A Bible Chapter That Reveals Too Much

The ongoing damage caused by religion  

Here’s a rant against Jews that should horrify all Christians:

“… set fire to their synagogues or schools…bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them…I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues… I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them…I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb…I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside, since they are not lords, officials, tradesmen, or the like…I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping…I commend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow…”

No one would be surprised if this were an excerpt from a speech by Adolph Hitler. But no, this is a sample of hatred spewed by a most influential Christian, namely Martin Luther. Hector Avalos has pointed out that “every single point in Luther’s plan was implemented by Nazi policy.” (p. 373, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, John Loftus, editor) Now, I’m no expert on Martin Luther—nor would I want to be—but we can assume that multiple personality disorders contributed to his anti-Semitism. But, without a doubt, the New Testament helped fuel his hatreds. For example, we find this text in I Thessalonians 2; we’re told that it was the Jews…

…who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last.” (vv. 15-16)


There has been a lot of debate about this text. Is it an interpolation? —because it doesn’t sound like something Paul would say. Nonetheless, there it is in the NT, influencing Christian fanatics for centuries. 


The gospel of John is also at fault, casting “the Jews” as Jesus’ opponents. Just one example: in John 8:44 we find this Jesus-script: “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires.” Hector Avalos has pointed out that this verse ended up on Nazi street signs. (The Christian Delusion, p. 378) 

And then there’s this in Acts 23:

“In the morning the Jews joined in a conspiracy and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink until they had killed Paul. There were more than forty who joined in this conspiracy. They went to the chief priests and elders and said, ‘We have strictly bound ourselves by an oath to taste no food until we have killed Paul.’” (vv. 12-14) In verses 15-22 there are more details about the plot, so this is a major chunk of the chapter. 


What’s this all about? It is vital to remember that the early Jesus cult was a break-away sect from Judaism, hence the tensions and conflicts are no surprise. But it is also vital to remember that the documents of the NT were written by Christian propagandists to advance their new cult—at the expense of the religion they were rejecting. How strange that God would allow these hate-fueling texts in the Bible.

So careful Bible readers should make the effort to evaluate these texts critically: question everything. In fact, all of Acts 23 presents this challenge. [This article is another in my series on each of the chapters of the Book of Acts. The Introduction to the series is here; the article on Chapter 22 is here.]

The massive problem we face with the Book of Acts can be stated simply: we don’t know the author’s sources. How did the author find out what he reports? Dating the NT documents is notoriously problematic, but many scholars agree that Acts was probably written fifty to sixty years after the events depicted. In 23:14 we find a direct quote, i.e., the conspiring Jews said to the religious leaders: “We have strictly bound ourselves by an oath to taste no food until we have killed Paul.” Historians today aren’t satisfied with this account at all. They want to know: who was taking notes? Where would such a record have been preserved and archived—and how would the author of Acts been able to access the record? Especially since he was writing after Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. In fact, there is nothing whatever to anchor this supposed conspiracy to kill Paul to actual history. Don’t forget, the NT authors were writing propaganda pieces. 

The author of Acts gives active roles to angels and the holy spirit, which is fair warning that his work is fantasy literature. This is all the more reason to suspect that he was making things up. Father Joseph A. Fitzmyer, in his massive commentary on Acts (The Anchor Yale Bible, Volume 31, 800+ pages), wanted to counter this suspicion. He says this about Acts 23:

“…Luke has undoubtedly derived from his Pauline source a report of Paul’s appearance before such Jewish authorities and some details about it…Luke has fashioned from them a dramatic scene with lively conversation. Lucan composition is evident in the episode, but it is not created out of whole cloth.” (p. 715)

“…details about the plot and the report here have undoubtedly come from Luke’s Pauline source.” (p. 722)

It is a favorite technique of devout Bible scholars to argue for “sources” that writers might have relied on. Again, historians today aren’t satisfied with this at all. Imagining a “Pauline source” is just that: imagining, speculations, wishful thinking. The author of Acts was a master of religious fantasy literature. 

Early in chapter 23, after Paul had provoked a heated argument between Pharisees and Sadducees, he was taken into protective custody—the Roman authorities were afraid Paul would be “torn to pieces.” And at this point the author’s agenda breaks into full view. In verse 11 we read: “That night the Lord stood near him and said, ‘Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.’” And Joseph Fitzmyer’s faith bias breaks into full view as well: “…the risen Christ appears to him to reassure him. Christ makes it clear that whatever happens is part of his heaven-guided role.” (p. 714) Fitzmyer’s commentary provides valuable analysis of the texts, but he is most concerned to fulfil his mission as a priest. His role was to examine every verse of Acts to make sure that every nuance of God’s word could be discovered, captured, and passed on to believers, and thus enhance adoration of this “word of God” in the Bible. Full stop: Giving a speaking role to a resurrected god fails as history. Accepting this at face value is a betrayal of careful, skeptical, critical analysis.


At the opening of chapter 23 we find Paul in trouble for bragging in front of the council of religious leaders: “…up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God.”

The high priest ordered that Paul be hit in the mouth for this, but Paul came back with an insult. It’s a vivid scene—worthy of a good novelist—and secular historians want to know, again: Who was taking notes, to get the conversation exactly right, and how would this record have ended up in the author’s hands decades later? If we don’t know that, we can’t treat it as history.  


But then we get the reality of religion itself depicted in the next few verses. Of course Paul preached about the resurrection of Jesus, and he pointed this out, verse 6: ““Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” 


“When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three. Then a great clamor arose, and certain scribes of the Pharisees’ group stood up and contended, ‘We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?’”  (vv. 7-9)

When the “dissention became violent” Paul was taken into protective custody. The Pharisees were on his side—so this story goes. They believed in spirits and angels, so maybe that’s where Paul got his information! And their dissention with the Sadducees became violent. So what else is new, what else would we expect? Religions have always fought one another—especially Christians against Christians!—because nobody has discovered reliable, verifiable standards for determining religious truths. It’s all guesswork, adhering to traditions, wishful thinking, speculation, and confidence that feelings are guides to spiritual truths. Thoughtful readers should be able to see that the huge problem with religion is depicted so vividly right here. This is an unintended Bible lesson!  

The author of Acts—a consummate cult propagandist—seems to have made more of Paul than was probably the case. Paul was an itinerate preacher for a small sect. Did he really catch the attention of the council of religious leaders? The creator of these stories claims that Paul was a Roman citizen, and with that status in mind, inflates the story: the Roman tribune decided to send Paul to be heard by Felix the governor: 


“Then he summoned two of the centurions and said, ‘Get ready to leave by nine o’clock tonight for Caesarea with two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen. Also provide mounts for Paul to ride, and take him safely to Felix the governor.” (vv. 23-24) In verses 26-30 we find the text of a letter the tribune sent to Felix. 


Seriously? How would the author of Acts have access to this letter decades later? The improbabilities abound, including the detail that Paul was escorted by two hundred soldiers and seventy horsemen—and that Paul was given a mount to ride. But the goal of the author of Acts was to make Paul much larger than life. He wanted to make the Christian sect look far more important than it actually was. He had his target audience in mind. When Christianity eventually gained major market share, it was natural to assume that its original heroes—as depicted in Acts and the gospels—were prominent players on the stage. We suspect otherwise when we dismantle the propaganda.


We get even more insight into religion’s success when we consider what the Pharisees said about Paul in Acts 23:9: “What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” It’s a part of the sad history of humanity that this attitude is so common: people have been willing to believe those who claim to be in touch with gods, that spirits or angels have spoken to them. So many hundreds of religions have emerged because people are willing to believe without evidence. Or they accept what they feel about gods as evidence—which feelings derive from what they’ve been coached to feel by the priests and preachers. Religions would fade away if followers could snap out of manufactured mindsets, could learn the importance of fact-checking and due diligence: “No, taking it on faith doesn’t work anymore.” Don’t tell us Bible stories, don’t point to “testimonies” offered by the fervent faithful. Don’t assume that the eternal life gimmick will do the trick in bringing doubters around. Show us the reliable, verifiable, objective data about gods that are supposed to exit and oversee our lives. 


We’ll wait. Take all the time you need. 



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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