More Bad Examples in Scripture

Again the apostle Paul—what a surprise!

It’s probably safe to say that most of the people in the world are not, at any given moment, shopping for a new religion. Catholics, Baptists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. aren’t thinking, “There’s gotta be something better than this.” If nothing else, religion is tradition, and most folks go with what they’ve been taught. Nonetheless, there are aggressive sellers in the religious marketplace, hoping to wear down those who aren’t shopping.

Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have come knocking at our doors—well, at least until the pandemic arrived—and we commonly send them on their way. But they’ve got that itch for aggressive marketing, as do the televangelists who aren’t held in check by the pandemic. Indeed, the marketing of Jesus has become a multi-billion-dollar business; hence it’s no surprise at all that people “find Jesus” in our Jesus-saturated culture. 


Of course, Christian missionaries have covered the globe for centuries, heeding the “great commission” spoken by the resurrected Jesus:


Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)


Christians have shown a fanatical tendency not to let people alone in their religious traditions. It all seems to have received a big boost in the fevered thinking of the apostle Paul. Actually the Jesus cult had already spread a lot before Paul came along, but his visions (= hallucinations) of the dead Jesus convinced him that he had discovered the One True Religion: the only way to win eternal life was to believe God had raised Jesus from the dead: “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9) Armed with this certainty, Paul entered the religious marketplace with unrestrained zeal, which provokes awe and devotion in many Christians to this day.


But we should always be guided by John Loftus’ suggestion to apply the Outsider Test of Faith to whatever religion we embrace. When we do that, is Paul’s enthusiasm/certainty all that unusual? Would Christians take him seriously if he had been converted to another god? Perspective does a world of good in keeping us grounded, especially in religious matters, as Joseph L. Daleiden pointed out in 1994:


“Since the dawn of history there has been no shortage of people who declared that they spoke for the gods. The result has been the creation of perhaps 1,000 religions throughout the ages…Each of these religions has been propagated by people who professed to have an exclusive knowledge of the intentions and desires of the gods. From the most primitive shamans, to the oracles at Delphi, to the prophets of the Old Testament, down to present-day Evangelists and religious leaders, the field of divine interpreters has been overflowing with men and women jostling for recognition by the masses.”  (Joseph L. Daleiden, The Final Superstition: A Critical Evaluation of the Judeo-Christian Legacy, p. 17)


The apostle Paul was a champion jostler, armored with certainties about Jesus, and determined to undermine other religions—as he is portrayed in the Book of Acts, chapter 17. On the face of it, Acts 17 is credible enough—no angels or divine earthquakes here—though we suspect the author was indulging his skills as a religious novelist: he doesn’t name his sources. We can be skeptical since he wrote several decades after the supposed events. [This is another article in my series on all the chapters in Acts. The Introductory article is here. The article on Chapter 16 is here.]


Arguing in the place of worship


Paul was traveling with Silas, and we read that “…they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures…” (17:1-2) Paul was determined to win converts, so he persisted in making his case for Christ. Not surprisingly, “…the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar.” (verse 5) We might expect the same result—well, maybe not the city in an uproar—if Mormon missionaries walked into a Catholic worship service to preach that God had done an upgrade: Mormonism is now his favored religion. Paul excelled at that kind of arrogance; he is not an example to follow. 


Making his case based on scripture


Devout scholars have long been stumped by Paul’s lack of interest in the teachings and miracles of Jesus—based on what he wrote in his letters. The suspicion, of course, is that he’d never learned these details of Jesus’ ministry. Paul had his visions of the dead Jesus to go on, and he was sure that information about Christ had been planted in the Old Testament. That’s what we find in his letters, and it’s the same here in Acts 17:


“…on three sabbath days [he] argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.’” (verses 2-3)


Christians are accustomed to the claim that Jesus is predicted in the Old Testament—especially after reading Matthew’s gospel—but there is not a single text in the Hebrew scriptures that explicitly mentions a messiah named Jesus who will come from Nazareth at the time of the Romans. All of the “predictions” of Jesus have been inferred from texts, and strong faith-bias has always played a role in this game: you find what you want to find. There are no texts at all that predict a messiah rising from the dead. 


And, no surprise, despite the uproar in the city:  “Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.” 


They were persuaded. That can happen when preachers do their thing. There are better outcomes when people are skilled at thinking critically and pursuing due diligence. “How can we find out what is true, what really happened?” is much better than being persuaded by preachers. Thousands of religions have enjoyed successful runs because people are so easily persuaded. 


Fueling anti-Semitism


One of the greatest sins of the New Testament is its depiction of Jews as enemies of the Jesus cult. This is especially the case in John’s gospel, but here in Acts 17 as well.


But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar.” (v. 5)


“But when the Jews of Thessalonica learned that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Beroea as well, they came there too, to stir up and incite the crowds.” (v. 13)


These texts overshadow verse 11, “These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so.” 


So many of the New Testament authors expected the arrival of the Kingdom of God on earth within their own lifetimes, with the arrival of Jesus on the clouds. There was no anticipation that human history would roll on for centuries, and that the church would demonize the Jews, the most horrific example no doubt being Martin Luther. So many New Testament texts fueled that evil agenda.


Paul in Athens


The second half of Acts 17 describes Paul’s encounters in Athens. He was in a mood to pick fights: 


“…he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.” (vv. 16-17)


He saw an altar to an unknown god, and that was his opening. He was sure about God because—well, of course—he’d had visions and could tell the good people of Athens all they needed to know. But Daleiden called it correctly, “…there has been no shortage of people who declared that they spoke for the gods.” Hence one of the best lines in Acts 17 is verse 18, “Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’” 

Paul offered a routine formula about God—it’s routine to us because we’ve heard it forever:


The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” (vv. 24-25)


But isn’t it strange that Christians have felt compelled to build millions of shrines (aka churches), their “houses of God” to visit the deity, and offer him praises he doesn’t need? This is another clue that Paul had no idea that there would be two thousands years of church history—his Jesus was supposed to arrive on the clouds in the near future. Moreover, countless preachers have urged Christians to serve God who “is not served by human hands.” 


Paul jumped to the same conclusion that countless other theologians have: that a creator god must be a personal god, caring about the lives of individual humans: 


While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”


The day had been fixed for judgment, which Paul knew for sure because God had raised Jesus from the dead. All of which Paul knew for sure because of his visions. Bad theology piles on in the wake of magical thinking. 


At the start of this article I stole a line from the musical Sweet Charity: “There’s gotta be something better than this.” That’s not what most folks say about their own religion, because they’ve not been trained to think critically about basic doctrines learned as toddlers, or about the contents of their holy books. Scholar Hector Avalos once remarked that, going line by line, 99 percent of the Bible would not be missed. We can include Acts 17 in that 99 percent. It provides too many bad examples: how not to preach, what not to teach, how not to behave.   



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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