Inerrantists assure us with various arguments that it makes sense to trust as historically true everything the first century church provided for us in the New Testament. But a story in the book of Acts counsels against such high confidence.
Acts 21 tells a story about Paul stopping by Jerusalem during his missionary travels. James and the elders of the Jerusalem church state that Paul’s arrival is a problem because their congregation has heard that Paul instructs Jews outside of Jerusalem to refrain from circumcising their male children. For this reason, James and the elders, presuming this rumor to be false, assure Paul that he can effectively refute the rumor and quell the congregation’s anticipated problems with him if Paul will just pay the expenses of, and participate in a Nazarite ritual with, several men:
17 And when we had come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly.
18 And now the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.
19 And after he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.
20 And when they heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law;
21 and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.
22 “What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.
23 “Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow;
24 take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses in order that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law.
(Act 21:17-24 NAS)
Here is the question for the inerrantists: Was this rumor about Paul true or false?
If that rumor was false, then this is an undeniable example of how the first-century church could have held false views about an apostle. The fact that James and the elders never suggest a quick speech by Paul denying the rumor, and instead advise that he can quell the rumor by participating in a Mosaic ritual, seems to indicate that James and the Elders think this rumor is strongly held by their congregation, and therefore, a mere verbal denial by Paul would be insufficient to convince them the rumor was false. The only way to account for this extreme measure proposed by James and the Elders, when otherwise a solemn denial by Paul should have been sufficient, is to admit that, if the rumor was false, that congregation still had good rational warrant to believe it anyway. In that case, not only did the first-century church hold a false belief about an apostle, but they held that false belief firmly.
Apologists have good reasons for fearing to admit that a false rumor about Paul was held firmly by the first century church: If they could be so easily deceived about their own contemporary Paul, what makes apologists so confident in the ability of the first-century church to tell the truth about the apostles?
If that rumor about Paul was true, then we are presented with two options concerning James and his Elders. Because they blindly presume this rumor was false (i.e, ‘and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you’ v. 24), they were 1) themselves deceived about Paul, or 2) they knew the rumor was true, but intentionally chose to make it appear false by having Paul act in a way that had potential to convince the Jerusalem congregation that the rumor was false.
If James and the Elders were deceived about Paul, now we don’t have just a first-century “congregation” that holds incorrect beliefs about Paul, we have the highest leaders of the Jerusalem church, an apostle James and his subordinate “elders” holding an incorrect view of Paul, making even more irrational today’s apologists who insist every bit of information on the apostles that came to us from the first century church is historically true beyond question.
If James and the Elders knew the rumor was true, but schemed Paul’s participation in one of their Nazarite rituals as a public relations stunt to fool others into thinking the rumor was false, now we cross the line from the authorities in the first century church being incorrect, to being intentionally dishonest. If James and his Elders had no problems trying to insulate their congregation from historical reality, inerrantists and conservative Christians are silly to presume that everything stated in the NT is historically true beyond question.
So…was that rumor about Paul true or false?