Many readers of the New Testament are both fascinated and perplexed by the book of Acts, the earliest “history of Christianity” put to papyrus. Acts begins to tell the story of the church, following the miracles, lives, and journeys of Peter, the Jerusalem Church, and the Apostle Paul. But Acts also ends abruptly—with Paul under house arrest in Rome—and often raises a number of questions about the early Church. Thus, readers find themselves wondering, “What really happened after Acts?” In answer to this question, Bryan Liftin has written After Acts: Exploring the Lives and Legends of the Apostles (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2015), a book dedicated to introducing and exploring the traditions of the Apostles following the end of “church history” in the New Testament canon.
After a helpful opening timeline, After Acts begins with an exploration of the terms “according to tradition” and “early church tradition.” In his introductory chapter, Liftin clearly defines terms and his assumptions concerning the veracity of the Bible and the orthodoxy of the early Church. He also does a fine job introducing important and easily accessible sources from the early Church period, including the early Church Fathers, New Testament apocrypha, church histories (especially Eusebius), the writings of Josephus, and archaeological discoveries. Not only does Liftin frame his investigation clearly, but he also persuasively encourages Christians (especially those of Protestant and evangelical backgrounds which are unfamiliar with church history) to thoughtfully engage the post-biblical lives of important New Testament figures.
Subsequent chapters examine (in order): Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Mary, Thomas, James, the Other Apostles, Peter, and Paul. In his consideration of each person, Liftin incorporates Biblical evidence, reconstructions made possible through Biblical studies (e.g. looking at the relationship between Q and Matthew’s Gospel), and early church traditions into his characterizations of what happened to these New Testament figures in their post-biblical lives. At the end of each chapter, Liftin offers a “Report Card” grading the likelihood of the various traditions surrounding each person. These easy-to-access reports are straightforward and easy-to-understand, clearly presenting Liftin’s conclusions regarding what happened to each New Testament figure after the book of Acts.
Througout After Acts Liftin tends to favor the insights of Biblical Studies over church tradition, though he generally employs a theologically conservative approach which maintains the central elements of each. This is especially clear when it comes to the chapters on Mary, Thomas, and the Other Apostles where—sometimes in stark contrast the early church tradition—Liftin argues for a Protestant approach which concludes something akin to, “It’s not in the Bible and we don’t need to defend Church teaching, so let’s problematize this tradition.” Especially in the chapter devoted to the other apostles, it would have been nice to see Liftin follow the model of Ruffin or Budge, where the traditions of each apostle are considered somewhat more holistically. As a final quibble, the ordering of After Acts is somewhat odd, as after starting with the canonical order (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), Liftin changes gears to discuss Mary, Thomas, and the Other Apostles before returning to Peter and Paul. This seems intended to end with the lives of Peter and Paul, whose martyrdoms are at least tacitly known by many Christians for whom all other church history consists of a morass of shadows.
Overall, After Acts does a superb job outlining the major traditions associated with the major figures of early Christianity. Liftin’s skillful weaving together the Biblical record, insights from Biblical Studies, historical evidence, and the traditions of the Church offers his readers a top-notch resource for beginning their engagement with the early Church. The question “What happened after Acts?” is made more compelling by this book, and the answers provided within are theologically and historically solid. Furthermore, After Acts provides Protestants and evangelicals a great bridge from the study of the Scriptures to the study of the history of the Church, both of which are important tools in thinking through and living out Christian faith. After Acts: Exploring the Lives and Legends of the Apostles comes highly recommended for all readers interested in learning more about the traditions of the Apostles.
I received this book from Moody Publishers in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.