The Talent of Bible Authors for Making Things Up

Theology was more important than history

It is commonly considered an act of piety to read the Bible cover-to-cover. But once undertaken, this effort sometimes undermines piety—as it did for Mark Twain: “It is not the things which I do not understand in the Bible which trouble me, but the things which I do understand.” Not that I would discourage anyone from reading the Bible, in fact quite the opposite, as I argued in an article here a few weeks ago. Just don’t read it, however. Look at every chapter as an occasion to sharpen critical thinking skills; ask the right questions, e.g., where did this text come from, what was the motivation of the author, does it embody good or bad theology? —but especially, does it really pass muster as “word of a god”? Every Bible chapter should be scrutinized.



Done this way, of course, it would take ages to get through the whole Bible, because study and digging are required. I have often urged Christians to read the gospel of Mark, straight through, in one sitting (though I suspect they’d much rather binge watch TV shows than do any such thing). But of course, make notes about everything that seems odd, suspicious, implausible, outrageous, then take the time to go back and analyze each questionable fragment. It turns out that Mark set a bad example, especially in his chapter 13. That’s a chapter Christians should study carefully, and try to figure out why it belongs in the Bible. 


Other chapters in the New Testament seem to be free of problems, appear to be polished, well-done pieces, such as Acts 24, in which Paul appears accused before the Roman governor Felix at Caesarea. The bulk of this chapter consists of two speeches, one in which Tertullus, a lawyer, states the case against Paul, and the latter’s response. There are no miracles here, nothing that has the flavor of fantasy literature; it all looks matter-of-fact. Nevertheless, it’s still important to ask the right questions. 


[This article continues my series on all the chapters of the Book of Acts. The one on Chapter 23 is here; the Introductory chapter is here.]


Historians always want to determine what really happened, thus their primary concern would be:     how did the author of Acts find out about these two speeches? Where would the author have located the contemporaneous documentation—for example, transcripts—to accurately report    what Tertullus and Paul said? Mainstream scholars think that Acts was written perhaps forty to fifty years after the events depicted in chapter 24, so the question of the author’s sources is critical. But he has left us in the dark on this, and we cannot trust his posturing in Luke chapter 1 that he was providing reports handed on from eyewitnesses. For one thing, so much of what he wrote can be classified as fantasy and folklore. 


But to take Acts 24 seriously, we would have to know for sure that someone was there taking notes as Tertullus and Paul spoke. In addition, did these notes end up in a Roman archive? Above all, however, how would Luke have gained access to such an archive decades later? A Roman archive in Caesarea might indeed have survived the devastating First Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE) in which Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed. But would the author of Acts—who is anonymous, despite being called Luke—have had the privilege of walking into a Roman archive to do research on a 50-year old trial? Even by the end of the first century, Christianity still was a tiny break-away Jewish cult, and Luke was writing propaganda to promote the cult. Would the Roman archivists have considered that sufficient reason to open their doors to him? 


Even the sympathetic Catholic scholar, Father Joseph A. Fitzmyer, doesn’t entertain this idea. In his monumental commentary on Acts (800-pages, The Anchor Yale Bible, Volume 31), he is far more practical in his analysis. Well, almost practical. It is a common fallback position that the gospel authors had their “sources”—they must have received reliable information from somewhere, right? Hence, Fitzmyer writes:


“Details about Tertullus and the trial may have come to Luke from the Pauline source, but the speeches are his own composition.” And in the very next paragraph he repeats this claim:


“The speeches of Tertullus and Paul are Lucan compositions; details in them may possibly be derived from the Pauline source…”   (page 732, emphasis added)


“…may have come from the Pauline source” and “may possibly be derived from the Pauline source.”  But there is no contemporaneous documentation to prove that there was, in fact, a Pauline source. And this is a major admission by Christian scholar: the speeches in Acts 24 were composed by the author. He might as well have said that Luke just made them up, which might have been too brutal for his readership. In fact, in all of the Book of Acts, how is it possible to tell the difference between what might have come from reliable, verifiable sources and what Luke just made up? 


I have quoted these words of Richard Carrier in other articles in this series, and I repeat them again here because Luke—whoever he may have been—cannot be trusted. For devout folks on the quest to understand their Bible, these hard facts must be faced:


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


Luke, the propagandist, wrote to advance the cause of the small Christian cult, and this meant inflating the importance of his hero, Paul. We have a right to suspect that Acts 24—despite the polished speeches and seeming plausibility—is indeed “apologetic historical fiction.” In the first place, would Paul, promoter of a small sect, have been given an armed escort to Caesarea (200 soldiers, 70 horsemen, and 200 spearmen—see Acts 23:23). And would Felix have “sent for Paul and heard him speak concerning faith in Christ Jesus”? (Acts 24:24) Felix didn’t like Paul’s message that much:


“And as [Paul] discussed justice, self-control, and the coming judgment, Felix became frightened and said, ‘Go away for the present; when I have an opportunity, I will send for you.’” (Acts 24:25)


Again, any curious, astute reader will want to know: who was taking notes on this conversation, and how did Luke get ahold of those notes decades later? Without reliable, verifiable contemporaneous documentation, how can we not suspect that Luke was making it up? 


We notice more evidence of “apologetic historical fiction” as well. The author of Luke-Acts provided this Jesus-script in Luke 21:  


“…they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify.”


In Acts 24, the author shows how these Jesus words came true. Fitzmyer observes, “In a concrete way this episode plays out the words of Jesus reported in Luke 21:12 about his disciples being handed over to synagogues and prisons and led off to kings and prefects ‘because of my name.’”  (p. 732, Yale Anchor Bible, Volume 31)


There is no way to verify that the words of Jesus in Luke 21 are authentic. No sources are identified, but even so, Luke wrote his chapter 24 to make the prophecy come true.


The author of Acts also made a couple of goofs in the eloquent speech that he put on Paul’s lips. 


First: “I worship the God of our ancestors, believing everything laid down according to the law or written in the prophets.” (Acts 24:14) In his own letters Paul makes it clear that belief in the law had been nullified as a way to salvation, and he specifically denied the importance of circumcision.


Second: “I have a hope in God—a hope that they themselves also accept—that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Acts 24:15) There is, in the Old Testament, no such widespread belief in resurrection; in fact, there is no stress on hope for an afterlife. It was late in the game (in comparison to the ancient documents) that Judaism absorbed these ideas from other religions. Paul was fanatical about resurrection because of his hallucinations of Jesus—a dead man newly alive in his fevered visions—belief in which was a key to salvation. 


We have a huge helping here of magical thinking. 

Then there’s the matter of the role that the New Testament has played in fueling anti-Semitism. This is one of the horrible legacies of John’s gospel, and it seems to have been inevitable in the polemic that arose when the Jesus sect was trying to break free of Judaism. Which makes us wonder, of course: since the Bible is God’s Word, couldn’t he have inspired a less-damaging document? In Acts 24:5 we read, in Tertullus’ indictment of Paul: “…We have, in fact, found this man a pestilent fellow, an agitator among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.”—more exaggeration of the holy hero, by the way. And then verse 9: “The Jews also joined in the charge by asserting that all this was true.” Then verse 19: “But there were some Jews from Asia—they ought to be here before you to make an accusation, if they have anything against me.” 

Acts chapter 24 is a quick read, it’s straight-forward, uncluttered with miracles. Yet it still provides a case study in why every Bible chapter should be examined critically, skeptically: it has its flaws and major historical weaknesses. Laypeople who really want to believe that the Bible is the Word of God should be highly motivated to see if this claim actually holds up. Every chapter and verse of the New Testament has been studied intensively by countless devout and secular scholars, so there is plenty of homework to be done. Priests and preachers might rightly be nervous about parishioners who are gung-ho about Bible study, but there are certainly many devout scholars whose works can be recommended. It should be reassuring for the faithful to read this comment by Father Fitzmyer, reflecting on the fact that Paul didn’t have a clever lawyer like Tertullus to defend him:

“Paul has no such skilled advocate and has to rely on his own resources. He has, however, the risen Lord’s assistance.The climax of his defense is once again the affirmation of his Pharisaic belief in the resurrection of the dead, by which the reader understands that he means the resurrection of Christ, the Lord.” (p. 732, The Yale Anchor Bible, Vol. 31, emphasis added) Which is what we would expect this modern devotee of the Ancient Jesus Mystery Cult to say. Yet, even he, in his own diplomatic way, confessed that the author of Acts made stuff up.  

These days, however, there are many Bible scholars who aren’t devotees of this ancient cult that managed to gain major market share—and have written extensively. There is a lot of homework available that is free of faith-bias.



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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