Wednesday, April 22, 2015

After Acts: A Book Review

All of the apostles except John were martyred.  Peter was crucified upside down because he refused to be killed in the same way Christ was.  Paul went to Spain, and Matthew evangelized cannibals.  

I've heard these statements all my life, and although I knew they weren't recorded in the Bible, I assumed that the stories were based on reliable historical fact.  When I read After Acts: Exploring the Lives and Legends of the Apostles, by Bryan Litfin, I was surprised to find out that "early church tradition" isn't as reliable (or as early!) as I had thought. 

Mr. Litfin establishes early in the book that the stories and traditions he believes are most accurate are those that are based on "early attestation from multiple reliable sources."  In other words, medieval stories from the 6th century that cannot be traced back any farther are probably not true because at that time, many tales were being made up without reference to fact.  The reliable sources he mentions are early church fathers.  Those from the second and third century are especially important because of how close they were to the apostolic age.  Eusebius is a prime example.  Even though he lived too late to speak the apostles firsthand, he had access to the library at Caesarea and used source material from writers who would have learned about the apostles first or second hand. Mr. Litfin used these sources to write an excellent book that taught me a lot about what the apostles actually did do after the events of Acts.

As I read the book, I realized just how "western-centric" I really am.  I suppose I can be forgiven for some of it since the book of Acts does tend to focus on the spread of Christianity in the western direction.  What I didn't realize is that while Paul was traveling Greece, other apostles were teaching the gospel in the East.  The Assyrian Church of the East (also known as the Nestorian Church) can trace its roots farther back than the Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox churches, all the way back to the church established in Jerusalem during Acts.  All across the East and Middle East, remnants of this church remain, and their tradition holds that Thomas, aided by Thaddeus and Bartholomew, first brought the gospel to the area. Eusebius corroborates this view when he said that Thomas was allotted Parthia as his region to evangelize.  It isn't known for sure how far into India he went, as tradition says, but it is clear the Church was there long before Westerners began to send missionaries.

Thomas's martyrdom is less sure.  In fact, for several of the apostles, there is not enough evidence to say with certainty how they met their death.  That bothered me a first. One of the strongest evidences for the truth of Christ's resurrection is that his followers were willing to die for him.  So, in a strange way, I was glad to read that some of the apostles really did pay the ultimate price for their belief.  James the son of Zebedee, of course, was martyred early in church history.  His death is recorded in Acts. The Jewish historian Josephus mentions the death of James, Jesus's brother (not an apostle, but still a witness of the crucified Christ) at the hands of the Jews before the destruction of Jerusalem.  

Jesus himself predicted Peter's death in John 13 and John 21, and early church fathers all agree that Peter was martyred in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero, likely by crucifixion. (Romans were known to crucify people upside down, but not to accommodate the wishes of the accused, so that part of the story is likely false). Likewise, Paul was martyred in Rome, although as a Roman citizen, he was probably beheaded instead of crucified.  These men were convinced enough that Jesus was the son of God that they died for Him.

The lives and martyrdoms of the apostles aren't simply a tool for apologetics.  They are also an inspiration for us today.  They weren't killed simply because they believed in Jesus.  They were killed because they were dedicated to spreading the good news about Jesus to the ends of the earth.  Even those who may not have been killed for their faith were willing to go to far off and dangerous places to fulfill the Great Commission. Me? I hesitate to share the good news for stupid reasons.  How much faith does that show?  Reading this book has shown me afresh that Jesus is worth dying for; He's worth living for too.

The author of After Acts goes into much more than the death of the apostles.  He speaks in detail about the writing of the gospels, the known life of Mary, and the timeline of Paul's life after he reached Rome the first time.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable read, challenging in its implications.  I'd recommend it to anyone who is curious about what happened after Acts.


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