Superstitions that Fuel Christian Piety

Straight outta the Bible

In ancient times, all over the world, the idea caught on that some humans were gifted with knowledge of the spirit world. So many things happen in life that people didn’t understand—lightening, earthquakes, mental illness—surely unseen powers were at work. And it was cool that some humans knew how to manipulate these powers—or so they claimed. Innumerable gods were imagined, whom countless priests and priestesses flattered and served.



Just a few science lessons—which wouldn’t come along for thousands of years—could have spared humanity so much foolishness…and trouble. The title of D. B. Ramsey’s new book, Speaking of God: We Don’t Know Sh*t, captures the basic truth. Nobody who claims to know about god(s) really does, but the claims have staying power:


All religious imaginings sown in vulnerable children’s minds are entirely based on beings and realms that, as far as anyone can credibly determine, simply do not exist. Superstitions. Musings. Inventions of mind. But they are presented to kids as facts, as true, as solid threads of the material fabric of reality. Yet there’s zero irrefutable verification for that. And never has been.” (Rick Snedeker, Holy Smoke: How Christianity Smothered the America Dream, Kindle, loc 78)


Superstitions. Musings. Inventions of mind. Surely one of the strangest ideas that ancient theologians came up with is that gods want humans to cut off the ends of penises; it’s especially bizarre that circumcision was considered the mark of a covenant with a god; genital mutilation for this purpose has to be one of the dumbest ideas ever. And there came a time when even a few religious fanatics realized the practice had no value and could be abandoned.   


Early Christians found themselves in contention over this issue, as is reflected in the Book of Acts, Chapter 15. The earliest Jesus followers were a Jewish sect, and while the push was on to win Gentiles to the new faith, there were some who argued that Jewish law nonetheless should apply to converts. This viewpoint is represented in Jesus-script created by Matthew (5:18-19):


“…until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”


Naturally, circumcision was a turnoff for those who might be tempted to convert. Of course, mutilated penises sealing a covenant with God is magical thinking, but the magical thinking offered by the apostle Paul was much easier to take: eternal life was the reward for believing that a crucified man—a human sacrifice—had risen from the dead.   


Nevertheless, the bureaucracy had to be consulted and convinced, and that’s the story we find in Acts 15. This is another article in my series on The Book of Acts. The Introductory article is here; the one on Acts 14 is here.


Paul and Barnabas had been successful in winning Gentile converts, but then at Antioch found that “certain individuals” from Judea had arrived with the message that “…unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Paul and Barnabas were appointed to go to Jerusalem to settle the matter. They found an ally there is Peter—at least in this idealized story created by Luke—although we know from Galatians 2:11-14 that Paul once denounced Peter to his face for being intimidated by those who advocated adherence to the old law. But in Acts 10 we read that Peter converted the Gentile Cornelius and his family to the new faith—no circumcision required: 


While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.  The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said,  ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’  So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” (verses 44-48)


So upon the testimony of both Paul and Peter, the circumcision requirement was waved, and a letter was drafted to send to Antioch:


“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”  (15:28-29)


“So they were sent off and went down to Antioch. When they gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. When its members read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation.” (15:30-31)


Properly curious readers should be skeptical. How do we know this is what really happened? Acts was written 60-70 years after the events depicted; we have no idea where Luke got his information. Father Joseph Fitzmyer, in his monumental commentary on Acts (Yale Anchor Bible, Volume 31), discusses scholarly opinions (guesses) about Luke’s sources, but this is faith-based bias, i.e., they don’t want to admit that Luke might just have made it all up. But we know that he did in fact make up so much in Luke-Acts; in these narratives we never know where fantasy ends and history begins. Even if Luke did have sources, we have no way of determining how reliable they were. 


As is often the case, Paul’s letters—written by someone who was there—provide a more candid account:


“But because of false brothers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us—we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you. And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those leaders contributed nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.” (Galatians 2:4-9)


Properly curious readers can detect the markers of superstition in Acts 15. Here are ten of them; not once does Luke depart from his agenda, i.e. promotion of Jesus cult beliefs. 


·      Verse 7: “…in the early days God made a choice among you…” This tiny group was confident it was being micromanaged by its god.


·      Verse 8: “And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit…”  This deity reads minds and directs beings in the spirit realm. Those who specialize in the occult talk like this.


·       Verse 9: “…cleansing their hearts by faith…” Faith, not the request for evidence, in the primary virtue.


·       Verse 11: “we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus…” Salvation—winning eternal life—is the cult’s product, and happens through magical grace provided by the deity.


·       Verse 12: “The whole assembly…listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them…” Cults leaders before and after—up to and including televangelists—have made the same claims about God’s wonders.


·       Verse 14: “…God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name…” Names of gods commonly had magical power, and the gods had favored people.


·       Verses 16-18: an allusion to Amos 9:11-12, which Luke feels is applicable to Gentiles being welcomed as converts, i.e., “God had us in mind hundreds of years ago.” This text includes the words, “…all the nations who are called by my name, says the Lord.” Amos wasn’t celebrating ecumenism in that long-gone era; as did many of the prophets, he envisioned a time in which all nations would bow down to Yahweh. 


·       Verse 20: “…abstain only from things polluted by idols…” More magical thinking: as if meats sacrificed to “other gods” could be hazardous to your health.


·       Verse 26: “…our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The ideal heroes risk their lives for the cult. 


·       Verse 28: “…it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit…” The religious elites claim knowledge of the preferences of spirits. 


These markers of superstition commonly raise no suspicions among the faithful, because, of course, they’ve heard them from the pulpit all their lives. This kind of repetition works, deflecting attention from how the real world works, as Rick Snedeker has warned: 


All religious imaginings sown in vulnerable children’s minds are entirely based on beings and realms that, as far as anyone can credibly determine, simply do not exist.”


We can however, give credit where credit is due, in evaluating the impact of this chapter. The early Christian church gave up on circumcision; it was abandoned as part of the New Covenant with God. The new theologians ran with Paul’s alternate magical thinking instead, i.e., that believing in a resurrected man was the key to eternal life. The author of John’s gospel added grotesque details about eating the victim’s flesh and drinking its blood.


But this chapter also is a reminder that—as with any human institution—politics play a major role, even if the institution claims to be divinely powered. Fitzmyer notes that James is given a role here, and offers this assessment:


James, he says, is “another important figure in the Jerusalem church who is concerned with the church at large.”


“There are, indeed, many Gentile Christians in the church, but there are also Jewish Christians; and the church has to accommodate both sorts of Christians. James is the broadminded leader who, while basically agreeing with Peter about no circumcision and no obligation to observe the Mosaic law for Gentile Christians, seeks to preserve the unity and peace of the church. The first Christians were Jewish, and their background, culture, and sentiments have to be respected. This is the reason he proposes the dietary and marital regulations for Gentile Christians who live among such Jewish Christians. Luke presents James as a church official who seeks a reasonable compromise in the interest of the church at large.” (Yale Anchor Bible, 31, Acts, pp. 553-554)


Luke presents. Too bad we have no contemporaneous documents to verify Luke’s presentation. And too bad, as well, that “church officials who seek a reasonable compromise” have proved to be so rare. Christians have quarreled about theology ever since, have persecuted and killed each other because they cannot agree. Believing in Christ is supposedly the key to eternal life, but it hasn’t been the key to getting along in this life. 




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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