Interview with Brian Shelton and the Quest for the Historical Apostles

Last week we had the chance to sit down with Dr. Brian Shelton, Provost and Professor of Theology and Church History at Toccoa Falls College in northeast Georgia, to discuss his new book: Quest for the Historical Apostles: Tracing Their Lives and Legacies (Baker, 2018).

What is this new book about?  What should a reader expect? 

The Quest for the Historical Apostles follows each apostle from the ministry of Jesus in Palestine, through the beginning of their journeys in Acts, and across the ancient world into their various lands of travel. It treats each apostle individually, with a collection of the stories around their journeys and maps suggesting the regions where they traveled. The book also considers the challenges of crossing cultures in the ancient world, the nature of Jewish and pagan resistance, their variety of ministry experiences, and the sources for this information. Each chapter ends with their martyrdom stories and identifies the locations of some of their tombs and other commemorative sites. In addition, each chapter includes a segment on the image of the apostle, as much of our notion of each apostle is shaped by art, legends, and symbols.

What reasons led you to write this book?

The lives of the apostles intrigue us and their lives can inspire our faith. While I had heard the stories of their sufferings and martyrdoms, too many books on the apostles are light and center on their various personalities in order to encourage the contemporary church. The few historical books about their journeys did not engage the early texts and were prone to moments of historical naivety. Meanwhile, television programs on the History Channel and magazines like National Geographic were providing attention to works like The Gospel of Judas or The Acts of Peter when evangelical scholars tended to dismiss such works entirely. The material was too valuable to continue to neglect as we try to understand the early church.

What are the sources that describe where the apostles journeyed?

Our knowledge of the apostles after the New Testament comes from varying sources of varying credibility. Church histories provide some information, like Eusebius or biographical listings like Hippolytus. Homilies and letters from early Christian writers provide occasional details. Apocryphal gospels and acts tell many tales and provide some historical reference for their ministry activities. While these apocryphal stories may bear the name of the apostle, the material cannot be accepted without serious evaluation. Meanwhile, more historically-reliable historians like Jerome or preachers like Chrysostom are important for piecing together the apostle stories.

Since the stories of the apostles are not well-known, there must be reasons for this. What challenges did you encounter in your quest?

The sources are riddled with contradictory material, conflation between the apostles, vagueness of their geography, and theological divergence from what we know about them. For example, so little was remembered about James son of Alphaeus that he is often confused with James the Just, bishop of Jerusalem and likely half-brother of Jesus. The names Matthew and Matthias are so similar that their ministry locations are often blurred together. Yet, the greatest challenge was how the apocryphal acts of the apostles from the second to the fifth century contain fantastical material and preaching stories that make their historicity questionable. They are abundant with gnostic doctrine, a belief system which offered an alternative worldview to the canonical books of Scripture. Much discernment is required.

What are some of the more interesting surprises you encountered in your research?

The solidarity of their faith was astounding. These disciples had all walked with Jesus, witnessed his resurrection, and been empowered at Pentecost. Their experiences were powerful enough to keep them going, preaching the Kingdom in the face of extreme cultural resistance. Additionally, the range of apostle journeys was impressive. From Thomas and Bartholomew likely reaching India to Paul likely reaching Spain, one realizes they were taking the gospel across their known world. Spiritual warfare was a surprisingly common theme, as Simon the Zealot and Jude may have died together after confronting the pagan sun and moon gods in Persia. Some of the stories are just bizarre: Paul baptizes a lion, John commands bugs to leave his bed, and Peter prays that Simon Magus would crash when he is flying over the city of Rome.

How do you think the church can profit from these discoveries? 

Our faith can be strengthened by seeing the apostles’ resolve to promote the gospel, particularly the story of the resurrection. Their genuine love for Jesus seemed to translate to their genuine attempt to share this good news of his transforming power. When they met obstacles in culture that led to conflict, their perseverance and suffering provide lessons for the church.  This is particularly true for a church that tends to stay home and stay comfortable. The apostles remind us that we are pilgrims in this world, stewards of our time and resources in service to the Lord. While the book doesn’t provide their journeys with full certainty, their stories can still be inspirational for our faith.

For more information about the book go to Baker’s website: