“I have long believed that anyone who does not find Christianity interesting has only his or her unfamiliarity with the topic to blame,” Tom Bissell states boldly in the introduction to his literary search for the origins of Christianity. He is a gifted writer whose previous topics have ranged from the nature of creativity to the uncharted wastes of Central Asia. Apostle, however, is a very different kind of book.
Bissell begins by noting that he grew up a devout Catholic and served an altar boy, but lost his faith in his early twenties after discovering the many textual anomalies in the New Testament. Now older and wiser, Bissell confesses to having an ambiguous relationship with the faith – both drawn back towards it and yet still unable to extinguish his scepticism. The writing of this book seems to be an attempt to bridge these two seemingly irreconcilable positions.
Bissell decides to visit the tombs and resting places of the 12 Apostles. He informs us that he is not so much interested in each individual shrine’s provenance, but rather in using the tombs and reliquaries as a focal point through which to meditate on the historical and theological meaning of the Apostles.
Bissell first takes us through the difficult and sometimes contradictory traditions on who is and who isn’t an Apostle. The answers, like many in biblical archaeology, are not as simple as they first appear. The rest of the book is divided into 12 chapters, each focused on one of the Apostles’ tombs. Within these chapters, Bissell first sets out to explain and note all of each Apostle’s appearances in both the canonical Gospels and the Apocrypha, then tries to untangle the many similar-named persons who have long been a source of confusion for even the Church Fathers.
Each chapter then describes the tomb, reliquary or church itself. Bissell’s skill as a travel writer comes to the fore here, such as when, in Jerusalem, he depicts how “Greek Orthodox priests in black robes and rope belts sullenly ate ice cream beside glum Franciscan priests in sunglasses and floppy hats”. He describes the churches, talks to the locals and to priests, and stakes out the theological significance of each Apostle’s mission. It is a heady brew and one that a less skilled writer would make a mess of. But Bissell’s grip on his narrative is sure and his erudition unquestionable.
He travels to Jerusalem’s Hinnom Valley to locate the Hakeldama (“field of blood”) where Judas purportedly committed suicide, but all he finds are mountains of rubbish and a Palestinian goatherd. On visiting the site of the Crucifixion, Bissell wryly notes that “many Christians face a challenging emotional experience in the Holy Sepulchre. They come to see the spot on which Jesus was crucified … What they find instead is hooded, frowning Copts, villainously bearded Armenians, medieval darkness and gagging clouds of incense.”
Bissell’s mix of travel writing and biblical exegesis continues in Rome, where he visits the Church of San Bartolomeo all’Isola and the Church of the Holy Apostles. As he meditates on the frescoes inside, there’s a great summation of Acts, where once again Bissell bravely tries to disentangle the web of ambiguity surrounding who the Apostles were.
Next we are in the Vatican, and there’s a thrilling description of the building of St Peter’s, including the little-known fact that Bernini gave up the chance to design the Louvre so he could finish work on the Basilica. The construction took so long that it “required the passing of 30 papacies” before it was completed.
Most fascinating of all is Bissell’s rare chance to explore the underground necropolis below St Peter’s in search of the grave of St Peter. It was Pope Pius XII who allowed digging to begin under the Basilica and, when they found the tomb, Pope Pius was taken underground and observed the works from a large chair. Under the dripping, subterranean rocks of St Peter’s, Bissell confesses that “to say this place felt holy, somehow, was, to my shock, not an overstatement”.
The search for St Andrew takes Bissell to Patras in Greece, where the Greek Orthodox Church claims apostolic succession through Andrew’s mission to their lands in the first century. One of the most illuminating chapters concerns St Thomas and his mission to the East, as Bissell finds himself in Chennai (Madras) narrating the strange and complex history of India’s Christians.
Finally, searching for St Matthew, Bissell’s journey takes him to the windswept mountainous badlands of Kyrgyzstan, where the saint’s remains are rumoured to be interred in the foundations of an old Armenian monastery. Bissell tackles his subject with seriousness and a genuine thirst for knowledge. His prose is always finely tuned and his observations worthy of the best travel writers. Yet it’s the theological investigations into the lives of the Apostles that resonate most deeply, making this a unique and compelling book that sheds light on one of the oldest conundrums in Christianity.