Isn’t the Good Book Supposed to Be the Best Book?

Too often we wonder, “Why do we need to know this?”

Mark Twain said that it wasn’t the things in the Bible he didn’t understand that bothered him: it was the things he did understand. He has not been alone. It’s hardly a surprise that careful reading of the Bible has driven so many people away from Christianity. “Oh, but the Bible is perfect in every way”—so say the extreme apologists, who claim that their scripture is inerrant. God’s reputation requires it be so. Of course there are devout folks who accept that the Bible has errors—and far too many examples of bad theology, although they might not say so out loud. God drowned all the people and animals on earth—except for Noah and his family—because he regretted making humans, and his fury exploded. God killed all the first-born of Egypt to try to change Pharaoh’s mind. In Jesus-script in the New Testament, upon the arrival of the Kingdom of God, with the Jesus as the new ruler, there will be as much suffering as at the time of Noah.



Many contemporary Christians have found other sources of divine inspiration/information to fuel their faith, to counter this kind of theological severity. But inescapably, the Bible is a crucial document in the heritage of the church. Christians: you’re stuck with it. Serious thinkers outside the faith wonder why it isn’t a better book, if indeed, God had anything to do with “inspiring” it. Can that concept be discarded now? 


I’ve mentioned the gruesome stories and horrible theology, which many theologians and clergy work so hard to tone down/discount. But then there is so much that is simply inferior, e.g., there have been many scholarly critiques of the Ten Commandments, i.e., how deficient they are; see especially John Loftus’ analysis in God and Horrendous Suffering, pp. 252-254. Even laypeople can spot the bad advice in the Sermon on the Mount, and just ignore several of these teachings of Jesus (every Christian who as a pension plan pays no attention to “don’t lay up treasures on earth”).   


Then there are those chapters that have certainly prompted Bible readers to ask, “Why do I need to know this?” Or even, “How did that get in the Bible?” For example, there is considerable detail in Leviticus about God’s demands for animal sacrifice. If, for whatever reason, this bizarre form of piety was required, once upon a time, by the god who runs the Cosmos, it fails all standards of decency now. We wonder why, if God is in the business of ongoing inspiration, he didn’t prompt later Bible editors to delete these texts. It comes down to this: there is so much in the Bible that we just don’t need, and so much missing that would have benefited humanity far more. Tim Sledge, in his book, Four Disturbing Questions with One Simple Answer: Breaking the Spell of Christian Belief, has a chapter titled, “The Germ Warfare Question.” It’s a fair question: Why, in our Bible of more than a thousand pages, isn’t there a huge chapter with information about germs, hygiene, why we get sick? What could have been the reason for god’s silence on these matters?


“Why do I need to know this?” also comes to mind when we read Acts, Chapter 27. [This article is another in my series on each chapter of the Book of Acts. The Introductory article is here. The article on Acts 26 is here.] 


Acts 27 is an adventure story, intended to enhance the hero status of the apostle Paul. As a Roman prisoner, he was being sent to Roman for trial before the emperor. This itself looks like story inflation: a fanatical preacher for a small cult will have his case heard by the emperor? The author of Acts probably had read 2 Corinthians 11:25, “Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea…” and created the dramatic narrative in Chapter 27. Many Christian commentators are persuaded that this story is authentic—it is so detailed, so realistic! But good novelists and writers of religious propaganda can invent realistic narratives, or borrow from other authors. This extended quote from Richard Carrier illustrates the point:


“Dennis MacDonald has shown that Luke also reworked tales from Homer, casting them with new characters and giving them new outcomes as it suited him. For example: 


‘The shipwrecks of Odysseus and Paul share nautical images and vocabulary, the appearance of a goddess or angel assuring safety, the riding of planks, the arrival of the hero on an island among hospitable strangers, the mistaking of the hero as a god, and the sending of him on his way [in a new ship].’ [Dennis MacDonald, “The Shipwrecks of Odysseus and Paul,” New Testament Studies 45 (1999).]


“Paul himself says he was shipwrecked three times, and at least once spent a day and a night adrift (2 Cor. 11.25). Luke may have been inspired by this remark to invent a story about it, borrowing ideas from other famous shipwreck narratives (including those in Jonah, the Odyssey and the Aeneid). Acts rewrites Homer several other times. Paul’s resurrection of the fallen Eutychus is based on the fallen Elpenor. The visions of Cornelius and Peter are constructed from a similar narrative about Agamemnon. Paul’s farewell at Miletus is constructed from Hector’s farewell to Andromache. The lottery of Matthias is constructed from the lottery of Ajax. Peter’s escape from prison is constructed from Priam’s escape from Achilles. And so on.” (Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, Kindle, p. 422)


We are in fact stopped short—in any effort to read this as history—by the lack of contemporaneous documentation by which to verify the events described, e.g., letters, diaries, transcriptions, etc. This is especially important for Acts, which was written decades after the “events” described. New Testament scholars who want so much for these stories to be true are confident that the “we” passages come from an eyewitness—someone who participated in the events, e.g., Acts 27:1: “When it was decided that we were to sail for Italy…” But this is not as convincing as is commonly thought. Again, Richard Carrier, who points out that this does not, in fact, “indicate an actual source.”


“It is sometimes argued that the ‘we’ passages...indicate an actual source. Some even argue these prove the author was an actual companion of Paul, but few scholars believe that’s likely—it isn’t what the author himself says, yet it was standard practice of the time to say so, if that is what the author meant to be understood. But fabricating a fictional narrative using ‘I’ or ‘we’ is already evident in the pre-Christian book of Jubilees, a made-up rewrite of OT history adapted from Genesis, passed off as a revelation given directly to Moses even though it was actually composed around the second or first century BCE. So the motif has an established precedent in historical fiction.” (Carrier, from footnote 4 at page 422 of On the Historicity of Jesus)


The primary obsession of the author of Acts was to get readers to believe in the Jesus cult, and he advanced the idea that Paul was guided by, and on occasion, saved by angels: god was watching out for him. Thus in the midst of all the stress described in Chapter 27, we find these words, that Paul addressed to those on board the ship (vv. 22-26):


“I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship,  and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor, and, indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we will have to run aground on some island.”  


“…the God to whom I belong…” Here is the author’s technique for assuring his readers that this hero is possessed by divinity. He probably did believe that an angel stood by Paul; in other words, he was okay with Paul’s delusion—which is so clear from Paul’s own letters—that a god talked to him, either through angels or via the dead Jesus. This is cult talk, and reminds us of Galatians 5:24, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” We can be sure there are many Christians today who try to be faithful to God, do their best to follow him, and hope they are under his care, but are not so comfortable with the suggestion that they belong to God. Yes, there are devout folks who withdraw to monasteries and convents because they’re okay with this level of cult fanaticism that the writers of the New Testament commonly expected. But we can suspect that the rank-and-file folks in the pews do their best to get on with their lives—jobs, careers, families, vacations, hobbies—without identifying themselves as possessed by god. 


There is another theological conundrum here as well. Is Paul’s god just another local, routine deity who pays close attention to those who confess that they belong to it—and thus will protect them from the perils of shipwreck—or is this a universal omni-god who should be looking out for everyone, anywhere, anytime? If that is the case, why have so many humans perished at sea? What was this cosmic omni-god doing when the Titanic hit the ice-berg? There were three Catholic priests who went down with the ship, after helping women and children into lifeboats. They didn’t merit the same attention their deity gave to Paul? This is another example of the incoherence that plagues Christian theology. 


But back to the issue of overall quality of the “good book.” Please read the first eight verses of Acts 27. How do we benefit from all this detail about the sailing of Paul’s ship? —and there’s more of the same throughout the chapter. What’s the point in terms of our spiritual improvement? Hector Avalos might have had this chapter in mind when he suggested that, going verse by verse, 99 percent of the Bible would not be missed. Moreover, this chapter also provides a good example of what is required for sound Bible study: namely, question everything. What was the author’s agenda? As Father Joseph Fitzmyer admits in his commentary on Acts, “The narrative now being recounted is used to a theological end...” (Yale-Anchor Bible, Vol. 31, p. 767) which diminishes its status as history. What were the author's sources? What reasons would we have for trusting what he wrote? What is the quotient of superstition and magical thinking? This chapter seems so straightforward, it strikes the casual reader as history. But remain alert to what the Book of Acts is for: to impress its audience that the deity of the Christian cult was the only god—among so many available at the time—that deserved their devotion. Paul was convinced that it was the only god. Priests and preachers, of course, are paid to champion the message of the Book of Acts, which is all the more reason to question everything.  




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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