2008-01-25

Tracing the evolution of the Twelve Apostles from monkey rejects to angelic pillars.

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by Neil Godfrey

The three rejects — Paul

Paul in his letter to the Galatians equates the namesakes of the three leading apostles in Mark (Cephas/Peter?, James and John) as holding an unimpressive rank in his eyes (Gal. 2:6), and who became the leaders of the hypocrites at Antioch (Gal. 2:13), and were thus cursed teachers of “another gospel” (cf Gal. 2:14 with Gal. 1:7-9).

In other letters, particularly in the Corinthian correspondence, Paul continues to attack false apostles “from the Jews” who claim to be imbued with the spirit of Christ and perform miracles and have visions (cf 1 Cor. 9, 2 Cor. 11-12). One is reminded of the manner in which Acts portrays Peter. 1 Corinthians 15 does claim the Twelve, and Peter, were witnesses of the resurrected Christ (just as was Paul — 1 Cor. 15:5, 8 ) but given this passage’s contrary theological tone to Galatians, the arguments of other studies that see here an interpolation do deserve attention.

The twelve failures — Mark’s gospel

This appears to be our earliest narrative involving the twelve disciples or twelve apostles and it presents the Twelve as disastrous failures. They are a negative lesson to readers: Don’t be like them! Peter’s name, meaning rocky, is more obviously associated with the rocky soil in the parable of the sower, than with any foundational stone (Talbert). Jesus called him Satan and in almost the same breath warned anyone who was too ashamed to admit to knowing Jesus would be a reject in the kingdom (Mark 8:33-38). This assigns Peter with his threefold denial to the same league as Judas. The disciples fled in fear from Jesus at his arrest and the women fled fearfully from Jesus’ tomb soon afterwards. The only resurrection appearance known to Mark will be at the second coming, although Jesus can be found before then in metaphorical Galilee.

The twelve failures — Marcion’s gospel

Given my recent posts on the position of Marcion in relation to the Synoptic Problem and the arguments for redating both Marcion and the gospels (see my Marcion archive), I can’t help but throw this one in here at this point. Marcion’s gospel must have been like Mark’s in several respects (Hoffmann), in particular with its negative portrayal of the disciples. Many see in Mark a Pauline theology, and Marcion himself thought of Paul as the sole Apostle and the original disciples of Jesus as remaining in their ignorance to the end. They went on to become false apostles, teaching another gospel from the one preached by Paul.

Getting there, at least for some — Gospel of Matthew

Matthew’s gospel is the first to redeem some of the Twelve. Matthew was the first to divide and conquer the Twelve to bring them into the service of furthering (as opposed to denying and fleeing from) his own gospel.

Judas was singled out as the arch villain. The detailed narrative of his attempt to undo his betrayal and subsequent suicide deflected blame from the group as a whole.

Peter was the first to be securely established. He was the leader for heaven’s sake so if he couldn’t make it what hope was there for any of them. And Matthew redeems with a wallop. He turns rocky soil into a pillar-rock, a foundation stone, beside Jesus Christ himself (Matt. 16:18). He is even given the keys to heaven, and the buoyancy to walk momentarily on water! This was Matthew’s vital contribution — setting up Peter apparently in opposition to Paul. Matthew’s emphasis throughout his gospel on the necessity of the law, indeed on exceeding the requirements of the law, would seem to confirm this analysis.

Matthew sends Jesus himself to speak to Mark’s women fearfully running from the tomb to tell them to stop being frightened and to tell the disciples where to meet him in Galilee. They do, and the disciples do catch up with Jesus on a mountain in Galilee.

But while the teasing apart of the Twelve from Judas was an important step, it was not sufficient. Matthew makes it clear that at Jesus’ resurrection appearance only some of them believed. Some doubted (Matt. 28:17).

More mixed bags — other gospels

Some of the noncanonical gospels appear to follow in Matthew’s wake and assign different levels of comprehension, if not faithfulness, to different names among the Twelve. The Gospel of Thomas — possibly predating Matthew — and the Gospel of Mary are two of the better known ones. But there is also some question about the Gospel of John. It is by no means certain where John fits in the canonical trajectory. Some (Matson, Shellard) date it earlier than Luke and even as one of Luke’s sources. It may be significant that John’s gospel states that only seven apostles were present at Jesus’ final resurrection appearance in Galilee.

All Twelve get there in the end — Justin Martyr

Justin appears to be our earliest noncanonical source to inform us that all Twelve disciples from the very day of Christ’s resurrection were granted a collective meeting with their freshly reconstituted Jesus, and from that moment they (all 12) went out to all the world preaching the gospel. (See links to my grid outlining Justin’s knowledge of the gospel narrative in my Justin archive.)

Justin has some knowledge of the top three (Peter, James and John — cf Paul’s namesakes above) being given their special sobriquets; and from the way he depicts all Twelve picking up with Jesus immediately the day of his resurrection, he gives the very strong appearance of having no inkling of a Judas character and role among them. There is certainly no 40 day period from the day of the resurrection to the date they set to leave Palestine to evangelize the world, which would be the minimum required if Justin had ever read and attributed any importance to Acts. Justin informs his readers that the Twelve were confronted by the resurrected Jesus the day of his resurrection and from that moment went out preaching to the world. Almost at the same time Rome sent in her armies to overthrow the Jewish king Herod, who was thus the last of the kings of Judah. And quite appropriately too, now that the Messiah had come — as per the prophecy of Jewish scriptures. One notes that Justin is guided in his “knowledge” of history by his faith in his reading of prophecies. There was, of course, 40 years from the time of Pilate to the time of the Jewish war.

But what is of significance here is that Justin speaks of the Twelve as if they are a formal entity from the time of Jesus, and he does so with no clear reference to any of our canonical gospels or Acts. There is no Judas, no waiting till Pentecost, no waiting in Jerusalem or conversions of thousands of Jews as per Acts at all. Indeed, it is at the time of Jesus’ resurrection appearance that he appears to introduce the eucharist and all the rest of the church ordinances. Justin appears to know of no “narrative” as such – only a mechanistic function of the Twelve in relation to how the Christian movement was instituted and spread.

It is also significant that Justin knows, and is heatedly opposed to, Marcion. Marcion opposed the “Judaistic” type of Christianity Justin stood for. Justin found Christ in the Jewish scriptures, through an allegorical or typological reading of them. Justin found “historical” authority in the Jewish scriptures through the Twelve apostles who had seen the risen Jesus and relayed his gospel to the world. Marcion claimed that the Twelve were, rather, false apostles standing in opposition to the true gospel revealed to Paul.

Make that the “Number” 12 that gets there — Luke-Acts

Luke is the first canonical author who is particularly precious about the precise number — Twelve — all surviving to become the witnesses of Jesus. He has to deal with Judas as a result of his predecessors Mark and Matthew depicting him as the most obvious renegade. It is doubtful that Mark saw much difference between the first (Peter) and last (Judas) named in his list of apostles, as alluded to above. But Matthew and Luke played up Judas as an arch villain unlike any of the others. Matthew’s Judas takes upon himself full responsibility by his display of remorse and suicide; Luke’s Judas is possessed by Satan. Their special treatment (scapegoating) of Judas in effect exculpated the remaining Eleven.

When Luke’s Jesus appears to the remaining Eleven there happen to be a number of others with them (Luke 24:33). Thus the reader is prepared for Acts where the “apostolic office” of Judas must be reoccupied, and the necessary qualification is that such a one be a witness of the resurrection. Luke devotes the better part of an entire chapter to describing step by step how the Judas position among the Twelve was replaced.

The number Twelve — in their full complement — was important to Luke. (It was also important to the author of 1 Corinthians 15:5, who was almost certainly someone living long after Paul.)

And it was taken for granted by Justin.

And as the number of true apostolic witnesses of Jesus and the gospel it stood in opposition to Marcion.

The Twelve finally fully co-opted

Tyson’s, and Hoffmann’s, arguments that Luke-Acts was a product of a controversy between orthodoxy and Marcionism in the first half of the second century seems to me to fit neatly into what appears to be an evolving role for the Twelve. The earliest “proto-orthodox” gospel, insofar as it acknowledged a significant role for the Jewish scriptures in relation to Jesus, was Mark’s. Mark’s was a Pauline gospel that, as we find in Paul’s letters themselves, denigrated and denounced the Twelve.

Marcion agreed with Mark’s interpretation of the Twelve, but would not concede Mark’s interpretation of the relevance of the Jewish scriptures. (I think. Though this is something I’m still trying to work through.) Mark would not be the only renegade in Marcion’s ambit. Apelles was another to later depart from some of his teacher’s doctrines. (cf Paul’s Apollos??)

Matthew was the first to respond acidly against Mark (and Marcion?) with his pro-law, even “exceedingly” pro-law, gospel. And this involved the conversion of the leader Peter from rocky dirt to foundation stone. And since up till Matthew’s time Peter, James and John had been singled out as the most notable leaders of the Jerusalem based church, Matthew also focused on establishing those three, or particularly one of them, as their stable leader. Even James and John were redeemed insofar as Matthew rewrote Mark’s story about their vain approach to Jesus to ask to be his chief agents in the kingdom. Matthew turned this around so that it was their interfering mother who did the dirty, thus no doubt embarrassing the Jesus-sandals off them in the process (Matt. 20: 20).

We know from Justin’s mention of the name Marcion that he was a contemporary. And we have, I believe, strong grounds for seeing canonical Luke-Acts as also a product of the time of orthodoxy’s maturing battle with Marcionism (see the Tyson and Marcion archives). Both Justin and Luke-Acts speak with one voice of the role of the Twelve as the orthodox foundation upon the ultimate foundation of Jesus himself.

Justin could mention and denounce the name of Marcion, but he had not a negative word about the Twelve who represented the alternative to Paul’s/Marcion’s teaching. Justin could or would not mention the name of Paul.

Luke would rehabilitate Paul by recasting him as a moderate or liberal “Judaizer” subordinate to the Twelve. But he could never mention Marcion. He accepted the blemished legacy of the Twelve from Mark and Matthew, and made full amends in the opening of his second volume.

I can only guess the authors’ specific rationales behind each rung of the ladder leading the Twelve from ignominy to foundational status.

But given the current widely accepted relative datings of Paul’s epistles, Mark, Matthew and Luke-Acts at least, and perhaps Justin Martyr, that there was such an evolution and gradual rehabilitation, or more likely co-option, of the Twelve, does seem likely. Yes?

  • 2008-01-26 10:12:57 UTC - 10:12 | Permalink

    Very interesting. Peter (and apostles) versus Paul, manifests later as Catholic versus reformation when people are given the opportunity to read the gospels for themselves. The subsequent degeneration of the reformed church might almost justify the apostolic tradition of the romans.

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