A deep dive into the heart of the New Testament, crossing continents and cross-referencing texts.
Bissell (Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creations, 2012, etc.) delivers an unusual work of Christological travel literature, visiting the alleged tombs of Jesus’ disciples, supplementing his journey with close readings of Scripture and ancient church history. At the church sepulchers, which have become tourist attractions, the author met priestly defenders of the faith who make broad claims for the historic relevance of their sites, as well as the many alleged artifacts that go with it, whether it’s the remains of Bartholomew in Rome or the bones of Peter in the Vatican. On the page, Bissell finds the Gospels to be a vast, crazy quilt on which every jot and tittle is suspect, from proper names to history, due to both the vagaries of oral tradition as well as the varying translations and competing agendas of copyists, scribes, and leaders. The author examines all these controversies in scholarly depth. Was there really a Judas? Was John actually the Beloved Disciple of history, or was that someone else? Was James actually the stepbrother of Jesus? Were the Gospels written as a reaction to the fact that the second coming did not immediately occur? As a long-lapsed Catholic, Bissell’s driving concern is why people still believe, and his somewhat condescending answer is that they simply want to. “To explain the realness of that which we cannot see, we turn to stories left behind by evangelistic writers, working behind their complicated veils of anonymity,” he writes. “The footprints they left behind lead us to places we long to be led.” Bissell is by turns analytical and cynical, illuminating and, given his passion for splitting etymological hairs, occasionally dry.
A rich, contentious, and challenging book.