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“Their Sound Is Gone Out” – The Division of the Apostles

Gregory DiPippo

July 15th is the traditional date of a feast known as the “Divisio Apostolorum – the Division (or ‘Dispersion’) of the Apostles.” This feast is first attested in a hymn written by a German monk named Godeschalk, who died in 1098. It was very popular in the Middle Ages, and continued into the Tridentine period on many local calendars, but was never on the general Calendar. It is the liturgical commemoration of an ancient tradition that some time after the Ascension, the Twelve Apostles cast lots for which part of the world each one of them would take, and spread out from Jerusalem to preach the Gospel in the various nations. The liturgy of the Apostles in various traditions refers to this idea repeatedly, as, e.g., in the frequent use of Psalm 18, 5, “Their sound hath gone forth into all the earth: and their words unto the ends of the world.”

According to a tradition known from the 4th century, the baptismal creed now called the Apostles’ Creed was composed as a rule of the Faith by the Twelve before this dispersal, with each one of them contributing an article. This is often represented in art, as here in the border of this page of the famous Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, ca. 1440. (In the center is depicted the legend of the Ten Thousand Martyrs, represented symbolically by ten figures.)

It is also seen here in a Carthusian Breviary ca. 1490, in which the name of an Apostle is printed in red before each article of the Creed in the right column.

Like many of the traditions held dear by the medievals, it was called into question by some of the scholars of the Renaissance, particularly at the time of the Council of Florence in 1438. As the Council wrestled with the question of reunion between the Eastern and Western churches, the issue of the Creeds, and especially the Latin addition of “Filioque” to that of Nicea, was of course one of the most important topics of discussion. The Latins, who recognized three Creeds used in the liturgy, the Apostles, the Nicene, and the Athanasian, were unpleasantly surprised to learn that the Greek delegates had never heard of the first of these.

Fr Nicholas Ayo, C.S.C., in a book on St Thomas’ Sermons on the Apostles’ Creed, beautifully summarizes why we may still refer to it by this name. “With the Apostles’ Creed we have the teaching of the Apostles as passed on by authentic apostolic succession. … The Creed summarizes the Scriptures, which in turn summarize the teaching of the early Church by the Apostles, who in turn were taught of Jesus, who was taught of God.”

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