Friday, May 3, 2013

Christian Origins: 11. Apostolic Traditions

11. Apostolic Traditions

Traditions about Peter and Paul

We do not have much evidence of the life and journeys of the disciples of Jesus. To be sure, we have plenty of legends. Peter is supposed to have been the first Bishop of the Church at Rome, which he also founded. The Gospel after all, has Jesus say that Peter was the rock on whom the church of God would be built! Credible historic evidence however, is very light. What we do have is of dubious nature. The apocryphal acts that we have are fanciful and difficult to believe as history.

Hippolytus of Rome (170 – 235) supposedly wrote 'On the Twelve Apostles of Christ', and 'On the Seventy Apostles of Christ', telling us what the apostles did and how they died. However, historians suspect these to be spurious works by later hands.

Peter's martyrdom in Rome is a late tradition. Clement, the Bishop of Rome mentions Peter and Paul passing away after much hardship. However, he does not say they were martyred or that they died in Rome. That is a curious omission considering that Clement was a bishop of Rome and supposedly a successor to Peter. Tertullian, writing towards the end of the second century is the earliest author who claims that Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome. Much later, Origen reports that Peter was crucified upside down!

Paul left for us a corpus of epistles. The 'authentic' Pauline epistles are often dated to around AD 50. The Acts of the Apostles which talks about Paul's conversion and his evangelical work is now considered to be a second century work, which is more fiction than history. [1] With just the epistles to go by, dating the epistles securely is difficult as it has few historic markers. In spite of this, the vast majority of scholars consider the Pauline corpus a product of the first century. Scholars like Hermann Detering and Robert M. Price take the minority position that it was a second century work possibly attributed to a legendary preacher from earlier times. [2] [3]

The Rest of the Cast

Though we lack credible historical information about the disciples, a cottage industry of traditions, legends, relics and tombs have stepped in to fill the void.

The disciple James the son of Zebedee is reputed to have been martyred in Jerusalem by the sword of Herod Agrippa (c.f. Acts 12:2).

The Acts of Andrew, an apocryphal work has the disciple Andrew martyred by crucifixion at Patras near Athens. Andrew is bound to a cross rather than nailed. Many relics including a small finger, the top of his skull, pieces of the cross etc can now be found at Church of St Andrew at Patras.

Tradition has disciple John die of natural causes and old age in Ephesus in present day Turkey. There is an alternate tradition attributed to church father Papias where he is slain by the Jews.

The Acts of Philip has Philip preaching in Greece, Phrygia (Turkey) and Syria and martyred in city of Hierapolis in Phrygia. He is crucified upside down on a cross. Some legends have him beheaded.

According to the Church historian Eusebius and St. Jerome, the disciple Bartholomew went to India to preach. Other legends hold that he was either beheaded or flayed alive in Armenia. Disciple Nathaniel (who is mentioned in the gospel of John but goes unmentioned in the Synoptics) and Bartholomew are held by Christian apologists to be the one and the same person.

Matthew, the supposed author of a Gospel is reputed to have originally written it in Hebrew. Scholars however believe that that the original language of the gospel of Matthew was Greek. Legends have him go as a missionary to many countries. Catholic tradition has him meet a martyr's end. The tax collector Matthew is by the way, called Levi in the gospel of Mark.

Thomas is another disciple reputed to have traveled to India. [4] Thomas is supposed to have been speared to death in India. There is a tomb of Thomas at Mylapore, Chennai (Madras). Thomas is considered to have founded seven and half churches in Kerala (India) and St. Thomas Christians of Kerala consider themselves to be descendants of these converts.

Church father Hippolytus suggests that the James son of Alphaeus, another disciple from the synoptics was stoned to death in Jerusalem. The Coptic church of Egypt on the other hand suggests that he was crucified in Egypt.

Simon Peter is not the only Simon in the list of disciples. Simon the Zealot has many different traditions associated with him. He reputedly was either crucified in Samaria or martyred in present day England or Georgia or sawn in half in Persia.

Judas son of James is usually identified with Thaddaeus who is mentioned in the gospels of Matthew and Mark. The book of Acts of Simon and Jude has him martyred in Beirut.

Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus either committed suicide (cf. Matthew 27:3–10) or died of a ruptured gut (cf. Acts 1:18).

Per the Acts of the Apostles, Mathias was the replacement for Judas Iscariot. Depending on which tradition you rely on, he was either crucified or stoned and then beheaded or just died of old age.

Catholic traditions have Mary, the mother of Jesus ascending into heaven, human body and soul. One tradition has her live in Ephesus along with the beloved disciple of Jesus until death. There is an empty tomb in Jerusalem claiming to be hers. The tomb is empty, presumably because the body ascended into heaven leaving the tomb empty!

Establishing what the smaller cast members like Mary Magdalene or Joseph of Arimathea, Mary of Bethany or Lazarus went on to do is far more difficult. What we again do have are legends. Mary Magdalene's alleged relationship with Jesus (which Dan Brown makes much hay of) falls squarely in the region of late legends. We have no reason whatsoever to believe any of that is rooted in history.

All of these are pious fictions and legends. There is little if any credible historical evidence for these traditions. The abundance of clearly conflicting stories tells us that that early Christians had no trouble imagining and cooking up stories to demonstrate successful evangelization and martyrdom.

[To be continued... Next Chapter: Evolutionary Strands ]


[1] Richard I. Pervo, "The Mystery of Acts: Unraveling its Story", Polebridge Press (2008).
[2] Hermann Detering, "The Dutch Radical Approach to the Pauline Epistles".
[3] Robert M. Price, "The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul", Signature Books (2012),
[4] Benedict XVI, "Thomas the twin", Libreria Editrice Vaticana (2006).

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