is worth more than silver or gold. If the faithful can hold tightly to that, maybe they won’t notice that so much in Acts 3 sabotages the faith.

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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