Manufacturing “evidence” for the historicity of 12 apostles

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by Neil Godfrey

An illustration of how evidence is manufactured to support historicity in biblical studies:  the twelve disciples

(The following criteria are taken from John Meier’s defence of the historicity of the Twelve, JBL, 116/4 (1997) 635-672 that promises to apply “with rigor” “the criteria of historicity” (636). This post is also in one sense a complement of my earlier post on the meanings of the names of the twelve disciples — a list that badly needs updating to incorporate a wider range of scholarly views.)

Criteria of multiple attestation

Attestation 1: It can be reasonably inferred that the author of Mark’s gospel knew of a list of names of twelve close followers of Jesus that he chose to edit and adapt to incorporate in his narrative. This is because of certain syntactical oddities in the list of names. John Meier writes of the Gospel of Mark’s list of Twelve (3:13-19) that

various repetitions, parenthetical explanations, and disruptions of syntax . . . create the overall impression that Mark is reworking and explaining an earlier tradition” (p. 645)

I don’t know if the author really was working from an earlier list, but I can accept that this is a reasonable argument to propose.

Attestation 2: Most variations in the four lists of apostolic names are minor and can be explained as the authors of Matthew and Luke’s gospels, and Acts, editing the list found in Mark’s gospel. But there is one major difference between the list found in Luke and that in Mark. Luke drops Mark’s Thaddeus and introduces Judas the son of James in his stead.

This can be interpreted as evidence that there was more than one set of names in different lists in circulation before the gospels were written. The author of the Gospel of Luke has seen the name of Jude the son of James in another list and chosen to use it in preference to a name Mark knew from his list.

This sounds reasonable, too. I actually suspect that Luke might have been written after John’s gospel, and that chances are that Luke chose to include the name of a Judas who was present at the Last Supper in John’s gospel. But not many would accept Luke being written with John in mind, so I see the plausibility that Luke was drawing from a different list of names from Mark’s.

Attestation 3: In the Gospel of John we read several references to “the twelve”. Their names are not listed. Just abrupt mentions in a couple of sections about the disciples being known as “the twelve”. Elsewhere in the gospel prominence is given names of disciples appear who do not appear in other lists. Again, this can be interpreted a number of ways, and it is reasonable to think that a party responsible for the transmission of the Gospel of John at some point knew of the “twelve” quite independently of those sources informing the synoptic gospels.

Attestation 4: One may reasonably infer that the authors of Q also knew of Jesus’ disciples numbering twelve:

{QS62}Judging Israel [Luke 22:28-30]
“And you who have followed me will sit on the thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

Attestation 5: Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians contains a passage that demonstrates a knowledge of “the twelve”:

He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (I Cor. 15:5)


It is indeed plausible to interpret the above evidence to think that the author of the Gospel of Mark did not invent the notion of the twelve and that he knew of a pre-existing list of names.

It is indeed most plausible that the author of Matthew’s gospel knew only Mark’s list and reworked it a little.

At the same time, we have absolutely no way of knowing anything more about the origins of a list Mark, and through Mark Matthew, may have worked from. Such a list may conceivably have been

  1. handed down from a scribe who was attempting to preserve the names of the twelve from historical memory.
  2. It may just as conceivably have been composed by a scribe who desired to flesh out, by creating individual names, what had up till then been an abstract notion of an anonymous set of twelve disciples.
  3. Or it could have been composed by someone who made up the notion of the twelve and their names from scratch.
  4. And/Or it could have represented names with special theological or local political or symbolic meanings, constructed as a tool or weapon to be deployed in a theological debate. (Witness, for example, the implied rivalry between Mary, Peter and John in the Fourth Gospel that the author narrates in order to assert the superiority of the Johannine school over the others.)
  5. Or maybe Mark did indeed invent the notion of the twelve, and for their names he was selecting from a pool of names larger (or smaller) than 12, and that accounts for his syntactical bumps.

Who knows? We cannot know.

But if the first option (a hand-me-down from historical memory) is assumed, then we must wonder why the author of Mark appears to have found some difficulty with it and felt a need to re-write parts of it. We must also wonder about the plausibility of a list with historical provenance being unknown to the author of Matthew.

As for the author of Luke apparently having knowledge of a different set of names, the same questions as above arise, plus two more:

  1. If Mark’s list was an edit of an earlier list, and Matthew’s was an edit of Mark’s list, is it not equally possible, even plausible, that Luke’s additional list was itself a reworking of Mark’s list. We cannot know the context of  any of these hypothetical lists, so we cannot dismiss this possibility simply because it contained a different name. Matthew’s also contained a new name (Matthew itself) and many see Matthew as simply reworking Mark here. In other words, how can we know if Luke’s additional list was not itself another mutation of Mark’s?
  2. If there was a group of twelve names handed down from historical memory then why would the names vary? Some have suggested that some apostles may have died or been otherwise replaced along the way, but this seems to me to make a mockery of the claim that Jesus addressed twelve individuals promising them rulership over the twelve tribes of Israel. Christian tradition is consistent in silence on any change over of occupancy of the twelve apart from the replacement of Judas by Matthias in the Book of Acts. Lists of variant names, I would think, point to various attempts for theological or political or other reasons apart from historical memory of different authors attempting to flesh out what originally began as a faceless narrative twelve.

Criterion of embarrassment

It is argued that the Twelve surely existed since it is irrational to imagine Christian authors later retrojecting their “heroes” back into a narrative where they, and Judas in particular, fail dismally.


It is rationality sublime to imagine Christian authors hearing the stories of their heroes, let’s say even from their heroes mouths directly, telling stories in the same vein as modern day Christian heroes who are adulated for their personal “confessions” of how they came through extreme trial and failure to be soon saved when confronted by their heavenly Lord. Paul gloried or boasted of his weaknesses for the express purpose of magnifying the glory of Christ in his life. Was his witness so unlike that of any other apostle?

It is rationality par excellence to imagine Christian authors comparing their heroes to biblical heroes of old, such as David who failed miserably but was held fast to the end, despite this, as one especially “chosen and beloved of God”.

It is equally rational to imagine Christian authors taking up the message of their heroes that Christ was their hero, and using the disciples as negative foils to further magnify the greatness of Jesus, yet in the end taking those foils and re-birthing them with the honour of being the direct witnesses of the resurrection, and earthly founders of the faith.

It is even more rational to imagine Christian authors taking a story of failure and re-shaping it into a story of ever greater success over time, just as Matthew built up Peter’s reputation as a pillar of the church.

The fact is that in the gospel narratives (some would say Mark is an exception) the heroes do not fail at all. As in any great drama, they suffer a long dark night of the soul, but emerge through it, through the one they live and die for, as the most privileged and blessed of all men when they witness and eat with the resurrected Jesus.

Fabricating evidence through “criteria”

Ancient historians who explore the course of democratic Athens and imperial Rome work with facts such as archaeological monuments, inscriptions, coins, clay shards and other artefacts that testify of individuals, political bodies, voting customs and economic structures, and literary works whose contents are in many respects supported by such evidence. They work with the data they have, and see how it can be best interpreted and understood. They do not attempt to establish the existence of a fact by criteria that work exclusively at the conceptual level of thought-experiments. These thought-experiments are also biased by the old “either-or”/”false dilemma” fallacy to default to the presumption of historicity.

The criteria that are said by biblical scholars to indicate degrees of probability of historicity are no such thing. They are “criteria” of “some other agent unknown” at play, but whether that is historical or literary or theological remains an open question. And the options need to be evaluated within the context of whatever the hard data really allows for date ranges of the gospels, and not be confined to a narrow limit that is determined by a conceptual model rather than raw data.

Those options especially deserve to be evaluated against the patent literary or theological meaning that the number twelve conveys among authors and audiences immersed in the Jewish scriptures. Especially in the context of the twelve tribes having no contemporary ethnological or genealogical or anything-but-a-literary meaning in the first centuries b.c.e. and c.e.


  • 2009-05-25 23:30:12 UTC - 23:30 | Permalink

    The only thing Meier is proving is that he is a Theologian and not a historian.

    Again, just like real estate, there are only 3 important criteria for witnesses:

    1) Source

    2) Source

    3) Source

    Meier’s basic problem is that he AVOIDS weighing his source evidence (what was written). He only analyzes and weighs the supposed implications from his source evidence which is exponentially weaker evidence than the source evidence itself.

    The correct starting point is weighing the source evidence itself and especially measuring the DISTANCE between theoretically good source evidence and the evidence he has. The criteria for source evidence again are:

    1) Credibility of source.

    2) Credibility of statement.

    3) Confirmation.

    4) Transmission of source.

    Avoidance of these criteria makes Meier’s related conclusions mean little. The related question is why Meier avoids proper criteria:

    1) Incompetent?

    2) Misled?

    3) Biased?

    4) Dishonest?


  • Anonymous
    2009-05-26 21:37:27 UTC - 21:37 | Permalink

    I don’t agree with all Meier’s reasoning here, but I do agree with his conclusion: the ‘twelve’ was a historical group. The strongest evidence is the criterion of embarrassment applied to 1 Cor 15:5, where Paul mentions the twelve. This group had the status of “apostles”. Paul was not one of the twelve, and his opponents probably made the most of it (1 Cor 9:1 shows Paul on the defence “Am I not an apostle?”). Keen to achieve the equivalent status, he broadened the meaning of “apostle” by telling his readers he was an apostle (e.g. 1 Cor 1:1).

  • 2009-05-26 21:46:41 UTC - 21:46 | Permalink

    (Continuing from the above) The point is that he would not have needed such subterfuge if there had been no ‘twelve’.

    You ask why Mark had difficulty with his list of the twelve. It was because it probably included James and Jude, Jesus’ brothers, and Mark was trying to downplay their significance, c.f. Mk 3:31-35. So he altered the list so that it would look as if they had not been apostles.

  • 2009-05-27 03:57:00 UTC - 03:57 | Permalink

    ‘Paul was not one of the twelve, and his opponents probably made the most of it …’

    I can’t really seeing Paul quaking at not being called one of the 12.

    Paul opponent – ‘Paul? Who he? Was he one of the 12? No. He was a nobody. He wasn’t one of the 12’.

    Paul ‘Not one of the 12? You mean like Judas?,Or Peter, who denied Jesus 3 times? Or Thomas, who doubted?, No, I wasn’t one of the 12.’

    The stories of the disciples must be true because they are portayed as failures, betrayers and doubters.

    And this is backed up by Paul’s clear embarrasment at not being counted among those failures, betrayers and doubters.

    Biblical historians have no methodology, because they have no sources – just anonymous works of no provenance which were written by their authors to countermand the other anonymous works which went before theirs.

  • 2009-05-27 09:42:06 UTC - 09:42 | Permalink

    Paul who in one place is on the defensive, “Am I not an apostle?” in ch.9, and in the next letter, ch.11, “I consider that I am not at all inferior to the most eminent apostles”, and who in Galatians stressed how unimpressed he was by the status of James, Peter and John, is the same Paul who wrote here, “For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle” . . . .?

    Sounds like Paul was torn with deep personal doubts or guilt about his apostleship status and went on a “defensive-attack” against anyone else who scratched this raw nerve of his. Or maybe we have further evidence of another pen being used for this 1 Cor 15 passage.

    But if we are going to apply some justifiable method to our examination of the sources over the question of the twelve, we need to have a strong justification (not just speculation) for reading any “apostleship” link at all to this supposedly earliest reference to the twelve — ca early 50’s c.e.

    The speculative arguments linking different verses from different books in different eras strike me as no different from the “methods” of the jig-saw fundamentalists who piece scripture to scripture to create a picture of whatever prophetic or historical or theological datum they like best. In other words they bring to all the disparate evidence the presumption of a certain historical model and read that into all the evidence. Astrologers do the same to prove their horoscopes. It is an entirely circular process.

  • NateP
    2011-09-23 02:09:35 UTC - 02:09 | Permalink

    Isn’t Galatians the more important source to work with here? I’m not sure if Meier ever treats it, but wouldn’t the final dagger in the historicity of Peter case be explaining Paul’s numerous references to Peter and meeting Peter in Galatians (which is certainly Pauline)?

    I can def say that this issue is one that keeps Bart Ehrman from giving mythicism a fair shake.

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