A few facts must be clear before starting this chapter:
– The early Christians did not write history.
The Apostles and their followers were too busy making history to bother to write it. As a result the records are fragmentary. Even the “Acts” was written by Saint Luke, not as history, but more like a polemic to show that the spreading of Christianity to the Gentiles was done with divine authorisation. However without wanting it Saint Luke wrote history.
– There were periods of silence in early Christian history.
After Saint Luke and other biblical writers such as Saint Paul, there was a silent period. This is not necessarily as strange at it looks. The early Christians were not really building a movement with a long future in sight. They thought that the return of Christ would happen during their life time. It took some time for them to imagine that His return could be far away.
– The Apostles were not considered important for biography by the early Christians.
For the early Christians the Apostles were important, but only as leaders and brothers. It took some time for their descendants to look at them as Fathers of the Church movement. Their authority at first was in the anointing by the Holy Spirit, not as authors of a doctrine. They took a limited number of important doctrinal decisions such as the admittance of the Gentiles in the Christian movement but they really did not decide much. They spent more time telling what they heard from Jesus while travelling as missionaries all over the known world. They were not the Church. Interest in the Apostles has increased and decreased many times in the last 2000 years.
– History largely ignored Christianity in the first centuries.
The history of the first few centuries of our era almost ignores the Christian movement. Josephus, for instance, only mentions the death of St. James. Even Roman history, with a few exceptions, ignores Christianity until long after the Apostles died. This could be due to the fact that the early Christians were simple people who, in general, do not interest the historians. History, however, gives us some information on how the early Christians lived. The Roman Empire, at the time of the Apostles, was a relatively safe civilised world in which the people travelled widely and often. It was a family of nations with a common language, ruled by a central government, with roads leading everywhere (from Britain to Africa, from Russia to France as well as from India to Spain).
– Already divergence of opinion became the rule
After the Apostolic age there was a conflict of “Primacy” between the Western and the eastern part of the Christian world. The Pope claimed that he was the head of the Church, and so did the leader of the Eastern church. It was in fact a political struggle that used all means available to impose their respective supremacy. The result was a first schism that was never healed completely. Each side tried to collect as many relics of the Apostles as they could. Emperor Constantine even built “The Church of the twelve Apostles” in which he wanted to collect all the remains of the Apostles and to provide a resting place for him after his death. The Bishop of Saint Peter in Rome did more or less the same thing. Constantine collected the remains of St. Peter and built a church on his resting place in Rome hoping, perhaps, to move them to Constantinople later on. Constantine dedicated the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople in 337 AD, but he died soon after before the collection of the Apostle remains was completed. He is buried in his church that was never completed as he wanted. As a result of his wish, an inventory of the remains of the Apostles and relics was officially made. The veneration of the relics started at that time and was probably a secondary result of Constantine’s research. They were considered of great value as many people believed that they could heal more or less any illness.
– The motivations of the Apostles are now more clearly understood.
Most of the Apostles took seriously Jesus’ requests to them and they did their best to evangelise all the known world. Their story is the story of Evangelism in the early Church. They set an example for their descendants.
– There was an Apostolic strategy of missions.
The Apostles were following a missionary strategy. First they went to the larger cities situated along the trade route. Their converts preached in the secondary towns where they built churches and organised local congregations that, in their turn, established others. They knew how to delegate responsibility to reach the maximum audience. Above all they built congregations and made their converts to become the church and dedicate their life to it. (31)
The Apostles of Jesus Christ are seen as heroes and all of them have been called “Saint” by the Western and Eastern Churches. Their figures inspired respect even before the New Testament was assembled in one volume (the Canon). Jesus chose twelve, and only twelve, Apostles because this is the number of tribes of Israel, himself being the high priest of the thirteenth tribe, Levi. The Apostles were chosen to witness the resurrection of Jesus and His teachings. For this reason they had to be a long time with Jesus. This explains also the choice of Matthias as the replacement of Judas. Paul stated strongly that he too was an Apostle since he followed Jesus’ teaching for a long period. However there is no evidence to show that he was ever admitted to this inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. In fact he was not always trusted nor understood by the twelve Apostles. The “Acts” of the Apostles written by Saint Luke is the earliest history book dealing with Christianity. It relates how Christianity, at first a Jewish sect, was opened to the Gentiles. It shows that Christianity was a minority movement among the Jews and, soon, it was taken over by the Gentiles when Paul became the leader of the European branch of the church. Peter remained for a time the leader of the Jewish-Christian branch. However Christianity soon died among the Jews after the first century. The “Acts” shows that Peter became a reluctant Apostle to the Gentiles and, at the same time, trying to keep Christianity as Jewish as possible. The “Acts” moreover demonstrates that Christianity intended to loose its exclusively Jewish character to become more that a Jewish sect, such as the Pharisees, Sadducees or Essenes. However the “Acts” is not the complete early history of Christianity. Its aim is to demonstrate that God himself wanted Christianity to be universal, and not a part of the Jewish movement. To do this God used first Peter then Paul, while the other Apostles had only minor role in this change.
Peter and the other Apostles launched the Christian movement and admitted the believing Gentiles in it. As only a few Jews in all the world accepted Christ, Paul turned to the Gentiles who were more willing to accept the message of the Gospel than the Jews. The Western Christians of the Roman Empire preserved the writings of Peter, John and Paul who worked among the Gentiles. The other Apostles, with the exception of Matthew, did not write much or, if they did, their writings were lost. Matthew’s writings do not allow us to really understand his personality. Mark was helping Peter, writing for him; but he was not an Apostle but only an apostolic assistant like Timothy, Titus, Epaphroditus, Luke, Barnabas, Silas, Acquilla, Priscilla and Erastus. Luke, although not an Apostle, wrote about Paul in the “Acts” and about the Apostles and Jesus in his Gospel. As a result the New Testament is the work of the Apostles Matthew, Peter and John and from Paul, an Apostle not part of the inner circle of the Twelve. Other writings of Mark and Luke, the Apostolic Assistants, and from Jude and James, are also included in the New Testament. These last two, the brothers of Jesus, were not part of the initial followers and started to believe after the Resurrection of Christ. The history of the Apostles, after the first few years in Jerusalem, is to be found in the “Acts”, the Epistles, the book of the Revelations of Jesus Christ, the writings and traditions or legends of the early post-Apostolic Christian writers, and the local traditions of the Christian movement in the place where the apostles lived and died.
Legends and traditions are now considered much closer to the truth that was thought before. They may not always be totally correct, they may also be exaggerations, but generally, legends and traditions are, at the most, enlargement of reality and very often close to the facts. (31)