Whatever became of those other apostles?

Whatever became of those other apostles? Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St Peter, by Pietro Perugino

This is a question many people must ask themselves from time to time. To answer it we have to have clearly in mind who the full complement of Apostles called by Jesus were.

Matthew (10:1-7) provides a list of the original apostles.

“And the names of the 12 apostles are these: The first, Simon who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew the tax collector, and James the son of Alpheus, and Thaddeus, Simon the Cananean, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him.”

There is general agreement across all traditions of Christianity about this list. Now traditionally those in the first rank, so to speak, have always been well known as to their activities and eventual fates.

But I suspect many, some eight in fact, of the original cohort are less well known, and it is these over these first weeks of August, as a sort of ‘Summer Series’, that will be discussed in the books pages; even reviewers need a holiday.

This also provides an opportunity to reproduce a variety of artists who over the centuries have worked on religious themes, sometimes placing the saints in their own time, with the apostles gathered, say, in the piazza of a Renaissance city much like Florence perhaps, as if it were an elaborate theatre setting for an historical drama.

Other artists such as Tissot and Doré noticeably, attempted to place the characters in representations of their own times, that is to say 1st Century Palestine. But here, however, the settings are conceived by the artists as being much like the Palestine of the late 19th Century, which they could visit or buy photographs of.

This too can have a strange effect, as it ignores the very great changes that had transformed the region since say 33AD. Perhaps it is an indication to us that in thinking about the apostles and the disciples and indeed Jesus himself, we might just as readily imagine them as walking the streets of our own inner cities, rough and violent as they often are, across our own fields and mountains, sitting down by our lakes to eat their food. It is a thought.

The Roster of the ‘almost forgotten’ saints

On television, presenters of historical programmes all too often resort to the very tired phrase about some subject or other being “almost forgotten”. As likely as not they are not forgotten at all, but this is said to reassure those (who may be far more than we think) for whom they are not so much forgotten as never known.

So here are the “almost forgotten apostles” arranged for presentation four to a week over the next two weeks, beginning with the patron saint of our sister Celtic nation, Scotland.

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St Andrew

St Andrew is a really interesting figure. Tradition and the interests of the pious often focused in the past on the method by which this saint was martyred – hanging him spread-eagled on a saltire, a cross in the form of an X. This was said to have been at Patras, an important trading city in Achaea, connecting Greece in history with Italy and the western Mediterranean.

But, as Pope Benedict was wont to point out, St Andrew came from a Greek speaking family, and the name itself is Greek. It is likely, though few seem to give it any consideration, that Jesus also spoke Greek, for it rather than Latin was the lingua franca of the Near and Middle East. (It might even be that those unforgettable expressions of Jesus recorded as they are in common Greek might very well have been uttered first in Greek.)

The commandment Jesus gave the apostles initially was to have nothing to do with the Gentiles. Their first interest was in the “Lost Sheep of Israel”, those Jews whom history even at that early date had scattered across the Near East, Asia Minor and down into Arabia. Once they had reached out to them, it would be enough to pursue lost sheep of other kinds in other regions. Wherever there was a Jewish community there should be a Christian one too.

Andrew is said to have travelled into Scythia (southern Asian Russia today) which was well outside the Roman Empire, then around the Black Sea, and eventually up through what we think of today as Ukraine to the area of Kyiv – this alone gives the saint a topicality that may be unexpected. Perhaps it is to St Andrew that prayers should be directed at this great time of trial for that country at the hands of Russia.

Nearer to hand, it is Andrew’s association with Scotland that arouses our interest. This was brought about because relics of the saint were sent to the northern city named after him today, with its famous university. The St Andrew’s cross, the saltire, is now the national flag of ever-growing Scottish desire for its own independence.

St James the Great

In Palestine James was a common enough name in early Christian times. It is not surprising that there the name should be carried by several of those surrounding Jesus: James the Great, otherwise James the son of Zebedee, James the Less, James the Brother of the Lord. So we had better be clear that the St James the Apostle is James the Great, quite separate from the others.

If he is the same James whose tomb is visited by those who take the more traditional Spanish Camino, ending in the cathedral rather than at the sea (the authorship of the Epistle of James is much debated by modern scholars, and can be laid aside for now), the remains of the martyred saint were discovered in a field near Compostela by a peasant shepherd in the days of Alonso the Chaste; that is to say, Alonso II of Asturias (c. 760 – 842, who reigned in two distinct periods).

The king had a chapel erected on the site of the find; the cathedral of today standing there dates from 1078. Its history and that of the Camino is not part of the apostolic tradition, but of medieval legend, deriving from the Christian reaction to drive the Moors out of Spain and so out of Europe, which was only accomplished in 1492, a year of great change in other ways too.

St James was born in Bethsaida, on Lake Tiberius the son of the fisherman Zebedee, and the brother of the Apostle John. Legends claimed in later centuries that James travelled to Spain to spread the word of Christ there. He is said to have spent about seven years here before returning to Jerusalem. Around Easter 44AD, St James was the first of the apostles to be martyred at the hands of Herod Agrippa.

The Camino may well be the Christianisation of an earlier walk dating from a much earlier period. But we cannot ignore the fact that travel was not just rare and restricted in the first millennium, it was nearly impossible – most people never left their own valley. Modern notions are being cast over popular reinterpretations of pagan pre-Roman, pre-Celtic Europe.

Also pilgrimages could not be long: they had to be taken in summer between sowing and harvest, the peasants of Europe could not have wandered off round Europe regardless. Visiting shrines was as often as not for the prosperous only.

Whatever the truth about the apostles deaths in 44AD, which sounds likely enough, his current celebrity as the patron of the Camino has quite obscured the facts of history.

It is likely that the walkers of today, having faced down the challenge of their own weaknesses, have little interest in them, but only in their own success.

The human truth of the apostle in life lies hidden behind the fog of medieval legend, as well as his own modern celebrity. Meanwhile, the Camino continues to draw its devotees, but has become much changed in the process.

St Philip

Philip is another apostle with another Greek name – associated with the kings of Macedonia – an indication perhaps of why the new faith spread west rather than east: even in the time of Jesus Christianity was from the beginning deeply connected with Greek culture more than Middle Eastern.

Hence it is not surprising that the Apostle Philip was sent according to legend with his sister Marianme – another important woman in the early Church – and Bartholomew to preach the new faith in Greece, Syria and Phrygia (in west-central Anatolia).

The curious passage of words over the fig tree has over the centuries defied a straightforward interpretation. That alone ought to be warning of many who read and interpret the Gospels too quickly to take more care over how the read the text.

In the loaves and fishes, the meaning of this parable might be read as that a small amount of food and effort can in fact be utilised to feed a great many people, if it is shared freely and with no effort to profit by it. Some might say that it happens every day in the soup kitchens of the world or such places as offer ‘penny dinners’.

His death came either by being beheaded in Hieropolis, now the town of Pamukkale, in south-west Turkey; or by being hung  upside down, according to a non-canonical tradition. A plain brutal death is to be preferred to the elaborate schemes so often resorted to by medieval hagiographers. In Scriptural matters the simple and straight forward rather than the ultra-plotted is to be preferred.

St Thomas

I have long been intrigued by the legends surrounding St Thomas. Not so much his doubting the wounds of Jesus, until he touched them as the legend of his journey.

Indeed the “doubting Thomas” has become proverbial. The mission to India has faded away in the minds of most. I suspect this partly due to the fact that it never appealed to our grandmothers or to the nice nuns who inculcated our first ideas about Church history into us at infant school.

I discussed this recently with someone familiar with the problem. He suggests that some historians and theologians are doubtful about a mission to India because they envisage Thomas as walking there. But that of course was not what happened at all.

His mission was to visit the Jewish communities in India and these were all on the west coast. To reach them he simply sailed across the Arabian Sea, making use, as merchants had done since prehistoric times, of the monsoon winds that blew seasonally in different directions across the Arabian Sea. This was utilised too by the Romans in the time of Thomas. So what is related of him is not extraordinary, but quite the regular thing.

In the light of what Matthew says (10:6) Thomas would have seen his original mission to be to the Jewish communities in India. The dates given are 52AD to his arrival, before he was killed by a spear thrust on the orders of a local king, martyred in Mylapore, near Madras, in Tamil Nudu in 72 AD.

He is reputedly buried in a shrine in that town, which is still venerated. There is nothing unlikely about this. However later traditions are much elaborated, reflecting the conflicting views of different group in both India and in the Middle East.

But in travelling outside the bounds of the Roman Empire, which ended in Mesopotamia at the head of the Persian Gulf, St Thomas parallels St Patrick in his mission to Ireland. The early Christians ignored the direct command in Matthew and through Peter, Paul and others were converting Romans to their new faith.

Patrick and Thomas broke out of the Empire to carry the good news to the wider world. But in this we can see how the original teachings of Jesus were slowly altered to meet new circumstances, which is now something many would defend. Otherwise Christianity might merely have remained a Jewish sect, emerging at a time when other reformers such as Hillel were active in Judaism. But the genius of the new religion was to seek a wider sphere, which is what has confirmed its special character.

All of this demonstrates how complicated matters surrounding the apostles can be. Ancient traditions have to be received with care, and with a spirit of tolerance. But the lonely figure of Thomas in India will be an image for many as to what should be done even today.