Sunday, August 7, 2011

Book Review - "The Search For The Twelve Apostles"

I bought this book, The Search for the Twelve Apostles by William Steuart McBirnie, Ph.D. [Tyndale House, 1973 paperback 9th printing 1977] at least in part because of who the publisher was, and the title. I picked it up at some used book location—either a thrift store, used book store, or yard sale—for the grand investment of not more than 50 cents. The subject matter sounded good, especially this that was also on the cover: "The thrilling account of how a Bible scholar discovered what finally became of the original disciples of Jesus."

The book, in in 293 pages (not including a list of apostles, a bibliography, and an index, actually covers more than the Twelve. He includes other New Testament figures: Paul, Matthias (who replaced Judas Iscariot in the Twelve), John Mark, Barnabas, Luke, and a few others.

I was disappointed, to say the least, and feel that I wasted my investment. McBirnie has done nothing more than recount the various legends and traditions about where the twelve apostles went after Jesus' ascension. I don't mean to discount his research. What he describes in the book is impressive: so many trips to the Middle East, or to this country or that country; so many documents reviewed, including some he says were never before reviewed by any researcher into the twelve. Much of the book is quotes from the ancient documents he reviewed, or from a few more modern books (say 15th and 16th centuries). It's clear he did much research, and believes what he has is scholarly. The fact that the book went to at least nine printings indicates there was a demand for it in the 1970s.

But what he does is divide the information he found into the category of traditions and legends. Traditions can be relied upon to be truth, he says, while legends should be taken circumspectly. How he separates legends and tradition is not as clear. But, apostle by apostle, he gives us the traditions, he gives us the legends, and he writes a short "biography" of each.

A good example is Bartholomew, one of the Twelve about which little is said in the Bible, in fact nothing more than his name in the list of the Twelve. He was the son of Tolmai.

"His ministry belongs more to the tradition of the eastern churches than to the western churches. It is, however, evident that he went to Asia Minor, in the company of St. Philip, where he labored in Hierapolis...." page 139
Bartholomew escaped martyrdom and went to Armenia, carrying with him a copy of Matthew's gospel. He labored in the area around the south end of the Caspian Sea, where eventually martyrdom caught up with him. One ancient document says he was skinned alive before being beheaded. But then legend has it he preached in India as well. His body (or at least part of it) allegedly is in St. Bartholomew Church, where it was moved after original internment in Armenia.

Give me a break. I don't see the scholarship in this. How does one differentiate between tradition and legend? It would seem by weight of evidence is what McBirnie did. If a whole lot of ancient statements said this is what happened to an apostle, while a few give conflicting information or travels and labors incompatible with the majority report, then the former must be traditions and therefore should be believed, while the others are obviously legends and should be discounted. And throughout the book he seems obsessed to know where these men were buried, laying credence to where their relics are venerated. The was a colossal waste of what are obviously superior researching skills.

I'm discounting the whole thing. I didn't finish it and won't. In fact, I'm not going to waste the 5/8 inch of shelf space this would take. It's going out in the next garage sale, unless I decide to recycle it so that some other schmuck won't take time reading it.

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