Freethought Archives > Jeremy Bentham > Not Paul, But Jesus


Acts, part false, part true: Author not Saint Luke.



In regard to the Acts, a notion, generally, not to say universally, received, is—that it had Saint Luke for its author: and that, accordingly, it may with propriety be regarded as a continuation of the Gospel of that Evangelist, written by the same hand. Were this conception a correct one, whatsoever shock were given to the credit of the Acts, would unavoidably extend itself to the Gospel history: at any rate, to that part of it which bears the name of Luke.

Before this chapter is at an end,—the reader, if the author is not much mistaken, will not only be convinced that that opinion is untenable, but see no small ground for wondering, how by any person, by whom any survey had been taken of the two objects in that point of view, any such notion should ever have come to be entertained.

Another memento, of which, if made before, even the repetition may in this place, perhaps, be not without its use, is—that, from nothing that is here said, is any such conception meant to be conveyed, as that the history called The Acts, is from beginning to end, like that of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History[Pg 398] of Britain, a mere falsity. In a great part, perhaps even by much the greatest, it is here looked upon as true: in great part true, although in no inconsiderable part incorrect, to say no worse: and, in particular, on every point, on which the colour of the marvellous is visible. As to the sort and degree of evidence due to it, one general assumption there is, by which the whole of this inquiry has, from first to last, been guided. This is—that, in relation to one and the same work, whatsoever be the subject of it, credence may, without inconsistency or impropriety, by one and the same person, be given and withholden: given, on this or that occasion; withholden, on this or that other occasion: given, in so far as the truth of the contents seems probable; withholden, as far as it seems improbable.

For the support of this assumption,—all that, on the present occasion, can be offered, is—an appeal to universal experience. As to the general foundations of the law of evidence,—for any excursion into so wide an expanse, neither this chapter nor any other part of this work would, it has been thought, be generally regarded as a proper place. What had been written on that subject has accordingly been discarded.



In the first place then, Saint Luke cannot have been the author of the Acts.

The reason is very simple. In respect of the time[Pg 399] between Jesus's resurrection and his ascension,—the one of these narratives gives one account, the other, another account: and, so wide is the difference between the two, that by one and the same person they could not have both been given. According to Saint Luke, the time during which, after his resurrection, and before his ascension, Jesus was seen by his disciples, extended not beyond one day: according to the Acts, it extended as far as forty days. By Saint Luke, that the time was not more than a day, is not indeed said in so many words; but upon examination of the text, it will be found, that, consistently with the particulars given, no longer duration can be assigned to it. In the Acts, that the time, during which he continued showing himself after his passion, Acts 1:3,[79] to the Apostles, was "forty days," is affirmed in those very words.

The point here in question, be it observed, is not truth, but consistency: not the truth of either of the two accounts; but their consistency, the one with the other: and, instead of consistency, so palpable is the inconsistency, that the conclusion is,—by no one man, who did not, on one or other of the two occasions, intend thereby to deceive, can both of them, morally speaking, have been penned.

Now for the proof. First, let us hear Saint Luke: it is all of it in his last chapter—the 24th. In verse 10, mention is made of certain women, three named, others not named. In verses 2 and 3, "they entered into," it is said, "the sepulchre," ver. 2,[Pg 400] and found not the body of the Lord Jesus." In ver. 9, "they returned," it is said, "from the sepulchre, and told all these things to the eleven, and to all the rest." Thereupon it is, that, of all them, "two" ver. 13, of whom Cleopas, ver. 18, was one, "went that same day to Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about sixty furlongs: and while they communed together," it was that "Jesus," ver. 15, "drew near, and went with them," whereupon between him and them a conversation therein reported, ensued. The conversation,—the same conversation, as reported in verses from 16 to 27,—continues till their arrival at the village, ver. 28, namely, Emmaus, as per ver. 13. According to the next verse, ver. 29, "the day," namely, that same day, "being far spent," at that same place, "he went in to tarry with them," they having "constrained him." Then also it is that, ver. 30, "he sat at meat with them:" and, ver. 31, "they knew him, and he vanished out of their sight." Moreover, "at that same hour" it is, ver. 33, that "they returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together, and them that were with them, saying," ver. 34, "The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared unto Simon." Then it is also, that, ver. 36, they reporting what had passed, "as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you." Thereupon follows a conversation, reported in verses from 37 to 49, in the course of which he, ver. 43, "did eat before them." Then it is, that, immediately after the last words, which, in ver. 49, he is stated to have uttered, come these words, ver. 50, "And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands and blessed them. And it came to pass," says the next verse, ver. 51, "while he blessed them, he was parted from[Pg 401] them, and carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him," continues the next verse, ver. 52, "and returned to Jerusalem with great joy." And, with the next verse, which says, "they were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God,"—the chapter, and with it the Gospel, ends.

So much for Saint Luke. Now for the author of the Acts, chapter 1, ver. 3, "To whom," says he, namely the Apostles, ver. 2, "he," namely Jesus, ver. 1, "showed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days...."

Thus while, according to the author of the Acts the time—during which Jesus was seen by the persons in question was not less than forty days,—according to Saint Luke, the whole time, during which this same Jesus was seen by those same persons, was not more than one day. And who was this historian, who, on the supposition of the identity, speaking of this all-important scene, on one occasion says, that it lasted no more than one day; and, on another occasion, professing, Acts 1:1, to be giving continuance to such his former discourse, declares, in so many words, that it lasted "forty days"? It is Saint Luke, one of the Apostles of Jesus;—one, of the eleven, before whose eyes, everything of that which has just been read, is stated as having passed.

With all this before him, does the editor of the edition of the Bible, called Scholey's Bible, in a note to the commencement of the Acts, very composedly assure us, that "from its style, and other internal marks, it is evidently the production of Luke": quoting for his authority, Bishop of Lincoln's Elements of Christian Theology, vol. 4. Who this same Bishop of Lincoln was, by whose Elements of Christian Theology, instruction such as this is administered, let those inquire, in whose eyes the profit of[Pg 402] the inquiry promises payment for the trouble. From any such particular inquiry, the profit will perhaps appear the less, the greater appears the probability, that, in the minds of all Bishops,—from the first that ever committed his instructions in theology to the press, down to those by whom the Christian world is illuminated at this present writing,—the same sort of discernment, or the same sort of sincerity, has all along had place.

When 20,000l, a year—or though it were but 20l, once told—or, though it were but salvation from everlasting torment—is to be gained; gained, by the perception, that two men, the one of whom writes in point-blank contradiction to the other, are one and the same man,—the task is not, naturally speaking, of the number of those, by the performance of which much wonder need be excited.

The sort of improvement, made by the author of the later history, upon the account given in the earlier, has now been seen. Would anyone wish to see the inducement? He will not have far to look for it. For making the impression, which it was his desire to make,—the one day, allotted to the occurrence by one of the company, was not, in the estimation of the anonymous writer, sufficient. To render it sufficient, he calls in the powers of arithmetic: he multiplies the one by forty; and thus, to the unquestionable satisfaction of a host of mathematicians,—Barrow, Newton, and so many other mathematical divines, not to speak of Locke, of the number—thus is done what is required to be done: thus, by so simple an operation, is the probative force of the occurrence multiplied forty-fold.[80]

[Pg 403]



Thus far, the embellishments, made by our anonymous artist, have had for their ground the work of the original hand: meaning always Saint Luke, with whom the common error has identified him. Here comes an instance, in which the whole is altogether of his own workmanship. This is the story of the "two men in white apparel," by whom, what, in his eyes, were the deficiencies in the instruction offered by Jesus to the witnesses of his ascension, may be seen supplied.

Still the same delicacy as before: by his own hand no miracle made: only a quantity of matter, fit for this purpose, put into the hands of readers; and to their imagination is left a task so natural and so, agreeable.

[Pg 404]

Scarcely, after finishing his instructions to his Apostles, has Jesus ceased to be visible to them, when, if Acts is to be believed, "two men in white apparel"—two men, to whom none of them were known, and by whom none of them were known, make their appearance, and from nobody knows where. But these same two men in white, who are they? "Oh!" says Imagination, for the hints we have already seen given to her are quite sufficient, "Oh!" says Imagination, "they were angels. Think for a moment, and say what else they can have been. Had they been men, could they have been thus unknowing and unknown? could their appearance have been thus sudden? not less sudden than the vanishing of a spirit? not to speak of the beautiful white clothes you see they had,—and would they have been thus dressed? To believe them men, would be to believe in direct contradiction to Saint Luke; for, in his account of the matter, as you may see, from first to last, not two men were there in the whole party, that were not in the most intimate manner known to each other. But though, by Saint Luke's account, so decided a negative is put upon all men-strangers, yet nothing is said about angels. Angels, therefore, they may have been,—you may venture to say they were: and the report made by all persons present, remains nevertheless uncontradicted."

"Another proof, that they cannot have been men, and that therefore they were angels. Of these beings, who were then unknown to all the company, what was the errand? It was no less than the giving to the whole company of the companions of Jesus,—of that Jesus, by whom, after giving to them such instructions as he thought fit to give to them, they had but that moment been left,—the[Pg 405] giving to them some other instructions, which he had not thought fit, or else had forgot, to give to them. But, as by no men-strangers could any such conceit have been entertained, as that, by the party in question, any such instructions would be listened to,—so, by no men-strangers can it be that any such instructions were given:—an additional proof that they cannot have been anything but angels." Thus readily does the imagination of the reader, answer with her logic, the call given to her by the imagination of the author.

Angels if they were, they appear not to have been very knowing ones. Sent, for the purpose of giving information,—and such information, nothing of that which was known to all those, to whom they came to give it,—nothing, if they themselves are to be believed, was known to them. Addressing themselves to the company—the company whom Jesus had but that moment left,—"Whom saw ye going up," say they, ver. 11, "into heaven"? Then comes the information, which Jesus, on his departure, Jesus, we are expected to believe, has not thought fit, or else had forgot, to give. "This same Jesus," say they, ver. 11, "which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven." Here we have the information and—they to whom it was given,—what can they have been the better for it?—"Shall so come." Yes: but when and where, and to what end, and what to do? points these, as to all which, the information is altogether mute.

One other proof is yet behind. What has been seen as yet is in the first chapter. The tenth of his eight and twenty chapters is not finished, where, speaking in agreement with Saint Luke, he now disagrees with himself. On this occasion, it is by[Pg 406] the mouth of Peter that he speaks. "God," he makes Peter say, Acts 10:41, "God showed him," Jesus, "openly."—Showed him, let anybody ask, and to whom? "Not," says he, "to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to us who did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead." Thus again it is, that for any men-strangers, not a particle of room is left. But, for angels, considering the materials they are made of, no quantity of room can be insufficient: therefore, once more, nothing can these men have been but angels.


[79] As to the word passion, that by this word could not have been meant the same event as that denoted by the word resurrection, cannot but be acknowledged. But, with regard to the alleged inconsistency, this distinction will not be found to make any difference: for, as will be seen, it is not till after his resurrection, that, by Saint Luke, Jesus is represented as having begun to show himself.

[80] In chapter XII. of this work, section 1, notice has already been taken, of a similar operation as having been performed by Paul himself: of the improvement made in that case, the subject was the number of the witnesses: according to the real Apostle, who was one of the company, the number, as we have seen, was eleven, and a few more: this number, whatever it was, the self-constituted Apostle, who knew nothing about the matter, took in hand, and multiplied till he had raised it to five hundred. Thus, with or without concert, with like effect,—and it is almost needless to say, with the same object, and from the same inducement,—may be seen the master and the journeyman, working on different occasions, but with well-matched industry, at the manufacturing of evidence. Add now together the results of the two operations, and note the aggregate. Number of witnesses, according to Luke, say,—for the sake of round numbers,—twenty; though there seems little reason to suppose it so great: addition made to it by Paul, 480. Number of days,—during which, as above, they continued seeing and hearing what they saw and heard,—according to Saint Luke, but one: according to Paul's attendant, 40. Multiply together the two improvements, that is to say, the 480 by the 40, you have 19,200 for the sum total of probative force, added by the arguments of the author of the Acts to the amount of the original quantity, as reported by Saint Luke.

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