Christian Dependence on Propaganda Fantasy Literature

Other religions make the same mistake

It would be hard to name a book that has been hyped more than the Bible. During the last couple of centuries its status has slipped among those who study it critically, but still today there are extremist Christians who insist that it is a holy book, free from error. Even more moderate Bible editors know that the hype still sells, so Holy Bible is the title they choose for the cover. But this is undeserved, as devout scholars themselves admit—although maybe not out loud, or too loudly.



We have discovered what the Bible authors were up to, especially the writers of the New Testament. They lived in a cult-eat-cult world, and were determined to convince their target audiences that their cult was the right one. They showed no restraint whatever in their depictions of Jesus, for example. Richard Carrier has pointed out:


“[The gospel authors] are mythographers; novelists; propagandists. They are deliberately inventing what they present in their texts. And they are doing it for a reason (even if we can’t always discern what that is). The Gospels simply must be approached as such. We have to stop thinking we can use them as historical sources.” (p. 509, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt)


In other words, the common assumption that “it must be true because it’s in the gospels,” doesn’t work at all. Anyone should be suspicious, for the simple reason that there is so much fantasy and miracle folklore in the gospels: how in the world can we separate fact from fiction? So far, New Testament scholars have not been able to agree on a methodology for doing that. Thus the famous quest for the historical Jesus—pursued for decades now in Christian academia—has produced no verifiable results. 


The one famous gospel-sequel that ended up in the New Testament, The Book of Acts, also is a work of fantasy propaganda. It is commonly acknowledged that Acts was written by the author of Luke’s gospel, whoever he may have been—all guesswork on that has proved fruitless as well. But his goal was to boost the new Jesus-cult, and he played upon the credulity and gullibility of the time. Hence, in the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit plays an active role, as do angels; there are miracles and visions. Such fantasy elements are no more “proof” of Christian truths than they are proof of the claims of hundreds of other religions that embrace the same fantasy elements. So as we read through the Book of Acts, and stumble across holy spirits and angels, visions and miracles, we have to say, “Can’t you do better than that?”    


We find that that this author, moreover, was master of propaganda on another level as well. Remember that, for a long, long time, the new Jesus cult—a breakaway Jewish sect—remained an obscure, tiny movement, notwithstanding the efforts of its later promoters to claim otherwise. In Acts 2, the preaching of Peter is described—with spectacular results:


“And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.” (Acts 2:40-41)


Most scholars admit that the Book of Acts was written late first century, or even early second. So it has to be a natural question: how was the author of Acts able to verify this figure of 3,000 sudden converts? Or did he even try? We suspect that, as a propagandist, he gave little thought to what might actually have happened. He savored exaggeration, and much later in Acts, chapter 25, we find exactly the same thing. 


[This is another article in my series on each chapter of the Book of Acts. The Introductory article is here. The one on Chapter 24 is here.]


Chapter 25, let it be noted, reports no miracles, visions, angels or holy spirits. It is part of the on-going story of the apostle Paul under arrest by the Romans. At the end of Acts 24 we read that Paul had been in prison for a couple of years, and in Acts 25 Porcius Festus, a new procurator of Judea, arrives on the scene. Festus heads to Jerusalem, where “the Jews” are plotting against Paul, who was being held in Caesarea. Festus refuses their request to bring Paul to Jerusalem—they had planned to murder him on the way. In verses 8-12 we find a dialogue between Festus and Paul, at the end of which Festus grants Paul’s request to be sent to the Emperor, for Paul to present his case there. 


A few days later King Agrippa shows up to welcome Porcius Festus, and in verses 14-21 we read Festus’ description of Paul’s case to the king.  


It all looks pretty straightforward, but at this point curiosity should kick in. So far our author has failed to show strong skills as a historian, so we have to wonder how he knew—so many decades later—what was said during these reported conversations. I’ve posed this question repeatedly: was someone there taking notes? Did these notes then end up in an archive that the author of Luke somehow had access to many years later? We have no reason to believe that this was the case, above all, because the author doesn’t bother to name his sources—as a careful historian would do. It was common practice in the ancient world for authors to just make up script for famous people they wrote about. 


The great Catholic scholar on the Book of Acts, Father Joseph Fitzmyer, comes close to admitting that this was Luke’s practice as well. He says of Festus’ words to Agrippa, “The speech is a Lucan composition…” but he resists the full implications of this: “…but it is far from certain that the whole scene is ‘a free literary composition’”—as another scholar, Hans Conzelmann, had suggested. (page 742, The Acts of the Apostles, Yale Anchor Bible, Volume 31) However, it is far from certain that it is anything other than a free literary composition. Fitzmyer frequently references what he calls “Luke’s Pauline source,” which is simply wishful thinking. It’s his fond hope that Luke had “a source”—to avoid admitting that the author of Acts invented his stories, i.e., their source was his imagination!   


The feeling of authenticity—because of the mention of known historical figures—encourages belief that this is history. But, of course, fiction writers have always included real places and people in the spinning of their stories. And we cannot consider Acts 25 authentic history since it’s so overwhelmingly unlikely that the author had access to transcriptions of the conversations he describes. So much else in Acts convinces us that fantasy was his specialty.


It is also important to note the hero-inflation factor here. Just who was Paul, after all? He was a zealous missionary for his version of a small break-away Jewish sect, but the author of Acts wanted his readers to imagine that Paul was a really big deal. He had the whole Jewish community in an uproar and the Roman authorities had to treat him as a high-profile personality. Thus we read in Acts 23:23-24 that transporting Paul to Caesarea had to be a major operation:


“Then [the tribune] 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.’” 


Here again, of course, we’d like to know: who wrote down these words—for the author of Acts to quote them decades later? But is it even remotely likely that this hero-inflation can be taken seriously? In the 25th chapter, it is King Agrippa himself, and his sister Bernice, who want to hear Paul’s story:


“…Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp, and they entered the audience hall with the military tribunes and the prominent men of the city. Then Festus gave the order and Paul was brought in. And Festus said, ‘King Agrippa and all here present with us, you see this man about whom the whole Jewish community petitioned me, both in Jerusalem and here…’”    (Acts 25:23-24)


See how amazing Paul was! See what a high profile Christianity achieved from the get-go, especially through the tireless efforts of this holy hero. That’s the early “history” of the new cult that this author is selling. We have every right to be skeptical. Supposedly Paul had the Romans on his side—shielded from the wrath of “the Jews”—because he was a Roman citizen. But that could be yet another piece of fiction offered by the author of Acts. Paul never mentions Roman citizenship himself in his letters. Rather than putting much store in what the author of Acts has to say, it is far more prudent to read Paul’s letters—at least those seven in the New Testament believed to be authentic. But that’s risky too, since Paul’s bad attitude, bad theology, and magical thinking should be a turnoff for thoughtful readers. 


There is yet another problem with Acts 25. Keep in mind the agenda of this author: he was positioning the Jesus cult as superior to Judaism, and it suited his purpose to cast Jews as the enemy. Thus, in Acts 25 we find these statements:


“Three days after Festus had arrived in the province, he went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem, where the chief priests and the leaders of the Jews gave him a report against Paul.” (vv.1-2)


“…they were, in fact, planning an ambush to kill him along the way.” (v. 3)


“…the Jews who had gone down from Jerusalem surrounded him, bringing many serious charges against him, which they could not prove.”   (v.7)


“…the chief priests and the elders of the Jews informed me about him and asked for a sentence against him.”   (v.15)


“And Festus said, ‘King Agrippa and all here present with us, you see this man about whom the whole Jewish community petitioned me, both in Jerusalem and here, shouting that he ought not to live any longer.’” (v. 24)


Naturally, the author of Acts was in a combative mood as a propagandist for the Jesus cult. To our great misfortune, however, his book ended up as scripture—which later propagandists assured the faithful is the very word of God; so this anti-Jewish attitude was given divine sanction. It is especially alarming in the gospel of John. Thus the New Testament has played a role in stoking religion-on-religion hatred. The extreme anti-Semitism in Western history has its roots in Christian scripture. In my essay, “Five Inconvenient Truths That Falsify Biblical Revelation,” in the 2019 John Loftus anthology, The Case Against Miracles, I wrote this:


“The damage the Bible has done wipes out the claim that God planned it to be our guide for the ages. Too much that was swept into the canon hasn’t stood the test of time—and too much was left out. A competent God wouldn’t have screwed up so badly.”  (page 319)


Wouldn’t the all-wise, all loving Christian deity have been able to look far into the future to see how badly, how disastrously, the anti-Jewish texts would play out? There is so much—far too much—in Christian belief about God especially, that is incoherent, and this is yet another example. Hence Christian apologists work tirelessly to rationalize hundreds of such problematic texts throughout the propaganda fantasy literature in the New Testament. 


There is so much in Acts 25 that undermines any confidence that it should be taken seriously, that it even remotely deserves “word of God” status.



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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