Apostle – Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve // Tom Bissell
Apostle [uh–pos–uh l]
The history of Christianity is peppered with claims, mysticism and big gaps in our knowledge. The reality is that our historical, empirical evidence of early Christianity is patchy and we base a lot of our knowledge on early texts (including the Bible) through which we accept facts on the origins of the religion. No aspect of Christianity has been so readily accepted and yet so woefully misunderstood as the role of the Apostles in history. The twelve individuals, considered to be Jesus Christ’s closest friends and followers, have intrigued Christians for years and each has created its own saintly cult within the modern Christian world.
So what lies behind the Biblical stories of Peter, John, Thomas, Matthew or Judas?
Arguably very little physical evidence. These individuals were fishermen, ordinary people. Their lives were not defined by monuments, grand buildings or great wealth, but instead by oral history and so many have sought to fill this gap; often with claims of great journey, relics and miracles. To understand these historic figures as much as is possible, Tom Bissell explored the world; from the heart of Christianity in Rome and Jerusalem to the corners of the Christian world in Kyrgyzstan and India.
Apostle is not a new biography of the Apostles, instead it is a grand travelogue that seeks to both chart the physical journeys of these individuals and to understand how their subsequent, spiritual journeys unfolded. Bissell’s job is not an easy one, as it is hard to create solid, identifiable understandings of who the twelve apostles even were. Names and descriptions are often interchangeable and apart from the figures of Peter, ‘doubting’ Thomas and Judas it is hard to distinguish the other members from one another.
Tracking down these hazy individuals, and the legends that have emerged around them, takes Bissell across the world. In Spain he travels the Camino de Santiago in search of St James, but finds little spiritual uplift and little evidence of the apostle’s journey across Europe to the very corner of Spain. In this same fashion he chases the faint footsteps of St Thomas across the Middle East and all the way to India, where it is claimed he brought Christianity and where his tomb lies in Chennai; follows St Peter to Rome where he became ‘the rock on which the Church was founded’ (both figuratively and literally; St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican is built upon his tomb) and traces the bones of St Matthew all the way to Kyrgyzstan where recent discoveries have identified a possible final resting place for the saint.
It is fascinating reading and one that suggests that we are only at the very tip of our understanding of the ancient world.
As a book, the strength of Apostle is that it is neither an exclusive study on religion nor is it a pure travelogue. Bissell engages with the scholarly arguments that have dissected the lives of the Saints and sought to find the truth behind the legends. He combines their study with his own upbringing within Christianity and his subsequent disillusion with religion and this provides the book with real strength and a sense that the reader is being taken on Bissell’s personal journey alongside the millions of pilgrims worldwide.
However, Bissell also excels at writing convincing, engaging travel writing and although it is clear that the Apostles provide the grounding to the book, there is a sense that Bissell is most interested in the people; the ordinary Christians, who devote their lives to these Saints and to whom the arguments matter less than their faith. In these people Bissell finds the true journeys of the Apostles, all the way from ancient Judea, spreading across the world to the very corners of the Christian world, kept alive by the people who revere them, even if the evidence isn’t always there.