What Belongs in the Bible, and What Doesn’t?

….for it to be “the good book”

Last June, here on this blog, Robert Conner spoke the truth: ‘The Bible really needed an editor with a shredder.” Even the most devout (honest) Christians would mutter, “Amen to that, brother.” They have tried to read the Bible cover-to-cover—and many have succeeded—but found it a trial: truly, an endurance test. Only fundamentalists will insist that all of it must, somehow, be the word of God—and that every story, for whatever reason, serves a purpose. Naturally, there are fundamentalist commentaries devoted to defending every last word and syllable.

Those who have read the Bible carefully can probably name a few of their favorite worst parts. Chances are, for Christians, these can be found in the Old Testament, but the New Testament has plenty of bad patches, e.g., the rantings of the apostle Paul, and the tedious Jesus monologues in John’s gospel (found in none of the other gospels, by the way).

And then there’s Acts, Chapter 7, the longest in the book, 60 verses. This is not especially bad or tedious, but it breaks the flow of the narrative, and a good storyteller might wonder why it got included. However, careful readers can detect the clumps of bad theology here. This chapter offers a fine case study of stuff that shouldn’t be in a book of good theology.

This is another in my series of articles on each chapter of the Book of Acts. The Introductory article is here. The article on chapter 6 is here.

Stephen, who is under arrest before the Sanhedrin and about to be martyred, recounts the sweeping epic of Israel, beginning with Abraham. Father Joseph Fitzmyer, in his massive commentary on Acts, devotes 27 pages to a detailed analysis of this speech, which “seeks to make the point that God has been constantly at work in the history of his people and has constantly brought good out of evil.” (p. 364)

Well, not quite. But what else would we expect from a devout Catholic scholar—even a very good one? I suppose preachers love to hear about this god who “constantly brought good out of evil”—and they certainly don’t encourage the laity to look at such texts with sharp, critical eyes.

Curiosity should be a natural stance when examining any chapter of the Bible: where did this come from, who wrote it, what were his sources? Especially if a story is positioned as history. At the beginning of Acts 7 we read that the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these things so?”—i.e., the charges that had been brought against him. Accurate history—any reasonable stab at it—is based on contemporary documentation, items written at the time of the event, or pretty close. So we would want to know: Was someone there taking notes? Indeed, was there a transcript that could have survived the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE? Acts was written some 25 to 40 years after that.

It was traditional in the ancient world for authors to create speeches for their characters, since there were no recordings—and few, if any, word-for-word transcripts. So in Acts 7 we find a recitation of folklore about Israel’s origin and progress. Fitzmyer notes that it is “…likely that Luke has passed on to us an inherited form of Stephen’s speech, into which he has introduced modifications…In its present form it is certainly a Lucan composition, but it builds on inherited tradition…” (p. 365)

There is a very long tradition of theologians getting away with a lot—as long as ideas have already been successfully planted, especially about the nature of gods, their behavior and expectations. This sprawling epic—Israel’s story that we have heard forever, from Abraham to Moses to Joshua conquering the Promised Land—is almost certainly folklore. There is no contemporary documentation at all for these major figures; they have no true grounding in history whatever.

Luke inserted Stephen’s speech, not because he was a historian, but because he was a theologian. He wanted to set the story of Jesus and the church in the context of Israel’s history. Indeed he wanted to position it as its culmination; Luke was following his agenda. Hence, at the very start (v.2), we find an idea typical of the stuff theologians have gotten away with: “The God of glory appeared to our ancestor Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia…”

Any skeptical, critical reader wants to know: How do we know this is true? Where is the reliable, verifiable data? For millennia countless priests and theologians have claimed the same cozy relationships with other gods, different gods—gods just as weird as old Yahweh. Tiny cults can become major world religious—Christians, I’m looking at you—because embedded comforting ideas are so resistant to rational inquiry. Especially as they are carried forward by dramatic folklore in which devotees become emotionally invested.

But let’s move on to check out some of the bad theology we find in Acts 7, some of which should be real deal breakers for people who like the idea of a non-weird god.

1. In his conversation with Abraham (verse 6), “God spoke in these terms, that his descendants would be resident aliens in a country belonging to others, who would enslave them and mistreat them during four hundred years.” Yes, you read that right. This “God of glory” promised Abraham that his descendants would endure four hundred years of slavery. I suppose this is fitting for a tribal god who has rivals to contend with, but it’s pretty tough to reconcile this idea with the all-powerful, compassionate god cherished by Christians. God couldn’t do something to prevent centuries of slavery? Fitzmyer surely exaggerates that God was constantly at work in the history of his people. Come on, theology falters terribly here; this is just too incoherent.

We read later, in verse 34, about this god’s conversation with Moses: “I have surely seen the mistreatment of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to rescue them.” It’s about time, right? Why did it take him so long to hear their groaning? Of course, this works in folklore: it’s meant to be a dramatic story, with sufficient tension and suspense (as we see in Exodus 7, in Moses’ contest with Egyptian priests), but it fails as credible theology. Well, is there such a thing, anyway?

This egregious failure of God was dwarfed by his callousness, his negligence in the 20th century, i.e., doing nothing to save six million of his people during the Holocaust. There is no theological maneuvering—“God is mysterious,” “He has a plan we cannot grasp”—that can save theism. It’s a total debacle.

2. Which brings us to another element of bad theology, actually two. Perhaps the most dangerous ideas to emerge from overwrought theological imaginations are chosen people and promised land. Note, v. 34: “ I have surely seen the mistreatment of my people” and vv. 4 & 5, “this country in which you are now living,” God “promised to give it to [Abraham] as his possession and to his descendants after him…”

Choosing a people, promising a land. This is behavior expected of a tribal god, who demands allegiance of the tribe that he owns, and can pick out a land for them to possess, even at the cost of genocide for those who occupy the land, v. 45 “when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors.” These ideas, when transplanted into our modern world—and attributed to a supreme being (as opposed to a petty tribal deity)—are especially dangerous. No: We have no sound basis for believing that a universal god who runs the Cosmos favors one ethic group over others—or has picked out a scrap of land that he/she/it promised to that ethic group.

Western history has falsified the chosen people concept, especially as Christians have sought relentlessly to take revenge on the chosen people. The horrible history of the Crusades demonstrates the poison that promised land represents. And now we have the volatile situation represented by the claims that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam make on Jerusalem; this religious insanity could get us all killed.

3. Theology can go from bad to absurd as well, i.e., v. 8: “Then he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.” Circumcision was practiced thousands of years before Abraham came along, but some ancient theologians came up with the idea that it was a token of the covenant with their tribal god: “As a sign of our god-bonding, Yahweh wants you to cut off the end of your penis.” How in the world does this make sense? This is proof that theologians—if ever we needed it—have too much time on their hands. The health merits of circumcision today can be debated, but the god-covenant thing is ancient superstition.

Genital mutilation carried over into Christianity because Luke 2 reports that Jesus was circumcised—and more than one church has claimed the holy foreskin as a venerated relic. Yes, we watch religion drift off into insanity.

Stephen brings his recitation of the epic to a conclusion with a stinging accusation, vv. 51-52:

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers.”

Foretold the coming of the Righteous One: Christian authors of the first century were so sure that Old Testament predicted Jesus all over the place—Matthew especially got carried away—but, how embarrassing: there is no text whatever that specifies that “Jesus of Nazareth in the time of the Roman domination of the Promised Land will be the Righteous One.” Why couldn’t there have been verses that really did predict Jesus—you know, name names! It didn’t happen because that’s not the way religious fantasies work.

And at the end of Acts 7 we find the biggest tipoff that we’re dealing with religious fantasy literature (vv. 55-56):

“…filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’”

Acts 1 had reported Jesus ascending through the clouds, and now Stephen sees him sitting right there, next to God. So here we have a clutter of those motifs that have appealed to the pious for centuries.

But this is bad theology too. Priests and preacher love it because it looks so good in stained glass—and because the devout have become so emotionally invested in it. It’s easier to sell religion with all these special effects. Will there ever come a day when religious bureaucrats will encourage the faithful to give up on the occult (“filled with the holy spirit”), and put most of the Bible through the shredder?

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 by Telletual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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