Tom Bissell’s “Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve,” a tour through the stories of the New Testament, goes back to the source texts and the actual locations of events in search of insight. Bissell appears March 17 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Sometimes it’s the writer you take on faith rather than his subject.
I’ve never been eager to sort through all the “copyist errors, editorial intrusions, and regional peculiarities” that mark the variant texts of the New Testament.
But Tom Bissell is a writer of restless curiosity and lively wit, and if he’s obsessed enough to write a whole book on these matters, that’s good enough for me. He is, after all, the author of a stellar book of short stories (“God Lives in St. Petersburg”) and a painfully visceral travel memoir in which he tours Vietnam with his troubled Marines veteran father (“The Father of All Things”).
The author of “Apostle” will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 17, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
“Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve” (Pantheon, 406 pp., $27.95) includes vivid memoir and travelogue elements. But its main focus is on the centuries-long process that produced the New Testament.
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Raised Catholic, Bissell lost his faith at 17, yet continued to find the history of Christianity “resonantly interesting.” His investigations take him to contemporary Jerusalem, Rome, France, Spain, India, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and Greece, as he tries to see what historical facts can be gleaned from the New Testament and other sources.
Stick with him closely and he’ll guide you through complications so intricate — including multiple Judases, Simons and Jameses — that tracing a single narrative strand in them is like trying to make linear sense of a bowl of spaghetti.
The sheer number of Christian factions that emerged in the first centuries after Jesus’ death are mind-boggling. In second-century Rome alone, there were Marcionites, Valentinians, Carpocrations, Montanists, Jewish Christians and Quartodecimans. Among these sects, debate over the mixed human-divine nature of Jesus, triggered by gospel inconsistencies, raged for centuries.
“In three of the four gospels,” Bissell notes, “we are told Jesus had a mother named Mary. We are told a certain James had a mother named Mary. We are told Jesus had a brother named Joses. We are told a certain James had a brother named Joses. We are told Jesus had a brother named James.”
According to third-century bishop and church historian Eusebius, Roman emperor Domitian, in the late first century, imprisoned and interrogated the grandsons of Jude (identified by Eusebius as Jesus’ brother “humanly speaking” — a recurrent phrase in early Christian histories). On hearing that Christ’s kingdom was “not of this world,” Domitian let Jesus’ grandnephews go.
If it’s news to you that Jesus had an extended family, there’s a reason for that.
“Recognizing Jesus’ family endangered the doctrine of the virgin birth,” Bissell writes. Jesus’ blood relatives — despite persuasive evidence that they existed — became “historical phantoms.”
Bissell has a jocular sympathy for readers overwhelmed by his sometimes obscure biblical references. (“For those of you at home,” he wisecracks, “Melchizedek is a king in Genesis who presents Abraham with bread and wine and later turns up in Psalms as a priestly ruler whose prominence David appeals to after having conquered Jerusalem.”)
He favors a zesty maximalist prose when describing the places where the apostles’ remains may rest. Some maps would be helpful, as would an overview of how the various manuscripts and archives he cites were preserved or destroyed.
But you don’t have to be a career theologian to sense that Bissell has mastered his source materials in a meticulous and open-minded manner.
“Secular and Christian histories of New Testament times,” he writes, “are incomplete mirrors in which occasional glints of one appear in the other.” What the gospels really offer, he concludes, are “accidental autobiographies of the communities, and authors, that produced them.”