Does God Care as Much About the Bible as Christians Do?

Or was it incompetent divine oversight?

When did God stop caring about the Bible? No, it’s not a silly questionMany   Christians are so sure that God guided the thoughts—and the pens—of the Bible authors, especially those who wrote the gospels and epistles: they got God’s truth right. But what an embarrassment: we don’t have what they wrote. All of the original manuscripts of the New Testament books were lost. The earliest scrap of a gospel—a few verses of John 18—dates early-to-mid second century. There are scholars who devote their careers to comparing ancient manuscripts, trying to figure out the wording of the original texts. The sloppy, haphazard coping process—by hand—went on for centuries. The scribes made thousands of errors. God couldn’t be bothered to protect and preserve the original documents? That wasn’t within his power? Fundamentalist theologians insist that the original manuscripts were without error: God’s perfect word. Even for them there’s just no denying that so many mistakes were made in the copying process. But their claim that the originals were perfect cannot be sustained.



Because it looks like God wasn’t paying much attention when the decision was made—we assume it was under his watchful eye—about which books to include in the New Testament. Publishing the four gospels side-by-side was a major mistake. Mark and John present such starkly different versions of Jesus, and careful comparison of the synoptic gospels reveals so many contractions and flaws. Why would God allow that to happen? Didn’t he care there would be so much confusion? Maybe we could just blame it on lack of critical thinking skills on the part of the compilers. Perhaps their minds were dulled by piety: the individual books (of what would become the New Testament) possessed an aura of holiness. The compilers didn’t bother to do fact checking. So how could anyone claim they were under competent divine supervision?  


I say all this as a prologue to a few reflections on Acts, chapter 22. This is another article in my series on all the chapters in the Book of Acts. The one on chapter 21 is here; the introductory article is here.


Acts 22 prompts us to wonder if God even cared about the capabilities of the Bible authors. The anonymous author of the gospel of Luke is commonly believed to have written the Book of Acts as well—that’s the consensus of New Testament scholars. But this guy, whoever he was, lacked the skills and instincts of a historian: he was a storytellerdramatistnovelist. Why didn’t God stop him right at chapter 1 of Acts, when he came up with the tale of Jesus ascending to heaven? The God of the cosmos knew that just a few miles above the earth there is the vacuum of space pulsing with deadly radiation. He might have told the author of Acts that the ascension story is just too silly. The gullible illiterates who first heard this tale were impressed no doubt, but wasn’t this Holy Bible meant to stand the test of time? Couldn’t God have foreseen the time when humans would figure out there is no place up there for Jesus to ascend to? “Oh, it’s metaphor, it’s hyperbole,” say apologists who are as embarrassed as anyone else by this na├»ve story. But how much better it would have been if God had inspired realistic information about the world and how it works.


Now in Acts 22, about the apostle Paul in serious trouble, we don’t encounter such flights of fantasy. But even so, the author tells a story that is impossible to verify. The critical, savvy reader wants to know: where did he get his information? It’s hard to determine when the Book of Acts was written; it could have been as late as early second century, several decades after Paul’s death. So what were the author’s sources for what we read here? He was so given to fantasy—making things up, the ascension being just one example—that we have little reason to trust him, especially since he makes claims we find nowhere else. We search in vain in the letters of Paul for hints that the author of Acts got these things right.


The Damascus Road Conversion—and Other Details


Paul was confident of his knowledge of Jesus Christ because it came to him in revelations: he was certain that the risen Christ had spoken to him directly. This credential was probably far more important to his followers than anything he might have heard about Jesus from the original disciples—and he denied emphatically that this had happened anyway. But it’s a curious thing indeed that, in all his rambling letters, he never mentions the Damascus Road drama. We suspect this story is creative fiction. Actually we have no other choice since the author of Acts never mentions his sources, which betrays his failure as a historian. Hence critical readers want to know how the author knew to write this:


“While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Then he said to me, ‘I am Jesus the Nazorean whom you are persecuting.’ Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me10 I asked, ‘What am I to do, Lord?’ The Lord said to me, ‘Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.’ 11 Since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, those who were with me took my hand and led me to Damascus.” (Acts 22:6-11)


Here is explicit Jesus script in verses 8 and 10: he identifies himself and gives Paul orders on what to do next. How did the author of Acts find out about these words of Jesus? There are two possibilities that historians would credit: (1) the reports of eyewitnesses or (2) Paul reporting them himself.


The first doesn’t work, thanks to verse 9: Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. Here the author of Acts contradicts what he wrote in an earlier version of this episode in his chapter 9: The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. (verse 7) Even if his traveling companions did hear these words from the sky, we would have to know for sure that they wrote them down, and that this document somehow ended up in the hands of the author of Acts decades later. That’s what we would need to verify (not guess or speculate) for this to be history instead of religious fantasy.


What about the second option, that Paul himself recorded it? But he never once mentions it in his letters, and what better opportunity than in Galatians 1 where he bragged about getting the gospel “through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (verse 12) Hence our suspicion that the author of Acts put Paul’s claim into story form. Note as well that Paul, in all his letters, never wrote “Jesus the Nazorean.” That term, a variant of Jesus of Nazareth, is part of the vocabulary of the gospel authors decades later. It’s hard to sustain the belief that Paul knew much of anything about a preacher from Nazareth named Jesus. 


As the tense situation in Acts 22 unfolds—Paul being taken into custody by Roman authorities at the Jerusalem Temple—he declares that he been taught by the prominent rabbi Gamaliel and points out to the centurion that he is a Roman citizen. In all of Paul’s letters, however, he never mentions either of these. We suspect that the author of Acts was promoting his Holy Hero: Jesus himself—from the sky no less, where the gods lived—had spoken to Paul, whose Jewish credentials were impeccable, having been taught by Gamaliel. And we can throw into the bargain that Paul was a Roman citizen. What more could we want to make the case that he was highly credentialed and believable? We can admire the author of Acts as a master propagandist for the early Jesus cult


And the propagandists are still at work, by which I mean the modern Bible editors/translators—who should know better! It’s a major irritant whenever editors/translators choose to print the words of Jesus in the gospels in red. They know very well that this is pious deception, but they get away with it because of the prevailing gullibility among so many of the laity. For generations now New Testament scholars have not been successful in developing a sound methodology for confirming, verifying any of the words of Jesus reported in the gospels: there is no contemporary documentation whatever. And the heavy theological bias of the gospel authors makes us doubt that they even tried to fact check (i.e. find out the authentic words of Jesus). The argument that the words of Jesus were passed down accurately over forty or fifty years—being told and retold dozens or hundreds of times—well, who can take that seriously? 


So the words of the preacher Jesus—as he spoke to crowds and individuals—have not been reliable preserved. Yet editors/translators print them in red: pious deception. This is taken to a new level in Acts 22; in Act 1, as I pointed out, the author had relocated Jesus to the sky. So it’s no longer Jesus-on-earth who speaks to Paul, but Jesus-in-the-sky. The author has created fantasy, yet the editors/translators have the nerve—the lack of good judgment—to print these words of Jesus in red. They should be ashamed of themselves.       



I have included this candid evaluation of Acts in previous articles in this series, but it is worth repeating:


“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)


We can cite this as yet another example of God no longer caring about the Bible. 


When priests and preachers who teach Bible study classes come to the Book of Acts, they should include this paragraph from Carrier in their curriculum. Yes, he’s an atheist, but he’s also a formidable Bible scholar. Then include what devout Christian scholars have to say about Acts; those outside fundamentalist circles are willing to admit the problems Carrier discusses. The sound approach to Bible study for the laity should not be “take it on faith that this is the word of God”—somehow, someway, despite so many flaws. The honest approach is ask the hardquestions, read, study. Does a chapter like Acts 22 qualify as history? Is Jesus speaking from the sky to be taken seriously? Is it legitimate to print this Jesus script in red? 


If God is honest, he should tell devout editors/translators—in their moments of prayer—that they should stop it with the red-letter pious deception. Come on guys, it’s not right to boost scripture dishonestly: help people see there is too much phoniness in the Bible. You’re hiding from the laity the genuine problems that New Testament scholars have discovered. Of course, there’s high risk in telling the truth: it may dawn on the laity that the church has been peddling fantasy for centuries. That’s one reason why so many people have already walked away.  






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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