Two Bible Chapters Collide Head-on

Where were the fact checkers?

The concept—the excuse—that “these are holy writings” diverts attention from the haphazard way in which the New Testament was put together. Let’s imagine Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John sitting together in a bar, awaiting news about which of their gospels will be selected for the Bible. They don’t especially like each other, and wrote their gospels because they also didn’t like the way the others told the Jesus story. Matthew wanted to correct Mark; Luke freely changed what he found in both, and John—well, John, was sure the others had it all wrong.

Their iPhones buzz at the same time; they receive identical texts: the Bible Selection Committee has decided to accept all four gospels, and will print them side-by-side. These four authors glare at each other: “What are those stupid bureaucrats thinking?” What a disaster. Of course, most of the folks in the pews won’t even notice, for centuries, because they had no access to the Bible. The full scope of the disaster would become obvious when close scrutiny of the gospels finally happened with the advent of critical scholarship.

The Bible Selection Committee made other goofs as well. Critical thinking skills hadn’t kicked in yet, and “fact checking” didn’t occur to anybody. If one Bible passage blatantly contradicts another—well, wasn’t that just part of the divine mystery? And piety carried on; loving the divine savior was all that mattered.

Even Christian apologists know that the Divine Mystery Excuse no longer carries much weight. They devote their careers to grappling with the contradictions, trying their best to make the Bible “come out right.”

But sometimes they hit a brick wall.

The Book of Acts, chapter 9, is one of the most cherished texts in the New Testament. Here we read of the dramatic conversion of Paul—his famous Road to Damascus vision of Jesus. He was rendered blind for three days, but his sight was restored by a certain Ananias, who also had been visited by Jesus in a vision. Ananias followed orders, found Paul, and by the laying-on-of-hands, restored his sight.

It was a dramatic turnaround for Paul, who had been fiercely persecuting the Jesus cult. Now he preached in the synagogues and “…confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ.” (v. 22) This didn’t go over well, and Paul had to make this escape by being lowered in a basket through a hole in the city wall.

This article is another in my series on each chapter of the Book of Acts. The Introductory article is here. The one on chapter 8 is here.

As we might expect, Paul—still known as Saul—was eager to get back to Jerusalem to make amends, hence we read, vv. 26-30:

‘’And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. And he declared to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. So he was with them at Jerusalem, coming in and going out. And he spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus and disputed against the Hellenists, but they attempted to kill him. When the brethren found out, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him out to Tarsus.”

This was written several decades after these supposed events.

And now we can watch the head-on collision, between Acts 9—author actually unknown—and Galatians 1, written by Paul himself (vv. 15-20):

“…when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!”

He didn’t go to Jerusalem. He went to Arabia, then back to Damascus—and finally three years later went to Jerusalem to stay with Cephas/Peter for 15 days. He makes the point that he didn’t mingle with the other disciples (i.e., as Acts puts it, “coming in and going out with the disciples”); he highlights his visit with Peter as a rare occurrence. And he swears “before God” that he is not lying about this.

Why is Paul so emphatic? He seems to be making the point that his gospel is superior because it came directly from his personal visions of Jesus, not second-hand from the disciples (Galatians 1:11-12): “…the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” It’s clear that his audience would be more impressed by his personal link to Jesus through visions. Hence he insists that he didn’t learn about Jesus from the disciples.

Why this head-on collision with Acts 9? Attentive Bible readers should ask—of this account written several decades after the events depicted— “Where did the author of Acts get his information?” The author is commonly assumed to be the man who also wrote Luke, and history was not his specialty or even his aim:

“…despite his pretense at being a historian, preface and all [i.e., the preface to the gospel], Luke’s methods are demonstrably nonhistorical: he is not doing research, weighing facts, checking them against independent sources, and writing down what he thinks most likely happened.” (Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 470)

We have no way of knowing where the author of Acts got his material, and, as we have just seen, he got a crucial part of the story wrong. Acts is a novel about the early Christian cult, and it’s probably even a stretch to call it a historical novel. But the author was a dramatist. In all of Paul’s letters there is no mention of the Damascus road event.

Nor in his letters does Paul quote this exchange reported in Acts 9:4-6:

“He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’”

Historians can report, of course, that people claim to have visions—and how this might affect their behaviors. But here Luke displays the omniscient perspective of a novelist, i.e., knowing what characters are thinking, their inner experiences and emotions. He quotes, verbatim, what Jesus said to Saul. Did Paul later write this down—but then fail to mention it in his letters? Did the men who were with Paul—and supposedly heard the voice—take notes? And were their notes stored in an archive that Luke, decades later, had access to? It’s highly improbable, but this is the trail that a historian would follow to verify this exchange reported in Acts 9. As Carrier says: doing the research and checking against independent sources.

Acts 9, we can be pretty sure, is based on Luke’s creative imagination. Paul boasts of his visions in his letters, but a dramatic scene on the Damascus road would be just the thing to impress the Jesus cult for which he wrote. He includes as well the dialogue between Ananias and Jesus (the scene in vv. 10-18)—in which Jesus tells him to heal Paul of his blindness. Remember: Jesus had died, but the cult believed that he had come alive again and appeared to favored people. No one in the first century Jesus cult would call for fact checkers and ask for verification.

Then, as now, if it’s in a holy book—well isn’t that good enough? But then I find a slick maneuver by modern theologians. What were they thinking? In my tattered old Bible (the RSV) that I’ve had since I was a teenager (held together now with tape and glue), the words of Jesus are printed in red. This is a way of assuring readers that these are bone fide words of Jesus, heard as he spoke them in the real world. This is understandable in the gospels, supposedly based on “reliable” oral tradition. But the RSV also printed in red these words of Jesus in Acts 9, heard in visions—as if they too qualified as the real thing. This practice does not help readers understand the problems that these texts present. Neither do the red letters in the gospels. Well, we do know what the translators/editors of the RSV were thinking: divert attention from the problems; keep ‘em in the dark.

In the remainder of Acts 9, vv. 32-43, Luke displays more of his dramatic talents, wandering even further from the practice of a historian. Peter heals a man named Aeneas, who had been paralyzed in bed for eight years. “Peter said to him, ‘Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed!’ And immediately he got up.” (v. 34) In any other context, even Christians would recognize this as a magic spell; the name, Jesus Christ, had magical power. This early cult superstition survives today as Christians end their prayers, “In Jesus’ name, we pray.” Supposedly that will add a little more (a lot more?) power to the prayer.

And finally, Luke tells us that Peter was summoned to the bedside of a woman who had died (vv. 39-41):

“…when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up.”

To escape the embarrassment of too many resurrections in the New Testament, apologists may want to argue that Dorcas just looked dead—but even so Peter can be credited with the lesser miracle of curing her of whatever made her look dead. But the agenda of our author is revealed in verse 42: “This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.” He wrote stories to appeal to his target market: “See what Peter did! See how so many believed throughout Joppa!” Ah, as always, the importance of belief. Luke is recruiting and reinforcing; the resurrection superstition is worth exploiting. He probably believed it himself.

Christian scholars want so badly to find real history in the Book of Acts, since it’s the only Volume II, so to speak: Mark, Matthew, and John didn’t write sequels. Luke poses as a historian of the early church, but neglects to disclose his sources—did he even have any, except for his imagination, and an expanding base of Christian folklore? So for historians today, his efforts are pious rubbish. Richard Pervo, in his book, The Mystery of Acts: Unraveling Its Story, isn’t quite so blunt, but almost. He calls attention to the choppy quality of Luke’s sequel:

“If the project of describing Christian origins can produce no more than bits, fragments, and conjectures, the result will be no better or worse than what can be said of numerous other religions and movements. Acts is a beautiful house that readers can happily admire, but it is not a home in which the historian can responsibly live.” (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 published by Tellectual Press in 2016, and was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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