The Curious Lack of Christian Curiosity

Bible skepticism is risky business

How is history written—real history? What is the labor required to give accurate accounts of events in the past? David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris provides a good example. His 450 pages of text—describing the Paris sojourns of Mary Cassatt and Samuel Morse, among many others—are followed by 76 pages listing his sources: exactly where he found the information. McCullough spent a lot of time digging in libraries and archives.



If McCullough and countless other historians didn’t name their sources we would have every right to be suspicious. Then there are novelists; authors who write historical novels usually consult sources as well, but then use their imaginations to create stories. Modern readers are usually savvy enough to know the different genres. 


But then there are Bible readers. They seem little inclined to ask of any chapter, in the gospels especially, “Where did this story come from? What were the author’s sources? Why should it be trusted?” Since the Bible has been hyped forever as the Word of God—that it was inspired by God—readers let their guard down. Rembrandt depicted an angel whispering the gospel into Matthew’s ear, a romanticized notion that appeals to some of the faithful. 


In the absence of the angel, however, we are still asked to believe that God—in the form of the holy spirit, I suppose—manipulated the brains of the Bible authors to write specific words on the page. How can this verified? Did the words that ended up on the page flow from God or from the author’s imagination? Sadly, one is just as likely as the other—which is being generous, since we suspect, based on the poor quality of much of the Bible, that God had nothing to do with it. 


So we’re back to the basic question: “Where is this story come from?” This is especially true when we try to evaluate the Book of Acts, the sequel to Luke’s gospel. It was written perhaps 50 to 60 years after the events depicted, and we hit this brick wall: the author never names his sources. Where did he get his information? Consider the opening verses of Acts 18:1-3:  


“After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together—by trade they were tentmakers.” 


[This article is another in my series on all of the chapters of The Book of Acts. The Introductory chapter is here; the article on chapter 17 in here.]


This seems straightforward reporting. Why suspect anything else, especially since it mentions the expulsion of Jews from Rome, known from other sources as well? But it’s common for novelists to mention historical events, and we know that the author of Acts can’t be taken seriously as a historian: his characters include angels and the holy spirit, which are a mark of fantasy literature. To say nothing of what we find in Acts 1, the ascension of Jesus, i.e., his disappearance into heaven through the clouds. That most certainly is fantasy, and Christians who suggest, “Well, it’s a metaphor,” concede that it fails as history.  


Luke postures as a historian in Luke 1:1-3, in which he claims to use accounts “…handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses.” That’s not good enough. How was the “handing on” done? By documentation or word of mouth? He does not name specific sources, e.g., letters, diaries, transcripts, and other archival materials. We suspect he’s winging it. Christian curiosity fails if Bible readers don’t ask, probe, question how texts were created; the sequel to Luke’s gospel is especially suspect:


“The book of Acts has been all but discredited as a work of apologetic historical fiction. Nevertheless, its author (traditionally Luke, the author of the Gospel) may have derived some of its material or ideas from earlier traditions, written or oral. But the latter would still be extremely unreliable and wholly unverifiable (and not only because teasing out what Luke inherited from what Luke chose to compose therefrom is all but impossible for us now). Thus, our best hope is to posit some written sources, even though their reliability would be almost as hard to verify, especially, again, as we don’t have them, so we cannot distinguish what they actually said from what Luke added, left out, or changed.” Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, p. 359)


Christian curiosity should also extend to spotting religious fanatics. How would devout Catholics feel if Mormon missionaries invaded Sunday Mass to argue that Mormonism is the right religion? How would devout Baptists feel if Muslims barged into their services to do the same thing? We tend not to like religious fanatics advocating other religions.    


But the heroes in Acts 18 are up to just these tricks:

·       “Every sabbath [Paul] would argue in the synagogue and would try to convince Jews and Greeks. When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that the Messiah was Jesus.” (vv. 4-5)

·       “Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures.  He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.  He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.” (vv. 24-26)


Here the author of Acts admits too much. Apollos preached with “burning enthusiasm” and “taught accurately,” but he got some of the message wrong! “…when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.” Beware of folks who claim insider information about God. On what basis do they know this? Religious fanatics corrected other religious fanatics, and so it has gone, century after century: there are now more than 30,000 different Christian brands. There hasn’t been enough Christian curiosity to figure out how they got into this mess. 


Yes, Luke wrote “apologetic historical fiction”—aka fantasy literature—but he must also be recognized as a strident cult propagandist. In Luke 14:26 he wrote, claiming to quote Jesus, that hatred of family and even life itself, was a requirement for being a disciple. Divided loyalties were not acceptable. And here in Acts 18 he depicts the Jews as enemies of the Jesus sect—Luke’s break-away cult was the only right one—making comments that have contributed to anti-Semitism. 


·      “When [the Jews] opposed and reviled him, in protest he shook the dust from his clothes and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’” (v. 6)


·      “…the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal. They said, ‘This man is persuading people to worship God in ways that are contrary to the law.’” (vv.12-13)


·      “…for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus.”  (v. 28)


If an all-knowing God had inspired these words, he might have foreseen the damage these verses would do in centuries to come. 


Let it be noted, by the way, that it’s only through the distorted Christian lens that the Old Testament has been used to prove that Jesus was the messiah. Devout Jews know that you can find Jesus in the Old Testament only if that’s your theological obsession. There are no texts in the ancient scriptures that say, “The Messiah will be Jesus of Nazareth at a time when conquerors called Romans will dominate our land.” Christian curiosity also should kick in here: how did New Testament authors get away with this slight of hand, misconstruing ancient texts to mean Jesus? 


Above all, however, Christian curiosity should kick in about words credited to Jesus himself. Acts 18 reports a few words his words; to assess these, a bit of a digression is required.


How do we know which are the real words of Jesus? Christians themselves rush to claim that Luke got it wrong when he reported the famous “hate your family” Jesus quote (14:26). But, in fact, all Jesus quotes are suspect. Just how could the authentic words of Jesus have been preserved? Look at any text in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, which the authors present as Jesus script: when was it written down for the first time? For how long was it passed along by word of mouth, told and retold dozens or hundreds of time: we know how accurate that would be! Even after the gospels had been written, they were copied by hand for centuries, and we know that thousands of errors were made. So what are the chances we have, in our Bibles today, the real, authentic, accurate words of Jesus? 


Most Bible scholars who create modern translations know about these problems, yet some of them want to encourage worship of the text, on the belief that it was magically inspired by God. Hence we find the practice of printing the words of Jesus in red. This is the case with my tattered old version of the RSV I’ve had since I was a teenager; and with the New International Version on my Kindle. It’s annoying because it’s dishonest and misleading. 


But in Acts 18 the red ink is just downright silly. Here’s a Jesus quote—not from a sermon he gave somewhere in Galilee—but as heard inside Paul’s head. Maybe not even that, but as imagined by the novelist inside Paul’s head.


 “One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.’ So Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.”  (vv. 9-11)


The red ink is meant as a guarantor that these are real words of Jesus; here in Acts 18 the translators have lied. This is no surprise, since most New Testaments scholars and translators are devout, even ordained, and thus are disposed to view the texts as “holy” even if not literally “inspired.” But the lie is not worth it. 


Faith bias is easier to deal with; Father Joseph Fitzmyer’s monumental commentary on Acts [The Anchor Bible, Volume 31] is an amazing scholarly achievement, but his faith bias is a distraction; on some level he takes these hallucinated Jesus words seriously: “When Paul is assured of heavenly assistance in a dream, he stays on in Corinth for a year and a half.” (p. 619) “Thus, the risen Christ encourages his chosen instrument for the evangelization of Gentiles in the important city of Corinth.” (p. 628) 


The hyping of the Bible as Word of God has two thousand years of momentum, and that alone blunts curiosity: what’s the point of questioning the product of inspiration? Which is yet more damage caused by faith bias. Christian laypeople—the folks in the pews—need to step up their curiosity game. How about this: every time they hear verses read from the pulpit, they should do follow-up research. Check out the results of scholarly inquiry and analysis, which—no surprise—are not usually shared from the pulpit.  


So much has been written about every chapter of the Bible by devout and secular scholars alike; yes, read Joseph Fitzmyer (his Amazon page), but also read Richard Carrier (his Amazon page). The books of these two scholars include references to thousands of other works; they are portals into the world of in-depth Bible analysis. Find out if the hype about “word of God” stands up to careful scrutiny. 


Acts 18 doesn’t help make the case.   




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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