The Why-Bother Bible Factor

“…one of the curiosities of a tragic bibliolatrous age…”

In the dark interior of a cathedral in Spain, I once saw women, intensely in prayer, touching the frames of paintings depicting saints. The sense of touch must be helpful, a technique for connecting with divine power. No doubt this accounts for the appeal of relics, most of which are now kept behind glass. At least people can gaze at items that holy people have touched or owned—even parts of their bodies. Is this act of piety a way to ward off doubt, a safeguard against disbelief, i.e., venerating a fragment of God in full view? God has become visible.

I suppose the pious have always craved items that are—or seem to be—evidence of God. Hence the Bible has become the supreme talisman, a guarantor that God is within reach. He can be found, identified, defined through care examination of these Words of God.

Well, maybe not. Veneration can give way to skepticism when we grasp Bible realities, e.g., the haphazard way in which it was assembled, preserved, and handed down. Our suspicions are aroused: none of the original manuscripts of the Bible books have survived (why would God let that happen?); there was excessive corruption of the text as copies were made by hand for hundreds of years; but above all, too much of the Bible is mediocre…and just plain bad: “God deserves an F as an author.” I discuss this scandalous accusation in my essay in The Case Against Miracles (ed. John Loftus); see pp. 309-313.

It is not hard at all to find Bible stories that just don’t seem to measure up to “word of God” status; we repeatedly bump into items that make us ask, “Why is this here? How does it qualify as a word of God?” But once magical thinking about the Bible has been embraced, such doubts won’t do. It is indeed magical thinking to believe that God waved his wand over a collection of books, endowing every last word with divine truth. The Bible is of such uneven quality—how can that possibly be true? We could make a long list of stories to put in a file called, “Why Bother?” …which is separate from another file, “This Is Awful.”

As we make our way through the Book of Acts, the fifth book in the New Testament lineup, we come across one of the Why-Bother chapters, Number 6.

This in another of my articles on each of the 28 chapters in Acts. The Introductory article is here. The article on chapter five is here.

Chapter six, just 15 verses, takes less than five minutes to read. For context, we can recall what is reported in Acts 4:32: “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.” But even so, in Acts 6:1 we read that there were complaints about unfairness: “Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.”

How to solve this problem? To sort out the equitable distribution of food, the disciples didn’t want to be hindered from their mission of spreading God’s word; and here we come to a surprising verse:

“And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.’”

It was decided that seven people would be put in charge of food: “…select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.”

They even added a bit of ceremony for those chosen to wait on tables: “They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.” Then on with the mission: “The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem.”

Why would we care that a few folks were selected to take care of food distribution—why was this even worth reporting? Of course, Luke was presenting his idealized account of the early church, and this is just a fragment of his grand sweeping story of the Acts of the Apostles, which eventually secured status as scripture, “the word of the Lord that endures forever.”

“The word of the Lord” in book form is a component of magical thinking I mentioned earlier, i.e., a holy item that can be touched. Acts isn’t just one of many documents created in the ancient world. It’s an article of faith that it’s packed with Divine Meaning; not a scrap of it can we written off or neglected.

Hence devout Christian scholars—extreme devotees of the ancient Jesus mystery cult—feel compelled to analyze every syllable of Acts; they are determined not to miss any hint of divine meaning lurking in every word. In Father Joseph Fitzmyer’s 830-page commentary on Acts we find a 17-page analysis—in pretty fine print—of the 15 verses of Acts 6. Moreover, he cites more than 60 articles written by other scholars about this chapter. Is this really necessary?

It is here, in Acts 6, that we are introduced to Stephen—who will be martyred at the end of chapter 7—and he is described in terms that we expect in religious fantasy literature. He was “…full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” His preaching was condemned by some, “But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.” And after his arrest, “…all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” This is the omniscient voice of the novelist, who can tell us what his characters are thinking.

The scene depicting Stephen before the council should arouse other suspicions, vv. 13-14: “They set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.’”

The curious reader—actually anyone suspicious of material that looks like fantasy literature—will want to know Luke’s sources for this scene. The Book of Acts was written 50 to 80 years after the events depicted. These are the questions to ask, always, when reading any story in Acts: “Was anyone there taking notes—to record what the false witnesses had said?” “Were those notes stored in an archive—one that survived the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and that our author could have accessed?”

Especially since Luke declines to name his sources, we can suspect no such thing happened. Historians realize the author has been spinning tales. Richard Pervo calls it correctly when he acknowledges that Luke is a “highly competent narrator,” but an “utterly incompetent historian.” (p. 25, The Mystery of Acts) Readers who can look beneath the aura of piety that surrounds the Bible—and who do even a little digging into critical Bible study—can see that Acts is a propaganda piece far more than it is history. How does Acts 6 merits our attention? Read it and yawn. Indeed, why bother?

But academic Bible study is a large, sturdy industry. Joseph Fitzmyer studied Acts for thousands of hours, and his work will be studied and analyzed in turn. He also wrote a 790-page commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans; Ben Witherington wrote 420 pages about Romans, and included an 18-page bibliography of works on Paul, confessing that the list “could go on for miles.” Most laypeople have no idea that all this is happening.

Scholars write for other scholars, with the piles of books, doctoral dissertations, and articles growing higher and higher. That’s what I mean by a sturdy industry. It is indeed a curious modern attachment to the ancient cults that produced the Bible. But why bother, why go on with it? Is there any more god-meaning to be wrung from the old texts?

Hector Avalos has made a superb case for not bothering with the Bible at all. If you want to check out all the details and arguments he provides, see his book, The End of Biblical Studies. Here is the thrust of his argument:

“Biblical studies as we know it should end. We should now treat the Bible as the alien document it is, with no more importance than the other works of literature we ignore every day. Biblical studies should be geared toward helping humanity wean itself off of the Bible and toward terminating its authority completely in the modern world.

“One day, the Bible might even be viewed as one of the curiosities of a tragic bibliolatrous age, when dependence on a text brought untold misery and stood as an obstacle to human progress. We might then study the Bible as a lesson in why human beings should never again privilege any book to this extent.” (page 29)

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 published in 2016 by Tellectual Press.

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