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Monday, September 07, 2009

The Role of Gospel Evidence in Early Christian Proselytizing

Some of the strongest evidence against the supernatural miracle accounts in the gospels can be found in how the Acts of the Apostles say the followers of Jesus used those accounts in their initial proselytizing. How were those accounts used? As far as we can tell: not at all. Christian apologists now say that the gospels were eyewitness accounts that surely must have withstood all skeptical scrutiny as the apostles eagerly spread them throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. However, we learn from Acts itself that these accounts were not used in proselytizing until after all prospect of skeptical rebuttal had been foreclosed by the passage of time. This article is a detailed examination of the role (or lack thereof) that the gospel evidence played in the growth of Christianity that is documented in Acts.

Despite all the alleged miracles performed during Jesus's ministry, and despite all the supernatural Easter events allegedly witnessed by all of Jerusalem, the Jesus movement had dwindled after Easter to at most 120 people [Acts 1:15]. They could all fit in one house [Acts 2:2], and apparently were all Galileans [Acts 2:7].

Acts says the Apostles did not start preaching the Resurrection until seven weeks after Easter, well after Jesus had ended his series of ambiguous private "appearances" to a few people among his now-leaderless band of disciples. At that first Pentecost, the crowd apparently arrived too late to see the "tongues of fire", and the speaking in tongues was so unimpressive that some dismissed it as drunkenness [Acts 2:13]. Peter's speech to the crowd is quoted in detail, but nowhere in it does he invoke any of the spectacular Easter miracles that all of Jerusalem should have known happened in the previous month. Despite mentioning David's tomb [Acts 2:29], Peter does not try to invoke any empty tomb as evidence for the Resurrection, but instead merely cites scripture and the private appearances that the apostles were alleging [Acts 2:32]. Peter's speech nevertheless recruited 3000 new disciples [Acts 2:41] -- whereas all the alleged miracles of Jesus's ministry and spectacular Easter sacrifice had netted only 120 disciples.

The next episode in Acts similarly makes zero reference to the alleged miracles of Jesus's ministry. Peter faith-heals a crippled beggar, and "all the people" recognized him as a long-time beggar at the Temple [Acts 3:10]. In Peter's detailed speech he admonishes the crowds for being amazed at this miracle, but the only event he invokes from Jesus's recent ministry was the (non-miraculous) crucifixion. The rest of Peter's proofs consist of vouching for Jesus's resurrection and claiming that the resurrection was prophesied. The Temple authorities arrested Peter, but felt constrained from further punishment only because "everybody living in Jerusalem knows" [Acts 4:16] of this faith-healing of a man allegedly crippled for 40 years [Acts 4:22]. The authorities had zero concern that the people might remember any of the spectacular alleged miracles of Jesus's ministry -- miracles that climaxed only a few months earlier with earthquakes and a mid-day eclipse and zombies swarming the city [Mt 27:53].

After Peter taunts a husband and wife as they are being struck dead for not donating all of their land-sale proceeds to the apostles, Acts 5 records in detail the next confrontation between the miracle-working apostles and the Temple authorities. Again, the only evidence invoked in Peter's speech is the private resurrection appearances [Acts 5:32]. The Pharisee Gamaliel defends the apostles by comparing their movement to those of Judas the Galilean and Theudas, who "claimed to be somebody [as] about four hundred men rallied to him" [Acts 5:36]. Gamaliel gives no hint that any of these three leaders were claimed to be miracle-workers, and suggests that the only way to tell if the Jesus movement is divinely inspired is to see whether it fails like the other two did. Note that the author of Acts is confused about Palestinian chronology, as the revolt of Theudas did not occur until about a decade after the events of Acts 5. However, it remains an embarrassing admission that in Peter's defense the Jesus movement is not evaluated on its supernatural, but rather on its similarity with failed non-supernatural movements.

The next confrontation with skeptics in Acts is over the ministry of Stephen. He "did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people" [Acts 6:8], but no mention is made of him citing any miracles of Jesus's ministry. His opponents "could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke" [Acts 6:10], but there is no mention of any difficulty skeptics had in standing up against Jesus's record as a miracle-worker. Fifty verses of Acts 7 records Stephen's lengthy defense of his ministry, recounting the mistreatment of prophets throughout Jewish history. Stephen makes only one claim about Jesus's ministry: that Jesus was killed. On the brink of execution, Stephen did not try to cite a single one of the miracles that the gospels credit to Jesus's ministry, and Stephen's own recent "wonders and miraculous signs" were somehow not enough to save him (in contrast to the single faith-healing that saved Peter in Acts 4).

Acts 8 says that with Stephen's martyrdom "a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria". Jerusalem was the site of Jesus's most spectacular miracles, and the central crossroads where the gospel miracle accounts should have been hardest to dispute, and yet the Jesus movement was unable to have any success there. Instead, it succeeded only as its outreach spread in time and space away from the scene of the allegedly-miraculous climax of Jesus's ministry.

Acts 8 says that Philip proclaimed the Messiah in Samaria, but the only "miraculous signs" used to persuade his audience were his own: "spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed" [Acts 8:7]. The gospel accounts of Jesus's miracles played no apparent role in Philip's successes.

Acts 8 also reveals that so-called miracles weren't always good evidence of divine commission: "Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, 'This man is the divine power known as the Great Power.' They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic." [Acts 8:9-11] This Simon himself was converted to the Jesus movement merely through unspecified "preaching", and was "astonished by the great signs and miracles" performed by Philip. Nobody seemed to ask why Philip's miracles proved Jesus was chosen while Simon's sorcery didn't prove Simon was the "Great Power". And it seems nobody thought that the gospel accounts of Jesus's miracles were of evidentiary value on these questions.

Acts 8 further shows that Jesus was not very famous in Jerusalem itself, only at most a few years after the tumultuous events of Easter week. An "important official in charge of the treasury of the Queen of Ethiopia" was on his way back from worshiping in Jerusalem and was reading the book of Isaiah, but seems not to have even heard of Jesus before Philip tells him the "good news".

Throughout the story of Paul's persecutions and conversion and early ministry in Acts 9, there is zero hint that any records or memories of Jesus's miracles were an obstacle to his persecutions, or an aid in his conversion or ministry. Acts 9 closes with an account of how two healings by Peter converted "all those who lived in Lydda and Sharon" and "many people all over Joppa". Again, there is no hint that Jesus's miracles were cited or even remembered.

Finally in Acts 10 is the first instance where Jesus's record of miracles is invoked for proselytizing. However, the only public miracle that Peter invokes is how Jesus was "healing all who were under the power of the devil" -- which arguably isn't a miracle at all. The only other miracle Peter invokes is embarrassingly private: "God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead." [Acts 10:40-42] Peter doesn't bother adding "However, everyone in Jerusalem has by now heard that all who inspected Jesus's tomb found it empty, even though it had been guarded." Peter was in fact preaching to the choir, because Cornelius had already told him of the angel who four days earlier had appeared in shining clothes and told him where Peter could be found. Thus a Jesus "miracle" of exorcism is cited only to somebody who had just personally witnessed a far more impressive miracle.

Acts 11 details how news about proselytizing efforts circulated among the various missionary teams, which were now reaching as far as Cyprus and up the coast of Phoenicia (Lebanon). Acts 11 nowhere says that gospel miracle accounts were being used for persuasion, and instead suggests ("The Lord's hand was with them") that missionary faith-healing and exorcism was still the primary outreach tool.

In Acts 12 it is now 44 AD, and Herod Agrippa I arrests Peter after executing James the brother of John. When angels release Peter and he arrives at the gate of the residence where the disciples were staying, the report that he is outside asking to come in is dismissed as an apparition. This is perhaps a subtle admission about the apparitions that over a decade earlier had supposedly proved that Jesus's corpse was reanimated. Upon this reported appearance of Peter, the disciples had no problem accepting this vision while still believing that Peter's body remained in his prison cell. Perhaps this was the initial understanding of the Resurrection appearances, before exaggeration and one-upsmanship and desperate zeal stretched them into something much more?

In Acts 13, we meet a man named Elymas described as a "sorcerer", and (as in chapter 8) the author of Acts does not dispute the sorcerer's ability to perform the sort of feats that the apostles had been using to create converts. Elymas's patron, a Roman proconsul on Cyprus, is converted by Paul angrily casting a spell of blindness on Elymas, and once again there is no citing of any gospel miracles as aiding in this conversion.

Acts 13 relates a lengthy speech by Paul at a synagogue in Antioch. Once again, a proselytizing speech in Acts follows a detailed rehearsal of Jewish history with a bland sentence about Jesus's ministry that mentions only the crucifixion. Despite the gospel accounts of Jesus's triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Paul weakly admits that "the people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus". Again, the only miracle about Jesus that the apostle cites is the private appearances of the resurrected Jesus to "those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem". [Acts 13:31] Paul does claim Jesus's body did not decay, but like Peter in Acts 2, he makes no effort to cite any reports of an empty tomb. Instead of giving any hint whatsoever that verifiable facts can confirm the good news about Jesus, the apostolic pitch is once again focused on grounding this new offer of salvation in the Jewish prophetic tradition. As it happens, the pitch is rejected by the Jews of Antioch. Had word reached them from Jerusalem about the credibility of those Galileans and their stories?

Acts 14 tells us Paul (and Barnabas) had better luck in Iconium, but once again, on-the-spot "miraculous signs and wonders" are the only supernatural evidence mentioned as supplementing the way they "spoke so effectively". In Lystra, yet another on-the-spot faith healing is required for Paul to convince anyone. When Paul admonishes the crowds for assuming he is Zeus, he points to God's "testimony": rain and crops and food and joy-filled hearts. No gospel miracles are included in Paul's catalog of testimony.

Acts 15 recounts the Council of Jerusalem, convened to settle the question of whether converts must practice circumcision and the Law of Moses. The debate was settled by Peter invoking his own personal vision from Acts 10, and James (the brother of Jesus) quoting the book of Amos. There is no indication that the words of Jesus had any bearing on this question -- or that any compilations of Jesus's words was even available. (Of course, nowhere in Acts is Jesus suggested to be ontologically identical to God, even via a "trinity"; Acts simply repeats Jesus's self-description as the "Son of God".)

The conversion of Lydia in Phillipi was effected when "the Lord opened her heart" to Paul's words. Again, there is no hint that any of those words were about the Jesus's miracles. Also in Phillipi there was "a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future", who thus "earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling" [Acts 16:16]. When Paul exorcised the "spirit" and thereby took away her fortune-telling power, her owners dragged Paul before a magistrate to complain. Paul was flogged and imprisoned, but then a miraculous earthquake shook the prison, opened its doors, and loosed their chains. This miracle (and not any gospel records or reports) instantly converted the jailer. Acts doesn't say whether the miraculous fortune-telling of the slave girl had ever been used to convert anybody to a religion that contradicts Christianity.

Acts 17 says that in Thessalonica, Paul "reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead." [Acts 17:2-3] We can presume that Paul yet again mentioned the Galileans' private apparitions, but there is no hint that Paul cited any records or reports of Jesus's gospel miracles. In Berea, "they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true". [Acts 17:11] This of course refers to what we call the Old Testament, and nothing suggests that the converts in Berea cared to ask -- or needed to be told -- about the miracle stories that ended up in the New Testament.

Acts 17 recounts in detail the arguments that Paul presented in Athens, the very birthplace of rationality. Paul "reasoned" in the synagogue and marketplace, "preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection". [Acts 17:17,18] Paul claimed that God "will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead." [Acts 17:31] Some listeners reportedly "sneered", and there is no hint that Paul offered any "proof" other than the private apparition stories of the Galileans. The evidentiary payload of the gospels apparently was no part of the case Paul presented to the philosophers of Athens.

Acts 18 tells of several years spent by Paul preaching in Corinth and other cities, "testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah". In Achaia, indignant Jews hauled Paul before the proconsul, who said that since the dispute "involves questions about words and names and your own law—settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things." [Acts 18:15] The disagreement here was apparently theological, and nobody seemed to think that the truth of Paul's story could be settled by appealing to what was publicly known about the events of Jesus's ministry. Indeed, Acts 18 closes by lauding the proselytizing efforts of Apollos, who "vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah". [Acts 18:28] Not a whisper here about loaves or fishes or eclipses or earthquakes.

Acts 19 gushes about how faith-healings and exorcisms could be remotely effected by Paul, using just a handkerchief Paul had touched. [Acts 19:12] Acts says that "Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds. A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly." [Acts 19:18-19] These converts apparently believed in their own pre-conversion ability to perform sorcery, but there is no hint here that their conversions were motivated by belief in gospel-style reports of Jesus's power.

In the riot at Ephesus [Acts 19:23-41], the city clerk says "Doesn't all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? These facts are undeniable". Apparently, the heavenly provenance of the image of Artemis is an easier claim to defend than the gospel stories about loaves and eclipses and earthquakes. Nowhere in all of Acts does any disciple of Jesus similarly challenge a crowd to deny the alleged facts related in the stories of the gospels.

In chapter 20 of Acts we find its first attempt to quote any words of Jesus: "It is more blessed to give than to receive." [Acts 20:35] However, these words are in a letter from Paul to his fellow Christians, and quote a saying that does not exist in any of the known gospels.

In Acts 22 Paul tries to persuade the angry Jews of Jerusalem that his convictions are sincere. He recounts his private conversion on the road to Damascus, but makes no mention of the public gospel evidence that supposedly was floating around Palestine and defying all attempts at skeptical refutation.

In Acts 23, the Roman commander accurately writes, in a letter to Governor Felix, that the "accusation [against Paul] had to do with questions about their law". In Acts 24, Paul repeats that the reason he has been accused of trumped-up temple-desecration charges is that he takes the Pharisee view over the Sanhedrin view concerning the resurrection of the dead. Felix "was well acquainted with the Way" [Acts 24:22] -- i.e. the Jesus movement -- but Paul made no attempt to defend himself using the supposedly widespread and skeptic-proof evidence of the gospel stories.

In Acts 25, Festus tells Agrippa that Paul's accusers "had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive. I was at a loss how to investigate such matters". [Acts 25:19-20] In other words, the Roman governor of the area considered it impossible to determine the truth of what had happened to Jesus less than a generation earlier and only a couple days' travel away.

In his trial speech before Agrippa in Acts 26, Paul says he is "saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen— that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles." [Acts 26:22-23] Paul says "the king is familiar with these things", but he must mean the Jewish prophecies and perhaps the Galilean rumors of private Resurrection appearances. He can't mean that Agrippa is familiar with the undisputed fact of Jesus having walked out of his own tomb, and Agrippa pointedly says "Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?" [Acts 26:28] Paul makes no attempt to defend himself by saying the historical truth of Jesus's resurrection (and other miracles) is well-known, and instead repeatedly tries to make his case hinge on Jewish resurrection theology.

In Rome in Acts 28, the Jewish leaders of the city tell Paul that "people everywhere are talking against this sect" of Christians [Acts 28:22] -- a strange circumstance if the demonstrable truth of the gospel had been overcoming any and all skepticism in its path. Paul's reaction was that he "explained and declared to them the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets". [Acts 28:23] Finally Paul gives up hope of persuading them, quotes from Isaiah about Jews doomed to never believe what they ought to believe, and says that "God's salvation has been sent to the Gentiles".

Thus ends our survey of all the episodes in Acts in which the evidence collected in the gospels could have or should have been used, if only it were as immune to skeptical rebuttal as modern Christian apologists claim it must have been. We see in Acts a spectacular and unequivocal failure of the apologetic hypothesis about the power and robustness of the evidence available in the gospels. Even if the gospels had not yet achieved their final written form, apologists need to claim that the gospel stories were widely and reliably circulating in at least oral form, in order for them to confront and overcome timely attempts to question or rebut them. Under this hypothesis, the miracle stories of the gospels should have figured prominently in the proselytizing efforts so thoroughly documented in Acts. Instead, all we find are 1) new healings and exorcisms by the apostles themselves, and 2) arguments that the private Resurrection appearances fulfill a particular interpretation of Jewish prophecy. At no point in all of Acts does any apostle argue that the empty tomb is a well-known or verifiable fact. Nor is this verifiability assumed, because at multiple points [Acts 10:40-42, 13:31] the apostles all but admit that first-hand evidence of the Resurrection was available only to Jesus's closest Galilean followers.

Combined with the thundering silence about the Jesus movement in the contemporary accounts of Josephus, the absence of the gospel miracle stories throughout Acts is powerful evidence that these stories were still being elaborated in the first decade or two after the death of Jesus. We are left with no reason to believe that the gospel accounts had triumphed over prompt skeptical scrutiny and thus were available or useful as robust proselytizing collateral during the first few decades of Christianity.

P.S. Earlier and more detailed versions of many of the arguments above can be found in Richard Carrier's work here and here.

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