Books

Following Jesus’s followers

Tom Bissell goes in search of the tombs of the Apostles — but finds that their legends soon run into the sand

26 March 2016

9:00 AM

26 March 2016

9:00 AM

Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve Tom Bissell

Faber, pp.407, £20, ISBN: 9780571234745

In his new book Apostle Tom Bissell has an advantage over writers who go looking for Jesus: he can start with human remains. His frame for this uneven combination of travel and Church history is a series of trips to the alleged tombs of the apostles.

To flesh out 13 ghosts (the 12 disciples and Paul) Bissell mines the gospels, the work of Church historians both early and late, and the Apocrypha. ‘Without the Apocrypha,’ he admits, ‘the 12 apostles would seem even more irrevocably distant.’

The former disciples of Jesus are an elusive bunch. Destroyed or partial texts throw up discrepancies and cases of contested identity, equivocal traditions set in unspecified places and fanciful pasts invented by unreliable chroniclers. The apostle stories that survive are opaque, mysterious and compromised.

Which turns out to be less fun than it sounds. Bissell doesn’t like the Apocrypha — ‘sloppy, repetitive, frequently boring’ — and is forever worrying at the joins (where visible, which is nearly always) between ‘actual Christian history and drowsily velvet curtains of legend’. There isn’t much factual meat on these particular bones, and the historical soup can taste thin. This is a shame, because Bissell is surely correct in his claim that Christianity remains ‘deeply and resonantly interesting’, both culturally and for many of us (including Bissell himself) personally. He points out in his author’s note that he’s approaching this material as a lapsed Catholic and a theological non-specialist.

This ought to work as a recommendation, especially in a field where specialists so expertly block out the light. As an outsider Bissell, author of a previous book about computer games, might have been expected to find a refreshingly accessible perspective on the apostles of Jesus and early Church history. Alas, the history and theology of early Christianity have little to do with these slippery followers of Jesus, as the book freely admits. The exception here is Paul, who certainly does influence the development of Christianity, and whose letter to the Romans Bissell calls ‘one of western civilisation’s central documents’.


Theologically Paul is so influential his chapter in Apostle has no room for any travel. Another chapter (of the 12) pushes aside an apostle and is devoted to Christology. Apostle dips its toe into New Testament theology, then falls right in.

Textual discrepancies between the gospels are revisited in detail. Footnotes prop up the pages and the bibliography is extensive, impressive and, well, specialist. Instead of navigating the scholarship Bissell seems determined to fit it all in: surveys of the literature, variations in the Orthodox churches, Hellenism, the languages of India, the Syriac Church, hypostasis and homoiousios.

Any readers who don’t already know their Origen from their Eusebius may wonder where to look. Bissell knows he gets lost — at one point he starts a paragraph ‘For those of you at home’, before yet another digression, this time about Melchizedek (a king who appears in Genesis and the Psalms). I had been hoping not to be at home, trapped in layers of detail, but transported by the excitement of the apostles and Bissell’s travels to find them.

The travel aspect of the book promises some relief, but as a travel writer Bissell’s method is also dependent on research. Apostle adds information about Bernini’s Roman friends, provides the history of the 2005 Kyrgyz Tulip Revolution, and the geology of an individual lake. No book could stand this weight. That’s what the internet is for.

Bissell’s literal journey never really gets started: Jerusalem is ‘disappointing’ and in St Peter’s Square it rains. He gets sick in Chennai and indignant if he can’t use his Visa card. His contemporary travel adventures always seem secondary to ancient questions and confusions, and the research gradually buries an otherwise eloquent travel writer. Bissell nails Russian stoicism in Kyrgyzstan by describing a woman who looks as if she’s ‘spent a large portion of her life being cold indoors’. My personal favourite is the comforting homeliness of Saint Sernin’s Basilica in Toulouse, like a ‘brick cassoulet’.

Much of this material glints brightly, slightly out of reach. Bissell wants to seize on everything, from biblical exposition to the monks of Mount Athos, who forbid even female animals entry — but neither the place nor the idea is explored. Apostle contains too much, and too little.

The German theologian Rudolf Bultmann famously declared the impossibility of discovering the historical Jesus. Imagine the difficulty, then, of going in search of those vaguer characters from the New Testament, the apostles.

In the absence of historical fact, Apostle never quite decides how best to illuminate uncertainty beyond observing that the myths and legends are slightly ridiculous. In the very last line, Bissell reaches the conclusion that stories can be as worthy of attention as any long-lost truth. The reader may have got there before him.

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  • Terence Hale

    Easter this year stuck up in the dump of a hotel in Schaffhausen Switzerland I had time on my hands to think about Easter. We all know the story of what happened to Jesus and then I thought I have two children a son and a daughter, as father if I let happen to my son as God did to Jesus by European law’s as a parent I would be thrown in prison.

    • outlawState

      Jesus could have saved himself but chose to die. So no comparison.

      • Chris McGrath

        How could he have saved himself?

    • Marian Hunter

      It is only by following the words of Jesus Christ are we given true and everlasting life with God the Father. Trying to apply human understanding to a matter of faith as you have done will not and never work.

      • GoJebus

        But what about us Marian, the ones who don’t believe in Jesus and God, where do we go? Does it involve flames?

        • Marian Hunter

          Hi GoJe. You say you don’t believe in Jesus and God. Fine, you don’t have to. Its not belief but faith that is required, so suspend your belief for now ( you need that for the mundane stuff, like you believe when you put your clothes into the machine they will come out clean you believe you have enough money in your bank account to pay bills). You don’t have to be religious to know that Jesus Christ and his apostles lived or that Christ was crucified. Its even been documented. You asked “where do we go?” Where does Jesus say we will go? I have faith that it doesn’t involve flames. Only man put that in your head, not God.

          • Terence Hale

            If my interpretation of history is correct God’s chosen people, the Jew’s killed Jesus

          • pobjoy

            Some of them did; not all. The reason that the sons of Jacob (Israel) were chosen was not because they were special, but because they were just like everyone else; so some people would have crucified Jesus, others would not have.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            Guilty of decide, namely the killing of God in the figure of Jesus Christ. Preached from the pulpit every Easter, directly for anti-Jewish pogroms.

          • JabbaPapa

            He was, in fact, killed by Roman soldiers.

          • GoJebus

            Phew, thanks Marian. That’s a relief.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            Skitzophrenic desert nomad, rightly executed by the Romans as a trouble maker.
            Why not make a prophet of Elvis?
            Now that’s an idea.

          • JabbaPapa

            desert nomad

            How exactly is a Man whose childhood life was spent in a Roman Bath town a “desert” “nomad” ?

    • pobjoy

      Jesus was not God’s son. Terence Hale, true believer, knows that.

  • outlawState

    “The German theologian Rudolf Bultmann famously declared the impossibility of discovering the historical Jesus.”

    The historical Jesus can only be discovered by obeying his words, as he himself said.

  • GoJebus

    Just admit it. It was all made up.

    • turriseburnea

      Oh, so deep and knowledgeable -and original, must add.

      • GoJebus

        Is that the very best you’ve got? At this point you are supposed to provide the cast iron facts to refute what I’ve said.

        • JabbaPapa

          It’s actually your job to demonstrate it was all “made up”.

          • GoJebus

            No it ain’t. It’s not me postulating unevidenced gods and demons.

          • JabbaPapa

            You’re postulating that they were “made up”, which is a very precise and scientifically testable claim.

            So come on then, where’s your evidence that some men sat around and invented this ?

            Or why should anyone believe this exciting story of yours about men inventing these gods and demons, if you can’t present a shred of evidence to support it ?

          • GoJebus

            All I have to do is tell you that I believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster (and I do), and immediately we are on the same playing field, with the same evidence yield, an equivalent and seemingly nonsensical creation story (except his is true, yours is not) and a growing number of miracle appearances – where He has been spotted in toast, in wallpaper, in clouds etc. Immediately we have equivalence.

            On the other hand I could say I eschew Him and place my money on the fact that we evolved and were not manufactured by big beardy bloke, ignoring all the genetic and fossil evidence and other facts that point to a more reasonable hypothesis.

            But, I’m not willing to do that as all I need is blind faith in Him. Anyone who disagrees may face at least 1900 years of persecution, so please be warned. I’ve already started feeding my baby spaghetti hoops and instead of nursery rhymes I repeat to him the scriptural truth that the increase in global warming is correlated to the reduction in pirates, so the next generation of mutton heads are secured. If he starts having doubts as he grows up I’ll just frighten him with stories of everlasting torment. No probs.

          • No NO NO! You and people like you are positing that these tales are true. You can’t turn up with a cart load of fabrication, dump it on the ground in front of us and insist that it is our jog to prove it isn’t true. Without the initial assertion (entirely unsupported) there would be nothing to refute.

  • pobjoy

    Anyone who tells you anything at all about the apostles that is not in the New Testament is either mistaken or mendacious. Almost every author from the close of the NT onward had vested interest in fabrication, at a time when belief was dangerous, if not illegal. These sources cannot be valid historic evidence.

    • JabbaPapa

      Anyone who tells you anything at all about the apostles that is not in the New Testament is either mistaken or mendacious

      So which of the two are you then ?

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Test

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