Book Review: Apostle
by Tom Bissell
Over the course of three years, from 2007 to 2010, Tom Bissell set about visiting the tombs or most popularly-attested resting places of all twelve Apostles from Christian myth and tradition, recording his observations and explorations of the extensive lore attached to these far-flung sites. But the resulting book, Apostle: Among the Tombs of the Twelve, amounts to more than the sum of its fairly programmatic ingredients; through passion and narrative verve, Bissell paints a vivid picture not just of the state of some of Christianity’s best- and least-known holy places but also a vivid picture of Christianity itself, especially in its awkward early formative years.
Those early Christians eventually came to invest enormous amounts of importance to the lore of the Apostles, the hand-picked chosen lieutenants of a newfound religious movement fighting for acceptance. To those early Christians, as Bissell neatly puts it, the earliest Apostles were “guarantors of legitimacy” for the simple reason that, “whatever they believed must have been similar to what Jesus believed.”
In tracking down the stories of their various deaths, Bissell inevitably tells the stories of their lives and afterlives, and this has the cumulative effect of making Apostle essentially a biographical history of early Christianity. The twelve legendary Apostles, he writes, “were all subject to a process in which possibly historical memories were legendarily expanded, some of which legends achieved quasi-scriptural authority,” and legend and quasi-scripture permeate the book, sharply interwoven with often deflating details from the present, as when Bissell discovers that an ancient confessional grate in the alleged tomb of the apostle John has been used for years as a urinal:
Augustine records a legend that had John’s tomb breathe in and out during certain times of the day, and during the Middle Ages the dust gathered from around John’s tomb was thought to have healing properties; it had been sold as a tonic all over Mediterranean Europe. Now the dust around this still, unbreathing place was contaminated with inorganic salt and urea. A legend spawned from a second-century Christian polemicist’s misunderstanding was strong enough to have saved the Fourth Gospel from oblivion and to enshrine it forever at the heart of Christian thought. Yet this same legend could not prevent its supposed author’s tomb from becoming a public restroom.
Naturally, when discussing the funerary monuments of the Apostles, a certain pride of place falls to figure known as Peter (among other names, as Bissell sarcastically points out, “He’s been called the Prince of Apostles, even though the last thing he needs is another sobriquet. No fewer than six names are used for him in the New Testament: Simon, Simon Peter, Simeon, Simeon Peter, Peter, and Cephas), around whose memory has been constructed one of the grandest buildings in the history of the world, Saint Peter’s Basilica, whose imagination-stumping grandeur Bissell does his best to encompass:
Whether one was an agnostic or an Evangelical, a bishop or a mullah, a Scientologist or a Jain, the basilica’s gargantuan, overriding reality could not help but psychologically validate the legend on which it had been founded. The basilica built in the name of a Galilean fisherman once known as Simon son of John was commissioned by a hated pope (Julius II), constructed on what was then the holiest site in Europe (Constantine’s Basilicas, where nearly two hundred popes were consecrated), initially designed by a then-minor homosexual architect (Donato Bramante), enhanced by several geniuses (Michelangelo among them), despised by Martin Luther (who called it “a very minor thing”), admired by George Eliot (who claimed standing before it was like entering “some millennial Jerusalem”), begun in one era (the Renaissance), and finished in another (the Baroque). The construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica required the passing of thirty papacies. Nothing like it had ever been attempted before. Saint Peter’s Basilica was not a church. It was a self-contained world.
Through watching the fates of these various shrines and sites, by charting the posthumous fortunes of the Twelve and their dozens of lesser lights, we get to see Christianity in the torturously awkward process of determining what kind of an organization it wanted to be in the flesh-and-blood world that so little interested its founder. It’s a performance of personal history that grows more impressive as it builds, presenting a Christianity few Christians take the time to know. Whole-heartedly recommended.