Almost as fundamental to the Christian narrative as the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is surely the calling, election and sending forth of the twelve disciples to preach the gospel.
But of all the evangelists to which our canonical gospels have been attributed, only one unequivocally delivers this message. Only the author (or final canonical-redactor) of Luke-Acts unambiguously pronounces that the twelve disciples called by Jesus were endowed with power and sent forth (with only one name-switch) as the twelve apostles to be witnesses of Jesus from Jerusalem “unto the uttermost parts of the earth.”
The Gospel of Mark concludes (at 16:8) with the question left hanging as to whether the twelve disciples ever received the message and were converted at all; the Gospel of Matthew concludes (28:17) with the possibility that some of the disciples did not believe that they saw the resurrected Jesus; the Gospel of John’s post-crucifixion scenes portray a rivalry between Peter and John in the race to the tomb and as regards who was the one of these to have faith (20:3-8), and then a diminution of the authority of Thomas (20:24-29). (For reasons I will delay for another post, Thomas appears to be criticized as the leader of a rival sect to the Johannine Christians — Gregory Riley sees the rivalry being prompted over the nature of the resurrected body; April DeConick argues the rivalry is over the need for a vision as opposed to the need for faith. Either way, John’s gospel is written as a rebuttal of another apostle’s – or even apostles’ – doctrines.)
And then we finally have Luke-Acts, . . . . (I ought to explain that I lean towards the final “canonical” Luke-Acts being completed after the composition of our canonical gospels of Mark, Matthew and John — following Matson, Shellard, Wills . . . ) . . . . and then we see a most diligent effort not only to establish the authority of Twelve Apostles, but even to push the idea that Paul, too, was on the side of the Twelve, and as good as a “thirteenth”, such is the unity proclaimed in this Gospel-Acts narrative.
Now the ambiguity arising among modern readers’ perceptions obviously cannot be used to argue that ambiguity was the intent of the original authors. Maybe, just maybe, we can argue that both Mark and Matthew did intend readers to understand that all Twelve were duly converted and faithful witnesses.
But it is hard to see the Gospel of John this way. The argument that the author of the Gospel of John knew the Gospel of Mark is “overwhelming” in my view: how better to explain that neat literary symmetry of Peter’s threefold denial wedged between the confessions of Christ, and a few other tiny resonating details?
And we do know from the Nag Hammadi find, and the testimony of Irenaeus, that there were Christian groups who adhered to one apostle or disciple of Jesus over others, and the differences are reflected in variant understandings of the teachings of Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas is possibly the most well known, along with its deviations from the canonical Gospels.
Now this fact raises a question in the minds of anyone who has assumed that Christianity was initially propagated by twelve apostles who had been personally taught by Jesus for a year or three-and-a-half. How could such divergences arise from this scenario?
Keep thinking . . . .
Finally, does it not make more sense that Christianities claiming derivations from this or that apostle should have been an “original” stage of Christianity, and that any literary effort to propagate the idea that all of these apostles were really all the one and the same should be a reactionary catholicizing development?
This idea does make more sense to me, at least till I learn that I might be overlooking something obvious.
Do we not see even more reason to think this way when we recognize the meanings of some of the names of these apostles? Paul, apparently meaning “small”, with the idea of “smallness” being a gnostic trope; Peter, meaning “rock”, being found to be the leader of unfruitful rocky soil in Mark and the “Rock” of the church in the Gospel of Matthew; Thomas meaning “Twin”, and the idea of being a twin or alike Jesus being an acknowledged doctrine among other early Christians. . . . .
Luke-Acts is not known – at least Acts is definitely not known – until the mid to later part of the second century. We learn of the first public awareness of this book with Irenaeus.
One can understand a later author attempting to reconcile the many Christianities by propagating the unity of the “Twelve” – along with Paul, and along with the women and a multitude of other disciples.
It is harder to construct scenarios for a tradition that the one faith began with the teachings of Twelve, yet only this name or that name became the vehicle of “The Truth”, along with gospels apparently written to denounce or correct this or that disciple.
I know that “the twelve” are mentioned in the Gospel of John, but do a word search on “twelve” in the gospel of John, and not the perfunctory nature of the appearance of “twelve disciples”. The “Twelve” are not an integral part of the Gospel at all. And this opens up other questions about the narrative integrity of the Twelve in the other gospels, too. What are they supposed to achieve “as twelve”?
I suspect that the original Gospel of John knew of no such number of disciples (more likely only 7) and that the “twelve” was a later insertion to help conform this wayward gospel into good catholicizing correct political thought.