Rule Number One for Bible Reading: Question Everything

Curiosity is the cure for faith

“Where did this story come from?” “Where did the author find his information?” “Why did the translator add a footnote?” “Does this story deserve to be in sacred scripture?” Question everything. But maybe this kind of curiosity is too much work, and it undermines the intent of those who promote the Bible as the indispensible foundation for faith. They want you to inhale, to soak in the spiritual meaning that every Bible chapter provides. But when we question everything, it turns out that spiritual meaning is often absent. Or contrived. Religious bureaucrats have tried too hard. A lot of folks have turned away from the faith because there is so much in the Bible that is worthless—or at least trends toward that end of the spectrum.


The gospels represent a major danger for faith, because there is such a high quotient of fantasy, miracle folklore, and magical thinking in these four Jesus stories. Diligent lay readers, who manager to penetrate the aura of holiness attached to the gospels, can figure this out. Even devout scholars face the challenge of retaining spiritual meanings as they wade through the fantasy, miracle folklore, and magical thinking. They can get away with only so much with the claim, “it’s a metaphor.”


The same applies to The Book of Acts, the only “gospel sequel” included in the New Testament. The author of Luke’s gospel added this story of the growth of Christianity—and the considerable growing pains—but here too he demonstrates his lack of skills as a historian: he follows none of the rules we expect of historians, in terms of telling us where he got his information. Which is a major problem since the Book of Acts was written perhaps seventy or eighty years after the death of Jesus. Devout scholars taken heart in the so-called we-narratives, in which the storyteller switches to the first person: maybe these are excerpts from a diary of one of Paul’s companions? But the author of Acts gives no hint of this—thus failing to display basic instincts of a historian—and there is no way to verify it: we’re still in the dark as to the source. And it’s common enough in fiction for the first-person to be used. 


This is another of my articles on each chapter of the Book of Acts. The Introductory chapter is here. The article on Chapter 20 is here.


Richard Carrier has summed up what we’re dealing with:


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


Apologetic historical fiction. “Oh, but it’s still the word of God” is a tough sell. Christian apologists may retort: “That’s one man’s opinion,” but Carrier states precisely the reasons for his evaluation. And when we look at specific stories, we do wonder why do we need to know this? The first sixteen verses of Acts 21 fall into this category.


These verses describe Paul’s trek toward his fateful arrival in Jerusalem. He meets with various believers along the way, and receives warnings about what might happen to him. At Tyre: 


“We looked up the disciples and stayed there for seven days. Through the Spirit they told Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.” (v. 4) 


Upon his arrival at Caesarea: 


“While we were staying there for several days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. He came to us and took Paul’s belt, bound his own feet and hands with it, and said, ‘Thus says the Holy Spirit, This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” (v. 11)


Here the author of Acts reports words spoken to Paul by disciples and a prophet.  Here especially: question everything. He wrote decades later, and gives no hint how he found out about these words. Writers of historical fiction are good at making things up, and this author included a character that would have appealed to his target audience: It is the Spirit/the Holy Spirit that prompted these warnings to Paul. He wants his readers to know that this spirit is hovering above his holy hero every step on the way to Jerusalem. 


Paul is promoted by this author as an ideal for his readers to admire: half-hearted allegiances are not welcome in the Jesus cult: 


“Then Paul answered, ‘What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.’”  (verse 13)


This level of commitment has been a standard advocated by cult fanatics for millennia. But there is a touch of magical thinking here as well. Paul is willing to die not just for the Lord Jesus, but for the name of Lord Jesus. This concept survives to this day, as Christians close their prayers with the words, “In Jesus’ name we pray.” When folks say this, do they realize that they are following in the tradition of invoking a magic spell? This supposedly provides extra power—and there must have been something special involved for Paul to die for the name. We have a legacy of superstition here. 


Question everything also applies to footnotes. Consider three footnotes that the NRSV provides in this opening part of Acts 21. 


The first verse reads: “When we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara.” There is a footnote at the end: “Other ancient authorities add and Myra.” What do the editors of the NRSV mean by “other ancient authorities”? For centuries—before the invention of the printing press—the gospels were copied by hand, by scribes who   made errors, i.e., deletions, accidental and intentional additions; they didn’t have eyeglasses or electric lighting. There are many thousands of these variations, and in some manuscripts of Acts, the words and Myra are found at the end of verse 1. But it’s pretentious to call variant manuscripts “authorities”— it’s dishonesty—but that’s what we get from devout editors who want to disguise the sloppy, haphazard copying process.   


Verse seven reads: “When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais; and we greeted the believers and stayed with them for one day.” There is a footnote after the word believers: “Gk brothers”. Consistently the NRSV translators, seeking to tone down the misogyny of the original text, render brothers as brothers and sisters. I suppose we can appreciate what they’re trying to do, but again, it’s dishonesty, i.e., inserting what they want to see in the text. 


In the next verse we read that Paul’s entourage stayed with Philip the evangelist, who had “four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy.”  There is a footnote after the word daughters: “Gk: four daughters, virgins.”  Why not just translate it, four virgin daughters? After all, unmarried need not mean virgin at all. Oh well, who knows what goes on when translators get together? I would far more have appreciated a footnote on just what it means to have “the gift of prophecy.” Just how is that determined, validated? The original readers of Acts would have been impressed, since they accepted a spirit world teaming with angels and demons. 


But we are stunned when we see the gift of prophecy claimed boldly today. Just this week I saw the video of Lauren Boebert bragging that God had told her to run for Congress.     


So study the footnotes too: they are not exempt from the rule question everything. We don’t have the Bible as created by the authors. We have the Bible as altered and manipulated by copyists and translators. 


The bulk of Acts 21, vv. 17-40, is about that happened to Paul when he arrived in Jerusalem. It was no secret—well, according to this account—that Paul’s reputation had preceded him: he had welcomed Gentiles into to this new Jewish sect that worshipped Jesus. But he had done so by downplaying the Mosaic law, including circumcision. So the leaders of the Jerusalem Jesus sect arranged for a publicity stunt in an effort to reduce tensions:


“…do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. Join these men, go through the rite of purification with them, and pay for the shaving of their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself observe and guard the law.” (vv.23-24) 


Then comes one of the strangest texts in Acts. These leaders tell Paul that they’d sent “a letter to the Gentiles who have become believers”—how would that even have been possible?—and this was their advice on being true Jesus followers: “…they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.” (v. 25) This brings to mind the bizarre list of the skills that baptized Christians will have according to Mark 16:17-18: they will be able to cast out demons, speak in tongues, handle snakes, drink poison, and heal people by touching them. This “letter sent to the Gentiles” makes no reference at all to Paul’s primary message that belief in Jesus’ resurrection is the key to salvation. Not eating foods that had been sacrificed to idols was more important? 


But Paul’s publicity stunt didn’t work out as planned. There was still indignation on the part of some Jews: “Fellow Israelites, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place; more than that, he has actually brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” (v. 28) 


“Then all the city was aroused, and the people rushed together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut. While they were trying to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in an uproar.”  (vv. 30-31)


“Then the tribune came, arrested him, and ordered him to be bound with two chains; he inquired who he was and what he had done. Some in the crowd shouted one thing, some another; and as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks.” (vv. 33-24) 


Question everything. The tribune “could not learn the facts”—and we are in pretty much the same pickle. It was part of the agenda of the author of Acts to make the early Jesus sect and Paul look much bigger than they actually were. What a great story: all of Jerusalem aroused and in an uproar. This espisode was created many decades after these supposed events, none of which are mentioned in Paul’s own letters. Nor is this turmoil caused by Paul’s arrival in the holy city mentioned by historians of the time. The author of Acts was a master at writing apologetic historical fiction.


Indeed, where did the story come from—if not from the author’s imagination? Failing to mention his sources, failing to cite contemporaneous documentation, his accounts do not qualify as history. We see his creative in use of exaggeration, and his inclusion of characters from the spirit realm are a tipoff that he has added to the vast body of Christian fantasy literature. 




David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


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