MARCH 24, 2016
MY THEOLOGY PROFESSOR used to joke that the strongest argument against Jesus’s divinity was his astoundingly poor judgment when it came to choosing apostles. No matter how many miracles the Son of Man performed, the 12 apostles could be counted on to miss the point entirely and ask yet again if Jesus truly was who he claimed to be. Their disbelief has the effect of making the Gospels read like a sitcom, the Messiah speaking truth to his dopey followers week after week, to no avail.
How did these 12 men, perennially slow on the uptake, manage to turn the teachings of an obscure Galilean Jew into the most widely dispersed religion in history? This is the question Tom Bissell looks to answer, or at least grapple with, in Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve. By following the trajectories of the apostles’ lives like an astrophysicist tracking subatomic particles in the moments after the Big Bang, Bissell gives an exhaustive yet inevitably incomplete picture of the emergence of Christianity. It’s a book that’s painfully aware of how much it doesn’t know, making it feel at once narrow and expansive.
The subtitle touts Apostle as a travelogue. Certainly, there is plenty of material in this vein — with Bissell trekking around the globe to visit the catacombs of ancient cathedrals like the intrepid host of a PBS documentary series — and, as such, the project plays to his strengths. Starting with his first book Chasing the Sea, an account of the history, culture, and ecology of Central Asia, Bissell proved himself a skillful guide to the neglected corners of world, corners that seemed to merit greater attention once the events of 9/11 had demonstrated just how little Westerners knew about the rest of the planet. There’s an effortlessness to these scenes of Apostle, as Bissell chooses just the right synecdochical detail to give a sense of these foreign locations, and deploys just the right amount of white-guy-abroad self-deprecation to make sure we find his travails amusing but not annoying.
The other aspect of the book is knottier. In between the sketches of crypts and bearded priests, Bissell carries out a deep, double-backing work of biblical exegesis as he culls the New Testament, early church histories, and countless apocryphal texts for mention of the exploits of the 12 apostles. You can feel him straining in these sections, trying to hold all of these competing accounts together, and it’s strangely affecting. Despite Bissell’s lack of religious belief — or because of it, perhaps — he wants to get this account of Christianity’s origins as right as he can, and his disappointment is palpable as he comes to realize he’ll never wholly succeed.
Let’s start with the travelogue: Bissell devotes a chapter to each of the 12, visiting a site where all or some (or none, in a few cases) of a given apostle’s remains are said to be kept. There’s an eerie scene when he visits an empty field outside Jerusalem known as Hakeldama, where a guilt-ridden Judas Iscariot is said to have hanged himself for betraying Jesus. Other sites that Bissell visits are more populated, though not much. The staff at the small church in Rome devoted to Bartholomew is surprised to receive such an inquisitive visitor, while the monastery in Kyrgyzstan said to be consecrated to Saint Matthew does its very best to remain unfound; Bissell finally discovers it thanks to an uncharacteristically helpful local, but only after days of dodging livestock on unpaved roads.
Some of these accounts are new and revelatory, even to readers acquainted with church history. The Thomas Christians of India, for instance, were entirely new to me. This sect traces its lineage back nearly two thousand years to an offshoot of the Syriac church founded by the apostle Thomas. Indeed, when Portuguese merchants first arrived on the subcontinent in the 15th century, they were shocked to discover Indians practicing a form of Christianity that bore a strong resemblance to Arianism, a branch of theology that held unorthodox views about the divinity of Jesus. When the Council of Nicea declared Arianism heretical in 325, they were unaware that Christianity had reached as far as India, and so the Thomas Christians were able to practice their faith more or less unnoticed for a thousand years.
The very existence of Thomas Christians, among countless other sects, is a testament to the adaptability of the religion. Vastly different cultures have found that many of their basic tenets line up with their own beliefs, as when Bissell’s guide in India shares his thoughts on Christianity’s relevance to his homeland. “Our goal as Indians is to escape the cycle of life and death,” he explains. “There is something beyond these cycles, something more … eternal? […] So to me, as an Indian, Jesus is very Hindu.”
But Bissell also illuminates more familiar territory. He visits the Vatican, where the tomb of Saint Peter, the figurative and literal cornerstone of the Roman Catholic Church, is overrun with tourists clutching copies of Dan Brown novels. The tomb itself was actually buried under numerous layers of construction early in the process of establishing the Vatican, and wasn’t uncovered again until the 20th century. Today, the bones believed to be Peter’s are kept in 19 Plexiglass boxes. Bissell writes:
The history traceable to these flakes of calcium and fragile marrowless tubes was as difficult to quantify as all the places reached by star-emitted light. The restored complex within which they rested was only slightly less unreal. First largely pagan, eventually wholly Christian, built over not once but twice, lost, and rediscovered. It was a near-perfect analogy for Christianity itself: its origins seemingly clear […] its contemporary influence outwardly secure but in fact seriously compromised.
It is this unknowable aspect of the religion’s origins — its dark matter, if you will — that animates Bissell’s thinking most strongly, and which he pursues through a welter of primary and secondary sources.
In the preface, Bissell writes that he grew up Catholic, serving as an altar boy in his parish. It was no drudgery for him; he enjoyed participating in the rituals and sacraments. Nonetheless, doubt seized him at the age of 16. He writes that it was:
during my junior year of high school, while doing a report on a national newsweekly’s annual Easter-timed “Who was Jesus?” cover story, I read a book that forced me to recognize that what I had previously accepted as an inviolate block of readily understandable scripture was the product of several cultures intergalactically different from my own.
In Bissell’s account, the first few centuries of Christianity sound like an internet flame war of world historical import, various churches posting elaborate theories about how Jesus could be at once fully human and fully divine. Out of this climate grew heresies such as Gnosticism, a kind of Neoplatonic reboot that saw the God of the Old Testament as a villain who imprisoned humanity’s boundless souls in narrow physical bodies, and Jesus as the divine rebel come to free us from oppression. Even the doctrine of the Trinity, so central to the Christian faith, was a product of this era of intense theological speculation. The mysterious union of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is never directly mentioned in the Gospels; in forming the concept, early church leaders had to tease out hints and veiled references to avoid accusations of polytheistic paganism. The basic interpretive strategy is not dissimilar to fan theories that proliferate across the internet, when dedicated users amass evidence that shows how all the Pixar movies take place in the same universe, for instance, or that Ferris Bueller is actually a figment of Cameron’s imagination.
And now I have a confession to make: I barely passed that theology class. I got lost in the thickets of intertextual exegesis, finding them as tedious as the multi-thread ramblings of aforementioned internet fanboys. Call me a sappy English major, but I always felt the classrooms of the religion department neglected an essential component of religious experience, namely, the humans — the believers themselves. Reading Bissell’s book frustrated me in the same way as listening to my devout professor’s 50-minute lecture on Nazarene tax codes. I have never wanted proof from religion, finding the drama of belief more thrilling.
Bissell grows similarly frustrated toward the end, as if scriptural inconsistencies no longer compel him as much as they did when he was a teenager. When he makes the 700 kilometer pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, the supposed resting place of James, he doesn’t even bother to scrutinize the laughably implausible account of how the apostle’s remains wound up there. (The story goes that James’s body was placed in a boat and carried across the Mediterranean Sea to the Iberian peninsula, and that a Galician peasant saw a star fall from the sky at the precise location where the boat landed.) The story of this journey was told in much greater detail by his walking companion at the time, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, who chronicled their travels in a book called A Sense of Direction in which Bissell figures as a comic foil. In Bissell’s own version, the account is much more impressionistic, as if he’s not interested in facts, but essences. He’s simply a weary traveler, having gone through an experience of great significance without being able to say what that significance was.
I was similarly affected when I made the same pilgrimage in college, during a semester abroad. I knew almost nothing about Saint James and his posthumous journey (having been raised in an atmosphere of ahistorical evangelicalism and educated at an intensely cerebral Reformed institution); uninterested in the finer points of doctrine, I was just happy to be an ignorant pilgrim who showed devotion by simply walking, day after day. By the time I reached the cathedral in Santiago and collapsed into a puddle of tears and sweat, I felt the way millions of pilgrims have felt throughout the centuries: the pilgrimage had shaped my life, however briefly, into a story with a beginning, middle, and end. It was, I still believe, a genuine religious experience.
At the end of this book about stories of unquestionable meaning, if questionable veracity, Bissell wonders, “What if a story was enough for a thing to be?” Enough? How can anything, or anyone, wish to be more?