The Sources for the Lives of the Apostles: A Garage Sale for Scholars
The difficulty of ascertaining the story of the apostles after the New Testament is overwhelming. While volumes of ancient material claim to narrate their stories of ministry and death, the historical quality of these works is precarious, untrustworthy, and unfriendly.
Take for example the life of Matthew. Readers of the New Testament celebrate a gospel that bears his name, having been introduced to a spontaneous and obedient disciple. Jesus passes by the publican’s booth and declares simply, “Follow me” (Matt. 9:9, Mark 2:14, Luke 5:27). We are impressed when the tax collector follows him. The painter Caravaggio would capture the moment in Renaissance expression of the apostle’s calling.
A feast ensues that Luke insists Matthew provided (5:29), but Matthew’s version of the event omits his own contribution, illustrating a criterion of humility that lends itself to gospel authorship. He becomes likable to the reader. He is mentioned again in Acts 1:13 in a list of apostles without any other individual episodes in the New Testament. The reader longs to know what happened to Matthew the disciple.
So one turns to the early church in a work attributed to one Pseudo-Abdias—immediately raising doubt why “false” would be attributed to an author. The dilemma finds distraction easily, as Matthew faces a threatening dragon, makes the sign of the cross, and the beast flees. A king hopes to marry a woman who converts to Christianity who takes a vow of celibacy, spurning her suitor who turns on the disciple. Matthew prays in the presence of a priest of the god Apollon, precipitating a bright light, an earthquake and a smashing of the idol. When the priest’s son dies, the disciple of God challenges him to a resurrection contest. When another king nails the apostle to the ground and lights him on fire, the monarch watches the fire burn the soldiers, turn into a dragon, and come chasing after the king.
Such stories typify the early church record of the apostles. A scholar might be reminded of a neighborhood garage sale that requires great discernment and patience. The garage sale has items to be had, treasures to be discovered. However, one must sift through rusty car parts, undesirable decorative knick-knacks, and piles of used clothing to unearth those perfect steer horns to hang in your basement. The faint of scholarly heart do not last long in the garage sale of early church acts of the apostles.
Yet, when these stories center in the ancient region of Parthia, one realizes that legends might collect around a historical location of ministry activity. Suddenly a scholar realizes credibility is being gained for the activity of Matthew in modern Iran. Then, the voice of the third century biographer Hippolytus resonates more closely as he declares Matthew “fell asleep in Hierees, a town of Parthia.” The seventh century Breviary of the Apostles comes in support: “He suffered martyrdom in Persia. He has his resting place in the mountains of the land of the Parthians.”
Then, the map of Matthew’s ministry has a center. From there, the legends can begin to coincide. The legacy of Levi has a foundation for inspiration to believers who are willing to sift patiently through the garage sale of early church narratives. Despite these challenges, these are stories worth reading.