The Religion of the Apostles: Orthodox Christianity in the First Century. By Stephen De Young. (Chesterton, Indiana: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2021. Pp vii-295). Reviewed by C.S. Ford.
As a perpetual student of both history and theology, I’ve always had an interest in the early formation of the Christian Church, yet as one who was born into and educated within Protestantantism, Church History as an overall subject was always presented with quite a few missing pieces. Sunday school stories of Abraham, Moses, and David of the Old Testament mainly performed the function of teaching morals, and any focus on Israel after that period was solely for the sake of understanding prophecy. The bulk of Christian history learned within my upbringing focused on the four Gospels and the Book of Acts. But after the Apostle Paul went on his missionary journey through the Roman Empire and Saint John wrote the Book of Revelation, the story sort of just stopped until the early 1800s when Protestantism spontaneously generated itself as the default brand of Christianity in America until the present day. I’ve always been eager to explore this missing past, so when I recently saw a plug on social media for a new book on the early Church titled The Religion of the Apostles: Orthodox Christianity in the First Century, I jumped at the chance to read it. In it, Orthodox Priest Stephen De Young convincingly makes the case that the establishment of Christianity was not a new concept but the preservation of the religious beliefs and practices of Israel itself through the fulfillment of the law in Jesus Christ. In turn, the Orthodox Church has existed since that time as a continuation of God’s relationship with humanity that was originally established at Creation, severed in The Garden of Eden, scattered across the world at the Tower of Babel, reestablished through Abraham and his descendants, and finally fulfilled through Christ.
First of all, it must be said this book is deeply theological. It is not “light summer reading” and you are certainly going to need a Bible at your side to reference the many passages of scripture that the author cites throughout the work. As noted, De Young is an Orthodox Priest and also holds a PhD in Biblical Studies, so know that he speaks from a position of authority from the perspective of the Orthodox Church. If you aren’t an Eastern Orthodox Christian, some of the concepts presented in this book may require further inquiry.
In fact, some of the concepts may challenge your beliefs, especially those revolving around the often touchy relationship between Christianity and Judaism. I would argue that the core focus of this book is delving into that relationship. Right off the bat, Fr. Stephen goes to great lengths to clarify the situation that the Jewish people found themselves in during the Second Temple period. The Jewish faith at the time, having been conquered and scattered by various empires, was not a monolithic entity but consisted of several competing sects, some of which you see on display in the Gospel. Thus the early church grew out of these various factions existing within Second Temple Judaism, fully believing that their movement represented the true extension of God’s covenant with Israel.
What is challenging here is that so many modern day Protestant Christians fail to see this continuation, but instead see the Christian Church and Israel as separate entities, with Evangelical Chrisitianity especially holding reverence and support for the modern Israeli state, even at the expense of fellow Christians. This was never intended to be the case. De Young makes clear that the Rabbinic Judaism of today did not exist during the Second Temple Period, but instead was crafted several hundred years later as a direct response to the rise of Christianity. Because of this, the key beliefs of the Orthodox Church are more in line with the practices of the Ancient Israelites than modern day Judaism. The remaining chapters of the book are devoted to expanding upon this idea.
This is essentially divided into two themes: what the early Christians believed about God and how they carried out their worship. De Young says so much more about the former topic than the latter, and this is one area of the book where I feel it could be more balanced. However, understanding early Christian orthodoxy is paramount to understanding early Christian orthopraxy.
Recent scholarship on early Church beliefs regarding the Trinity and the divinity of Christ has challenged whether or not these ideas were present at the beginning of the faith. But according to De Young, these were ideas that were established in Judaism well before Christ’s incarnation. In fact, both Jesus and the Holy Spirit were present throughout Old Testament scripture representing different manifestations of Yahweh in different scenarios.
In addition to the presence of the multiple manifestations of God, early Christians also believed, as did the Israelites, in the existence of a Divine Council that ruled creation with God. This consisted of angels who worked with God and those who had previously fallen in rebellion against Him. The fallen angels were responsible for corrupting mankind and even convinced humans to worship them instead of the true God. I particularly found interesting the idea of the inverted creation myths that exist within the Near-Eastern and Meditteranean cultures that co-existed with the Ancient Israelites. In the Genesis creation story, God creates order out of chaos, yet His creation rebels against Him, although in the end God cannot be overthrown and remains in power. In these competing myths, however, the creator god is overthrown by the lesser gods (think Zeus overthrowing Cronus) who then establish order and are worshipped themselves.
The ritualistic worship of the Ancient Israelites are key to understanding Jesus’ role in the fulfillment of the Old Testament Law and Covenant. In addition to regular temple offerings made by Jewish priests in the temple, the Israelites also practiced an annual Day of Atonement, first found in Leviticus. The early Christians saw Christ’s sacrifice as symbolic of this atonement practice, but De Young is clear to note that Christ’s death was not required for God to solve the problem of human sin, but rather used the event as a revelation of His glory.
Overall, I found this book to be fascinating and it caused me to deeply reevaluate some ideas on topics that I thought were settled. The Protestant world really is missing a large part of its Christian history and could do well to rediscover some of its roots as preserved by the Eastern Orthodox Church. While theologically heavy, The Religion of The Apostles would serve well to introduce non-Orthodox Christians to these foundations and give a better understanding of the connection between God’s original plan to restore his relationship with mankind through Israel and that plan’s fulfillment in Jesus.