Apostle or Bones That Shine Like Fire; Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve by Tom Bissell. Pantheon Books, 2016.


This is a complicated book. Or better, a good writer has taken on a complicated subject. Tom Bissell has visited those sites associated with Jesus of Nazareth, his ministry in Galilee, and the “travels” of his apostles when alive and as bones or relics. Bissell’s travels, from 2007 to 2010, involved mostly churches and basilicas in Rome and Jerusalem but also Greece, Spain, France, India, and Kyrgyzstan.


What is perhaps most impressive about Apostle or Bones that Shine Like Fire is the Biblical scholarship that the author has incorporated into the narrative. Bissell begins his study with the canonical books in the New Testament but consults the writings of the Church fathers and non-canonical texts that date from the first through the third centuries.


He is interested not so much in religious practices as religiosity. Rarely staying for a religious service, he is more intrigued by the motivations of the pilgrims and tourists whom he finds visiting the shrine. Bissell often asks these visitors what they think about the site. He finds their answers uninspired. Which would not have been the case with the pilgrims of old, who came to the site to be moved or confirmed in their faith. Or healed of some affliction.


Twelve is a traditional number of apostles – and tribes of Israel. But the names given to the apostles in the four gospels and the other books of the New Testament vary.


Bissell begins with the apostle Judas Iscariot. Outside of the betrayal and the associated story of the Last Supper, Judas Iscariot is seldom included in other events of Jesus’s ministry. The first generation of church fathers said nothing about him.


The author agrees that Jesus’s apostles are historical, but their stories recorded in the Gospels were initially oral traditions. And these oral traditions included what he would call legends, stories that are historically unverifiable. This says nothing about their truth, only that they need to be used in a different manner when reconstructing early Christianity.


Rome harbors several sites associated with the apostles. Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City is allegedly the Apostle Peter’s execution and burial site. Peter had come to Rome as part of his mission to the Gentiles. It was important for the bishop of Rome to lay claim to Peter because of the tradition that he was the “rock” upon which the church would be built. The bishop wished to establish the authority over all of Christendom of the Roman Church and its succession of bishops after Peter. By the fifth century the doctrine of “Petrine Supremacy” had been established.


Rome became the center of Gentile Christianity; it was also the most important focus of Christian pilgrimage. But if a pilgrim wants a quieter pilgrimage site in Rome, she or he should visit the site of Saint Bartholomew’s remains on an island in the middle of the River Tiber. It is more typical of Bissell’s traveling than Saint Peter’s Basilica.


Saint Andrew appears to be the most traveled of the apostles. His bones now allegedly lie in the Greek city of Patras on the Mediterranean near Corinth. Saint Andrew traveled to Bithynia (in Turkey), Scythia, Macedonia, the Caucasus region, and Ukraine. He is revered by Byzantine, Russian, and Ukrainian Orthodoxy. But also in Scotland! And by the Manichaeans, a sect that flourished in the Eastern Roman Empire from the third to seventh centuries.


Andrew is rarely mentioned in the gospels, although legend has it that he was Peter’s brother and recruiter. His disappearance from Biblical tradition is perhaps the explanation for the few who seek out his burial site. By the time his bones were returned to Patras by the Papacy in 1979, Andrew’s popularity with those early heretical groups had long since ceased to be a threat to Roman Christianity.


Thomas is also well-traveled. He is associated with Christianity in India as early as the third century. He appears in all of the lists in the New Testament. Most of the stories associated with Thomas depict him as a bit of a blockhead: doubting Thomas, needing to finger the wounds of the risen Savior.


Legend has it that Thomas planted a Christian worship that has survived in Tamil Nadu and Kerala through hostile Hindu and Muslim dynasties. An alternative legend: Christianity came to India via the trade between the Subcontinent and the Roman Empire. After centuries of co-habitation with other faiths, the purity of Indian Christianity was restored by Portuguese Catholics who purged it of heresy. Bissell visited perhaps the most revered Indian site, the St. Thomas Mound, near Chennai (Madras).


Rome and Jerusalem are the two largest Christian pilgrimage sites. Santiago de Compostela in Spain is the third largest. The traditional visit can involve a five-hundred-mile trek, and Bissell, to his credit, walked it. Santiago contains the shrine of Saint James the Great or Saint James the Moor Slayer. Bissell finds the cathedral containing the shrine mundane. Just before entering, he spotted a policeman on the cathedral roof with a rifle. The twenty-first century’s violence has intruded on medieval pilgrimage.

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