Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Apostles Among the Barbarians

Reading N°33 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

The Twelve Apostles, Chartres Cathedral. The two figures flanking the Holy Apostles are thought
to be the Old Testament Prophets Enoch and Elijah

We have clear and precise documents in abundance regarding the evangelization of the great centers - Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, Ephesus, and Alexandria. But, for the history of Christian origins among most of the peoples far removed from these famous centers, the documents are scanty and obscure. In default of written texts, we must rely mostly on inferences, conjectures, more or less ancient traditions, and legends containing an odd mixture of truth. Tradition, as well as writing, is good evidence, and "what is engraved on the altar by public worship and in the heart by prayer is more enduring than marble or bronze."[1] Besides, if we have a mere probability that a witness of the first centuries, a man of the Apostolic age, evangelized a district or shed his blood there, would not this be enough for Christian people to venerate the least traces of that evangelization or martyrdom?

A highly respectable tradition tells us that the twelve Apostles "planted the Church in their blood."[2] Where did they suffer martyrdom? Thus far, besides the names of Paul and Barnabas, who were apostles in the broad sense of the word, we have met only the names of Peter, John, the two Jameses, and Philip. What and where were the labors of their brethren in the apostolate? Did they go beyond the regions of which we have been speaking?

Eusebius says that "Thomas, as tradition relates, obtained by lot Parthia."[3] St. Jerome supposes that he evangelized Persia also,[4] and Rufinus says he was buried at Edessa,[5] where St. John Chrysostom mentions his tomb: "It is one of the four Apostolic tombs that are known: the others are the tombs of Peter, Paul, and John."[6] Another tradition has it that he preached the faith and was martyred in India.[7] This statement seems to be corroborated by an archeological monument, the Udayapur inscription, in eastern India,[8] and by the fact that the Hindu Christians, known as "Christians of St. Thomas," have honored this Apostle from time immemorial as the founder of their Church. It seems, however, that their founder was a Nestorian missioner named Thomas, and that they have pushed back the date of his preaching to Apostolic times, so as to glory in a more ancient beginning.[9] The only fact emerging with certainty from all these different reports is that St. Thomas the Apostle exercised the apostolate in regions beyond the eastern and southern frontiers of the Roman Empire; regions which at that time went under the vague designation of "India". According to the tradition accepted by the Roman Martyrology, the Apostle was pierced with a lance by order of a persecuting king, and his body was transported to Edessa. The legendary details in the Acta sancti Thomae are not trustworthy because this writing bears evident traces of Gnosticism.[10]

There is greater uncertainty regarding the nations evangelized by St. Matthew after his departure from Palestine. Clement of Alexandria simply says that Matthew preached the Gospel to the Hebrews for fifteen years, and then went to convert the pagans.[11] St. Gregory the Great and the historian Socrates say he went to Ethiopia,[12] and this is the tradition adopted by the Roman Breviary.[13] But St. Isidore of Seville and Simeon Metaphrastes state that he devoted himself to the evangelization of the Parthians.[14] As to his martyrdom, the details given in the Acta sancti Matthaei are not reliable.[15]

Even vaguer is the information about the apostolate of St. Matthias, whom some of the Fathers confuse with St. Matthew.[16] One tradition has him stoned to death by the Jews in Judea; there is another and more probable tradition which says that he preached the gospel in Ethiopia and was martyred there.[17]

All the authors who speak of St. Bartholomew agree in saying that he evangelized India. But, in the vast region designated by that term, where are we to locate the exact district to which he went? The view adopted by the Roman Breviary is that it was Armenia. It is said that he was there flayed alive and crucified by order of Astyagesm whose brother Polymius, king of Armenia, he had converted.[18] St. Simon and St. Jude, according to the Roman Breviary, together evangelized Mesopotamia, where they were martyred.[19] They are also said to have preached the gospel in Persia, and St. Simon in Egypt. That this Apostle preached in other parts of Africa and in Britain, is considered purely legendary by the Bollandists.[20]

The Acts of the Apostles mentions the name of Andrew only in the list of the Apostles, and the Epistles do not speak of him at all. The tradition recorded by Eusebius[21] and Nicephorus[22] says that, after the dispersion, he crossed Cappadocia, Galatia, Bithynia, and Colchis, to mysterious Scythia, north of the Black Sea, between the Don and the Danube, where he disappeared in the darkness of the barbarian world, quietly introducing the Christian faith in the southern provinces of the future empire of the czars, until, after fulfilling his mission as apostle to the Scythians, he returned through Thrace to the Greco-Roman world, coming down through Macedonia and Epirus as far as Achaia, where he died.[23] Andrew was arrested and condemned to death in the heart of the Hellenist world, at Patras in Achaia, near the Strait of Lepanto. Before him he saw the X-shaped cross on which he was to be put to death: he greeted it in words which the Church has inserted in her liturgy, to remind her ministers what should be the sentiments of a true apostle of Christ:
O lovable cross, O cross so eagerly wished for and at last so happily found, may I never quit thee, that He who redeemed me by thee, by dying on thy arms, may by thee also receive me and keep me forever in His love.[24]
Bossuet calls Andrew "the first-born of the Apostles,"[25] because he was the first to bring disciples to Jesus, notably his brother Simon Peter; he was thus chosen by God to give the world an example of triumphant heroism in the face of martyrdom.

Not only did the twelve poor fishermen of Galilee, through their preaching, give the world their Gospels and their Epistles, the loftiest lessons mankind has ever heard, but they also gave the finest examples of conduct ever seen. "When God wishes to show that a work is entirely that of His own hand, He reduces all to powerlessness and despair, and then He acts."[26]


[1] Lacordaire, Sainte Madeleine, chap. 6.
[2] "Isti sunt qui, viventes in carne, Ecclesiam plantaverunt sanguine suo"; responsorium of the third nocturn of the Common of Apostles.
[3] Eusebius, H. E., III, i; cf. Socrates, H. E., I, xix; Clementine, Recognitions, IX, xxix.
[4] St. Jerome, De vitis apostolorum, 5.
[5] Rufinus, H. E., II, v.
[6] St. John Chrysostom, Hom. 26 in Heb., 2.
[7] St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Orationes adversus Arianos, 33, II.
[8] Beilage zur Allgemeinen Zeitung, Munich, January 8, 1900, p. 7.
[9] Art. "Thomas," in Vigouroux' Dict. de La Bible
[10] The best edition of the Acta sancti Thomae is that of Max Bonnet, 1884. According to Lipsius, this work dates from the close of the third century. (Lipsius, Die Apokryphen Apostelgeschichten, I, 346.)
[11] Clement of Alexandria, Pedagogus, II, i. 
[12] St. Gregory the Great, In I Regum 4:13; Socrates, H. E., I, xix.
[13] Roman Breviary, September 21.
[14] St. Isidore of Seville, De ortu et obitu Patrum, 76; Metaphrastes, Vita S. Matthaei, IV, 5.
[15] In Tischendorf's Acta apostolorum apocrypha, pp. 167-189. Cf. the Bollandists' Acta sanctorum, September, VI, 194-227.
[16] E.g., Clement of Alexandria.
[17] Acta sanctorum, February, III, p. 444.
[18] Cf. Tillemont, Mémoires, I, 387.
[19] Roman Breviary, October 28.
[20] Acta sanctorum, October 29, XII.
[21] Eusebius, H. E., III, i.
[22] Nicephorus, H. E., II, xxxix-xliv.
[23] Gondal, Au temps des apôtres, p. 320.
[24] The arrest, interrogation, condemnation, and martyrdom of St. Andrew are related in the celebrated Letter of the Priests and Deacons of Achaia on the Martyrdom of St. Andrew (Tischendorf, Acta apostolorum apocrypha, p. 155). The authenticity of the letter is defended by the best critics: Noel Alexander, Galland, etc. Tillemont questions its integrity. In places it seems to be an oratorical amplification of details taken from authentic documents. No reliance is to be placed on The Adventures of Matthias and Andrew in the Country of the Cannibals (Tischendorf, op. cit., p. 132). See Flamion, Les Actes apocryphes de l'apôtre André, Louvain and Paris, 1911.
[25] Bossuet, Panegyrique de saint André, 2d point.
[26] Ibid.


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