Reader Appeal: Bible teachers, students, Bible Study Nerds
Genre: Christian History
FBSN Rating: B
Dr. Bryan Litfin is a theology professor at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. He also holds a Ph.D. in the field of ancient church history and a master’s degree in historical theology. So, you know, he’s a big ol’ Bible Study Nerd—and he really gets into researching ancient biblical events and people.
In his book, After Acts, Litfin puts his full nerdiness on display by digging into church history after Jesus’ resurrection, trying to determine what really happened and what simply became legend in the lexicon of our faith. As he says:
“Peter was crucified upside down,” you hear in a sermon, “according to tradition.” “Paul went to Spain,” the pastor says on another day, “according to tradition.” Thomas founded the Indian church, Mary lived in Ephesus, the original apostles became martyrs—all according to this vague yet authoritative source called “early church tradition.” But what exactly do we mean by this term? Where do these ancient traditions come from, and how reliable are they historically?
Litfin’s question offers a fascinating premise for a book on church history, and he ably investigates answers as they relate to several key figures of our faith.
After Acts researches the historical records regarding the lives of all four gospel writers, as well as Peter, Paul, James, Mary, Thomas and others. Litfin explores the common assumptions we have “according to tradition” and tries to determine how reliable that tradition is when compared to the evidence. For instance, it’s very likely that Jesus’ mother, Mary, was cared for by the Apostle John in her later life, but very unlikely that she lived in Ephesus with him. Also, history indicates that Simon Peter was indeed crucified under Nero’s persecution, and even likely buried “in a grave now located beneath the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica,” but there’s scant evidence to show that he “considered himself the preeminent authority figure of the Roman church.”
The strength of After Acts—its dependence on provable, historical investigation—is also one of its few drawbacks, though. Sometimes the details of research are, well, boring to read. For example, Litfin opens the book with an extensive, three-page timeline of significant dates, followed immediately by page after page of term definitions (“apostle” “church fathers” “orthodoxy” “Gnosticism” and so on). While that background information may be important, filing the first 25 pages of After Acts with such dry reading makes it tempting to put this book aside before you even get to the good stuff. And make no mistake, the following chapters of Litfin’s book are “good stuff,” but you have to get to them to find out, and some just won’t make it. You might want to consider treating the early pages of this book as a skip-able appendix—something to refer back to if you have questions along the way during your reading of the body of the book.
In all, though, After Acts is well worth the time spent (even the boring parts). Recommended for any Bible Study Nerd interested in learning more about the differences between “church tradition” and the legacies of our Christian faith.
After Acts by Bryan Litfin
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