Let Us Honor the Holy Apostles

THE FAST OF THE APOSTLES, which we have just completed, leads up to two festivals in our Church: the Feast of the Prime Apostles, Saints Peter and Paul (June 29) and the Synaxis of the Apostles (June 30). On this second day we assemble for another gathering (synaxis) in honor of the Twelve, the companions of Christ who became the core group around whom the early Church was built. As St Irenaeus of Lyons wrote, “We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith” (A.H.3.1.1).

The New Testament records that the first Christians sought to replace Judas who had fallen way. St Peter outlined the qualities required for an apostle: “Therefore, of these men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us, one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection” (Acts 1:21, 22). To become one of the Twelve, then, one had to have witnessed the entire ministry of the Lord Jesus and His resurrection.

Two men were proposed who met these requirements, “Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias” (v23). Neither of these men are mentioned by name in any of the Gospels. They were presumably among the Seventy, the second rank of the Lord’s followers, whom our Church remembers with a synaxis on January 4.

Twelve or More?

Six of the Twelve are mentioned in all four Gospels as well as Acts: Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, and Thomas. Several others are mentioned in some of these writings: Bartholomew, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, Lebbaeus surnamed Thaddaeus, Simon the Canaanite (the Zealot), Judas the son of James, Nathaniel, and Levi the tax collector.

In addition, St Paul is listed among the Twelve although his witness was to the risen Christ (see Acts 9:1-9).

Some commentators have said that some of the “extra” names are alternate names for the same people, such as the tax collector Matthew/Levi and Judas (Jude)/ Lebbaeus surnamed Thaddaeus. Many Jews at the time had Greek or Latin names as well as their family names which were Hebrew or Aramaic in origin.

Others have said that Twelve was a symbolic number in the culture which produced the Scriptures, representing perfection or completion. Still others give the following explanation: the Twelve were in fact the witnesses to the Twelve Tribes of Israel while Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles.

What Is Apostolic Succession?

The ancient Churches sought to guarantee the apostolic origin and authority of their preaching by using the term Apostolic Succession. Basically, this meant that a particular Church or group of Christians taught what the Apostles taught and practiced what the Apostles did. In a similar way, the connection of a local Church with the Apostles was manifested by the connection of its bishop with the person of the Apostles.

At first this meant that the bishop knew and/or was taught by an apostle. As Irenaeus wrote about St Polycarp in the second century, “Polycarp also was not only instructed by Apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by Apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the Apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time” (A.H., 3:3:4).

In time, Apostolic Succession came to mean that a local Church had been founded by one of the original Apostles and there was an unbroken chain between that apostle and the current bishop. This materialistic approach focused less on the succession of the teaching than on the material succession of the hierarch. Thus, the Pope of Rome was considered to be the successor of Peter and Paul and the Pope of Alexandria to be the successor of St Mark the Evangelist.

A disciple of St Irenaeus, known to us as Pseudo-Hippolytus, summarized the tradition of his Church, as follows:

“Peter preached the Gospel in Pontus, and Galatia, and Cappadocia, and Betania, and Italy, and Asia, and was afterwards crucified by Nero in Rome with his head downward, as he had himself desired to suffer in that manner.

“Andrew preached to the Scythians and Thracians, and was crucified, suspended on an olive tree, at Patras, a town of Achaia; and there too he was buried.

“John, again, in Asia, was banished by  Domitian the king to the isle of Patmos, in which also he wrote his Gospel and saw the apocalyptic vision; and in Trajan’s time he fell asleep at Ephesus, where his remains were sought for, but could not be found.

“James, his brother, when preaching in  Judea, was cut off with the sword by Herod the tetrarch, and was buried there.

“Philip preached in Phrygia, and was crucified in Hierapolis with his head downward in the time of Domitian, and was buried there.

“Bartholomew, preached to the Indians, to whom he also gave the Gospel according to Matthew, and was crucified with his head downward, and was buried in Allanum, a town of Greater Armenia.

“And Matthew wrote the Gospel in the Hebrew tongue, and published it at Jerusalem, and fell asleep at Hierees, a town of Parthia.

“Thomas preached to the Parthians, Medes, Persians, Hyrcanians, Bactrians, and Margians, and was thrust through in the four members of his body with a pine spears at Calamene, a city of India, and was buried there.

“James the son of Alphaeus, when preaching in Jerusalem. was stoned to death by the Jews, and was buried there beside the temple.

“Jude, who is also called Lebbaeus, preached. to the people of Edessa, and to all Mesopotamia, and fell asleep at Berytus, and was buried there.

“Simon the Zealot, the son of Clopas, who is also called Jude, became Bishop of Jerusalem after James the Just, and fell asleep at the age of 120 years and was buried there.

“Matthias, who was one of the Seventy, was numbered along with the eleven Apostles, and preached in Jerusalem, and fell asleep and was buried there.

“And Paul entered into the Apostleship a year after the assumption of Christ; and beginning at Jerusalem, he advanced as far as Illyricum, and Italy, and Spain, preaching the Gospel for five-and-thirty years. And in the time of Nero he was beheaded at Rome, and was buried there.”

In fact, every bishop in the world, in union with the other bishops, is a successor of all the Apostles whether his see existed in the first century or not.