Apostle: Travels among the tombs of the Twelve
Faber & Faber £20
Church Times Bookshop £18
WHENEVER one speaks to Muslims propagating their religion, among the points they are likely to raise is that Christians do not know anything about the authors of the New Testament, or the Twelve in general. In most cases, that is true; this information can be found only by sorting through often voluminous academic materials. Therefore, a popular book addressing the subject is to be welcomed.
This book approaches that need, but often the author’s scepticism towards religion colours his treatment of the subject, and is not helped by occasional expletives. His fleeting treatment of James, son of Zebedee, in the closing chapter, is particularly inadequate, especially since Santiago de Compostela is a Roman Catholic shrine. Bissell also misunderstands Nestorius as holding to “a Jesus whose divinity did not precede his conception”.
As the title indicates, this is a study of the apostles, looking, sometimes too briefly, at their biographies, including well-known legends; and looking also at places where a tradition of pilgrimage or the observance of a shrine has arisen. Some places are surprising, as is Bissell’s choice of a first chapter — focusing on Judas Iscariot and the field of Hakeldama, which, perhaps shocking to some, nevertheless attracts visitors (”pilgrims” is maybe an inappropriate word). Bissell misunderstands Judas’s return of the blood money as his having “repented”, whereas the Greek word implies “regret” (of the consequences of one’s act).
What is especially useful in the book is Bissell’s treatment of the more obscure apostles, such as Bartholomew. Apart from a possible identification with Nathanael in John’s Gospel, we know little of him. Bissell recounts traditions of his encountering a gruesome martyr’s death at the hands of Armenian heathens. Another point is the British connection, which begins with Bartholomew’s arm, allegedly sold to Edward the Confessor. The Apostle was venerated here, as churches and hospitals (for example, St Barts) bear witness.
A Byzantine saint allegedly brought some of Andrew’s relics to Scotland, and the Saltire (and thus the Union flag) commemorate this link. Bissell tells us of fifth- and sixth-century Coptic legends of Simon the Zealot’s travelling to Britain.
The book is replete with fascinating and sometimes amusing tales. Predictably, the author’s treatment of Peter takes us to the Vatican. Bissell suggests that claims that he was buried there could be more than mere legend, and devotes considerable space to archaeological investigations. A tomb found in Jerusalem in 1952 is, however, a potential rival to this claim. Academics may look elsewhere, but this is an interesting popular book.
Dr Anthony McRoy is Lecturer in Islamic Studies at Union School of Theology in Wales.