A New Testament Profile in Fanaticism

Please STOP calling him “saint” Paul

Astute readers usually want to know an author’s sources, especially if they’re reading history. Professional historians cite their sources, commonly in extensive footnotes and bibliographies. It’s also satisfying to know how novelists have been impacted by personal trauma or just ordinary experience: what fires their imaginations?


But the church—in so many of its manifestations—has managed to blunt curiosity about stories in the Bible, which is passed off as “word of God.” The awkward, alarming texts are treated as metaphor, symbolism, hyperbole…all meant, the folks in the pews are assured, to convey spiritual meaning. There is little prodding or encouragement for laypeople to ask, where did this story come fromAnd this is a necessary first step in trying to determine if the story is true. Is it fact or fiction? Is it fantasy, and is the claim that it has spiritual meaning simply a dodge? There’s little incentive to get to the bottom of things.


[In this article I’m returning to my analysis of each of the chapters in the Book of Acts—after three months of articles on other topics. Here I’ll be talking about Acts 20. The article of Acts 19 is here; the Introductory article is here.]


The Book of Acts, as much as the four gospels, is a headache for historians. Here’s Richard Carrier’s quick analysis:


“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.” (p. 359, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt)


Mainstream scholarship accepts that the Book of Acts was written late first/early second century, which means its stories were created six to eight decades after the events depicted. Since there is so much fantasy in Acts—spirits and angels are given active roles—we are stumped trying to figure out if there’s any history at all in it, as Carrier has pointed out. 


A major chunk of Acts 20 is a Paul’s address to the elders of the Ephesus congregation, i.e., verses 18 through 35. This is where curiosity should kick in: where did the author of Acts get this information? Specifically, where did the text of this speech come from? To take it seriously, historians want to see the contemporaneous documentation by which to verify these words, e.g., letters written by those who heard Paul, or their diaries, or a transcription. Without these, we suspect that the author of Acts imagined these words of Paul. It was common practice in the ancient world for authors to make up speeches for the heroes they wrote about. 


But if the author of Acts had read the letters of Paul, he may have captured the mentality of Paul pretty well—and that’s a major source of stress. R. G. Price is as skeptical as Richard Carrier that reliable information can be found in Acts, and is blunt about Paul’s fanaticism:


“Who was the apostle Paul? Nothing is known about him other than what is recorded in his writings, but any objective assessment of his writings reveals Paul to have essentially been a raving lunatic.” (p. 325, Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed)


It’s not difficult for most of us—even those who are religious—to spot people who are raving lunatics for their gods. Or simply those who qualify as fanatics. And so many of the markers of fanaticism are on display in this address attributed to Paul. Here are verses 20-28 (NRSV):


“I did not shrink from doing anything helpful, proclaiming the message to you and teaching you publicly and from house to house,  as I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus. And now, as a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there,  except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me. But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace. And now I know that none of you, among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom, will ever see my face again. Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.”


·      He taught “house to house” —no doubt an inspiring text for Mormons and Jehovah’s witnesses

·      He is a captive of the spirit

·      The holy spirit testifies to him in every city

·      He does not count his life of any value to himself (this reminds us of Luke’s infamous verse 14:26, in which hatred of life itself is a requirement for being a disciple)  

·      He received his ministry from the lord Jesus

·      He knows the whole purpose of God, which he declares to everyone

·      The holy spirit has made the elders of Ephesus overseers of the flock

·      And this marker of magical thinking especially: God obtained the church with the blood of his son


We can find similar certainties voiced by fanatical devotees of countless religions, so they are hardly evidence or proof for any religion. And, indeed, most of the folks who are reasonably well adapted to the modern world would cringe if they heard these words from a preacher yelling on a street corner. 


Such fanatics are usually don’t tolerate disagreement: they possess the only truth. And sure enough, we get that here as well. Although Paul expected history to end soon—with the arrival of Jesus on the clouds—verses 29-30 are oddly predictive of Christian history for centuries to come:  “I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them.” Savage wolves is a reference to preachers who had different views about Jesus Christ. 


That has played out countless times over the centuries, as the church has splintered endlessly because of theological differences. Tim Sledge, for many years a Southern Baptist preacher, describes the process:


“Take a group of these born-again, new creations in Christ—to whom God is giving directions and guidance for day to day life [Just as Paul was getting his orders directly from God]—put them in a church and wait. Eventually, some of them will get into a disagreement about something. Sometimes, they work it out, but often, no matter how much prayer takes place, and group gets angry and leaves, often to start another congregation. Wait a little longer, and the process will repeat—over and over—and that’s one reason we have not only thousands of churches, but thousands of Christian denominations.” (p. 16, Four Disturbing Questions with One Simple Answer: Breaking the Spell of Christian Belief)


This was already well under way in Paul’s own time. We wouldn’t be surprised if the author of Acts had a few stern verses of Paul’s letter to the Galatians in mind when he wrote Acts 20:


“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!” (Galatians 1:6-9 NRSV)


Paul didn’t tire of preaching. In Acts 20:9-12 we also find the story of the young man who fell asleep listening to Paul talk—we can sympathize if his sermons were anything like his letters!  “…Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead, but Paul went down, and bending over him took him in his arms, and said, ‘Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.’”  (NRSV) There has been debate among Christian apologists: was the youth really dead? But it would seem that the intention of the author was to demonstrate Paul’s power, derived from the holy spirit. He then went back upstairs and “continued to converse with them until dawn…” 


For the author of Acts, Paul was a hero, so this story served his purpose. But devout readers should be on the alert for texts that have caused considerable harm. Here are two verses from Acts 20 that we wish weren’t there:


·      “He was about to set sail for Syria when a plot was made against him by the Jews, and so he decided to return through Macedonia.” (v. 3)

·      Paul’s own words, “…I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears, enduring the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews.” (v. 19)


The early Jesus movement was a breakaway Jewish sect, so “the Jews” became the enemy, especially in John’s gospel, known for its horrid fueling of anti-Semitism. These two verses in Acts 20 are part of that pattern. This is a major flaw in any attempt to position the Bible as “inspired word of God.” Couldn’t God have foreseen how much damage would result from such texts?

Acts 20, by the way, has some of the famous “we” texts. That is, the narrator suddenly switches to the first person pronoun, e.g., in verse 5: “They went ahead and were waiting for us in Troas; but we sailed from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days we joined them in Troas, where we stayed for seven days.”  This has given encouragement to devout scholars who want to believe that Acts—some of it at least—is based on eyewitness testimony. But the author of Acts declines to name the source, and, without warning or preface, just slips into use of the first person.

Real historians have to do better, as Richard Carrier points out:

“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) indicates 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 meant 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 the OT history adapted from Genesis, passed off as a revelation given directly to Moses, even though it was actually composed in the second or first century BCE. So the motif has an established precedent in historical fiction.” (p. 361, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt)

The aura of holiness that surrounds the Bible—promoted relentlessly by priests and preachers—commonly stifles curiosity: where did the stories come from. And what was the motivation for their composition? The gospels and Acts are religious tracts, designed to attract followers and enhance faith. Putting it bluntly, candidly, honestly: These documents were propaganda for the Ancient Jesus Mystery Cult, which shared with other cults the promise to its loyal members that eternal life was within reach—if you believed and did the right things. 

These ancient superstitions no longer serve us well.


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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