“Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve” by Tom Bissell (Pantheon Books, 365 pages, $28.95)
Scholarly credentials aren’t necessarily a prerequisite to tackle an especially daunting subject. Who, after all, can parcel truth from fiction when it comes to the tombs, artifacts and history of the 12 apostles of Jesus? Bissell, author of eight books and a lapsed Roman Catholic, tries by wading into deep waters and examining some important theological issues as well as the historical flotsam and jetsam of Christianity.
The book, part analysis and part travelogue, is not a diatribe against Christianity, even though Bissell acknowledges his loss of faith. Rather, it attempts to examine the stories and legends of the apostles and the development of church teaching about Jesus on the basis of current historical, theological and archaeological evidence, a kind of CliffsNotes version of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2009 landmark book “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.” The person of Christian faith who is willing to navigate the currents Bissell is riding will be rewarded with startling new insights and presented with disturbing conclusions. Hang on.
Bissell, whose writings are more familiar in such publications as Harper’s Magazine and The New Yorker, takes the reader to nine countries and more than 50 churches, talking with those who spend time at the supposed sites of the apostles’ resting places. He asks:
▪ Who exactly were the 12? (Bissell asserts that the Gospel writers appear to have variant names: Luke alone lists Judas of James, and John includes no list of 12 but includes in Jesus’ inner circle Nathanael of Cana.)
▪ Why was James, the brother of Jesus, a central figure during the first 30 years of Christian history but is almost completely absent from Christianity in subsequent history?
▪ Did Peter bring the Christian faith to Rome or was it already viable in a number of Jewish groups before he arrived?
Those are some of the questions he addresses as he embarks on his own pilgrimage to the tombs of the 12.
Bissell insists that his intent is not to determine which sites are legitimate, but rather to explore the legends that have grown up around some of the key locations. While his insights to the history and legends of each apostle are expansive, his descriptions of the sites clearly show his dismissal for any claim of authenticity.
At St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, Bissell is given a private tour by a Vatican archaeologist to the underground grottoes and the necropolis in which many early Christians and others were buried. The site where Peter purportedly was buried had been eradicated by the emperor Constantine in the fourth century when he began construction of the basilica. Excavations since have tried to verify various bones as Peter’s, but a definitive conclusion is impossible. As the Vatican archaeologist finally declared to Bissell: “This is Peter’s tomb. Whose bones? This is Peter’s tomb. We don’t stake our reputation on whether these are the actual bones of Peter.”
Bissell doesn’t end his investigation at a given apostle’s site. He goes on to explain current scholarship about the development of church teachings, with particular reference to disputes over Jesus’ human and divine natures that resulted in the lodestar of Christian faith, the Nicene Creed. Bissell describes the creed as a “theologically frustrating explanation for who and what Jesus Christ was.”
Despite his scholarly exposition, Bissell has his serendipitous moments. A perilous trip to Saint Thomas Basilica in Chennai, India – the supposed resting place of the apostle Thomas – ended with an exhausted Bissell kneeling in the church for rest and replicating the meditative acts of his father. “To my utter surprise, part of me wanted to pray right now, but prayer without a direct object was merely thought.”
Though acknowledging he has no religious beliefs, Bissell is still pulled toward this faith-related subject, one that remains for him “deeply and resonantly interesting.” For the reader, the book will serve to challenge beliefs as well as reveal valuable insights to the lives and teachings of the apostles and the place they still hold today for many people, including those who treasure these sacred sites of Christendom.
Tom Schaefer is a former columnist and religion editor for The Eagle. He lives in Wichita.