CHESTERTOWN, MD—When the producers of a National Geographic documentary series about the lives of the Twelve Apostles needed experts on the legends that grew up around them as Christianity spread, they turned to Washington College English professor Courtney Rydel.
Rydel, assistant professor of English, teaches the Bible as literature and is a scholar of The Golden Legend, a 13th century collection of saints’ lives that became the most popular and influential book of its medieval day. “I study not whether a story is in fact true, but how that story has been told and shared through the centuries and how meaningful it has been in the culture,” she says.
A camera crew interviewed Rydel at a local hotel for several hours in the fall, and then wove her commentary into the themes of the documentary. She is one of several scholars who appear on camera in the four-part series, titled “Deadly Journeys of the Apostles,” and her voiceover accompanies some of the live-action re-enactments. The series, which premiered Easter Week, is still being shown around the globe and can be downloaded on-demand by cable subscribers (here or at http://channel.nationalgeographic.com).
The cable channel’s description of “Deadly Journeys of the Apostles” includes this:
“In the aftermath of the crucifixion of Jesus, the Bible’s Apostles are charged with a deadly mission - delivering Jesus’s message to the four corners of the Earth. The Apostles divide the world into territories and head out in all directions, from Armenia to Ethiopia, India to Spain, on dangerous journeys that will ultimately change the world. … From church historians like Eusebius, to the Apocryphal Acts of Andrew, to the 13th century Golden Legend, we learn of a deadly, dangerousworld plagued by magicians, dragons, Demons and jealous Kings.”
“The producers contacted me because of my research on the saints’ stories in the Golden Legend, one of our primary sources for these stories,” says Rydel. “Teaching the ‘Bible as Literature’ course enabled me to be particularly well-prepared to talk about the stories,” she adds.
Rydel is one of a small handful of contemporary scholars who have devoted serious study to the complex Golden Legends, which has seen countless additions, revisions and translations since it was first compiled by Genovese archbishop Jacobus de Voragine in the mid- to late- 1200s. For her Ph.D. thesis at the University of Pennsylvania, she focused on the female saints in the Golden Legend and explored the role of women and gender in the stories.
She says she enjoyed being part of the “Deadly Journeys” filmmaking process and has been surprised at the response she’s gotten from people around the globe who have seen the shows. “I’ve heard by email or social media from people in Belarus, Malaysia, Liberia, Zimbabwe, Scotland, Germany, the Philippines, South Africa, Indonesia, Canada, Spain, Mexico, San Salvador, Peru, Venezuela, Chile, Columbia, Costa Rica, Argentina, and Guatemala,” she says.
“Now, finally, all that high school Spanish has come in handy!”