Reading the Bible for All the Wrong Reasons* – I

Part 1

I was recently checking the Christian New Testament book called The Acts of the Apostles to verify an idea that the first Christians were actually communists (spoiler alert: yes). In the course of this I decided to see what other fun facts were recorded in Luke’s gospel sequel.

I had actually read Acts in high school religion class (as evidenced by various mysterious circlings and underlines in my copy) but I had somehow forgotten all the incredible high jinx it contains:

  • Murder of a couple who lied about their income
  • Murder by boredom
  • Murder by stoning
  • Death of a king (Herod Agrippa) who was eaten by worms after being struck down by an angel (12:23)
  • Ecstatic visions (Peter dreams his tent fell on him, thus allowing Gentiles into the fold, so to speak) (11: 5)
  • Bewitchings
  • Numerous resurrections, so many resurrections  (e.g. 9:40)
(Between all the resurrections and hundreds and hundreds of miracle healings, it’s a wonder Asia Minor wasn’t in danger of an overpopulation crisis…but we digress)
  • Imprisonments, so many imprisonments
  • Jail breaks (usually at the hands of helpful angels)
  • Mysterious desertion of a missionary apostle (gospel writer John Mark, 16:38)
  • Earthquake (16:26)
  • Shipwreck
  • Filibustering
  • Sarcasm (17:22; 26:28)
  • Numerous repetitions of Saul’s journey to Damascus
  • Garment shaking
  • Blaspheming
  • Courtroom dramas
  • “worshiping women of rank” incited against Paul and Barnabas (13:50)
  • Burning of magic scrolls worth 50,000 pieces of silver (worth, depending on the method of estimation, from $1,000,000t o $1,082,000)
  • Interminable babbling, blathering, preaching

Here are just a few of the more intriguing stories.

Were the first Christians communists?

Let’s start with definitions

Definition of communism Merriam-Webster

a : a theory advocating elimination of private property

b : a system in which goods are owned in common and are available to all as needed

And in case you don’t like M-W, here’s the Oxford English Dictionary entry:

 

 

 

 

Now let’s look at what Acts 2 has to report:

    44 And all who believed were together and held all things in common…

The Catholic edition footnote on this says that this was not communism but a “spirit of fraternal charity.” Hmmph. Later on, in Acts 4, however, we find:

32The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul; no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, as everything they owned was held in common. 33. The apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power, and they were all accorded great respect. 34 None of their members was ever in want, as all those who owned land or houses would sell them, and bring the money from the sale of them, 35 to present it to the apostles; it was then distributed to any who might be in need. 36 There was a Levite of Cypriot origin called Joseph whom the apostles surnamed Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’). 37 He owned a piece of land and he sold it and brought the money and presented it to the apostles. <Acts 4: 32-37. Bíblia Católica Online>

Paul frightens believers who held back part of the price of their land to death

Here’s how it went down. A married couple, believers in “the Way” (before they were called Christians) named Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, sold some property and kept back part of the money for themselves but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

But we’ll let Acts 4 speak for itself:

3 Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4 Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.” 5 When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. . . . 7 About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.” 9 Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” 10 At that moment she fell down at his feet and died.To sum up this tale of avarice and cruelty, a man and his wife, early members of the faith, not wishing to be completely destitute, withhold a small amount of money from the commune. When Peter finds out, he frightens them both to death. At least they were buried. OK, OK, they lied, but you’re on notice, communistas: the Holy Ghost is taking no prisoners.

Stephen, the first martyr, filibusters himself into a stoning

We hate to “blame the victim,” but Stephen, who was chosen by the Twelve to go out and do the work of gaining converts while they devoted themselves to “prayer and to the ministry of the word” (6: 5) didn’t do himself any favors by his habit of blathering.

Here’s what happened, per Acts 6 and 7.

Stephen was going around working great wonders and signs among the people, which naturally annoyed the regular Jews of the synagogue who were “not able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit who spoke.” (6: 10) Stephen was seized and brought to the Sanhedrin for blaspheming: “This man never ceases speaking words against the Holy Place and the Law.” (6: 13)

As we’ll see, this habit of ‘never ceasing speaking” seems to be Stephen’s main talent.

So we’ve got Steve seated in front of the Sanhedrin and the high priest asks him a pretty simple question: “Are these things so”?

Instead of answering the question, Steve launches a monumentally pointless discourse, beginning with “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he settled in Haran…” (7:2) and continues on for the next 60 verses, recounting the history of Joseph, Moses, Mount Sinai, tents in the desert, the ark of the covenant . . . zzzz.

In fairness, my Catholic edition says that Stephen was simply refuting charges that he spoke against Moses and the temple, though nothing in his blathering testimony shows this.

He ends by accusing his accusers of betraying the Law and this is simply enough blathering for them. With much gnashing of teeth, they “stopped their ears and rushed upon him,” casting him out of the city for a proper stoning. (7:57)

Next time we’ll see how Paul bores a man into falling off a balcony, the million-dollar book (er…magical scroll) burning and a “knock knock” joke about Peter on the lam.


*The idea for this headline came to me one day as I was out by the pool studying the Qur’an. I had a paperback English translation, a larger English-Arabic version, my Arabic alphabet cheat sheet and a mobile device that I used for translation aid, commentaries and phonetic/oral help. A neighbor saw all my gear and asked if I was studying the bible. I figured it was too complicated to explain my project, which at times included the Book of Mormon and the history of early Christianity, so I just said, “Yeah, but for all the wrong reasons.”
Additional notes for bible wonks:
The majority of scholars date Luke-Acts to 80–90 CE, even as late at 120 CE (Mack 1995), on various grounds, e.g. it looks back on the destruction of Jerusalem, and does not seem to be aware of Paul’s letters (which began circulating late in the century); in either case, there is evidence that it was still being substantially revised well into the 2nd century.” [WP – Acts of the Apostles]
Clearly, whoever the author of Luke-Acts was, he was far removed from the times and places he wrote about, including Luke’s gaffe at 5:19 about “tile roofs” (roofs were actually reeds and packed mud, see Korb 2010)
Spong (1996) sees a “midrash” of the Ananias story in Jeremiah’s story of Hananiah, “lying in the name of the Lord, and deceiving the people” where “the deceiver should be shortly cut off by death.” (Jeremiah 28: 15-17). Seems like a stretch to me though Asimov (1969) seems to agree.
“Midrash” by the way, is the Jewish tradition dictating that everything to be venerated in the present must somehow be connected with a sacred moment in the past (Bringas p172). Spong (1996) quite persuasively makes the case that the entire NT is essentially a midrash of Hebrew Sabbath lectionaries (weekly scripture readings). In this light, Acts is a lectionary book written midrashically, designed to complement and parallel gospel readings. (p177) The Jewish practice of reading appointed Scriptures on given days or occasions dates back to the time of Moses and continues in Catholic masses.
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