They were history’s most elite corps: 12 men, chosen by God Himself to establish His Church on earth.
Elite, yes. But the apostles, each and all, emerged from obscurity only to do their appointed work, and then faded again into obscurity. “Bartholomew we don’t know much about, Matthew almost nothing and Matthias nothing at all,” said C. Bernard Ruffin, author of an excellent popular history of the apostles’ later years, The Twelve: The Lives of the Apostles After Calvary. “None of the apostles seems to have had the slightest interest in perpetuating his own memory. Their whole beings centered on their Master, and on spreading the Good News.”
Thus most of what modern Christians know about the Twelve Apostles is what the apostles themselves wrote about the life and teachings of Jesus — the various books of the New Testament. After that, there are snippets, quotations and anecdotes in the documents of the early Church, and legends and oral tradition handed down among the peoples of the Middle East and India. But these are not widely known. Still, they are fascinating to consider. For example:
• What happened to Peter’s wife (see Mk 1:29-31)? And what about the couple’s children?
• What was John’s life like when he shared a home with Mary (see Jn 19:27)?
• What did the apostles do to celebrate Easter?
• How did a Jew like Thomas take the culture shock that went with evangelizing India?
Ruffin set himself the task of sifting through all the available evidence to answer such questions and compile vivid profiles of the Twelve Apostles and their lives after Jesus’ resurrection.
“Few things can be known for sure about events 2,000 years ago,” Ruffin told me in an interview about his book. “Yet, as I did my research, I was surprised to find that we know as much as we do, and especially that we have much material that is better than legendary. It comes on very good authority.”
Ruffin said that material on Jesus’ inner circle — Peter, James and John — is especially plentiful, and recorded by reputable and reliable early Christian authors. St. Polycarp, for example, whose writings survive, knew St. John the Apostle. The writings of Polycarp’s disciple, St. Irenaeus, relate many more stories of John. Another “hearer” of John, a bishop named Papias — whose work survives only in fragments — wrote about his master as well as the other apostles. Eusebius and St. Jerome, both historians of the fourth century, drew from these and other first-century documents, now lost, as they wrote their own works.
In addition to these, there are also fanciful and apocryphal books of “Acts” of the various apostles — novels, really, but sometimes based on real historical events.
Ruffin’s book sometimes reads like a detective story as he pieces stories together from far-flung sources. “A lot of it has to be supposition and guesswork,” he told me. “But if you have a number of apparently independent traditions about a certain event, and they’re reasonably similar to one another, I think you can be reasonably sure that they’re based on a real event.”
The chapter on the apostle Thomas provides a good example of Ruffin’s investigative technique. Early Church testimonies named Thomas as the apostle to the Far East, including China, but especially India.
“In the West, a number of traditions refer to Thomas’s work in India,” Ruffin said. “I cite papers in the Edessan archive, which we know from citations in Eusebius in the fourth century. There is more information in the ‘Doctrine of the Apostles,’ a Syrian document from the third century, and the ‘Acts of Thomas,’ which is one of the apocrypha. Centuries later, Marco Polo and Western missionaries found a number of Thomas traditions in India. The ancient Mar Thoma church, for centuries, has passed down an oral tradition called the ‘Rabban Song’ about Thomas. What is interesting is the degree to which the traditions in India seem to corroborate the traditions from the West.”
According to tradition, Thomas received his Indian mission in a vision of Christ. To go to India was, for Thomas, to travel to the end of the earth. It was a place as remote from his native Judea — in terms of geography, culture, climate and especially religion — as one could imagine. Thomas reportedly asked Jesus, “How can I, a Jew, go and preach the Truth to Indians?”
But, according to the ‘Rabban Song,’ preach he did. Through the 50s, 60s and early 70s A.D., he brought the Gospel through large areas of the Indian subcontinent, with intermittent success. Legends attribute 17,000 conversions to Thomas and his followers in that short time. Ruffin relates the tradition that Thomas was martyred on July 3 in the year 72 by priests of the goddess Kali who feared that the apostle’s religion was beginning to eclipse their own.
For years, these traditions were dismissed as folklore. Even some Catholic missionaries charged that ancient heretics invented the Thomas stories in order to fabricate apostolic origins for their teachings. Then, in the last hundred years, archeological discoveries began to confirm some of the historical details of the “Rabban Song” and “Acts of Thomas.” In the late 19th century, for example, coins were found with the image of a prince who plays a key role in Thomas’s story — and his dates correspond with those of Thomas’s work in India.
Though Ruffin approaches all ancient documents with caution, he refuses to follow those scholars who dismiss testimony as untrustworthy merely because it is old or because it shows fervor in faith.
“Some scholars tend to overly skeptical,” he said. “In approaching material like this, if you go into the project determined to throw it all out, you probably will persuade yourself to do so. But, then, what’s the point of beginning at all?”
Ruffin, a Lutheran pastor who also teaches history, recalled his own experience studying at Yale Divinity School and Bowdoin College. “When I was in seminary, some of my professors took skepticism to ridiculous extremes,” he said. “They were determined to distrust everything, so they did. If we applied the same skepticism to all ancient records that these historians apply to early Christian traditions, we would not only have no Church history, we would have no ancient history at all.
“It comes down to how much value you place on tradition,” he concluded. “As a Christian, I think that there are good reasons for us to believe the traditions, even as I acknowledge that not all traditions are of equal weight. Many of the traditions about the apostles do stand scrutiny.”
Ruffin’s favorite characters in the apostolic corps coincides with Jesus’ favorites: Peter, John and James. “Theirs are the most well-documented lives,” he said.
Ruffin tells a well-documented story of John, at an advanced age — “maybe 70 or 80,” he said — risking his life to save a soul.
“In Smyrna, John had trained a certain young man in the faith. But then came a persecution, and John had to flee. When the apostle came back, he asked the local bishop what had happened to the fellow. At first, he was told that the man was dead. But with further inquiry, he found that the fellow had become a bandit. So John rode out to the back country where the man was hiding out. Soon, he was surrounded by members of the gang. John told the bandits that he wasn’t going to escape and he was asking for no mercy, but that he wanted to see their leader.
“When the bandit leader saw John,” Ruffin continued, “he turned to run away — but John ran after him! Remember, now, John was very old by this time. He called to the bandit, ‘Why are you running from your own father, who is unarmed and very old? Be sorry for me, my child.’ And the man fell to the ground sobbing. He repented and returned to the fold. The story showed that John had courage and endurance, even at an advanced age.”
Still, in the apostles’ biographies, there remains much more shadow than light.
“There are several different traditions about what happened to Matthew,” Ruffin said. “Some have him dying in Ethiopia, and some have him dying elsewhere. I labeled his chapter ‘The Phantom Apostle,’ because I can’t figure out what happened to him.”
Yet even the questionable material is valuable, he explained, because “it shows us the qualities that the early Christians esteemed above all others. Some of their stories may be metaphorical, describing more a spiritual state than a historical event. But I don’t think we should approach these cultures in a condescending way, explaining them away as prescientific storytellers.”
Most fascinating to modern Catholic readers, perhaps, will be the degree to which the apostles’ Church mirrors the Catholic Church today — in its sacraments, ritual, hierarchy, dogma and even its foibles.
But that shouldn’t be surprising at all. Ruffin cited St. Irenaeus, of the second century A.D., who “maintained that the apostles had ‘perfect knowledge’ and maintained that they appointed bishops to whom they passed on their sacred mysteries.”