A Hugely Defective Gospel Sequel

A high quotient of fake news


The red flags in scripture are all over the place, and easy to spot. By this I mean story elements that alert readers to be suspicious. If we came across these in a Disney fantasy or in Harry Potter story, we’d say, “Very entertaining, but not to be taken seriously.” There are so many red flags in the gospels, and they show up in the first chapters of each. In Mark, a voice from the sky tells Jesus, “You are my beloved son”—right after his baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus had sins? A god yelling from the sky doesn’t sound at all like a real-world event.



The first thing we find in Matthew’s gospel is a genealogy that is supposed to prove that Jesus was descended from King David, but then Matthew reports that Jesus didn’t have a human father—nullifying the value of the genealogy. It was in a dream that an angel told Joseph that Mary got pregnant by a holy spirit. Red flag: Today if anyone tells us that they get messages from a god through angels in dreams, our reaction is likely to be, yah, sure. In Luke’s first chapter as well, angels have speaking roles, revealing the destiny of John the Baptist and Jesus to their parents. Red flag: this isn’t history, it’s fantasy literature. The author of John’s gospel claims in his opening chapter that Jesus, the Galilean peasant preacher—as portrayed in the first three gospels—was present at creation. Huge red flag: here’s a theologian presenting his speculations as fact. Any curious reader should want to know how he knows this: show us the reliable, verifiable, objective evidence. 


Surely the champion red flag winner is the author of the Book of Acts. He reports in his first chapter that newly alive Jesus left earth by ascending to heaven—he disappeared through the clouds. And in chapter 7, Stephen, about to be martyred, sees Jesus in heaven: “…filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:55-56) Christian doctrine would have us believe that this holy spirit that “filled him” is part of god—so couldn’t this ghost have done a better job helping separate fact from fiction? No: Jesus and god are not standing next to each other somewhere miles out in space. Any Christian today who has any understanding of how the Cosmos is built, i.e., that the earth orbits the sun, which orbits the galactic center—in the vacuum of space—can grasp that the Acts 1 story is naïve fiction. Why couldn’t the holy spirit have shared these insights with humans centuries ago?


I have made many posts on this blog about the Book of Acts, but I return to it now to call attention to Richard Carrier’s blog article dated 21 April 2023: How We Know Acts Is a Fake History. This augments his 25-page chapter on Acts in On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, pp. 359-385. He wrote this new article in response to apologist Greg Boyd’s position that Acts in basically trustworthy. 


How can that be? The red flag pop-up frequently in the first few chapters of Acts. In Acts 5, people are healed when Peter’s shadow falls on them, and an angel helps the apostles escape from prison (this also happens in Acts 12). In Acts 10, an angel instructs a centurion named Cornelius to summon Peter. In Acts 18, the Lord in a vision tells Paul to preach—and he will be protected. The naïve, gullible first readers of Acts may have been impressed, but informed adults today, not so much: “Very entertaining, but not to be taken seriously.” Angels, healings, visions are markers of fantasy literature. 


These are surface details that should provoke skepticism about Acts, but Carrier draws attention to issues that demonstrate just how phony this book is. It is fake history. The author of Acts seemingly wasn’t aware that his story is undermined by what we find in the letters of Paul, as Carrier notes:


“If one needs Acts to be a reliable history, and not revisionist history (a.k.a. “bullshit”), one needs to ‘leave out’ all the evidence that it repeatedly contradicts the eyewitness testimony of Paul, and in precisely the ways that suit its author’s agendas, and that it mimics known tropes and features distinctive of fiction and propaganda…”


In Acts 9:26-28, we read this account of Paul’s return from Damascus—after his famous conversion experience:


“When he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples, and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.”   


In Galatians 1:16-20, however, we find what Paul himself says:

“…I did not confer with any human, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterward I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter} and stayed with him fifteen days, but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!”

Then there was the contentious issue of circumcision. In Galatians 2:1-3, Paul reports:

“Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain. But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek.

Yet this is what we read in Acts 16:3: “Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.

Carrier calls the fake historian to account: 

“Acts gets the guy wrong (it was Titus, not Timothy, who was under pressure to circumcise), as well as the place and time (Acts has this happen after the event Paul himself relates, and far from Judea where it makes even less sense for any such pressure to exist)…”

The author of Acts is inventing a story contrary to events as related by Paul. Moreover, this invented story completely contradicts Paul’s entire mission statement: Paul explicitly says he was not flexible about this, that this was his line in the sand, such that had he caved ‘the truth of the gospel’ would not ‘be preserved.’ In other words, resisting this pressure was of dire existential importance to Paul and his entire mission.”

“Acts thus gets history totally wrong here, contradicting Paul’s own eyewitness testimony, blatantly and in multiple ways. Its author was clearly uninterested in recounting anything true about Paul and his companions, actions, and mission; but to the contrary, only in ‘rewriting’ history to make Paul conform to the author’s own agenda to unify the factions of Christendom, by depicting its Jewish and Gentile wings as always in harmony and willing to cooperate.”

Late in the Book of Acts, Paul is arrested, and preparations are made to have him sent to Felix the governor (Acts 23:23): “Get ready to leave by nine o’clock tonight for Caesarea with two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen. How can that possibly have been true: an escort of this size for a crazy cult preacher? The author of Acts wanted to impress his readers: look how important Paul was!

Carrier notes that this is an “outrageous number of troops removed from their duties to protect one man.” But just as unbelievable is the text of the letter—quoted in Acts 23:26-30—that Claudius Lysias supposedly wrote to Felix. Carrier notes that it “conspicuously lacks all the details a real one would contain…”, and he provides several examples of the mistakes made by the author: “It seems far more certain Luke just made this letter up—and he didn’t know what a real one looked like so as to even produce a plausible fraud.” 

This Carrier article is rich in details that illustrate just how fake Acts is. Near the beginning of the article he lists more than twenty other books of acts that didn’t make it into the canon, 

“… all of which even most fundamentalists (and all actual experts) agree are bogus—making ‘bogus’ by far the normal status of any Christian ‘Acts’…Our Acts contains no indication of being any more honest or reliable; to the contrary, it’s rife with indications of being no better. Indeed, we have two entire versions of it, one some ten percent longer—and scholars cannot honestly tell which is actually the original. That is how freely Christians were willing to doctor it to suit their wishes. In actual fact, faking histories was the norm for Christians; even beyond the damning example of the entire Acts genre, the religion was always awash with forgery and lies.”

Forgery and lies—and extremism. On 5 May 2023, here on this blog, I argued that core Christian beliefs qualify it as a cultThere is one story especially in Acts that offers a perfect snapshot of a cult. In Acts 5 we find the story of Ananias and Sapphira, a couple who sold a field, but didn’t give all the money to the church: Ananias “brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 5:2). Peter flew into a rage, scolding Ananias for lying to the holy spirit, because Satan was in his heart. Ananias dropped dead on the spot, and was buried immediately. A few hours later Sapphira showed up and received the same scolding—and she dropped dead too, and right away was buried beside her husband. The story closes with verse 11: “And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.” There is not a hint here that Peter—yes, that Peter, the rock upon which the church was built—had been too severe. I’m sure not many laypeople today who read this story would say, “Well, how cool is that, it’s okay with me.”


Cults thrive because they encourage “great fear” among their devotees, which means undivided loyalties. It’s no surprise if Acts and Luke were written by the same guy: the Jesus-script in Luke 14:26 stipulates that hatred of family and even life itself is required of those who follow their cult hero.


Serious Bible study requires in-depth homework, as is provided by this Carrier article. He includes dozens of links to other sources, and thoroughly exposes the cheap tricks of apologists who desperately want Acts to be reliable history. What a pity that it’s hard enough to get laypeople to even read the gospels and Acts, let alone do any penetrating study of these documents. 

Carrier tells it like it is:

“The evidence stacks quite high that the author of Acts is fabricating a mythological history for his religion, and didn’t have any personal knowledge of what he relates, but is relying on old sources that he deliberately alters, reference books that he uses only for local color, and his imagination. There is simply no way a companion of Paul wrote this, or anyone of his generation. Indeed he conspicuously never claims he was—and since he would have claimed any authority he actually had, his silence proves he couldn’t claim this.” 




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). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available. 


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


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