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Virtutes apostolorum: Origin, Aim, and Use

From: Traditio
Volume 68, 2013
pp. 57-96 | 10.1353/trd.2013.0006

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The history of Christianity shows roughly two ways of remembering the apostles: as a collegium of twelve and as individual authorities or saints. In the earliest centuries, the reference to Christ’s disciples as a group predominates. Both in the visual arts and in writing, “the twelve” are undiscriminated, forming a collective representation of testimony to Christian teaching. Prescriptive writings from the first four centuries dealing with matters of ecclesiastical organization, doctrine, and worship may serve as an example, such as the first-century document entitled “Doctrine of the Twelve Apostles,” better known as Didache, and the second- to fourth-century related sources Doctrina apostolorum, Didascalia apostolorum, and Constitutiones apostolicae.

A growing tendency to focus on the apostles as individuals is visible in these same centuries, when the first literary accounts of the lives of individual apostles after Pentecost came to light: the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles. From the fourth century onwards, the rise of the cult of the saints also adds to the profiles of individual apostles, a process supported by the growing importance of relics from the late fourth century onwards. Thus, relics of the apostles Philip and James are the foundation of the church built in honor of these apostles in Rome in the sixth century, whereas the transfer of Andrew’s relics from Constantinople to Italy and Gaul occasioned the dedication of churches to this apostle in Gaul already in the late fourth and early fifth centuries.

Yet despite this increasing focus on apostles as individual authorities, the awareness of the apostles as a group does not disappear. In the early Middle Ages, from the mid-eighth century onwards, we find a large number of manuscripts in which the Latin rewritings of the ancient apocryphal Acts are brought together as a coherent series with a section on each individual apostle, headed by a variety of titles, among them Virtutes apostolorum. I use this title to indicate the Latin adaptations of the apocryphal Acts in an inclusive way, different from trends in earlier scholarship. Many of these manuscripts are legendaries, collections of martyrs’ passions and saints’ lives. The position of Virtutes apostolorum at the beginning of these manuscripts mirrors the position of the apostles in the hierarchy of saints, comparable to other sources listing the memorable members of the Church, such as litanies and commemorative prayers used in the Mass.

The marked interest in the apostles as an authoritative group heading the community of saints is the focus of the present article, which addresses three main questions. First, the origins of the Virtutes apostolorum are at stake. Even though the first material evidence (manuscripts) of these texts as a coherent series does not occur before the middle of the eighth century, indirect sources imply that the series circulated at an earlier date. In the late seventh and early eighth centuries, Anglo-Saxon authors like Aldhelm and Bede seem to have been familiar with a series of apostle narratives like the Virtutes apostolorum. Previous scholarship pointed in the direction of late sixth-century Gaul (Venantius Fortunatus, Gregory of Tours) for the origin of the series, but a further analysis of their works makes it questionable whether these attributions can hold.

Secondly, I shall deal with the question of why the Virtutes apostolorum were written or rewritten in Latin in the first place. Material to answer this question is present in several prologues to individual sections. In these prologues, the rewriter testifies to his or her aim phrased as the wish to collect all that is known about each of the twelve apostles as far as their acts (virtutes) and martyrdom (passio) are concerned, and at the same time to purify this transmitted knowledge of unorthodox influences.

Finally, the manuscripts themselves shed brighter light on the use of the Virtutes apostolorum and their transmission as a coherent series. The majority of preserved manuscripts have, as indicated, the character of a legendary, in which passions and saints’ lives were collected to be read in private meditation or public performative practices such as the liturgy. In some cases, the initial setup of the manuscript does not immediately reflect such use of the texts. However, almost all manuscripts contain marginal notes...

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