The Apostolic Tradition

WHEN CHRIST SENT THE HOLY SPIRIT upon the Apostles and their followers on the first Pentecost, He gave them the divine help to fulfill the command He had given them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…” (Matthew 28:19). As we read in the Gospels, they did just that: “And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs” (Mark 16:20).

With the end of our Pentecost feast, our attention moves to the Apostles and to their work of spreading the message of Christ’s resurrection. Observing the Fast of the Apostles gives us the chance to recall the hardships they endured in fulfilling their mission and to unite by prayer and fasting with those continuing their apostolic mission today.

The first seven chapters of the Acts of the Apostles tell us of their activities in Jerusalem. Beginning in chapter eight we see them and their companions taking the Gospel to Samaria, to the Ethiopian on the road to Gaza, to Lydda and Joppa (chapter 9), to Caesarea, the Roman provincial capital (chapter 10) and “as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch” (Acts 11:19). When Saul set out on his pursuit of Christians, there were already believers in Damascus (Acts 9). After his conversion, Saul – now Paul – would bring the Gospel through Asia Minor and into Europe. The Acts of the Apostles ends with St Paul being brought to Rome for trial before Caesar. He and St Peter would die there as martyrs in the fulfillment of Christ’s command.

Apart from James, the brother of John, whose death is mentioned in Acts 12:2, none of the other Apostles chosen by Christ is mentioned in Acts. Some of the Twelve never seem to have left the Holy Land, remaining together as a kind of apostolic college; others are said to have gone far in spreading the Gospel. The many lives of these Apostles written over the centuries sought to fill in the details.

Perhaps the most travelled of the Twelve apart from Peter was St Thomas, who was said to have gone eastward through the Persian Empire to India’s Malabar Coast, according to the Acts of Thomas (c. 200-225 ad). The Syriac Churches of that region, known as St Thomas Christians, claim descent from this Apostle’s converts among the Jewish merchants who had settled there.

The Apostolic Tradition

While the Apostles lived, they were clearly the ultimate authority among the followers of Christ. They had not only seen the Lord, they were the first chosen by Him as His ambassadors to the world. But when there was no one left who had actually witnessed the life, death and resurrection of the Lord, to whom or to what did the early Christians look for surety in their faith?

Second-generation Christians were counseled to remember what the eye-witnesses (the Apostles) had passed on to them. Thus Timothy, the disciple of St Paul, was advised by his mentor, “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:13). But where would the next generation of Christians find the teachings of the Apostles? First and second century believers looked to three sources for these teachings: the Apostolic Writings, the Apostolic Churches, and the Apostolic Succession of Church leaders who maintained the faith of the Apostles.

The Apostolic Writings – Over the next few years the core of this Apostolic Tradition would be written down and circulated among the different local Churches. Some books would be recognized as reflecting that tradition by individual Churches or regional synods. They would form what we call the New Testament. Other books would not be included in the canon (the comprehensive list of the accepted books). Some were rejected because the Jesus they portrayed was not the Jesus of the Apostolic Tradition. Today they are called apocryphal gospels and acts. It was only at the end of the third century that the final list of New Testament books would be accepted by all the local Churches then in existence.

Other early writings were respected by the Churches and were considered canonical in some Churches, but not in all. One of the oldest is an epistle from “The Church of God which sojourns in Rome to the Church of God which sojourns in Corinth” (1:1), traditionally called “First Clement,” after St Clement I, who was Bishop of Rome from ad 88 to 99, when this work as written. I Clement was not listed in the final canon.

Other early works which were considered Scripture for a time are the first century Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, and the Protoevangelium of James, dated to the early second-century.

The Apostolic Churches – In the mid-first century, Christians looked for leadership to the Church of Jerusalem, which later believers would call “the Mother of all the Churches.” In Acts 15:1-29 we read how St Paul’s controversial mission to the Gentiles was discussed by the Apostles and elders of that Church. When the Romans devastated Jerusalem and destroyed the temple in ad 70, the city’s Christians were scattered. The Churches in regional centers which boasted connections to the Apostles, such as Alexandria in Egypt, the “See of St Mark,” and Antioch in Syria, “where the disciples were first called ‘Christians’” (Acts 11:26), became prominent. By the end of the first century the Church of Rome, where both Peter and Paul had ended their days, had come to be considered “the Church which presides in love” as St Ignatius of Antioch called it in his Epistle to the Romans.

The Apostolic Succession – First century Christians also noted how the Apostles, “… preaching through countries and cities, appointed the first-fruits [of their labors] to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe, having first proved them by the Spirit… and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry” (1 Clement 42, 44). Thus the body of bishops came to be known as the “successors of the Apostles,” and the guarantors of apostolic faith in the Churches throughout the world.

From the Apostolic Tradition

THERE are two ways, one of life and one of death, but the difference between the two ways is great. This is the way of life: First, you shall love God who made you; secondly, yοu shall love your neighbor as yourself; and whatever you do not wish to happen to you, do not do to another. Now, this is the meaning of the words, “Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those that persecute you”…

Now the second commandment of the Teaching is: You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not corrupt boys, you shall not fornicate, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic or use spells, you shall not kill a child by abortion, or destroy that which has been begotten. You shall not desire whatever belongs to your neighbor, you shall not swear falsely or bear false witness. You shall not speak evil (of anyone), or bear malice towards them… You shall hate no one, but some you shall reprove, and for some you shall pray, and some you shall love more than your own life.”

The Didache, 1, 2