Friday, October 6, 2017

Book Review: "The Apostles and Their Times" by Mike Aquilina

Even before I was halfway through this book, I was already recommending it to others. Mike Aquilina's The Apostles and Their Times is a stellar example of the way that fine prose, extensive knowledge, and an evangelistic spirit combine to make religious study a joy.

To rediscover the Apostles and the life of the early Church, Mr. Aquilina employs a a simple technique that yields wonderfully surprising results: He asks us to forget, at least momentarily, the history attached to religious vocabulary like apostle, ministerliturgy, martyr, and heresy and rediscover what those words originally meant on the lips of Peter and Paul. Take for example the word "minister." The Greek word is leitourgos, and it refers to someone paid to perform a public work. The leitourgos' work was a leitourgia, or "liturgy." It was a common word applied to any public work (road work, sewage, etc.). The realization is powerful: Christian ministers were those who led the Church in her public work - her Eucharistic worship! Or consider Aquilina's elucidation of the term apostle: "The Greek apostolos means 'one who is sent.' It describes an agent or vicar, an emissary or ambassador. More than a messenger, an apostolos is a representative. Scholars believe the word is a direct translation of the Hebrew shaliah; and the ancient rabbis pronounced that 'a man's shaliah is as himself'" (p.34). 

Such insights abound as Aquilina leads us through the period recounted in the Acts of the Apostles. His thorough knowledge of first century Judaism and the early Church bring the biblical text to life and help readers penetrate it at a deeper level. His chapter on Pentecost - and I do not say this lightly - is perhaps the best treatment of the subject that I have read. Here are few quick insights to whet your appetite: 

Some years before Jesus had said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful" (Luke 10:2). The great harvest began, appropriately enough, at Pentecost, the feast of the harvest - the day dedicated to the gathering and offering of firstfruits (p. 51). 
Over the centuries, Pentecost had grown in importance and had gathered layers of spiritual and historical significance. By the lifetime of Jesus and the Apostles, it had become primarily a celebration of the giving of the law to Moses (p.42). 
The cosmic phenomena, the wind and fire, would have been familiar because of the context of the feast day. They had been prefigured when God gave the law to Moses. In those days, "there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast....And Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke" (Exod. 19:16, 18). Now, on the anniversary, came fire from heaven and a sound like the rush of a mighty wind (p.46).
I have quoted what amounts to a third of one of Mr. Aquilina's pages; this chapter has thirteen pages worth of equally brilliant insights.

I have a confession to make. As much as I enjoyed The Apostles and Their Times, I almost missed out on it. In 2015, NBC ran the miniseries, A.D. The Bible Continues. This book was originally published under the title A.D. Ministers and Martyrs and was advertised as being "Based on the NBC Television Event." I had no interest in NBC's take on Acts of the Apostles so, as much as I admire Mike Aquilina, I never picked up the book.  After reading it, however, I can tell you that Aquilina's work stands completely on its own. Were it not for a little research, I would never have known of its connection to the miniseries. I am grateful that Sophia Institute Press saw fit to re-title and re-release this exquisite work. You’ll definitely want this on your shelf. I can easily see it becoming a classic.

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