Yet Another Bible Chapter: More Trouble than It’s Worth

Blending superstition and bad theology

“For years my congregations sang the Gloria Patri which ended ‘Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.’ I sang about a ghost. As a grown man.” So said D. B. Ramsey recently on Twitter; he was a Baptist minister for ten years, and his book, Speaking of God: We Don’t Know Sh*t will be published in October. Yes, religion has a way of getting adults to do childish things; images of Casper the Friendly Ghost come to mind.

To make the Trinity sound less spooky, I suppose, ghost is commonly replaced by spirit. But even so, giving a spirit a starring role in theology is risky business. How can it not seem borderline occult, with the clergy sharing space with mediums and conjurors? “I just got back from a séance and the Holy Spirit told me…” Sounds legit, right? What’s the difference between religion and superstition?

Yet, ghost/spirit is at the heart of Christian Trinitarian dogma, which means that the spirit is active. Countless priests and preachers have claimed access to God through the spirit—hence validation for their religious certainties. But if this is true, how can there be so much disagreement among those who claim to hear from the spirit? Robert Conner, author of Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story, points out the big flaw with this claim:

I know I’m right because the Holy Spirit told me! “Said every moonbat Mormon, batshit Baptist, mystified Methodist, cuckoo Catholic, crackhead Campbellite, potty Presbyterian and hoodwinked Holy Roller ever.”

But alas, the Bible shares the blame for these delusions, the Book of Acts especially, in which the Holy Spirit is given a speaking role. What bigger tipoff do we need that this is fantasy literature? Where is the evidence—well, for God, obviously—but for a spirit acting on his behalf, and even taking center stage? We need evidence that the spirit not just fantasy in the heads of priests and preachers who claim their direct line to God. Again, Conner skewers the idea:

“That the whisperings of a ‘Holy Spirit’ would take precedence over evidence and its coherent analysis is quite literally unimaginable in any discipline other than evangelical Jesus studies. Picture, if you can, the reaction should an academic historian reveal that his interpretation is guided by the urgings of a personal daemon.”

Conner also points out that the gospels provide evidence that spirit is a bogus idea:

“They were finally declared ‘canonical’ and those four are in substantial disagreement at various seemingly crucial points. If, as evangelicals are wont to claim, the Holy Spirit used human authors to pen a record for the ages on which belief could be firmly based, then the Holy Spirit made a right shit job of it.”

But Luke, who told the story of the early church in Acts, his gospel sequel, knew that the Holy Spirit would grab attention as a character, as we see in chapter 13. There are a few other items in this chapter that should bother the faithful.

This article is another in my series on all the chapters of Acts. The Introductory article is here. The article on chapter 12 is here.

At the beginning of Acts 13 we read (vv.2-4):

“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia; and from there they sailed to Cyprus.”

We soon discover that it’s not a good idea to mess with someone running errands for the Holy Spirit. Paul was challenged by a magician named Elymas, but would have none of it:

“…filled with the Holy Spirit, Paul looked intently at him and said, ‘You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now listen—the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind for a while, unable to see the sun.’ Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he went about groping for someone to lead him by the hand. When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was astonished at the teaching about the Lord." (vv. 9-12)

Notice that Paul was “filled with the Holy Spirit” when he retaliated against Elymas, and we can be sure that the story was designed to impress Luke’s audience, the early Jesus cult: the proconsul was astonished and believed when he saw the trick.

So are Christians to assume, from reading their holy book, that it’s acceptable in religious debates to physically injure their opponents? Paul was possessed with certainty (of course) and power (filled with the holy spirit), which is a dangerous combination. So, did he perform an admirable holy miracle here? Members of the Jesus cult esteem Paul as the hero, but this was a dirty trick—after Paul had indulged in nasty name-calling.

Father Joseph Fitmyer was an amazing, thorough Bible scholar (e.g., his commentaries on Romans and Acts), but he was on Paul’s side—so there’s no hint of moral judgment in his analysis of the incident:

“The spread of the Word of God is not hampered by tricks of a magician; rather Saul, now called Paul, performs a punitive miracle and blinds the magician. This he does as one ‘filled with the holy Spirit’ so that we realize once again the power of the Spirit in fostering the spread of the Word of God. In other words, though sent off formally by the Antiochene church on this mission, Barnabas and Saul are not left to themselves. The Spirit continues to guide their work and them.” (p. 500, The Acts of the Apostles, The Anchor Yale Bible, Volume 31)

For all I know, Father Fitzmyer might have been one of the nicest guys in the world, but he was a devotee of the Ancient Jesus Mystery Cult/Catholic Division, and thought inside that box, sure that the ghost/spirit part of the Trinity is real:

“Neither Barnabas nor Saul makes a decision to undertake this mission on his own. They are the chosen instruments of the Spirit, which continues to be the dynamo inaugurating the further spread of the Word of God. Emphasis is put on the role of the Spirit, which is behind the mission of Barnabas and Saul: they are ‘sent forth by the Holy Spirit.' Now we see how the call of Saul by the risen Christ is being worked out in the concrete.” (p. 495, The Acts of the Apostles)

This is theology full up with magical thinking about spirits directing human affairs. We can appreciate Fitzmyer’s careful analysis of the text, but we’ll leave the preachers to savor his commentaries. After all, they read this stuff to find ideas for sermons.

Much of the rest of chapter 13 is devoted to Paul’s preaching, in which we find a tiresome recitation of the “scared history” we’re so used to hearing, e.g., the slavery in Egypt, escape, the conquest of the Holy Land—and this most dangerous idea:

“After [God] had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance…” (v. 19)

We’re still living with the calamitous impact of this fragment of bad theology: another example of damage done by the Bible.

These verses beg the question of where Luke came up with Paul’s speeches, and hence we face the same brick wall that the gospels present. Luke doesn’t mention his sources—was anyone on hand taking notes?—and we know that he excelled at making things up. Devout scholars have assumed that genuine information is available here—about Paul’s preaching and his missionary journeys—but there’s little basis for taking this idea seriously.

• Referencing the first few verses of chapter 13, Fitzmyer remarks: “The information that Luke uses in this episode comes to him from the Pauline source.” (p. 499).

• Regarding chapter 12, he says, “Where Luke got these stories is hard to say, apart from a generic derivation from a Palestinian source.” (p. 486)

But what is the evidence for such sources? Sources-that-must-have-existed is the common speculation of devout scholars who don’t want to admit that Luke may have just freely created, using his imagination—and followed the literary genres of the time. Richard Carrier demonstrates the context of Acts:

“…Acts shares too many features with popular adventure novels of the same period to warrant trusting it as genuine history: (1) they all promote a particular god or religion; (2) they are all travel narratives; (3) they all involve miraculous or amazing events; (4) they all include encounters with fabulous or exotic people…” (p. 367, On the Historicity of Jesus)

“Clearly the author of Acts was not writing actual history but revisionist history. Which we call pseudohistory. He simply made things up, with little real care for historical accuracy or fact.” (p. 363, On the Historicity of Jesus)

Acts 13:29 offers a clue about Luke’s method: “When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.” Luke wrote Acts several decades after Paul’s death, and in his gospel he had recounted the story of the empty tomb. So it’s no surprise that here in Acts he has Paul mention the tomb; but in all of Paul’s letters—written by the man himself—he never mentions Jesus’ tomb. How could that be for a man who was so obsessed with the resurrection? Probably because Paul had never heard the empty tomb stories; probably because these stories hadn’t been invented yet. It’s not a stretch at all that Paul’s speeches in Acts were made up by Luke.

So, what’s the big deal about writing religious fiction?

Sometimes it can be harmful, in fact it can have deadly consequences. It has long been a source of angst that the New Testament has fueled anti-Semitism, and this chapter shares part of the blame. Luke portrayed “the Jews” as enemies of the early Jesus cult, and we dearly wish these texts had not been written, had not survived:

• “…when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy; and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul. Then both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles.’” (13:45-46)

• “But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, and stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their region. So they shook the dust off their feet in protest against them…” (13:50-51)

Acts 13 doesn’t do us any favors, for the several reasons I’ve mentioned here. Aside from the hatreds it encourages, it also reinforces religious delusions about gods and spirits hovering nearby with advice for those who believe in gods and spirits. Again, Robert Conner sums it up well: “The Holy Spirit is flitting around the world whispering into the temporal lobes of billions of people urging them to have their very own close encounters of the crazy kind.”

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

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