Reading In and Around the Bible: Acts

Latest set of notes on my readings, for the first time in my life, of the books of the New Testament, reading as a non-believer, inclined to skepticism, often to simple bemusement. The history of the world of supernatural claims is too broad to take any of them, even one that has inspired millions of adherents throughout history, seriously without any kind of thinking about their likely origin, and all the psychological and historical factors that went into their composition.

This post is about the book of Acts, i.e. The Acts of the Apostles, a longish book that describes what the apostles did immediately following Jesus’ death and supposed resurrection, but which is largely about Saul, later Paul, who created a chain of churches in reverence of Jesus over the following decades and who thus, almost single-handedly, created the Christian religion.

Sources of commentary are again Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The New Testament (1969) and the extensive annotations and footnotes to the New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Edition (2010), that I’m reading from. (I also have a King James Version I consult, for comparison, on occasion.)

I think that in terms of modern understanding of “why people believe weird things” and the protocols of narrative, how stories are changed over time depending on the audience and on the motivations of the tellers, the NT gospels and this book in particular, are an exquisite case study. I’ll explore that idea in future posts, but for now, here are my transcribed notes about Acts, by chapter and verse, noting especially inconsistencies with other NT books, passages about claims that wouldn’t seem plausible today, and others that strike me as extraordinary improbable, or revealing of the thinking of the time.

  • Acts is assumed to have been written by Luke; thus a sequel to the third gospel, addressed to the same “Theophilus” [lover of God].
  • Asimov spends 100 pages of his book commenting on this, largely because of all the historical content
  • 1:3 Jesus offers “many convincing proofs” after his resurrection – but only to his apostles
  • 1:8 Much emphasis in this book on the ‘Holy spirit’ which is, what exactly? Not just metaphorical for the presence of God, but a third manifestation of Him, apparently, as has come to be understood as the ‘trinity.’ (Seems like an unnecessary multiplication of entities.) In practice, it seems as if any incidence of seeing visions, speaking in tongues, or otherwise generally acting crazily, is referred to as being possessed of the Holy Spirit.
  • 1:16, again this obsession with fulfilling prophecy, as if nothing happening now, at the time, is valid unless it can be related to some aspect of ancient holy texts.
  • 1:18, a different story of Judas’ death
  • 2:4, speaking in tongues; why is it holy inspiration appears only via completely irrational ways? (Dreams, visions, etc.) Asimov notes p338: “The utterance of incoherent sounds under the influence of religious ecstasy is an effect common to many religions. … a common feature of the ecstatic frenzies of the bands of prophets that were a feature of Israelite religious practices under the judges and the kings. In fact, such ecstatic and incoherent speech was what was usually meant by the term ‘to prophesy’ in the early books of the Bible.” Hmm. Again and again, commentaries (including even those in the NSRV I’m reading) point out how various striking aspects of the world of the Bible – that is, aspects like miraculous prison breaks and ‘prophecies’ and so on, that we think of as part of that ancient time, special to that holy time, and not occurring today (except as claimed among certain extreme sects) – were, in fact, common to other religious practices of the time, and not special to the history of Israel or the story of Jesus. This one branch of history and its messiah are just the ones that have, for whatever reason, happened to have survived.
  • 2:5, “every nation”, well all the nations the writer was aware of, perhaps. (Obviously, the culture of the Bible knew nothing of Africa, the vast majority of what we now call Asia, the Americas and Australia, and so on.)
  • 2:8, the Holy Spirit causes a crowd to speak in various languages, and each person hears the babble in his own language. (Wasn’t there a Star Trek episode with a similar incident?) Asimov, p340, points out that, despite the numerous countries and races mentioned, most of them at the time would have spoken Greek, Aramaic, or both (being traders), and so this incident is not so miraculous as it sounds.
  • 2:12 ff, aren’t they just drunk? No, prophecy! (Truly, motivated thinking.)
  • 2:23, Acts is especially explicit about it being a *plan* that Jesus died, something I don’t think was in the earliest gospels.
  • 2:40, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation”, another citation of this historical cliché. (Everyone thinks the current generation is debased, that life was better in the old days.)
  • 2:43, and Ch3, now the apostles begin performing “wonders and signs”!
  • 3:17, they acted in ignorance – but it was part of the plan, right? The narrative tries to have it both ways.
  • 4:4, many who hear Peter and John’s sermon, 5000 of them, believe; seems all it takes is a passionate sermon. Or is it because they healed the lame man? Throughout this book both or either seem sufficient, but if the Word is so powerful, why are the parlor tricks of miracles necessary? And weren’t other would-be messiahs performing such parlor-tricks?
  • 4:22, odd comment about being more than 40 years old.
  • 4:32, In this group of believers “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” Communism! A practice I haven’t noticed many Christians today following. (In contrast, there’s a “prosperity gospel” theology, that keys off a few very selective passages of the NT, to justify the efforts of the wealthy to become more wealthy.)
  • 5:2, two members of this group try to cheat the rules, and when found out, simply drop dead. Really? It’s easy to ridicule the apparent plain meaning of these stories from a contemporary perspective; what’s fascinating is to ponder why such unlikely stories were told and recorded presumably because they seemed plausible to listeners at the time.
  • 5:12, more signs and wonders performed by the apostles. Doesn’t this rather undermine the claims of Jesus based on the miracles he performed? I understand this is why some of them, e.g. Peter, became saints…
  • 5:19, a miraculous prison break via an angel. Later there’s one via a convenient earthquake.
  • 5:34 ff, these passages, Asimov points out, describe how there were many other sects, with their own miraculous leaders, that had died out. Perhaps the Christians would too.
  • Ch6: political infighting
  • Ch7: Appeal to scripture. (Recurrent thought: the entire concept that a god – who created the entire world, the entire universe – would have a ‘chosen people’ is simply incoherent – much more plausibly a reflection of simple tribalistic self-importance, who invented this idea of “God”, of which *they* were the chosen people. (Does anyone believe in a god whose chosen people is some other group?) Why wouldn’t such a god communicate directly with *all* his creations? As with the First Commandment, this theme is an obvious vestige of polytheism, the assumption in those days that every tribe had their own local god.)
  • Ch7: So Stephen is the first Christian martyr – as approved of by Saul. (Later Paul.)
  • Ch8: Philip does miracles too, driving out ‘unclean spirits’
  • 8:9, curious the writer identifies the works of this Simon, Simon Magus, as ‘magic’, even though it “amazed the people of Samaria”. Asimov, p349, discusses how Simon Magus was mentioned in later writings outside the NT, and inspired a heretical sect, the Simonians, that lasted two centuries.
  • 8:26ff, a man from Ethiopia is (easily as always) converted just by hearing Philip’s story. Asimov has much to say about the appearance of an Ethiopian at this point in the story.
  • Ch9, the famous conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus – a story so critical it’s told in full *three times* in Acts – by a light from heaven and voice no one else could hear. NSRV notes the story “incorporates various features of theophanies and stories of the call of prophets”, suggesting an awareness of how these stories were written to certain patterns (i.e. not, needless to say, based on any kind of eye-witness testimony). According to this story, Saul is converted by virtue of being blinded and then restored to sight—not because of any kind of “good news” that persuades so many others.
  • 9:22, Saul becomes powerful “by proving that Jesus was the Messiah”, a rather question-begging use of the word “prove”.
  • Asimov, p359.2, notes about Saul’s conversion that he becomes “as fanatical an upholder of the belief as, earlier, he had been fanatical in opposing it” and then notes wryly “(This is by no means uncommon in conversions.)”
  • 9:36ff, now even Peter can raise the dead.
  • Ch10, Peter has a strange, symbolic vision of a sheet holding all kinds of animals, and is inspired to convert Cornelius, someone who’s not already a Jew.
  • 10:39, Jesus was “put to death by hanging him on a tree” ?
  • 10:43, “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins”, a core concept perhaps not spelled out earlier? Always struck me as a weird deal. Why is belief – without any more than hearsay evidence – so important that it’s rewarded with “forgiveness” of “sin”, i.e. release from the rules that presumably God set up in the first place?
  • Ch11, Peter repeats his vision.
  • 11:28, reference to the Roman emperor Claudius; this verse also predicts a famine “over all the world”.
  • Ch12, a divine escape from prison; NRSV notes “Miraculous escapes were a staple of ancient literature.”
  • 13:12, these stories conflate teachings with miraculous tricks or spells, a peculiar mix of standards of evidence. Then we get a lengthy recitation of ancient history!
  • 13:6, they met “a certain magician, Jewish false prophet”; one gets the impression there were a lot of would-be prophets at the time.
  • 13:9, in a quite understated way, Saul becomes Paul; Asimov p378-9 describes the significance of this conversion from a Hebrew name to a Gentile name, after which Paul quite takes charge.
  • 14:3, more signs and wonders. Again, is it the message, or the magic tricks, that converts people? The text implies they’re both equally persuasive.
  • 14:5, 14:18, riots! Given that the writer of Acts is presumably an apologist for the followers, one can only imagine what might actually have been going on at this time.
  • Aside about Christian persecution, which is described in the NT as something believers must endure as a price for their faith, something, in fact, to be *proud* of as a mark of that faith. What’s not described in the NT is what is described elsewhere, e.g.:

    Early Christianity was periodically persecuted in the Roman empire, because its votaries refused to observe the empire’s public religion, which was a responsibility of citizenship. They were therefore thought to be subversives, whose loyalties were such that they refused to participate in the state’s observances of civic cohesion; and because they refused to believe in the [Roman] gods, they were dubbed atheists.

    (This is from A.C. Grayling, Ideas That Matter, in his chapter about Christianity.) Roman intellectuals of the time at least made the pretense of observing the Roman gods. One can try to read between the narratives to imagine the early Christians as a truly rebellious cult… but why? Why did their apparent conversion to followers of Christ cause them to so explicitly defy Roman customs? Via the zealousness of Paul? Will be reading through the epistles, and elsewhere about the history of Christianity, to see if there is an answer.

  • 14:11, the crowd is just as willing to believe that Zeus and Hermes appear in human form.
  • Asimov p384, cites the Roman poet Ovid as evidence that Paul was in fact a rather weakly person, hardly charismatic (which confounds my comments just above), unless this was Socratic irony; and speculates that the incident on the road to Damascus was due to epilepsy.
  • Ch15, much concern about circumcision. Why is this so important, and why did the practice arise in the first place? I glanced at Wikipedia about this but tl;dr.
  • Ch16, and so Paul relaxes the rules about circumcision and strict dieting, in order to attract converts who need not follow Jewish law.
  • 16:6-7, odd passages about how Paul and company were deterred from speaking in certain towns in Asia [Minor]; the writer attributes this to the “Holy Spirit” (huh? Why?) Asimov, p393, speculates what might have been going on.
  • 16:11, “We” !! Is this evidence of the writer Luke? Or, more likely, is this simply bad editing by those who, decades later, might have assembled parts of oral accounts? There are two more groups of verses told in the first person like this.
  • 16:25 ff, another magical jailbreak.
  • 17:3, more “proof” based on citation of scripture. Standards of evidence were different in those days.
  • 17:5, more riots
  • Ch17, the arrival in Athens; Asimov has much background about the philosophers of that time (not mentioned in Acts, of course): Epicurius, Zeno, the Stoics
  • 17:34, Asimov, p403t, notes that “later tradition built enormously upon this single verse”, unto the 6th century. (Upon such slender reeds…)
  • 18:26, “they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately”. There were by this time all these local “churches”, each telling followers the stories they had been told, with inevitable embellishments and variations. This verse seems to suggest that Paul and group are helping this guy his story straight.
  • 19:6, “they spoke in tongues and prophesied” – because of Holy Spirit. As in previous item, so often a single verse will inspire traditions that last hundreds of years, can we assume that this verse is the inspiration for all the modern Christian cults who think “speaking in tongues” is an essential part of their faith? No doubt a crucial passage.
  • 19:11, more miracles through Paul
  • 19:15, an evil spirit talks back to a false exorcist
  • 19:28ff, more riots. The shrines of Artemis, as Asimov points out, the Greek/Roman fertility goddess, portrayed in statues as a woman with a couple dozen breasts. :35 about “the statue that fell from heaven” have led some, Asimov 410t, to speculate is was a meteorite.
  • 20:10, another resurrection, via Paul.
  • 20:25, Jesus is quoted as saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive”, but it’s a saying not found in the gospels.
  • Ch21, more riots.
  • 21:38, reference to some other pseudo-messiah, this one an Egyptian
  • The story of Paul takes him before trials and finally being sent to Rome, via a treacherous voyage and shipwreck on the island of Malta.
  • 26:24, Paul tells his conversion story yet again, and gets this response: “You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!”
  • 27:30, adrift at sea, sailors try to escape the ship. NRSV notes, “Escape of the crew is a popular motif found in Greco-Roman novels.”
  • 28:4, magical thinking: when Paul is bitten by a snake, the natives say “This man must be a murderer”… but then when Paul does not die, “they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god”.
  • 28:23ff, Paul preaches in Rome and some are not convinced; fortunately, every circumstance can be justified as foretold by the prophets!
  • Asimov notes how Acts ends some three decades after Paul’s conversion, after he’d established many churches in Asia Minor and Greece, but some three years before he died. Perhaps, Asimov suggests, that the story deliberately ended at the high spot in his career, before his downfall.
This entry was posted in Bible. Bookmark the permalink.