The Apostles according to National Geographic

In certain circles of conservative Protestantism, history can sometimes seem to fall off a cliff after Acts 28. For some of us, National Geographic’s latest cover story on the Apostles and their relics may seem like a letter from a different world - and that’s probably too bad.

Up until the rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s, which seemed to quiet the North American feud between Protestants and Catholics for reasons of political expediency, dismissing stories of saints and relics as Romish superstition was a staple of Protestant youth indoctrination. Modernism’s system of logic and reason applied to a strictly limited first century gave the church everything she needed to convince the faithful of the historicity of her claims. Yet modernity’s waning and fashionable spirituality’s interest in things one can hold and possess invites us to a People magazine approach to the lives and deaths of heroes we imagine to know from the Bible. Anyone acquainted with early church history should know that a hunger for more than the church could endorse in its canon is not a new thing. There are lots of ancient texts with many stories. We’re not only interested on the details of Whitney Houston’s final hours, but we’re also curious about the friends of Jesus.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing for Protestants to poke around a bit more in the early history of the Christian church. Ignorance of this era has allowed a fair amount of sloppy skepticism regarding what is pretty solidly knowable about the origins of the founding of our faith. We should be aware, however, that history usually reveals to us that the past was no less complex and nuanced than the present and that hagiography has derived its common pejorative definition for good reason. The Protestant Reformers had reason to critique medieval excess on a number of counts.

I think it’s also important to recognize that the early church has recognized the liabilities of TMZ-style curiosity. Luke, in writing to Theophilus, did indulge in telling some stories that were simply too good not to tell, but didn’t really offer us the kind of “Lives of the Saints” that others would produce.

Whereas some additional detail can be helpful, Luke realized that our faith is not necessarily refined by giving us more information. Relics can be inspirational, but the water, the bread and the wine are what we get to touch, feel and taste. If faith required exclusive collectables, access to the relics themselves bottlenecks access to our story.

Jesus indulged Thomas, who seems to have become an amazing ancient evangelist, but He reminded him that by His Spirit many, many more would believe on the basis of merely the verbal and incarnational witnesses to the resurrected Lord.

I’d love to see a Protestant revival of interest in the history of the ancient church. I think wrestling through the questions of the historicity of tales and relics informs our knowledge of the past of our faith. Christians should not be afraid to ask tough questions, do hard research and explore the limits of what we can know and how we know it. I’m glad National Geographic has done this piece and I hope many people read it.

What Do You Think?

  • How should we incorporate archeological and historical records from the first century into our faith?
  • Do you see any spiritual value in relics from the early church?
  • What did you learn from the National Geographic story that you didn’t know before?


Comments (1)

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I could not agree with Paul more: we in the modern church need more grassroots curiosity about our primitive history.

This is a fact that came home to me in my adult Bible study classes at church, where some of the pillars of our mainstream Protestant congregation have confessed—without any apparent sense of personal dissonance—their skepticism about the reliability of the historical narratives of the Bible, the accuracy of the traditions of our religious heritage, and the relevance of such culturally “distant” contexts for modern discipleship. When I hear some of our most faithful, committed churchgoers speak this way, I can’t help but wonder in the back of my mind: “On what basis, then, do you accept the testimony of the Bible and the witness of the Church as your rule of faith and life?” Why, in short, do people who lack this basic curiosity about church history even bother with an enterprise that demands one’s full resources—time, money, and hard work?

One of the things I have discovered in my own reading into church history is that so many of the problems and controversies we face in the modern church have played out before. This is not the first time in history, for instance, that the imminence of the second coming of Christ has preoccupied believers; the same thing was going on even as the Gospel accounts were being drafted. Some of my peers in Sunday school are still rather surprised to learn that Peter and John and Paul all apparently, based on their own testimonies, expected to see Jesus return during their own lifetimes. Should it really surprise us that there are broadcast evangelists out there today that are utterly convinced of the same? If it did not irredeemably frustrate the witness of those ancient Apostles to admit their mistaken judgment (but not their mistaken hope) even as they endeavored to preserve their witness for future audiences, should it then frustrate our own faith today if modern eagerness for Christ’s return should be delayed for awhile longer? I don’t think so.

My understanding of Christian history bolsters rather than confounds my faith. The more I understand how the first Apostles were struggling to make sense of their experiences with the risen Lord, the more I can identify with them in my own struggles to reconcile faith and life. I look around at the other people in my Sunday school class and see modern-day disciples who are still doing what Peter, James, and John were doing then: thinking about the significance of Jesus for today, deliberating over how to live in faithful witness to Jesus’ teaching, waiting expectantly for Jesus to make all things right as he promised.

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