When we church folk get bogged down in petty squabbles and worship wars, pastors like to remind us of the earliest Christian communities where, we’re told, vibrant cooperation was the rule. And when we question the resurrection, pastors direct us for reassurance to Jesus’ band of disciples whose martyr’s deaths confirmed the veracity of their proclamation. But did the early Christians play nicely? And what do we know about the careers and the deaths of the apostles?
Of course, one member of Jesus’ inner circle notoriously betrayed the movement and committed suicide. But brother Stephen was faithful unto death, and so was James, son of Zebedee. We know Paul spent two years under house arrest in Rome, but what happened next is hard to say. The New Testament may hint at his martyrdom, and Peter’s as well, though details are frustratingly lacking. It is even more difficult to speak with confidence about the other disciples—Matthew and John, Philip and Andrew, Bartholomew and Thomas, Mary Magdalene and the family of Jesus. Did they keep the Faith? Were they martyrs for the Cause?
Hunger for details beyond what the New Testament provides is not new. Scores of ancient hagiographers labored to fill the narrative gaps—with compositions like The Acts of Peter, The Acts of Thomas, and The Gospel of Mary. But the reliability of these accounts is uneven, to put it mildly; they are, as Thomas Schmidt puts it, “often tainted by pious imagination,” and their apologetic or sectarian agenda are often patently obvious. Even our earliest historical sources (e.g., Papias and Irenaeus, 2nd c.; Tertullian and Origen, 3rd c.; Eusebius, 4th c.) seem willing to blur the lines between history, pious legend, and full-blown fiction, such that it requires hours of scholarly heavy lifting to sift each story for its historical kernel.
What we really need is for Luke to have written a third volume after his first two. For one thing, by turning the spotlight on Paul in the second volume, Luke relegates the other apostles to the shadows or, in some cases, has them tiptoe off-stage altogether. For another, Luke ends volume two with a cliff-hanger that all but demands a sequel. Enter Thomas Schmidt’s The Apostles after Acts: A Sequel. Weighing in at 200-odd pages, the slim volume organizes a mass of ancient sources, assesses their plausibility, and deftly fashions from them a mostly believable account of apostolic happenings, all narrated (more or less) in the voice of St. Luke. Thus we learn of Thomas’ eastward trek to India (where “Thomas Churches” survive to this day), of Simon and Jude’s sea voyage to Britain, of Peter’s martyrdom in Rome (on the site of the present Vatican), and much more.
The structure of Schmidt’s creative sequel is noteworthy. Chapters 1-24 (pages 7-47) compose Luke’s imaginary third opus. The content of these twenty-four chapters is repeated verbatim on pages 49-188, but now with commentary and primary source citations. Only there, in the second telling of the story, does Schmidt distinguish in footnotes between episodes that are historical/probable, traditional/plausible, and fictional/conjectural.
Like other generic hybrids written by New Testament scholars (e.g., Gerd Theissen’s The Shadow of the Galilean, Bruce Longenecker’s The Lost Letters of Pergamum, and my A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jesus), The Apostles after Acts will likely have insufficient sparkle for the literati classes and insufficient historical restraint for skeptical Biblical historians. I, however, shall rate Schmidt’s attempt to be both responsible and original—that is, “to render the challenges of technical scholarship into a creative format”—as stunningly successful.
Schmidt is the first to admit, however, that his imaginative reconstruction sometimes “gives too much credit to legendary material.” A case in point might be his decision to include a story about John reportedly gathering sick, aging widows into the great theater of Ephesus. Drawn largely from a second-century, apocryphal text, The Acts of John, the episode has John heal the women before a large crowd of onlookers, more than a thousand of whom convert on the spot.
It is impossible to know, of course, whether something like this actually happened. Schmidt rightly rejects the epistemological skepticism and anti-supernaturalism of David Hume (on which see Craig Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts), so he is not inclined to dismiss ancient reports of miraculous healing prima facie. But neither is he about to accept uncritically every tale of the miraculous, especially when the source is neither contemporary with the event nor otherwise free from fictional embellishments. Of perhaps greater relevance is the fact that Schmidt has imaginatively donned the prophetic mantle of Luke for whom miracles, whether performed by Jesus or the apostles, are predictable and essential signs of the Spirit’s arrival in the Last Days.
But if apostolic miracle stories abound, Schmidt keeps us off balance by relating a non-miracle as well. One day, as the story goes, elders bring John the body of a girl who has just drowned in a river. In spite of, or perhaps because of, fervent prayer, John must tell the girl’s parents: “Beloved, this child will not return to you.” The ensuing dialogue consists of wise and poignant reflections on the inscrutable purposes of God and appropriate responses to human suffering.
I was puzzled by Schmidt’s regular use of the phrase “the Jews” to describe the earliest opponents to Christianity. We read that there were “informants among the Jews,” that Jude’s family “suffered from the Jews,” that “some of the Jews still plotted secretly against the church,” that Christians were “falsely accused of blasphemy by the Jews,” and so on. It is true, of course, that Jesus, Stephen, Paul and company provoked fierce opposition from devout Jews. It is also the case that Luke himself deploys “the Jews” in similarly antagonistic contexts. But given the trajectory from uncomfortably harsh New Testament polemics to post-New Testament anti-Judaism to, eventually, virulent anti-Semitism, we never make lexical choices in a historical vacuum.
As for relationships among fellow believers, I suspect there were more sparks and fewer hugs than Schmidt’s congenial tale suggests. His story of how there came to be four Gospels, for example, is for me too polite to be plausible:
When the account written by Mark was read in Jerusalem to the apostles and others who were eyewitnesses, they heartily approved it. But some said, “There are many other sayings and deeds of the Lord that we know are worthy to be written, and who will do this?” Simeon and the other apostles, therefore, prayed and fasted for three days, asking the Lord for guidance. The Spirit indicated to the apostles that Matthew should write a fuller account for the Jews. . . . Directed by the Spirit, Simeon also said to John that he should write an account of the deeds of the Lord. At first John did not wish to do so, because he believed that he was unworthy, but the other apostles urged him. . . . Finally, Simeon called me [Luke] before the council and said, “. . . we charge you to write for the Gentiles, and for the Jews who live among them, an account of all that has transpired. . . .” In this manner the Spirit began to provide four accounts of the life and teachings of Christ Jesus. . . . The apostles and all those gathered were of one accord regarding these four accounts, and all rejoiced.
In my admittedly less sanctified version of the story, Matthew and Luke would regard their Gospels as radical improvements over Mark’s scant passion play. And I would have John’s decision to write be wildly independent, matching the content of his Gospel. In Schmidt’s defense once again, however, he is channeling reverend doctor Luke, who loves to highlight Christian unity and downplay internal conflict and competition. But even Luke doesn’t airbrush every blemish. Au contraire: Luke acknowledges a number of in-house tensions—tensions that Paul’s letters make clear were palpable and, at times, rancorous.
The apostolic era was marked by theological debate, personality wars, power politics and even apostasy—all exacerbated by the shift, demographic and cultural, from Jewish to predominantly Gentile forms of Christianity. These disputes were surely less acrimonious than the battles Robert Orlando depicts in his 2013 documentary about Paul. Nor were the differences between Paul and James as irreconcilable as James Tabor contends in The Jesus Dynasty (2006). But theology has always been a blood sport. And in the charged and changing environment of the first century, the cast of characters that Jesus commissioned to evangelize the nations might have reminded us more of raucous urban rappers than of haloed Byzantine icons. I guess the early church of my imagination is less agreeable and more unruly than what we find in The Apostles after Acts—less poised and more conflicted. You know, like me.
I should probably end my review there, but as a New Testament Scholar myself, I can’t resist noting that Schmidt’s Appendix constructs a surprisingly cogent case for dating the composition of Acts to the early 60s while Paul awaited trial in Rome. This amounts to a frontal assault on a long-standing and largely intact scholarly consensus: that Matthew and Luke and perhaps their literary precursor, Mark, were composed in the 70s at the earliest, i.e., after the destruction of Jerusalem. An early date for Acts means an even earlier date for the Synoptic Gospels, in which case the gap between the life of Jesus and published stories about Jesus narrows considerably.
Bruce Fisk (Ph.D., Duke) teaches New Testament at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA and leads study abroad programs to Israel-Palestine. His latest book is A Hitchhiker's Guide to Jesus: Reading the Gospels on the Ground (Baker, 2011).
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