Why Jesus chose the Twelve: Dale Allison’s exegesis

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by Neil Godfrey

The Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles. Russian, 14th century, Moscow Museum.

The Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles. Russian, 14th century, Moscow Museum.

Dale C. Allison in his recent book, Constructing Jesus, believes that we can learn, or at least “confirm”, what Jesus taught about the “end of the age” by looking at the careers of the Twelve Disciples/Apostles.

He begins by discussing various opinions about whether or not Jesus really did call twelve disciples at all, and if so, whether or not they constituted a formal institution of church leadership. I will look at that discussion in the next post.

So given that Jesus did indeed call “Twelve” as an ongoing institution, Dale Allison asks what was he thinking. Why did he do this?

This seems a strange question to ask if one is interested in a serious historical inquiry into the origins of Christianity. We simply don’t have any evidence to tell us what Jesus was thinking.

But Allison’s discussion is interesting because it does demonstrate for us lay people just how biblical scholars work. They are not doing historical research by sifting the evidence. They are doing biblical exegesis. And this makes sense, since they are for most part “theologians”, not “historians” in the same sense as the likes of Arnold Toynbee or G. R. Elton or Eric Hobsbawm.

Don’t misunderstand. I am not faulting Dale C. Allison for this. Allison quite candidly explains that his methods are circular and that what he is doing is exegesis. There is no pretence to lead readers to think he is doing something he is not. Some other biblical scholars I can think of could learn from him.

Allison does not claim to offer readers any evidence to answer the question from a historian’s viewpoint about what was in Jesus’ mind when he chose the Twelve. Rather, he looks at what different exegetes of biblical passages have suggested, and then gives his own reasons for opting for one over the other.

So what was he thinking?

Again and again, and with good reason, the secondary literature says this: he must have been thinking about Israel. Surely, within the context of ancient Judaism, twelve people naturally represented the twelve tribes. (p. 71)

Allison cites several examples to illustrate this statement:

  1. Genesis 49:28 — the 12 sons of Israel are the 12 tribes
  2. Exodus 24:4 — 12 pillars represent the 12 tribes
  3. Numbers 1:44 — 12 leading men of Israel represent the 12 tribes
  4. Deuteronomy 1:23 — “twelve of you, one from each tribe”
  5. Joshua 3:12 — 12 men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe
  6. Ezra 6:17 — 12 male goats, representing the 12 tribes of Israel
  7. Ezekiel 48:31 — 12 gates stand for the 12 tribes of Israel
  8. 1QM 2:2-3 — 12 Levites for the 12 tribes
  9. 1QM 5:2-3 — 12 commanders of the 12 tribes
  10. Pesiq. Rab. 4 — 12 months of the year, 12 hours of the night, 12 signs of the zodiac, etc are signs of the 12 tribes

Allison notes this is far from being a new “insight”. It has been among the older ecclesiastical commentators:

Theophylact in his commentary on Matthew 10:1 made the same observation.

Matthew Poole’s 1846 commentary, and John Wesley before him, said the same. Poole actually said that just as the 12 patriarchs begat the Jewish church, so the 12 disciples begat the gospel church.

Note that this is not “historical evidence” for what Jesus himself thought. It is entirely the interpretation of the twelve in the Gospels in the light of other Jewish writings about the twelve. Many earlier Jewish writings spoke of 12 representatives (of various kinds) of the twelve tribes of Israel, so it is reasonable to think the readers are meant to interpret the 12 disciples as also representing the 12 tribes. It tells us nothing of what Jesus himself thought, but only of a pattern readers discern across Jewish literature.

Allison, however, moves on beyond the ecclesiastical interpretations of these earlier exegetes. The twelve are not only to be seen as leaders of the church. Eschatology comes to the minds of “more recent exegetes”.

This is because ancient Jews commonly believed that the ten tribes had not been exiled into oblivion but rather, in the providence of God, had survived. “The number twelve must be related to the twelve tribes of Israel and more precisely to Israel’s rebirth in the end time, since the ten and a half tribes of the northern kingdom, overthrown in 722 BC, were considered lost or at least did not live in Palestine.” (Burchard) In fact, the dispersed dwelt, so rumor had it, in a place far away, from whence they would, in the latter days, return to the land: those exported in the past would be imported in the future. (p. 71-2)

The literary evidence for this belief being held among numbers of Jews includes:

  1. Many passages in the Jewish oracles (from Deut, 1 Chr, Neh, Ps, Isa, Jer, Ezek, Hos, Zeph, Zech, 2 Macc, Sir, Tob, Bar)  speak of the final gathering and return of the exiled Jews.
  2. 4 Ezra 13:40-47 — the lost tribes inhabit “Arzareth” (=”another land”, cf Deut. 29:28) beyond the Euphrates, and that in the last days they will return to Palestine.
  3. Allison cites the tenth benediction of Amidah, part of which goes back to pre-70 liturgical texts: “. . . You are praised, O Lord, who gathers in the outcasts of his people Israel.”
  4. Philo, in Rewards 163-172, also held this same hope.a

Apparently on the strength of these passages Allison concludes that

In short, many Jews at the turn of the era looked forward to a rebirth of the glory of David and Solomon, to a day when the Israelite dynasty would be again united, when all twelve tribes would be settled in the land, when there would be no more dispersion. (p. 72)

I fail to see how the above passages in inform us of what “many Jews look forward to” in the first half of the first century. To be able to establish such a claim we would need to have some evidence that demonstrated that such literary passages did indeed reflect what was on the minds of “many Jews” at that time. A few words from a liturgical prayer does not necessarily suggest an everyday ‘mindset’ to me; nor does a passage in Philo. Oracles may record many things of which many people may well be aware, but it is a different question to know the extent to which such details were really” in their minds” as distinct from a simply being a backdrop literary heritage (maintained by a small literary elite) that had no real impact on their daily consciousness.

Allison does cite E. P. Sanders who claims that there was “a general expectation” of the return of the tribes of Israel in the last days. I cannot comment on Sander’s arguments because Allison only quotes a general conclusion by Sanders and does not detail the evidence he presumably supplies in Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE – 66 CE, 1992.

Until I catch up with the evidence Sanders advances I can only say I do not know of any reason to confirm that there was such a general expectation among many Jews at this time. There may have been. But I have not yet seen the evidence which I do not deny exists somewhere, presumably in Sanders’ book, and presumably it goes beyond the 4 points above that Sanders cites as evidence.

Allison uses this “very common” belief in the future return of the exiled tribes of Israel to “naturally associate” this belief with Jesus’ “creation of a band of twelve”. (pp. 72-3)

That’s fine, but it is not “historical evidence” for what Jesus himself thought. Historians know, for example, what were the reasons so many young men rushed to go off to war in 1914, or why so many peasants came out in large mobs in Russia to redress their grievances in 1917. But such historical rubrics do not tell us about individual actors. Mr Plug enlisted for the trenches to escape creditors who were closing in on him after he had had a bad run with his plumbing business; Comrade Boris gathered with the mob to protest against the upper crust because he knew it would impress the pretty florist who was being molested by her landlord.

Notice also Allison’s bias (this is not censure against bias; we all must have biases) in the way he speaks of the twelve as the “creation” of a band of twelve. The word “creation” suggests the formal establishment of something more than just a roll call of twelve disciples. It speaks of an “institution”. This is, of course, going beyond the evidence we read in the Gospels. It is a debatable interpretation of that evidence that I will discuss in more detail in the next post.

But Allison continues to build his argument for what Jesus thought solely on the assumption that certain teachings are found in a range of Jewish texts were also not only in Jesus’ mind but compelling motivators in his psyche. But we absolutely no evidence to justify such a conclusion. Sure we can surmise that since there is a teaching in many scriptures, then we can think that the same teaching is in the minds of people at the time and place we are interested in, because we can assume that those people would have all been aware of those scriptures and had them in their minds and hearts. (Let’s not get into literacy levels and ratios of the populations who heard scriptures regularly preached, etc.) And then we can assume that if Jesus was a “typical member” of this “typical cultural cross-section” of Jews at the time, then he also thought and felt the same way. Forget the Mr Plugs and the Comrade Boris’s. In other words it is all surmise. It is all conjecture. We are not dealing with evidence of what Jesus thought. We are only dealing with a certain literary culture and making a whole lot of conjectural extrapolations.

Of the following Allison says “I do not know what is wrong with this argument”:

Indeed, the inference is so close to inevitable that Sanders and Fredriksen have found here support for a strongly eschatological Jesus. In the words of the former, “We can see that Jesus fitted his own work into Jewish eschatological expectation if we know only that he thought of there being twelve around him.” (p. 73)

This is surely a little leap here. We have no evidence — only conjecture — that Jesus chose twelve for the purpose of fitting in with the expectation of the Jews that there would be a return of the exiled tribes at the last days.

Marcus Borg has disagreed with this assessment. He has written that the choice of twelve only informs us that it had something to do with Israel, but need not suggest that it related to any particular eschatological expectations.

Allison counters:

This assertion . . . will hardly do. We should interpret Jesus within his historical context, which in this case means that we should gauge his apparent intent in terms of what his contemporaries, as best we can judge, believed about the twelve tribes. Beyond that, our sources are quite clear on the link between the Twelve and eschatology. Matthew 19:28 and Luke 22:28-30, as already observed, envisage the Twelve ruling or passing judgment upon the twelve tribes of Israel. Even if Jesus made no such pledge, the saying shows how readily the institution of the Twelve was associated with the regathering of all Israel. (p. 73)

Borg’s assertion does indeed interpret Jesus within his cultural context. But the eschatological mindset is not a fact, but an extrapolation from the general to the makeup of a particular individual, and even that “general” has been extrapolated, apparently, from some views expressed in literary texts. There is no evidence — only conjecture — to inform us that those texts do indeed represent the mindset of “his contemporaries”, with the assumption that those responsible for the preservation of those texts themselves represent the general mix of “his contemporaries”.

It would be different if we had some clear statement in a historical writing or other text that clearly did indicate what the Jews of that day and place actually did hold dear in their minds and hearts.

Yes, the sources are clear on a link between the twelve and eschatology. But look at the ten other links between 12 X’s and the 12 tribes and note that not one of those has to do with eschatology. To use texts that do link the twelve with eschatology to argue that those texts were also the motivating factor of Jesus, let alone in the “general expectations” of the people, is a leap. The leap is over a gap where we really need stepping stones of evidence.

The Jesus Seminar, Allison notes, also remarked upon the implication in the Gospels that the “twelve” are associated with eschatological expectations — the twelve are promised the rule of the twelve tribes in the kingdom of God. It is more likely, goes the argument, that it was the church, not Jesus, who identified itself as the new Israel awaiting the culmination of the endtime. (Allison cites Funk in connection with this argument, so anyone who knows who’s who will infer that he is referring to the American Jesus Seminar and not the British one. Maurice Casey has reminded us we must be careful to clarify the difference each time.)

But Dale Allison insists that such a view must truly have originated with Jesus. He even goes on to say what Jesus “seems to have had in mind”:

Jesus seems rather to have had in mind something like 4Q164 frg. 1, which concerns the twelve chiefs of the tribes of Israel in the last days; or T. Jud. 25:1-2, where the twelve risen sons of Jacob will wield the scepter in Israel; or T. Benj. 10:7, which has Benjamin predict of himself and his eleven brothers, “Then shall we also be raised, each of us over our tribe.” Michael Fuller, moreover, has observed that “several documents from Qumran attest to the belief that Jewish writers understood the reassembly of the twelve tribes to have been inaugurated in the appointment of tribal rules within the group’s hierarchy.” An analogy with Jesus and his twelve disciples suggests itself. (p. 74)

So we have an analogy between some Qumran texts and a narrative in some Gospels. This is not evidence for what Jesus himself thought. It is entirely conjecture.

Finally, Allison seeks to establish that the link between the twelve disciples and some expectation of the gathering of the tribes in the last days is not a metaphorical one, but “a literal expectation”. He does this by further analogies.

This time he takes his analogies not from supposedly contemporaneous events, but from the history of Jewish messianism that began in the second century with the Bar Kochba rebellion and has continued since through the Middle Ages and even to modern times.

  1. 1096: German Jews marched to Palestine expecting to be met by the ten lost tribes and the advent of the kingdom of God
  2. 1419: two Roman rabbis went around seeking information about the lost tribes
  3. 1500’s: David Reuben was believed by many Jews to have been the messiah’s forerunner when he asked the Pope for military equipment for some of the lost tribes
  4. 1600’s: Sabbati Sevi chose 12 rabbinic scholars to represent Israel — which followers thought would be restored

Allison concludes:

We have no reason whatsoever to surmise that first-century Jews, including Jesus, conceived the restoration of Israel in an utterly different way than did later Jews. . . . If, then, Jesus ever spoke of “the twelve tribes of Israel,” as Matthew and Luke report, he was not thinking about Galilean or Judean Jews or about a spiritual remnant or a new religious movement but rather about far-off exiles who would someday return to the land that God had long ago promised to Abraham and his descendants. (p. 75)

Odd that these twelve tribes of the future were, by Allison’s reckoning, presumably different from the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” in Matt. 10. Otherwise we would have a scene where Jesus told his disciples not to go to Gentiles but to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel — and off they went and returned again a few verses later having gone beyond the Euphrates and who knows, maybe into northern India too, or up into Scythia. And they all got back in time for tea of morsels of fish and bread with the 5000. And the Gospel authors continued the story without a whisper about their adventures. So nope, we have to understand that when Jesus speaks of the lost sheep of the house of Israel, he does not have Ezekiel’s lost tribes in mind at all. But when he speaks of the twelve tribes as opposed to the lost sheep of Israel, he does have Ezekiel’s lost sheep in mind. Tricky. No wonder the disciples were portrayed as dunces.

Sure, what Allison establishes is the clear possibility that Jesus might have had eschatological hopes in mind when he chose the twelve disciples. We see that such a link was there in some of the Jewish literature. We can’t know the extent to which those literary passages preoccupied the minds of most Jew in early to mid first century Palestine, let alone what any particular individual may have thought.

This is not a historical reconstruction of Jesus. It is a series of conjectures from a range of texts that were not authored by Jesus, that were authored some decades after Jesus, and that (unusually for histories and biographies of the day) do not cite any sources or the identities of their authors. We know the Gospels had theological agendas. We may conjecture that they contain memories of what Jesus himself taught. But at the same time we need to balance such conjectures against the visible evidence of narrative details being inspired by Old Testament narratives themselves. (Recall the recent posts on Spong. Not even Spong’s critical reviewer denies this aspect of Spong’s argument.)

If Mark’s gospel is the earliest to have been written, as most scholars believe today, then it is surely significant that the twelve disciples first appear when Jesus, just like Moses, is portrayed as moving towards “the sea” after a threat on his life, with a vast and mixed multitude following him; and he then ascends a mountain and calls his twelve to be with him (Mark 3). The analogies with the story of Moses and the call of Israel out of Egypt are like a light on a hill that cannot be hidden. Clearly the author is building his story out of what he knows of the tale in Exodus.

The evidence for the literary construction (not just interpretation, but invention) of the twelve is strong. I will look at some of Allison’s attempts to argue that the twelve were surely historical in the next post (or maybe one after that).

But as for Allison’s attempt to “construct Jesus” in this instance, I can see no evidence that Jesus did think the way Allison suggests in his choosing of the twelve disciples. I can see only analogy and conjecture. Exegesis. Not history.

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  • Daryl
    2011-01-13 07:33:58 UTC - 07:33 | Permalink

    I remember EP Sanders stating somewhere that we could find out what Jesus “thought”, although I can’t find the exact quote. Seems a difficult concept for the reasons you’ve just highlighted: length of time between events and writing down, different language (presumably), anonymous authors who don’t name their sources, etc. I guess it’s not completely impossible but, in the words of Baur, is it really probable?

    Also, does anyone else get the feeling that biblical scholars have access to sources that no one else does? Perhaps it’s just hyper-scepticism on my part.

    Excellent post.

  • 2011-01-13 12:22:46 UTC - 12:22 | Permalink

    Your point is well made. One of the reasons that I like Allison is that he realizes that he is not playing the “historical” game and therefore, for the most part, is useful for Christians. That is, I am a historical minimalist since it is clear that the Bible is theologically motivated and it is useless if its readers are not (a point that I’m sure causes a little throw up in your mouth).

    I really do like your blog but one thing that I must question: How can you doubt (and deride) Biblical Scholars so much and then use the Markan priority hypothesis that is endorsed by “most scholars?” Especially considering that hypothesis is full of problems and about as historical as well as…

    Also, if you were to help me understand “history” the way that you think I should what book would you say I ought to read first?

    • 2011-01-13 21:55:03 UTC - 21:55 | Permalink

      I have frequently said I have learned a lot from biblical scholars. It is their methodology for constructing the historical Jesus that I attempt to expose as logically flawed. I came to my perspective on historical Jesus scholars after reading books by the “minimalists” — Davies “In Search of Ancient Israel” (have outlined key sections in vridar.info), Lemche “The Israelites in History and Tradition”, Thompson’s “Our Mythic Past” (aka “The Bible in History”) and others, including dozens of journal articles by similalry minded scholars and their critics.

      It was the logic of their arguments that led me to compare what I know of the way history is practiced in nonbiblical areas with what I read in historical Jesus studies. There is no comparison. One works with evidence and uses criteria to interpret that evidence; the other has no evidence but seeks to create some by missapplying criteria designed to interpret and using them to ‘create’. It is a joke.

      (And evidence itself is always evaluated first in the former study, to see what questions can be asked of it legitimately, and to see if there is independent corroboration to give it credence; the HJ scholars generally keep interpretation of their sources separate so they can begin with the assumption that they really are about historial events — a ‘faith’ position, let’s say — and attempt to again manufacture “independent” attestations by disecting it into hypothetical independent oral or written strands. It is worthy of satire.)

      Some scholars attempt to rebut the above by saying that the minimalist’s arguments only apply in cases where there are centuries between the narrative text and the supposed historical events. But no, that is confusing the resultant finds of the method with the method itself. The method is actually based on an appeal for biblical scholars to do things the way other historians do them. See Lemche’s work above in particular for this.

      This is not to say that all nonbiblical historians get it right, either. Some of them are lazy, too, as I’ve also addressed in this blog. But when they are lazy or make mistakes their peers expose them soon enough. I have pointed out the contrast between Hobsbawm’s response to criticism over a failure to hew to the principle of external corroboration and the offended responses of biblical scholars when the same error is pointed out in their works.

      Maybe read Lemche first. That helped me clarify in my own mind what to be alert to when reading nonbiblical and biblical histories.

      Look also at academic history journal articles if you can. You will usually find short pieces discussing evidence, evidence, evidence. Contrast articles by theologians who think they are doing history: conjecture, conjecture, conjecture.

      If I sometimes “deride” biblical scholars it might be allusions to a few who have responded with less than professional and intellectually honest attitudes to those who radically question their assumptions and methods or who argue a very different model.

      I have a “Category” headed “Historiography” in the right margin here — that probably has too many posts in it now and needs to be broken down, but some posts in there link to other works and readings.

  • Steven Carr
    2011-01-13 17:36:18 UTC - 17:36 | Permalink

    Slightly off topic …


    ‘Ongoing since the beginning of the 1980’s, this renaissance has produced an abundance of Jesus studies that also display a welcome diversity of methods, approaches and hypotheses.’

    It seems Biblical scholars use a wide diversity of methods, not being constrained by the rigid, unflexible approaches used by historians in other fields.

  • BillWarrant
    2011-01-13 21:27:46 UTC - 21:27 | Permalink

    @S. Daniel Owens:

    We recently discussed Markan priority “here”

    I’d appreciate it if you would add a comment there to indicate what you find problematic about markan priority and which hypothesis you think is to be preferred (and why of course).

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