Pantheon, March 2016
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
When Tom Bissell once passed through the Issyk-Kul area of Kyrgyzstan, he heard a rumor that the resting place of the apostle Matthew was nearby. This gossip led to his first thoughts of writing a book about the tombs of the apostles. The result is Bissell’s ninth book, Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve. Seamlessly weaving history, biography, and theology with travel memoir, Apostle tells the bewildering story of early Christianity through Bissell’s pilgrimages to apostolic tombs and reliquaries across the Mediterranean and beyond. It’s really such a remarkable achievement that I’m sure some asshole will call it a tour de force. (I refuse to be that asshole.)
Bissell’s writing radiates so much sheer talent and intelligence it almost makes me hate him. (Okay, not hate. But envy.) He uses obscure words that send me to the dictionary, like “eleemosynary,” and he seems deeply familiar with both canonical and apocryphal texts, as well the writings of early Christian theologians. But Bissell isn’t a scholar—the highest degree he holds is a BA in English, from Michigan State University. And so my eagerness to read Apostle (which was partly due, I admit, to its exquisite cover design) made me question why I love reading religious books written by non-specialists—like Reza Aslan or Karen Armstrong—rather than renowned academics. The former don’t have the linguistic training or disciplined restraint of the latter, but boy do they have more style. And in Bissell’s case, humor. Dude makes me laugh.
He’s suffering from “Indian diarrhea furies” when trying to find the basilica of Thomas in Chennai—“the worst apostolic tomb” he’s ever seen. He’s seriously hung-over while having a conversation with a Greek priest that “resembled the colloquy of two toddlers precociously fascinated by religious history” and which inspired Bissell to imagine how early missionaries must have explained Jesus to foreigners: “Big man. Jesus. He come from sky. He die for all good. He dead, but no. He alive again. Save you. Save me.” But perhaps he’s at his funniest while searching for Matthew’s elusive tomb in Kyrgyzstan; he tells his guide that their driver is “a dickhead,” and when they get looks from some shepherds, the guide says, “They’re probably thinking, ‘What are those assholes doing over there?’”
You won’t find such language in an academic work, and Bissell’s casual use of it punctuates his otherwise earnest study. His wry, Sedaris-like sense of humor makes me smirk and chuckle on nearly every page, and yet every page also shines with scholarship, illuminating the formation of Christianity by telling us all we need (or want) to know about those mysterious guys we usually see surrounding Jesus.
Bissell starts with Judas Iscariot, the most psychologically intriguing of the twelve disciples, and certainly the most infamous. Judas is hated for being the greatest betrayer in human history, but his betrayal was necessary for Jesus to fulfill his mission of saving humanity. If Jesus died willingly, if he needed to die, then how can Judas be blamed for the betrayal? Shouldn’t we respect his sacrifice? It’s pretty sticky. And due to the sparse and contradictory information about him, we can’t be sure if Judas really existed or was merely “a plot spot.” The earliest Christian writings, Paul’s epistles, aim to clarify ideas and never specify a betrayer, but the gospels are stories and stories need characters. From a dramatic perspective, what better character could there be in such a story than Judas? In any case, Judas, unsurprisingly, has no tomb.
From Judas, Bissell moves to Bartholomew. In the gospels, Bartholomew says and does nothing. His name, which is only mentioned four times, is thought to be a patronymic, bar Tolmai, with his first name actually being Nathanael. And in the Gospel of John, a Nathanael of Cana does say and do something, and many believe him to be Bartholomew. The confusion of names is one reason why reading Apostle is often a maddening experience. There are so many people named Simon and Phillip and James and Jude that nobody really knows who’s who, scholars included. As Bissell writes: “The available evidence is confusing enough to baffle the most dogged New Testament detective.”
We’re pretty sure the historical Jesus existed, mainly because the first-century Roman historian Josephus mentions the execution of James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.” But that passage could have been a later interpolation. And while it’s widely agreed that this James was the head of the early Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem following the death of Jesus, we’re not sure if Jesus’s brother James is the same as the apostle James, known as James the Little, or if he’s the author of the Letter of James, or if these are three different people. Jesus had another brother named Simon, and there’s an apostle named Simon the Zealot (or Simon the Cananaean), as well as the most popular apostle, Simon who Jesus renamed Peter, the rock on whom the Roman Catholic Church ironically rests its claim—ironic because as Bissell writes, “In some sense, the New Testament can be read as an account of the spectacular failings of a not particularly bright man named Simon Peter.” Jesus also had a brother named Judas, which puts an even fuzzier spin on things, and then there’s the whole idea of Thomas—whose name means “twin”—being the twin brother of Jesus. Yikes!
All this is hazy on purpose, because the early Church Fathers deliberately tried to deemphasize the notion that Jesus even had brothers, much less a twin, which would spoil the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity, not to mention steal the singular spotlight from Jesus. And so what we have is not evidence but heavily edited, contradictory documents and fragments that are, more than anything else, “accidental autobiographies of the communities, and authors, that produced them.” And yet, through the contrasting perspectives and messages we can discern the frictions and important issues of the time period. Some questions were answered rather quickly, such as the decision that Christians did not have to be circumcised, and others took over six hundred years for the church to settle, such as who and what Jesus Christ was. (And that’s still up for debate.)
We’ll never know what actually happened, but we do know a lot more now than we did a hundred years ago, and Bissell brings us up to date. While it doesn’t really present any original theories or discoveries, and may ignore recent ones, Apostle is still a thoroughly engaging, informative, and brilliant book. And did I mention it’s funny? Bissell is really funny.