An Angel with a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card

Pushing Christian theology into fantasy land

Not too long ago I read the claim by a Christian apologist that Luke was a first-rate historian. Such confidence is no doubt based on the first four verses of that gospel:

“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”

• “to set down an orderly account of the events”
• “as they were handed on to us…by eyewitnesses”
• “after investigating everything carefully”

Who isn’t prepared to give Luke the benefit of the doubt? Though the other three gospels don’t have similar preambles, the laity throughout the ages have assumed that the gospels are trustworthy: they preserve the true story of Jesus.

But Luke’s preamble is misleading. Devout and secular historians alike have themselves “investigated everything carefully,” and know that Luke’s methods were faulty. We know, for example, that he copied more than half of Mark’s gospel, without mentioning he’d done so; today this is considered plagiarism. But it’s more worrisome if Luke considered Mark an eyewitness, since the latter gospel was written some four decades after the death of Jesus, and includes so much fantasy and folklore.

Another debate goes on as well: did Luke also copy from Matthew or from the famous Q document that supposedly existed? Even if Q did exist—and that’s a big “if”—there is no guarantee whatever that it was based on recollections of eyewitnesses; we know too that Matthew is wildly unreliable.

The bottom line: in this famous preamble Luke does not mention his sources. To be taken seriously, we would have to know where he got his information. His promise that the “investigated everything carefully” isn’t good enough. But then—and this is embarrassing—he gives himself away; the first three chapters of his gospel are religious fantasy:

An anonymous angel is given a speaking role in the opening scene in which Zechariah learns that his elderly wife will have a child (John the Baptist); the angel Gabriel has a speaking role, in delivering the news to the virgin girl named Mary that she will have a child (Jesus); an anonymous angel tells shepherds that Jesus has been born, and a “multitude of heavenly host” joins in the announcement. And woven throughout, naturally, is messianic folklore theology.

Luke falls far short of being a first-rate historian; he was a first-rate mythographer and propagandist for the early Jesus cult. He was big on angels in his sequel as well, the Book of Acts. In fact, twice in Acts angels play a role in prison breaks, first in chapter 5, but most dramatically in chapter 12—the focus of this article—in which there is an Angel of Escape and an Angel of Death.

This is another in my series of articles on each chapter of the Book of Acts. The Introductory article is here. The one on Chapter 11 is here.

We read of the imprisonment of Peter by King Herod, but an angel came to the rescue:

“Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell off his wrists. The angel said to him, ‘Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.’ He did so. Then he said to him, ‘Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.’”

"…they came before the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him.” (vv.7-10)

The next morning Herod ordered the prison guards put to death, then headed off to Caesarea. Some time later, while he was giving a public address,

“The people kept shouting, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!’ And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.” (vv. 22-23),

Father Joseph Fitzmyer, in his massive commentary on Acts, says this about, “eaten by worms”:

“So Luke describes the demise of Herod Agrippa I, using a genre well known in Greek literature…the gruesome details are supposed to enhance the account of the death deserved by those who despise God (or the gods).” (Anchor Bible, Volume 31,The Acts of the Apostles, p. 491)

Fitzmyer also identifies the primary problem in evaluating Acts as a whole: “Where Luke got these stories is hard to say, apart from a generic derivation from a Palestinian source.” (p. 486) Devout scholars tend to speculate about sources—that gave birth to the confidence that there was a Q source for the gospels—but it’s entirely possible that such sources are wishful thinking. It’s just as likely that these stories in Acts 12 came from Luke’s imagination, although he may have been prompted by Josephus in his description of King Herod’s death—but Josephus didn’t mention worms and an avenging angel.

Fitzmyer was a Catholic theologian of course, and needed Luke to be working from more than his imagination. Fitzmyer may not have taken the Avenging Angel literally, but still the story of Herod’s demise, he seems to feel, reveals the nature of God:

“Basking in his royal glory and being hailed by adulant admirers, he is struck down and suffers a horrible death of the classic persecutor. So heaven protects its own, especially in response to the fervent prayer of the church on Peter’s behalf (12:5). For Luke the episode is important, not only because it reveals the power of Christian faith and prayer, but also the fidelity of God who stands by his chosen agents.” (p. 486) But God’s fidelity is not that reliable, apparently. We read this at the start of Acts 12: “About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword.”

Surveying the Theological Damage

A tiny cult with a big ego

Luke wanted to make the case that the tiny Jesus breakaway sect was so important—to the extent that kings worried about it, and angels were sent to safeguard its heroes. Thus he helped write the playbook for so many cults that would follow: cults like to brag. Luke tells the tale, doesn’t identify his sources, cites no documentation to back it up. This pushes Christian theology into the realm of fantasy.

Where are the Escape Angels when we need them?

Is this really a convincing demonstration of God’s miraculous powers? Of course the angel rescuing Peter makes a cool story—but it drags down theology: angel-rescues have been conspicuously missing in human history. So what does that tell us about God? Luke wanted to achieve the wow-effect to impress his readers (he would have loved comic book superheroes), but his unsophisticated readers—up to the present day, apparently—haven’t noticed the implications.

Matt McCormick, in his essay in the John Loftus anthology, The Case Against Miracles, explains why miracles don’t do theology any favors:

“…millions of people suffer horribly from disease, famine, cruelty, torture, genocide, and death. The occurrence of a finite miracle, in the midst of so many instances of unabated suffering, suggests that the being who is responsible doesn’t know about, doesn’t care about, or doesn’t have the power to address the others.” (p. 67)

So this finite miracle—springing Peter from prison—puts theology on the spot. Countless other prison rescues could have happened, should have happened since then—but the angels didn’t show up. What does that tell us about God’s attention span—let alone his power? We’re so tired of hearing that God works in mysterious ways; we expect theologians to come up with better answers.

More seeds of anti-Semitism

Most first century Jews were stumped by the claims made by the new Jesus cult that Jesus-predictions could be found in the Old Testament—and by the claim that Jesus was the messiah. The early Christian authors had to answer the pushback, and Jews became adversaries. Thus nasty stuff ended up in the New Testament, which has fueled virulent anti-Semitism, manifested supremely in Martin Luther’s hateful, violent outbursts.

Here in Acts 12 we find a couple of texts that are part of this bigger picture:

• About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (vv. 1-3)

• Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” (v. 11)

Funny that God didn’t see this problem coming, the horrible consequences of such texts.

Luke’s agenda was to promote the cult, to assure his readers that the early days of the new faith brought winning—so much winning: “But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents.” (v. 24)

However, we can “investigate everything carefully” and appreciate that yet another Bible chapter is a disappointment.

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

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