The Twelve: Justin Martyr vs Richard Bauckham

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by Neil Godfrey

Richard Bauckham writes in “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony” that the Twelve had been companions with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry and were chosen to be an authoritative body to act as eyewitness guarantors of the preservation and transmission of message of his life and resurrection.

This is a widespread orthodox view of the origin and role of the Twelve in the Christian churches today and I would be interested in tracking down the first time this view appears in any of our sources. In the book of Acts the Twelve are for the purpose of being a witness of the resurrection of Jesus, and the requirement that they had to have been with Jesus from the baptism of John appears to be specified as a requirement for just that — to be a witness to his resurrection (only). The most obvious connection between being with Jesus before his resurrection (‘from the baptism of John’) and being qualified to be a witness of the resurrection would appear to be that those who witnessed the resurrection also could testify that the one resurrected was the same Jesus who had lived in the flesh. But I return to Acts in a future post.

One of our earliest sources for Christian origins is Justin Martyr writing around 150 ce. He lived and traveled in the area north of Judea and in Rome and wrote to persuade Jews and gentiles of the Truth and Goodness of the newly emergent Christian belief. Most scholars accept that he knew and made reference to some early form of our gospels when he cited what he described as “The Memoirs of the Apostles”.

So it is worth observing what Justin Martyr has to say about the Twelve. Recall his intention was to persuade about the truth of Jesus being the Son of God. He used all the evidence he could muster from the Hebrew Scriptures in support of his claim, and even comparisons with pagan deities. It would have helped his case enormously if he could have added records of real-life historical eyewitnesses. But he knows nothing of the Twelve as an authoritative body for the preservation and transmission of the life of Jesus.

Justin does tell us what he knows of the Twelve in his First Apology (39, 45):

  • they were illiterate, without speaking ability
  • they went out from Jerusalem
  • to all races
  • announcing that they had been sent by Christ
  • to teach everyone the word of God and righteous living

The most they are ever said to have witness to was the suffering and resurrection of Christ, and it was the resurrected Christ who taught them how to interpret the scriptures. In The Dialogue with Trypho (53) Justin Martyr wrote:

Moreover, the prophet Zechariah foretold that this same Christ would be smitten, and His disciples scattered: which also took place. For after His crucifixion, the disciples that accompanied Him were dispersed, until He rose from the dead, and persuaded them that so it had been prophesied concerning Him, that He would suffer; and being thus persuaded, they went into all the world, and taught these truths.

One can consult all references to the Twelve in Justin Martyr in his First Apology 39 & 50; and the Dialogue with Trypho 42, 53, 106. Check the right margin the category of “Justin Martyr” to find links to table I have prepared summing up Justin’s knowledge of the gospel and early church narrative.

Justin Martyr breathes not a single word about the Twelve being authoritative guarantors of the transmission of their eyewitness testimony of the life of Jesus. The Twelve exist solely to give testimony to the resurrection of Christ and the teaching of righteousness. They are not named. (Only Peter is named and the nickname given to the sons of Zebedee and that is to “prove” Christ’s authority to name things as God does — DT 106.) They do not transmit or pass on any traditions about their experiences with the life of Jesus (except his resurrection and what he taught them on that one day) .

If Justin’s knowledge of Jesus was part of the authoritative transmission of those Twelve then one must ask why our canonical gospels do not, on the same authority, tell us

  • that Jesus had no genealogy at all,
  • that the Jordan river burst into flames when Jesus was baptized,
  • that Jesus was himself acquainted with sickness,
  • that Pilate was among the conspirators against Christ,
  • that it was the synagogue who condemned Christ to death and it was the Jews who pierced him under the direction of Herod,
  • that there was no Judas or betrayer among the Twelve and that the Twelve remained undivided throughout,
  • that the disciples deserted Jesus after, not before, he was crucified,
  • that Jesus instituted the eucharist on his resurrection day and that this was nothing more than to act as a symbolic reminder that he had come in the flesh,
  • that he taught them weekly church meetings, Sunday prayers and handouts to the poor on his resurrection day

So what happened to the authoritative body of Twelve who were meant to guarantee the preservation and transmission of their eyewitness experiences with Jesus? It appears to me that even in the time of Justin Martyr the story of the gospel narrative was still emerging. There was a wide range of stories developing and no single narrative had yet emerged that was to become the orthodox standard.

As far as Justin knows the Twelve went out immediately from Jerusalem after the resurrected Christ had explained to them the correct interpretation of the scriptures and the ordinances for correct worship. The job of this anonymous scattered collection of Twelve was to testify of the resurrection of Christ and preach righteousness. Meanwhile there were many various narratives existing about that Christ. The Twelve were not cited as authoritative support for any of them.

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “The Twelve: Justin Martyr vs Richard Bauckham”

    1. Roger Parvus argues that Paul is to be identified with Simon (of Simon Magus notoriety in Acts and the early fathers) and has his own reason for Justin’s silence in that context. See the last paragraph in his reply to Sabio.

      Even without this identification Paul was claimed as “The Apostle” by a number of the heretical schools and the “proto-orthodox” fought to win him for their own, partly through “restoring”/”editing” hiss letters.

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