St. Peter Makes Up for His Big Fumble

“…there is no other name under heaven…”

There are thousands of dead and discarded gods. Once fervently believed in and prayed to, they have fallen out of favor, or their worshippers have been wiped out in the march of history. But faith is tenacious; it takes a lot for folks to abandon their gods, once any particular theology has seized a place in the mind. That goes for a lot of beliefs. Try explaining to people why astrology is bunk, or why crop circle aren’t proof of alien pranks.

I recently came upon this:

“Crop circles actually have a variety of shapes. There are crop hexagons, crop fractals, crop Nike swooshes…but they are generally referred to as circles. Since it’s difficult to understand how a complex design could be imprinted in a field of wheat through a natural process this was proof, according to some cereology experts, that at least some crop circles were caused by flying saucers.

“Matthew Williams, a self-confessed maker of crop circles, took issue with this conclusion; he wanted to demonstrate that it’s quite easy for people to make elaborate crop circles. In 2000 he proved his point by making a 7-pointed shape—something that one leading cereologist claimed was impossible to fabricate. Armed with only some planks, bamboo poles and a torch, Williams proceeded to create his 7-point shape over three nights in a farmer’s field of ripening wheat.

“Personally, I admire his devotion to rationality…even though people have confessed to making crop circles and have shown others how to do it, there are those who are convinced that the crop circle phenomenon is an unexplained and perhaps inexplicable mystery. How can one argue with people who are so wedded to a particular idea…?” (Stephen Webb, If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens…Where Is Everybody? Seventy-Five Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life, pp. 40-41)

How indeed. We know the feeling when we bump into Christian apologists “…there are those who are convinced…” and who speak of “…inexplicable mystery…” But the apologists have it easy, really. While relatively few people are wedded to belief in alien-sculpted crop circles, gods—those that haven’t been scrapped—usually have a lot going for them. Successful religions commonly have bureaucracies heavily invested in maintaining irrational beliefs. The Christian bureaucracy has two thousand years of momentum, as well as a widely respected holy book. “Devotion to rationality” doesn’t come naturally to the faithful as they read their holy book—if they read it at all. Nor does digging for the truth, trying to find out what actually happened.

There is so much that is inexplicable. For example, one of the great curiosities in the New Testament is a scrap of information in Galatians 1:18: we read that Paul spent fifteen days with Peter in Jerusalem. Since, in all of Paul’s letters, he betrays no knowledge whatever of the teachings or deeds of Jesus, what the hell did they talk about? Shouldn’t there be a wealth of information in Paul’s letters about stuff that ended up, decades later, in the gospels? Raphael Lataster has asked, for example, why we don’t find Paul saying something like this: “I spoke with Peter who still feels guilty about lying to that nameless girl about his associations with Jesus (John 18:13-27).” (p. 360, Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists)

We do wonder how Peter, the man who let Jesus down so badly—he turned chicken at just the wrong time—became a hero in the early cult. That is how he is depicted in Acts, as we have seen in two previous articles. Chapter 2, Chapter 3.

And Acts 4 provides more evidence that its author created good story (i.e., propaganda) to bolster the faithful, betraying his bias, thus earning Richard Pervo’s verdict that he was an “utterly incompetent historian.” (p. 25, The Mystery of Acts)

Curiosity and skepticism should kick in on multiple levels as we read Acts 4. The faithful should wonder what actually happened—if anything.


It is the habit of cults to exaggerate their own importance—the amount of attention they deserve and get—and we find this at the opening of this chapter: “While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, much annoyed because they were teaching the people…” The apostles were taken into custody overnight, and the next day were given the full attention of the “…rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family.”

Magical Thinking

In chapter 3 Peter had healed a man by uttering the name of Jesus—essentially a magic spell—and he repeats the claim here: “…let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ…” Moreover, salvation itself—the promise that the cult traded in—happens through the magic name as well. This theological fragment is a flip for Peter, who had, after the arrest, three times denied knowing Jesus: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” This reflects the hubris of the cult, which it shared with other mystery religions: it was obsessed with “the only name by which we must be saved.”

Using the Old Testament as Proof

It was the common practice of New Testament authors to arbitrarily pick texts from the Hebrew Bible, to make it seem like Jesus was right there, hidden, waiting in the old documents; all they needed to do was point them out. In Acts 4:11 we find a reference to Psalm 118:22: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” This must have seemed pretty cool, since at the time Acts was written the Jerusalem Temple had been in ruins for decades, and Christians were confident it had been replaced by Jesus as the primary gateway to God; he had become the cornerstone. Of course there is not the slightest hint in Psalm 188 that its author had Jesus in mind.

After being questioned and warned, Peter and John were released and returned to their friends. Even this trivial incident is seen by the author of Acts as a fulfillment of scripture; he quotes Psalm 2:1-2, which refers to other nations gloating against Yahweh, but sees it as a reference to the religious bureaucrats who had gathered against Jesus: “‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.”

Bible authors were themselves masters of “taking things out of context.”

The Holy Spirit and More Hubris

Peter and John were ordered “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” But one of the major characters in Acts is the Holy Spirit (e.g., “Sovereign Lord…it is you who said by the Holy Spirit…”), so these guys weren’t about to be put off. “…Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.’” (vv. 20-21)

Got that? “We alone are listening to God, so get out of our way.” This tradition, this mandate, is followed by all the missionaries of the world, by the folks who ring our doorbells to tell us about Jesus; by all the priests and preachers with their Sunday morning platforms; and ominously today, by those who want to turn America into a theocracy. There’s rarely any suspicion that the Holy Spirit might not be behind it, after all.

But this is the way religion works—and so often succeeds. We read in verse 4, “…many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand.” Our author depicts the religious authorities at a loss: “After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened.” (v. 21) As if the Temple authorities respected the will of the people.

As mentioned above, be on the lookout for exaggeration; it’s a characteristic of folklore. So, five thousand believed? Maybe so, with no one present who had been trained in critical thinking. “Wow, you saw Jesus raised from the dead? I’m impressed, how do I sign up?”

But all of these details in Acts 4—all the actions and dialogues—should prompt readers today to wonder, “Where do these stories come from?” Knowing that this account was created decades after the events described, skeptics should have a hunch—trying to take the story at face value—that all may not be well in terms of historical accuracy.

Lay readers are generally not trained by their priests and preachers to approach Bible texts skeptically, critically. But any trained historian, Christian or secular, can spot the problems, and knows that the history quotient in Acts is minimal. Among the problems:

1. We don’t know the author’s sources: where did he get his information? Luke doesn’t tell us; none of the gospel authors do. We’re justified in wondering if they just made up the stories. Are we to imagine, as the events unfolded in Acts 4, that someone was taking notes? That a stenographer was present? How would the written records have been preserved—and accessed later? Remember that Acts was written well after the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. Was everything remembered faithfully, and the account passed down, without error or embellishment, for an author to use fifty years later? That’s a stretch, considering the devastation wrought by the seven-year Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE). Eyewitnesses would be long gone.

New Testament scholars have been trying, forever, to get around the lack contemporary documentation of any kind for events described in the gospels and Acts; there is nothing that can actually anchor Jesus securely to history. Historians need letters, diaries, transcriptions created soon after events, and accounts left by non-Christian historians active at the time.

Is anyone getting tired of these oft-repeated warnings? But this point must be made continuously, tirelessly, because it is commonly ignored by those who are so invested in the Bible, which doesn’t deserve the hyper-devotion.

2. The bias, indeed, the heavy theological agenda, of the author, which is obvious at almost every point.

• He is an advocate for Jesus: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

• He is an advocate for Peter, until he disappears from the story, giving way to Paul; and, by the way, this author gives no indication whatever that Peter somehow ended up in Rome, of all places.

• He adds theologically-motivated special effects: “When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.”

• He idealizes the early church—ignoring the divisions and strife that Paul mentions in his letters: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” (vv. 32-33)

Richard Pervo elaborated on his evaluation of Luke as an incompetent historian:

“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…

“Luke’s nearly perfect ‘crime’ is not just what he neglected to mention, but his artistry in convincing readers that he has given them ‘the big picture’ when what he has painted is merely a distorted portrait of one (admittedly major) segment of the whole…

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

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 by Tellectual Press last year, with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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