Accidental Scripture, Inferior Preaching

The dubious choice of a crazy person as apostle

Come on now, be honest, if your neighbor announced that he is heading off on a business trip “because I had a revelation from God that I have to go”: would you be impressed by his direct line to God—or would you be tempted to ask if he’d skipped his meds?  Maybe the pope receives these kinds of messages—so the faithful hope—but your neighbor? Sometimes noisy televangelists boast that they’re passing on orders from God, but aside from their gullible followers, who believes them? Recently Lauren Boebert shouted to an enthusiastic crowd that God had told her to run for congress. We are alarmed by delusions in high places.


Those of us raised in Christianity have been conditioned to nod approvingly when we find “God talked to me” in scripture: Holy people back then enjoyed that privilege. But sorry, it was just as bogus back then as it is now. It’s a gimmick that has been employed by countless cults and religions, and it has been falsified countless times. That’s not hard in the case of the apostle Paul, who was wrong about so much in his “inspired” writings. 


He keeps giving us clues that he was delusional: “Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up in response to a revelation.” (Galatians 2:1-2) Why would he be any less crazy than your neighbor who is in touch with God? How can it possibly be argued/verified that Paul’s experience was authentic? That’s a cherished hope based on faith bias, which even capable scholars fall victim to—when they are devotees of the ancient Jesus cult. Devout scholar R. Alan Cole (1923-2003) was highly praised for his Bible commentaries, and he found no reason to doubt that Paul had received a true revelation. He wondered if it had come to Paul directly or through “group guidance” in the church—or by means of “some traveling prophet.” (Galatians: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 101) This is faith bias on full display. Any secular historian would acknowledge that Paul was much like other faith fanatics who are sure their gods speak to them


But Galatians 2 presents other problems as well. We have no trouble at all detecting boastful Paul’s swollen head; he is so damn sure of his commission from God. We dearly wish we had the other side of the story we find in Galatians 2: how was he perceived by those he interacted with? It’s obvious that he was regarded with high suspicion: “But because of false brothers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us—we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you.” (Galatians 2:4-5) He was fiercely proud of his mission to the uncircumcised, which rankled those in the early Jesus sect who still regarded it as Jewish sect.


A brief digression:


R. Alan Cole remarked on the Greek in verses 3-5: “The next three verses constitute a notoriously difficult passage, not made any easier by Paul’s obvious emotional excitement which, as often, leads him into involved grammar and unfinished sentences. These, in turn, lead to some textual confusion...” (p. 103) Without faith bias, Cole might have seen that his analysis of the Greek helps falsify the idea that scripture is divinely inspired. God had no control over Paul’s clumsy writing? Does this not qualify as accidental scripture? We are always curious: did the “inspired” words on the page come from the mind of God or from the mind of the human author? We cannot accept the reality of divinely inspired scripture until we find out how to tell the difference.


We suspect that Paul put his own spin on events:  “...when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship...”  (Galatians 2:7-9)


He who worked through Peter...also worked through meFrom his limited, na├»ve perspective within this ancient cult, Paul was sure that God was deciding who would preach to whom. And we do wonder why God—at that point in history— couldn’t have put an end to the nonsense about circumcision, which is marker of ancient, barbaric superstitionWhat kind of a god insists that penis mutilation is a sign of devotion to the god—it’s even the sign of a covenant with the god? Totally weird ideas can get so deeply imbedded culturally that they endure for centuries. God could have revealed a new word, “Guys, there are more important things to worry about!” 


And indeed, one of humanity’s perpetual problems does get a mention in verse 10: “They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.” Wouldn’t this have been a good time for these pillars of the Jerusalem church—James, Cephas [Peter], and John—to have mentioned the teachings of Jesus? “Blessed are the poor,” as he had taught in the sermon on the mount, or “Sell your possessions and give to the poor,” as he told the young man who had asked about gaining eternal life. Or perhaps these Jerusalem leaders could have asked Paul to offer his opinion on Jesus’ opposition to teaching Gentiles: “These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’” (Matthew 10:5-6) And then they could have authorized Paul’s mission based on something else Jesus had said: “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... “ (Matthew 28:19)


But alas, Paul reports no discussion whatever about Jesus of Nazareth: remembrances about what he had taught and done. Paul had gone to Jerusalem after an absence of fourteen years—wouldn’t this have been a good time for Peter to give him a crash course on the teachings and miracles of Jesus? We are so familiar with Peter because of what we read in the gospel accounts, but did those writers create a fictional Peter—just as they did with Jesus? There is so much fiction in the gospels! We are really in the dark about what the Jesus sect was all about—at the time of Paul and his Jerusalem contemporaries. Was it based on a Galilean peasant preacher from Nazareth, or on a celestial lord known through visions?  


At verse 11 Paul abruptly shifts the focus of his report to the Galatians:


“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction.” (Galatians 2:11-12) Yes, there were factions in the early Jesus sect, with some members refusing to eat with Gentiles. So it would seem that not everyone was willing to follow Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations. And in Galatians 1 Paul ranted about Christ preachers who had a message that differed from his. Obviously this bickering and splintering, to the distress of Christians the world over, would go on forever.


We do have to give Paul credit for wanting to dispense with circumcision as an essential for the new faith. And one of his most famous texts that we find in Galatians 3 is commonly praised highly: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” But Paul was not appealing for “equal treatment under the law”—as we would call it these days. So he deserves no credit for that. He was sure there was a category of existence that he describes in verse 20: “ is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” He called this belonging to Christ; for those who had achieved that status there were no distinctions that mattered, such as slave or free, Jew or Greek.


Circumcision was of no value; it was part of “the law” that he now rejected as the means to salvation. The law placed high demands on people; there were so many things one had to do—and avoid doing—to please God. By no means did Paul argue that good behavior no longer counted, but he was sure that the key to eternal life lay elsewhere: believing that Jesus had been raised from the dead.


There can be little doubt that the dying-rising-savior-theology of other cults provided content for Paul’s hallucinations/visions. We all know that our own dreams can be a jumble of images (people, events, experiences) derived from the world around us. So it’s no surprise that Paul’s visions of a “risen Christ” (whom he’d never met) included the magic celebrated by other rising-savior cults: if you believe Jesus Christ rose from the dead, if you partake in his sacred meal (common in the other cults), you’ve achieved in-group status:  “...I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (vv. 19-20) He stated it another way in his letter to the Romans: “...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) Uttering words = a magic spell: if you confess with your lips.


Devout non-Christian theists, who are just as sure that their communications from God are genuine, reject Paul’s Christ-theology: No, he didn’t have it right at all.  Christians who have been taught this theology since toddlerhood have a tough time escaping this brand of magic. The emotional investment is frequently intense


But people do escapeFor a long time James A. Haught has monitored the decline of religion in the US, and in a recent article titled “Secular Surge,he wrote this: 


Western civilization moves through epochsthe Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Colonial Era, the rise of democracy, etc. I think the West now is firmly in the Secular Era, when supernatural religion fades to a discredited fringe. The Muslim world remains mired in magical faith, with tragic consequences, but the West is shifting toward mental honesty.”   


Mental honesty. Accepting religious ideas on faith—as promoted by priests and preachers—is not mental honesty. It’s mental laziness: “I’ll take someone else’s word for it.” The same applies to believing without objective evidence. In the article about Galatians Chapter 1 (Dead Giveaways that Christianity Is False), that I posted here on 24 September, I pointed out that the faith is seriously wounded by Paul’s bragging and bullying. This is accidental scripture. Mental honesty would encourage Christians to reject the writings of a man who got so much wrong, who even in his own time was considered part of “a discredited fringe.”  



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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