Holy Propaganda, Batman!

Tales from the cult

A few decades after its inception, the Ancient Jesus Mystery Cult produced writers who had a knack for fantasy literature. The apostle Paul was the first to write about Jesus Christ—as least his letters are the earliest documents that have come down to us—but he said almost nothing about Jesus the Galilean peasant preacher. Paul had hallucinated his way into the cult, i.e., he had visions of the dead man, and bragged that he received no information about Jesus from human sources.



Mark was the first to write a gospel vividly depicting Jesus the preacher, and he specialized in fantasy: God speaks from water vapor (i.e., a cloud); Jesus has arguments with demons (who know “who he is”) and, by a magic spell, transfers them into pigs; he glows on a mountaintop while chatting with Moses and Elijah; he feeds thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread; there’s a lot more like this in Mark’s fantasy romp. Matthew, Luke, and John piled on more of the same when they copied Mark, and worked to correct what they took to be his mistakes.


Of course, these stories have worked splendidly, fueling Christianity’s spread for hundreds of years. But these days, don’t we know better? Christians enjoy fantasy literature—and movies and TV—as much as anyone else: Superman and so many other super-heroes, Star Wars and Star Trek, Harry Potter, The Umbrella Academy, Sherlock Holmes…the list is endless. We enjoy binge watching.  


Wouldn’t it be something if Pixar made versions of the gospels? It would be obvious from the get-go that these Jesus epics are religious fantasy literature. Maybe Pixar could even work out a way to portray the dueling gospels. And then, of course, one of the gospels has a sequel, i.e., Luke-Acts. 


Christian scholars lean heavily on the Book of Acts because it’s the only gospel sequel; there’s nowhere else to turn to find out about the early history of the church. But we hit two brick walls: 


(1) The author of Acts—which was written decades after the events depicted—gives no indication whatever about his sources. Where did he get his “information”? If we don’t know that, we don’t have history. Devout scholars have speculated endlessly about the author’s sources, in order, somehow, to anchor Acts to history. But without documents they can lay their hands on, “sources” are wishful thinking, a mirage.


(2) There is so much fantasy—really just ordinary fairy tale stuff in Acts—we can see that reporting actual facts/events wasn’t a motivation for this author. He gave free rein to his imagination, and right from the start too, e.g., Jesus ascending up through the clouds to heaven. As Richard Carrier has pointed out, “The Book of Acts has been all but discredited as a work of apologetic historical fiction.” (p. 359, On the Historicity of Jesus)


In the 16th chapter of Acts there are several incidents worthy of note, markers of the superstitious thinking of the author. [This is another in my series of article on all of the chapters in Acts. The Introductory article is here; the one on chapter 15 is here.]


Cult propagandists want their devotees to know that agents in the spirit world guide and control their activities. We read that, through the efforts of Paul and Timothy, “…the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.” (v.5) Their itinerary was managed: 


They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.”  (vv. 6-8) 


We know from Paul’s letters that he took his visions (= hallucinations) seriously, so it’s no surprise that these are put into narrative form:  


During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.” (vv. 9-10) Here again, an agent in the spirit world—this time the commander-in-chief—calls the shots. Cults cherish the idea that God pays close attention to their coming and goings. 


It can be noted that we’re still haunted—if I may use the word—by these delusional elements in the New Testament. This headline recently caught my attention: Trump’s Spiritual Adviser Claims Angels From Africa Will Save Election For Trump.”


Author Michael Stone wrote:


Angels From Africa? During a wild prayer service Trump’s spiritual adviser Pastor Paula White claims angels ‘dispatched from Africa’ will bring victory to Trump in the 2020 election.

“White held a marathon prayer service in Orlando, Florida, on Wednesday at the New Christian Destiny Center, calling on God for divine intervention in the presidential race. During the live-streamed prayer, White spoke in tongues and claimed ‘demonic confederacies’ were ‘attempting to steal the election from Trump,’ while also claiming that angels had been dispatched from Africa to deliver victory to the Trump campaign.”  

Our world is not a better place because this Bible-based goofiness remains so popular.


Back to Acts 16: Verse 10 has sparked considerable interest because it introduces the “we” sections in Acts (16:10–17; 20:5–15; 21:1–18; 27:1–37; 28:1-16). Could it be that these represent recollections of someone traveling with Paul? It turns out it’s not that simple:


“It is sometimes argued that the ‘we’ passages (portions of Acts where the author inexplicably switches from third person to first person plural and back again, without ever explaining why, or who ‘we’ are) indicate an actual source. Some even argue these prove the author was an actual companion of Paul, but few scholars believe that’s likely—it isn’t what the author himself ever says, yet it was standard practice of the time to say so, if that is what the author to be understood. 


“But fabricating a fictional narrative using ‘I’ or ‘we’ is already evident in the pre-Christian book of Jubilees, a made-up rewrite of OT history adapted from Genesis, passed off as a revelation given directly to Moses, even though it was actually composed  around the second or third century BCE. So the motif  has an established precedent in historical fiction. A more famous model for writing fiction in the first person is the Odyssey of Homer…”  (Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 361)


Nor is our world a better place because the New Testament is fond of exorcism. Jesus was good at it, in Mark especially, as was Paul:


One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her. And it came out that very hour.” (vv. 16-18)


The name of Jesus is used here as a magic spell, just as the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist have magic properties. So why give up on exorcisms? Here’s another headline that caught my attention: “Exorcism: Increasingly frequent, including after US Protests”: 


“Archbishop Alexander Sample carries the Eucharist into downtown Portland, Ore., for an exorcism and rosary to bring peace and justice to the city on Oct. 17, 2020. In popular culture, exorcism often serves as a plot device in chilling films about demonic possession. Recently, two Roman Catholic archbishops showed a different face of exorcism. They performed the rite in well-attended outdoor ceremonies to drive out any evil spirits lingering after acrimonious protests. In Portland, Oregon, Archbishop Alexander Sample led a procession of more than 200 people to a city park, then conducted an exorcism rite. The event followed more than four months of racial-justice protests in Portland.”

Surely, for the improvement of race relations, the church has much better things to do than perform exorcisms.


Paul’s exorcism landed him in jail, but even the earth moved, coming to the rescue:  


“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.” (v. 25-26)


Then Luke, master propagandist, shows how the cult wins: 


“Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.”


What are we up against, trying to get Christians to look at these texts honestly? Obviously, the modern bureaucracy that represents this ancient cult it formidable, only one example of which is an archbishop parading through the streets to perform an exorcism. And most of the scholars who analyze the New Testament are devout Christians who bring substantial faith bias to the project. Anyone who studies the authentic letters of the apostle Paul knows that he was wrong about so much; he helped promote magical thinking that is one of the curses of the faith to this day. 


Yet the aura of holiness surrounding Paul is daunting. You couldn’t ask for a better commentary on Acts than Father Joseph Fitzmyer’s massive work; but he was a priest, a devotee of the ancient cult, with all its superstitions: “Paul responds to heaven’s call and so understands why the Spirit was preventing him from going to Asia and Bithynia. The Lucan Paul thus gives the readers of Acts a view of how the Christian disciple must patiently await heaven’s instructions.” (p. 578, The Anchor Yale Bible, Acts of the Apostles, Volume 31)


Really? That’s what we’re up against. 


For a long time, John Loftus has advocated The Outsider Test of Faith. That is, believers should bring the same skepticism and critical thought to their own doctrines that they apply to other religions. Chances are overwhelming that Christian fantasy literature would be dismissed as quickly as that of other religions. Protestants don’t even have much sympathy for Catholic fantasies! How do the adventures we read about in Acts differ from other ancient folklore—and from all the modern tales we binge watch?



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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