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Discovering the disciples

26 August 2016

Most people know very little about them, says Anthony McRoy



Apostle: Travels among the tombs of the Twelve
Tom Bissell
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.

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