Every good book or movie or TV series ends with closure for the characters. After so many years, Rachel and Ross finally got together. After so many doubts, Chandler finally accepts he is going to be a father. But the Bible does not give us such closures. What happened to Peter? He just disappears halfway through Acts. What happens to Paul? We left him in house arrest. We expect to turn the page to find out what happens next and it just ends like a canceled Netflix series.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “After Acts: Exploring the Lives and Legends of the Apostles” by Bryan Litfin. 200 pages, published by Moody Publishers in January 2015. USD9.99 via Amazon Kindle. It was available for free via Logos for November.
According to bryanlitfin.com:
Bryan Litfin is a professor in the School of Divinity at Liberty University. Previously, he was Head of Strategy and Advancement at Clapham School, after serving for 16 years as Professor of Theology at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and 3 years as an editor and writer at Moody Publishers. He is the author of Constantine’s Empire Series (Revell, 2020-2022), the Chiveis Trilogy, Wisdom from the Ancients (Harvest House Publishers, 2022), Early Christian Martyr Stories (Baker, 2014), After Acts (Moody, 2015), and Getting To Know the Church Fathers (Brazos, 2007), as well as several scholarly articles and essays.
This is a surprise! He writes novels. He is a storyteller. And I’ll come to why this is such a surprise at the end of this review.
What is not surprising is he is a scholar, a professor of theology with an interest in the early church. In the book, he casually refers to Eusebius, Irenaeus and Jerome. He picks out the best bits from the Acts of Peter, Proto-Gospel of James, the Gospel of Thomas and more. He is familiar with early church writings and it shows.
And that expertise is critical for us to figure out what happened after Acts. The Book of Acts closes with Paul under house arrest. If the Bible was submitted to a publisher, the publisher would reject it: “Great story, but you gotta fix the ending”.
Well, in God’s infinite wisdom we get the Bible as it is but that has not stopped others from writing to finish the story of Peter, Paul and others. Some of these stories read like fan fiction or some kind of fantasy, alternate history. But is there a kernel of truth in them?
Litfin goes through the Bible, archaeology and extra-Biblical sources to tell us not only what likely happened but why he is convinced. He even gives us a report card at the end of every chapter. A for almost certainly true. F for almost certainly false.
I started the episode by asking what happened to Peter. Litfin tells us. First, he explains who is Peter, what he did, what he wrote, and why he is important. Tradition has it that he was crucified upside down. You may have heard the reason was because he found himself unworthy to be crucified the same way Jesus was.
Peter may well have been crucified upside down, for the Romans were known to do this. Since the martyrdom story in the Acts of Peter was already developing in the early second century, it might have been recording an actual eyewitness remembrance. However, the victims of Roman crucifixion were not given the chance to make requests about the method of their impalement. The intent was to shame them in a grotesque way, not accomodate their wishes. Therefore, the upside-down crucifixion of Peter is historically plausible, though not for any spiritual reasons.
Now that we know what happened to Peter, this should give us enough closure on the character, on the man. But there is more!
He tells us the story of how the Apostle Peter’s bones were discovered! Although Litfin cautions us that it is still an open question, yet the sequence of events he describes, the forensic analysis done, shows that it is possible, it is possible that we have recovered the bones of the Apostle Peter. Huh!
In the report card, on the event that Peter died by crucifixion, Litfin gives it an A-. On whether his bones were recovered, Litfin gives it a B.
Let’s look at another disciple’s story. This one is of personal interest to me because many years ago, I went on a church mission trip to India. It was an eye-opening trip that has helped form many of my convictions. I saw people hungry for the gospel, coming for prayer and a demonstrating sincere desire to worship and obey God.
Our host brought us to a hill where the apostle Thomas was memorialised because according to tradition the apostle Thomas went to India to spread the Gospel.
So we went to this hill and to us it was a sight-seeing trip, but to the people around us, it was a spiritual pilgrimage. I vaguely recall the pictures on the walls describing the miracles performed by Thomas. I visited the cave where he died and later the tomb where his bones are kept. I remember not knowing what to make of all of it and after reading today’s book, I am glad I did not make too much of it.
The tradition of Thomas’s martyrdom has come to be associated with a little hillock called St. Thomas Mount in modern Chennai on India’s east coast. Though the ancient accounts do tell us that Thomas died in India by spearing, the suggestion that it happened at Chennai is the stuff of pious fabrication. Only in the medieval sources do we begin to see a connection between Thomas and the eastern side of India. The sixteenth-century Portuguese explorers who sought to convert the indigenous Indian Christians to Roman Catholicism are responsible for the hilltop shrine at Chennai and its supposed bone fragment from the apostle.
I doubt any of this matters to those who make the pilgrimage to St. Thomas mount but the truth matters and Litfin is keen to tell the true story of the disciples.
And next to Peter, I would say the most famous apostle would be Paul. And Litfin saves the best for last, for Paul appears in the final chapter.
I will just share this wild story and move on:
When Paul’s severed head hit the ground, it bounced three times as it uttered the words “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” which caused three springs of water to well up. Today the church of St. Paul at the Three Fountains marks that very spot — but it is clearly the result of later legends that carry no historical validity.
I wish Litfin would tell me these stories even if they aren’t true. That’s strange coming from me because if you listen to my reviews, you will know that I don’t like my commentary writers to make wild guesses. I much prefer them to stick to the facts and let me come to my own opinion.
Litfin does an excellent job at giving me the facts but how I wish he would tell more stories.
Listen to this: In the chapter on Peter, Litfin writes:
In the early second century, a collection of oral folklore began to solidify into a narrative trajectory now called the Acts of Peter. In addition to such thrilling episodes as a duel between Peter and the heretic Simon Magus, in which Peter causes the flying Simon to crash and burn (chapters 31–32), we also find a detailed account of Peter’s martyrdom (chapters 33–41). Emperor Nero is the villain in the background of the story, which proves the second-century Christians believed Peter died during that ruler’s reign.
Does anyone want to hear more about Peter causing the flying Simon to crash and burn? I would. But if you want to know more, you won’t get it from Litfin in this book. Instead, Litfin directs us the website, earlychristianwritings.com, which has the translated text for us to read in full.
And every time he hints of a great story but doesn’t tell it, I groan.
… in the apocryphal Passion of Simon and Jude, Judas Thaddeus travels with Simon the Zealot to Babylon, where they debate with the Persian magi. The characters proceed through a series of adventures until at last they are martyred by the priests of the sun god.
What are the adventures?! And again:
… an early medieval text incorrectly attributed to a certain Babylonian bishop named Abdias recounts Matthew’s daring exploits and miraculous adventures in the land of Ethiopia.
Come on, what are the adventures?
I was so crushed he didn’t tell these stories. I thought he couldn’t and was not interested because was a dry bones academic.
So imagine my surprise, when I found out that he writes novels. He wrote a book titled, “Early Christian Martyr Stories”. He is a story teller but for this book he didn’t want to just spin a yarn, he wanted the inquisitive believer to know with certainty what happened.
And in my opinion, he has done that and more. He has surprised the reader with some amazing stories to whet the appetite and has show us how he sifts through the source materials to get to the his conclusions. In that sense, I would recommend this book for both the casual reader and the thinking Christian.
Before I end the book review, I want to share how this book aroused my curiousity of Peter’s adventures. So I went to the website Litfin recommended and I skimmed through translation of “The Acts of Peter”.
Here I read how Peter tells a guy Marcellus that if you believe in the Lord, just sprinkle water over a broken statue and it will become whole. And it did.
Peter comes knocking at Simon the sorceror’s house and Simon instructs a dog, “Tell Peter that I am not within.”
And the dog answers!
Thou exceeding wicked and shameless one, enemy of all that live and believe on Christ Jesus, here is a dumb animal sent unto thee which hath received a human voice to confound thee and show thee to be a deceiver and a liar.
Peter sees a herring, a sardine hung on a window and tells the crowd, “If you see this swimming in the water like a fish, will you be able to believe in him whom I preach?” The crowd say yes. Peter takes the herring, “In the name of Jesus, swim.” And he throws the herring into the waters, it comes alive and swims.
I can see why Litfin didn’t tell these stories because once you start, you can’t stop. And not so edifying. We don’t expect our preachers to bring cans of sardines to evangelistic rallies.
But what this shows is Litfin has succeeded to make the early church writings more attractive and more accessible than I had thought possible. And I think if you read this book, you will feel the same too.
This is a Reading and Readers review of “After Acts: Exploring the Lives and Legends of the Apostles” by Bryan Litfin. 200 pages, published by Moody Publishers in January 2015. USD9.99 via Amazon Kindle. It was available for free via Logos for November but it’s USD7.79 now.
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