Richard Beard

Following the followers

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

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.

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