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A few years ago, a Catholic friend and neighbor of mine put the foundation of her belief into words for me. There are lots of reasons to doubt the divinity of Christ, she said, but one powerful thing continues to keep her doubts at bay. During Jesus’ life, the apostles were doubtful, denying, noncommittal. Then something happened to transform them, and they were willing to sacrifice their own lives in the name of their newfound convictions.

The Stoning of St. Stephen,
Rembrandt (1625)

“I find it hard to account for that kind of radical transformation unless he really rose from the dead and was really the son of God,” she said with a shrug.

I didn’t say the obvious thing — that using one part of a book to prove another is meaningless. If I said I know Chapter 49 of the Koran is true because Chapter 50 says so, she would rightly laugh at me. But it wasn’t that kind of conversation, so I kept my mouth shut and gained a powerful insight into which book is the keystone and linchpin of the New Testament—the Acts of the Apostles, a.k.a. Acts.

Though its significance hadn’t hit me before, I’d already heard that argument several times before and have heard it since in various forms. The “Easter faith” of the apostles is the clincher. If you want to know something about Christianity, read a gospel. But if you want to understand Christianity, to get a sense of what makes it tick (and fizz, and shine, and honk, and occasionally explode), read Acts. Christ is born in the gospels, but Christianity is born in Acts.

The Conversion of Saul, Michelangelo (1545)

It’s in Acts that we get several post-resurrection appearances by Jesus; the Great Commission, in which Christ instructs his disciples to spread his teachings to all the nations of the world (the origin of evangelism); Pentecost, speaking in tongues, exorcism, and the raising of the dead; the first stories of persecution of Christians and the first Christian martyrs; the conversion of Saul/Paul (who was alleged to have been a persecutor of Christians), his early ministry, and his arrest and imprisonment; and the first glimmer of the spreading, enthusiastic, universal church that continues to motivate evangelists today.

As a result of all of this passionate and very human action, Acts delivers some of the best mythic narrative in the Bible. But by the end of the book, something more profound has been achieved than the gathering of heroes and transformation narratives: Christianity is converted from a Jewish sect to a religion in its own right. The teachings of Christ are now said to be for all humanity, not just a local group.

My neighbor may (or may not) be surprised to hear that the book in whose testimony she places such unsinkable faith is perhaps the most altered, amended, and interpolated book in the New Testament. Here’s bible editor and theologian Bruce Metzger writing in The Text of the New Testament: Writing in The Text of the New Testament, bible editor and theologian Bruce Metzger noted (disapprovingly) the position of many theologians including Brooke Westcott and Fenton Hort regarding the Book of Acts:

Words, clauses, and even whole sentences were changed, omitted, and inserted with astonishing freedom, wherever it seemed that the meaning could be brought out with greater force and definiteness…. Another equally important characteristic is a disposition to enrich the text at the cost of its purity by alterations or additions taken from traditional and perhaps from apocryphal or other non-biblical sources… Another impulse of scribes abundantly exemplified in Western readings is the fondness for assimilation… But its most dangerous work is ‘harmonistic’ corruption, that is, the partial or total obliteration of differences in passages otherwise more or less resembling each other.

That such a well-traveled and freely-altered book continues to convince smart people like my neighbor of anything is testimony to the incredible power of confirmation bias and provides a nice foreshadowing of the upcoming blog series. Acts also provides a handy lens through which Christians can see and “understand” nonbelievers: we are Paul before the Damascus road, the apostles before the Resurrection. They saw the light — someday, surely, goes the narrative, we will too.
Next and final episode of the series, thank the Lord God Jehovah: REVELATION (date TBA)

Believers on REVELATION
Skeptics on REVELATION

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.