I have just read an article in National Geographic entitled, "These 12 Men Shaped Christianity—But Were They Real?" by Simon Worrall. It appears to be an appraisal of the work of author Tom Bissell as written up in Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve.
Of course I am biased: I am an evangelical Christian and the article questions the historicity of the Apostles of Jesus. However, having read the article, which will be read by thousands if not millions of others, there are a number of points which I think are worth making.
1. The article sets out along a time-honoured trajectory reflected in the words, "In Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve, author Tom Bissell sets off to discover whether the Twelve Apostles were actual historical figures or merely characters in a fictional story." An expedition in search of historical truth. However, if the content of the article is anything to go by, the conclusions drawn from this expedition serve only to confirm previously held prejudices. The historic basis for the Twelve Apostles is obviously not to be sought and found in spurious tombs in places such as Spain and Kyrgyzstan.
2. Many of the phrases in the article reveal an underlying worldview: a lost Roman Catholic faith, a skeptical frame of mind, a simplistic 'laws of science' approach to the supernatural and a predilection for Monty Python's film 'The Life of Brian'. Other phrases such as 'I suspect' and a use of the word 'modern' which just cries out to be deconstructed undermine the article as a piece of investigative journalism. "People’s partisan beliefs that magic and divinity were at work in the world were overriding." Why doesn't that work the other way? Why is it only people in the past whose beliefs are overriding? What about 21st century skeptical, former-Roman Catholics? Don't they have 'overriding beliefs'? What we are dealing with here is not historical research but worldview affirmation.
3. No actual evidence is presented in support of the claims of the article. Why is it that we should come to the conclusion that the Apostles are mythical figures? Because their purported tombs are not genuine? Because they are not mentioned in secular sources? When the author writes, "As to whether Judas was real, I think it’s probably true that Jesus was betrayed by someone." Are these the conclusions of historical research or hunch-based conjecture?
4. The author writes, "If there had been a New York Times best-seller list in the first century A.D., which column should the New Testament have appeared in? Fiction or nonfiction? I’m not sure if that if a distinction that would have made a lot of sense to anyone in the first century." What? What about Josephus or the pre-first century Wars of Caesar? Did people in the First century not know the difference between fact and fiction? You may not believe the gospels, but it is absurd to assert that they are not written as historical accounts, specifying places, dates, historical figures.
The Twelve Apostles were historical figures, the disciples of Jesus, who spread the Christian gospel from the fourth decade of the Common Era starting in Jerusalem and eventually reaching as far as places such as Ephesus, Rome and what is now Iran/Iraq. Their tombs are most likely lost and they are possibly not mentioned in secular texts. But all the secular historians I have read are perfectly happy to accept the existence of the Apostles. However much your Catholic schooling may have left you traumatised, you cannot remove individuals from history without leaving a gaping hole. If the Apostles were fictional, you would have to put forward some other explanation for the historical spread of Christianity from Jerusalem starting in the first century AD.