Monday, December 10, 2012

The Twelve Apostles

Twelve is a special number in Biblical thinking. The twelve tribes of Israel, for example [*]. Twelve is also an important number in astrological thinking, twelve months in the year, twelve signs of the zodiac, etc. A number of ancient groups, religions, etc., have special mention of twelve figureheads, and Christianity is no exception.

The problem is that the gospel and other New Testament stories don't really add up. Sure, there are plenty of references to 'The Twelve' in there, but this seems more symbolic, rather than referring to a group of twelve actual people.

So let's have a look at these twelve characters.

Matthew 10v2-4 (and Mark 3v16-19) lists them as: Simon (Peter), Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James (son of Alpheus), Thaddeus, Simon (the Zealot) and Judas Iscariot.

Luke 6v14-16 has basically the same list, although it is missing Thaddeus and has gained Judas (son of James). Most commentators on the internet and elsewhere seem to assume that these are two names for the same person.

John gives no list of disciples but does have a prominent disciple called Nathanael, who is absent from the other gospels. Lots of people on the internet seem to think he is the same person as Bartholomew, who isn't mentioned in John. Some point out that Bartholomew is really a surname.

So lets have a look at what these characters do in the Bible stories:
  1. Simon (Peter). We know about him, so I'll not detail anything here.
  2. Andrew. Brother of Peter. He is mostly just a name on a list, except in John where he has a few lines of dialogue.
  3. James. James is mentioned in conjunction with John in all the gospel stories. They do things together, they say things together. They have a few lines of shared dialogue. They appear to be members of Jesus's 'inner circle' along with Peter and sometimes Andrew. The only time James is recorded as doing anything without John is when he is put to death in Acts chapter 12. Then, confusingly, he seems to be instantly replaced by another James, the brother of Jesus.
  4. John. See James. John also has a line of dialogue of his own in Luke 9v49 and is sent with Peter to arrange the Passover meal in Luke 22v9. In Acts 3, 4 and 8, Peter and John are together and do everything in tandem; perform a miracle healing, preach, etc. Later in acts there is another John, who is also called Mark.
  5. Philip. Philip is just a name on a list in the synoptics, but has a few significant lines of dialogue in John. A second character called Philip is introduced in Acts 6v5. Philip does a lot in Acts chapter 8, but it has never been clear to me which Philip this is, the disciple or the guy from Acts 6v5?
  6. Bartholomew / Nathanael. Bartholomew is merely a name in a list in three gospels and Acts. He does not feature in John. Nathanael has an elaborate calling story and two lines of dialogue in John 1v43-49. He is also named as going fishing with Peter in chapter 21.
  7. Thomas. Thomas is a significant character in John's gospel, having several important lines of dialogue. But he does not feature at all in any of the other gospels or epistles, except as a name on a list.
  8. Matthew. In the gospel that bears his name, Matthew is a tax collector who is called by Jesus and leaves his job. In the other gospels, Matthew is merely a name in a list, and his occupation is not given.
  9. James (of Alphaeus). This James features only in lists of names and has no other role in the story. Interestingly enough, Mark's character Levi (whose name has been switched to Matthew in Matthew's gospel) is named as being 'son of Alphaeus' as well.
  10. Thaddaeus / Judas (of James). Thaddaeus is only a name in a list, he does not appear to feature beyond this. In John's gospel (14v22) Judas (not Iscariot) has a single line of dialogue, but does not feature otherwise. There are some mentions of a character called Judas (Barsabbas) in Acts, but it is not clear if this is the same character.
  11. Simon (the Zealot). Just a name on a list. There are quite a few other Simons in the stories, as we'll discuss below.
  12. Judas Iscariot. We know about him, so I'll not detail anything here.
So it seems that as far as Mark and Luke are concerned, there are only really three disciples who are characters: Simon Peter, the James-John pair, and Judas Iscariot.

Matthew has specific action concerning the character called Matthew, but for the most part has only the same 'three' disciple characters as Mark and Luke.

It seems that the majority of stories Matt, Mark and Luke present are based on the assumption that Jesus had a retinue of only three disciples. But these writers also believed that Jesus actually had twelve disciples, so they have put in the lists and brief mentions of the other nine to convey this. The other nine really have no role to play. There is no real history about any of those nine in any of the synoptic gospels.

But John attempts to flesh out some of the characters. Andrew, Philip, Nathanael, Judas (not Iscariot) and, particularly, Thomas all feature in his story as characters, although none except Thomas have any discernible character traits.

One thing all this suggests is that none of the synoptic writers were eye-witnesses to any of the events. Someone who was really there would surely have been able to put at least a little flesh on the characters. Beyond that, if we take the traditional view that John's gospel was the last to be written, this pattern suggests that the earliest stories of Jesus really only did feature three (or possibly four) disciples, and the dialogue attributed to the minor disciples in the fourth gospel is there intentionally to beef up the stories such that there appear to be more than just three.

From a quick look at the list of disciples, it seems like whoever created the original list of twelve didn't have much imagination:

Starting with Simon, James-John and Judas, the author gives Simon a brother, so he can be more like James and John; then adds four characters who I guess must have featured in some early Christian traditions - Matthew, Philip, Bartholomew and Thomas. As we see in Acts, there is a Philip 'the Evangelist' who features in the story, could he be included in the list of original disciples on the assumption that he was so important he must have been a disciple? The same possibly goes for Thomas, he was certainly a prominent figure in the early church, the most significant (and possibly earliest) non-canonical gospel is attributed to him. Is his inclusion here again based on a 'must have been' type assumption? I'm guessing Matthew and Bartholomew must also have been significant.

Having added all these, the writer of the original gospel seems to have lost imagination and simply doubled up the big three, creating another Simon, another James and another Judas. These serve only to boost the numbers up to twelve.

Richard Bauckham, in his book 'Jesus and the Eyewitnesses' (which I reviewed last year), goes into great detail about how common certain names were in 1st century Judea. The top male names of the time were:
  1. Simon
  2. Joseph
  3. Lazarus
  4. Judas
  5. John
  6. Jesus
  7. Annanias
  8. Jonathan
  9. Matthew
  10. Manaen
  11. James
Apparently over 40% of men at the time, as far as we can tell, had one of the top 9 names. Its really no surprise then that we should find a Simon, a Judas, a John and a Matthew among a 'random' selection of 12 men. That we should find two instances of one of those names in the selection is quite probable. But finding three doublings in a group as small as 12 is reasonably improbable. This suggests (although does not prove) that some of the names could be fictional.

The names of Jesus' brothers in Matt 13v55 (and Mark 6v3) are James, Joseph, Simon and Judas. Isn't it a whopping coincidence that three of those names correspond exactly with the three main disciples (and the three that were doubled up)? I've even heard it suggested (admittedly by Robert M. Price, who is pretty radical in his beliefs about the editing of the bible) that the 'original' list of Jesus's brothers in the first gospel didn't contain Joseph. Instead of saying:
"Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?" 
the 'original' may have said:
"Isn’t this Joseph the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Simon and Judas?"
If that's the case, then we have an exact correspondence between this list of Jesus's brothers and the three main disciple characters.

Doesn't that strike you as being a bit odd?

Could it be that there were two rival beliefs from the early church which are both condensed in the words of the Gospels? James (with or without John), Simon and Judas were known to have been important figures in the early life of the church, but some believed that they had been brothers of Jesus, while others believed they had been disciples.

In fact, given the stories of Judas that survive, I wonder if John was drafted in as an afterthought to maintain the balance of three disciples or brothers after Judas left the story following his betrayal.

The important thing to notice here is that the stories of Jesus, in their 'original' form, only featured Jesus with three (or four) disciples, but that there was also a belief in a symbolic 'twelve' disciples which appears to have been overlaid on the 'originals'. This observation itself suggests either (a) that the gospels must have all been written a significant time after the events which they describe, such that nobody really remembered the details of any of the stories accurately, or (b) that there were rival (and incompatible) streams of stories about how many disciples Jesus had and the author of the original gospel tried to harmonise these when he wrote the story down. This second option, of course, throws a big question mark over the 'real' historical Jesus. If he had twelve disciples then the source of most of the stories was basically wrong in his important facts. However, if he only had three disciples, then it is clear that most of the stories have been changed before they got to the form in which we have them. Of course, there is also the possibility that none of these stories go back to a historical character.

Sigh. As ever, I find that the harder you scrutinise an issue in the bible, the larger the holes become. This one is pretty much all hole.

[*] The twelve tribes: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim and Manasseh. Erm, that's thirteen tribes, not twelve. Sure, Ephraim and Manasseh are supposed to both be descended from Joseph, but they are never collectively referred to as 'The Tribe of Joseph'.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My pastor Joseph Prince also mentioned that numbers are symbolic, esp. the numbers 5 and 7..
First time hearing about the number 12, but makes sense too.