Bible Study to Help You Get Over Christianity

So much of scripture undermines belief

There are zealous Bible apologists—of the evangelical/fundamentalist variety—who try to make the case that the Bible is inerrant: It’s the perfect word of their god. Their followers are confident that, opening the Bible to any page, any chapter, god’s wisdom and guidance are there without fail. They can gerrymander even the worst texts to come up with lessons that fuel their piety. But we know that there are many Christians outside these circles who aren’t so blind. They recoil with horror at so many Bible stories and teaching—as much as secular readers do. And they know that too much of the Bible should not have been included in the canon, although they wouldn’t quite agree with Hector Avalos’ suggestion that 99 percent of the Bible would not be missed.



It is a mistake, moreover, to read any of the Bible with pious inattention, that is, uncritically, without curiosity about fundamental issues, such as origins and sources: where did this or that book or chapter come from? What was the author’s motivation and agenda? Above all, what were his skills as a historian? —if the text is a narrative of events. In other words, read with an open mind, and always approach the text honestly, with as little faith bias as possible. That can be very hard to achieve, especially for those who have been taught that it’s a sacred, inspired book.   


Even many Christians know that approaching the text honestly means admitting that stories about angels and demons, miracles and resurrections, come from the fantasy folklore of the ancient world. For a long time now, they have urged that such stories be taken as theological metaphors—not as literal events. Sometimes that’s tough, of course. The author of Matthew’s gospel reported that many dead people were resurrected when Jesus died, then walked around Jerusalem on Easter morning; this brings too much of a Halloween touch to Easter. It’s a challenge to find a convincing theological metaphor there!


But approaching the text honestly also means bringing critical analysis to accounts that don’t have miracles, that seem like straightforward history. Is that, in fact, what we have? Acts 26 provides a good case study of things not being what they seem.


[This article is the next in my series on each chapter of the Book of Acts. The Introductory article is here; the article on Chapter 25 is here.]


In Chapter 26, the apostle Paul, under arrest by the Romans, and on his way to Rome for his case to be heard by the Emperor, defends himself before King Agrippa. So most of this chapter  consists of the words of Paul. But is that actually the case? Here too the careful, curious reader is obliged to ask questions—the questions that professional historians ask. How did the author of the Book of Acts know that Paul said all these things—what were his sources? The scholarly consensus is that this book was written late first or early second century—so forty or fifty years after the events depicted in this chapter. How did the author find out this information? 


It’s not complicated: Was anyone there taking notes? Was it the kind of event that required taking notes? Even if this was done, did the notes end up in an archive somewhere—to which the author of Acts somehow had access decades later, many years after the devastating First Jewish Roman War, 66-73 CE? It’s far more likely that this chapter came from the creative imagination of the book’s author. Father Joseph A. Fitzmyer, in his important commentary on Acts (The Anchor Yale Bible, Volume 31, The Acts of the Apostles), says that this is “a finely crafted discourse…In effect, it is a Lucan composition…” (pp. 754-755)—he but assures his readers that it is “based on information from Luke’s Pauline source.” No, this won’t do. What Pauline source? Fitzmyer was guessing, speculating, hoping that the author of Acts had such a source. Imagined sources are useless to historians! But he needed to avoid admitting that this chapter is most likely fiction. It was common practice in the ancient world for authors to make up speeches for heroes they were writing about.


In verses 12-18 of this chapter, Paul tells about his dramatic Damascus Road conversion. Bible readers who are paying attention know that this is the third description of this event in Acts, the earlier ones are in Acts 9 and 22. It’s worth comparing them. In all three versions, Jesus speaks to Paul, his voice booming from the sky, but the wording is different—and the third Jesus-script is longer. So it looks like the author padded the third version. Moreover, our author wasn’t very careful. In the first version we read this:


The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. (9:7)


In the second version, we read this:


Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. (22:9)


Please recall that, while Paul reports that he got his information directly from the heavenly Jesus who spoke to him, he never mentions this Damascus Road event in his letters. We suspect that the author of Acts created this narrative to dramatize Paul’s private religious experiences. But when he wrote chapter 22, he forgot when he’d invented in chapter 9. Proofreading wasn’t his strength. 


Also consider vv. 22-23. Of course, as theologians make things up, they disagree with other theologians who make up other stuff. 


“To this day I have had help from God, and so I stand here, testifying to both small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would take place: that the Messiah must suffer, and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”


The first to rise from the dead. Well, not according to other New Testament authors. As I pointed out earlier, Matthew reports that many people came live in their tombs at the moment Jesus died, then walked out on Easter morning. In Matthew 10:7-8, when Jesus sent his disciples out to preach, he told them: “…proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons…”  John’s gospel reports that Jesus himself—by voice command—raised Lazarus from the dead. Perhaps this claim, that Jesus was the first to come back from the dead, was even meant to put down other rising-dying savior cults whose gods had done their resurrection tricks much earlier than Jesus. Yes, Christianity was in competition with other cults. 


Note these other words as well in vv. 22-23: what the prophets and Moses said would take place. Father Fitzmyer is blunt; he reads the text honestly, tells it like it is: “One will look in vain in the Mosaic and prophetic writings of the Old Testament for such a specific teaching, either of a suffering Messiah or of a Messiah who would rise from the dead. What one is encountering is the Lucan global reading of the Old Testament in terms of Christ, his christological interpretation of the Old Testament.” (p. 761)


In other words: a theologian who made things up that were never meant by authors of earlier texts. Fitzmyer puts a nice spin on it, “the Lucan global reading…” Sounds so grand and sophisticated, but just keep in mind that this ancient author was promoting his own particular cult—and a pretty tiny one at the time: nothing global about it whatever. Part of the author’s agenda also meant depicting Paul, fanatical advocate for this cult, catching the attention of a king.  


There is also Jesus script that disagrees with other Jesus script. Again, in Matthew 10, when Jesus sent the disciples on their preaching/healing mission, he told them: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (vv. 5-6) But when Jesus-in-the-sky speaks to Paul:


“I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (vv.17-18)


Had Jesus-in-the-sky changed his mind about the Gentiles? 


Note as well that turning from darkness…so that they may receive forgiveness clashes with the harsh words of Jesus in Mark 4, in which he claims that he taught in parables to prevent people from repenting and being forgiven (see Mark 4:10-12; also Matthew 13:10-17 and Luke 8:9-10). Of course, that text makes no sense whatever, even in the context of Mark’s gospel itself.


A primary take-away: theologians of the early Christian cult disagreed—Paul himself complained about this—and created Jesus-script as it suited their particular theological angles.


Since the early Jesus cult was a break-away Jewish sect—and there devout Jews who didn’t agree that Jesus was the messiah—it was common in Christian writings to portray “the Jews” as the opposition, the enemy. Hence in chapter 26, we see these comments: “against all the accusations of the Jews” (v. 2); “I am accused by Jews” (v. 7); “the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me” (v. 21). This antagonism towards Jews would reach tragic proportions in the gospel of John. What a sad thing that the New Testament has played a major role in fueling anti-Semitism. This is not what we would expect to find in a book inspired by a compassionate, all-wise, all-knowing god. How does this make sense?


One final, major irritant I should mention. Bible translators/editors can fail to approach the text honestly. Their agenda is to promote the faith, strengthen piety, and disguise problems that—so they think—the devout don’t need to know about. For example, New Testament scholars have not been able to agree on a methodology for figuring out exactly what Jesus-script in the gospels is authentic. The laity may assume that it’s all authentic, since—you know—the gospels were inspired by God. But scholars long ago realized this doesn’t work: the gospels have to be analyzed like any other documents from the ancient world. And there is just no way to determine

what Jesus-script is authentic, since there is no contemporaneous documentation whatever for the words supposedly uttered by Jesus. This is a devastating reality for Christianity.


But never mind that: Some Bible translators/editors just ignore the problem. They print the words of Jesus in red, which is a way of assuring readers of their authenticity. This is simply dishonest. It’s bad enough, of course, when it’s a matter of the words attributed to Jesus as he walked the earth. But it’s especially dishonest to print in red the words of Jesus imagined coming from the sky. In my old RSV that I read as a teenager (which I still have, held together with tape and glue), and in the New International Version on my iPad, the words of Jesus in Acts 9, 22, and 26 are printed in red. Words coming from the sky: this is fantasy literature. The translators/editors want to divert attention from this fantasy factor. This is a way of saying that Paul’s visions = hallucinations of Jesus speaking to him—put into narrative form by the author of Acts—were the real thing. The translators/editors are pretty sure that most of the laity are unaware of the “authenticity problem” that New Testament scholars have been struggling with for decades.   


I’ll leave the last word here to Festus, the procurator of Judea who brought Agrippa to see Paul: “You are out of your mind, Paul!” (v. 24) Naturally, Paul denies this—no surprise there. Festus had no idea how right he was, not having read Paul’s letters. But we have. They are chock full of vindictive, bad theology, wrongheaded apocalypticism, magical thinking—with a sprinkling of Hallmark moments. R. G. Price has called it correctly: “…any objective assessment of his writings reveals Paul to have essentially been a raving lunatic.” (Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed, p. 325) The author of the Book of Acts portrays him as a hero. That’s what cult propagandists do.


A careful reading of Acts 26, which appears to be straightforward narrative—remember, question everything—gives us no confidence at all that a good, competent god played any role whatever in its inspiration/composition.





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). His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


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