Book Review: The Quest for the Historical Apostles
Have you ever really wondered what happened to the apostles of Jesus? Who really were the Twelve? Is there any validity to stories of their missionary journeys? How did they die?
Since publishing The Fate of the Apostles (Routledge, 2015), I have been closely following popular and academic discussions about the disciples of Jesus. Every year or so, a new book comes out that aims to bring clarity to the identity and ministry of the Twelve apostles of Jesus.
The most recent book to explore this issue is The Quest for the Historical Apostles: by W. Brian Shelton. For a couple reasons, this book is one of my new favorites.
First, Shelton is both critical and generous to the traditions about the apostles. In books on the apostles, there is a tendency to either gullibly believe any tradition about their lives, travels, and deaths, or to completely dismiss them all as fabrication. Shelton develops five criteria he utilizes to carefully assess the various accounts. He admits this process is not easy but tries hard to separate historical core from fiction. In my view, he is successful far more often than not.
Here is an example of how he charitably approaches various traditions:
“Some apostles had diverse experiences in multiple locations. As a general rule, a high concentration of encounters in a single geographical setting increases the likelihood that an apostle actually ministered in that location” (p. 53).
Seems fair to me.
Second, he is willing to correct misconceptions surrounding the apostles and the early church. For instance, there is a tendency to both understate or overstate the evidence for persecution against Christians in the first century.
Shelton helpfully says:
“In our quest for the historical apostles, we should be careful not to impose the image of Roman persecution of Christians that occurred under emperors between the late second through the early fourth century, before Constantine’s favor toward Christianity prevailed. Except for the brief mention of Nero’s capricious maltreatment of some Roman Christians and Domitian’s policy against them, the apostles moved freely about the empire, and the opposition they experienced came from local governors for whom the message of the faith was seen as competing with local cults or as critical of aspects of their personal lives” (p. 42).
Again, a fair analysis of the historical data.
Structure of the Book
The book begins with a helpful introduction that includes challenges to studying the apostles, the identity of the Twelve (which raises some considerable questions), and his criteria for evaluating sources.
And then The Quest for the Historical Apostles proceeds to explore each of the Twelve apostles, beginning with Peter, and including Paul. Shelton considers various stories about their travels and ministry, analyzes both canonical and apocryphal writings, and examines traditions surrounding their burials. Overall, he is generous towards traditions without being gullible or naïve.
If you are looking for a single volume that carefully explores the lives and legacies of the apostles, you won’t find a better book than The Quest for the Historical Apostles.
Keep in mind, though, that this is an academic book written for scholars, students, as well as for people who are educated and motivated (it is nearly 300 pages and full of footnotes). The Quest is eminently readable, but it is written for the person who wants to sift through the historical sources surrounding the apostles. If that is you, I think you will find this book to be both valuable and insightful.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, the National Spokesman for Summit Ministries, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.
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 There are only a few occasions where I differ from Shelton. For instance, he concludes that John was likely the only non-martyred apostle (p. 26). He may be right, and he is certainly in line with a number of scholars and church fathers, but as I demonstrate in The Fate of the Apostles, I am not convinced that we really know what happened to most of the apostles. There are traditions that some of the apostles, such as Philip and Matthew, also died natural deaths.
 For instance, many modern Christians have the notion that first-century Christians were ruthlessly and endlessly persecuted throughout the Roman Empire. This is an overstatement. But many critics, like Candida Moss, also understate the amount of persecution first-century Christians faced, as I demonstrate in this article.