2007-10-14

The Call of Levi not to be one of the Twelve

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by Neil Godfrey

The Gospel of Mark contains a story about the call of Levi, a tax collector, to follow Jesus as one of his disciples, but then mystifies readers by not listing this person in the ranks of the famous Twelve. The reason this omission is so mystifying is that the call of Levi is described in a way that sounds every bit as if the reader is meant to see his calling on the same level of distinctiveness as the calling of the very leaders of the Twelve, Peter, James and John.

But to me the mystery is clarified when we interpret the two callings through the same frameworks we use to generally interpret Mark’s other double-up stories.

The call of leaders of the Twelve

  • Jesus is walking along the “Sea of Galilee” (1:16)
  • Jesus sees Simon and Andrew, brothers, at their regular fishing work
  • Jesus says to them: Follow me etc
  • These strong-willed fishermen immediately stop work and follow him
  • Jesus continues his walk along the Sea of Galilee
  • Jesus sees James and John, brothers, doing their regular fishing work
  • Jesus calls them
  • They also stop work and follow him

These psychologically bizarre but theologically poignant scenes of immediate response to a divine calling are clearly modeled on the classic tale of Elijah’s calling of his successor, Elisha, in 1 Kings 19:19-21.

(I will not repeat here but merely mention the numerous arguments for the Gospel of Mark being written as an attack that branch of Christianity that declared itself founded on the institution or heritage of the Twelve from Jerusalem.)

The call of Elisha

  • Elijah is walking along
  • He sees Elisha who is doing his regular farm work of ploughing a field
  • Elijah calls him to follow by throwing his prophet’s cloak on him
  • Elisha begs to be allowed to say Farewell to his parents first
  • Elisha then forsakes all (burned the farming equipment and cooked the farm animals) and follows him

So Mark’s disciples of Jesus begin their careers two points up on Elisha. They only needed a word, not a physical sign, from their mysterious Caller, and they followed immediately without so much as a filial farewell to their worldly families, thus proving their greater godly zeal and worthiness.

Compare the call of Levi the tax-collector

  • Jesus is walking “again” by the Sea (Mark 2:13)
  • But this time there was a huge crowd with him
  • Walking by, Jesus saw Levi who was doing his regular work of tax accounting
  • Jesus said, Follow me
  • Levi immediately left his desk job and followed him

So when we come to Mark’s famous list of the names of the Twelve disciples (3:13-19) where we see Simon, Andrew, James and John the first listed, we hold breath waiting to see Levi’s name also flash up in lights. But it never comes. The closest teasing reminder of his name is a nondescript “James the son of Alphaeus”. Levi was also said to have been a son of Alphaeus. What has happened here? Was Levi a victim of cut-throat sibling rivalry for the inner job?The author of the Gospel of Matthew will have none of this. He re-writes Mark’s call of Levi with a name-change. He swaps the name Levi for that of one of the Twelve disciples, and the one he chose was Matthew (Matt. 9:9). (An easy enough choice, perhaps, since Matthew has a generic meaning of “disciple” anyway.) And he drops the name Alphaeus completely from any association with this person. So when the reader comes to the list of Twelve names and sees Matthew there, she is duly informed that this Matthew had a special calling comparable to that of the pillars Peter, James and John. But since this same Matthew plays no further role in the gospel, commentators have speculated ever since that the description of the calling of Matthew (not Levi), one of the Twelve, is a flag to indicate the identity of the author.

This entirely speculative reconstruction implies two rather unchristian things about Matthew:

  1. he was egocentric enough to be offended over the apparent omission of his identity from the Big Twelve;
  2. he wanted to dissociate himself from not only his brother but even his own father, Alphaeus.

But I don’t judge him so harshly. There’s a much simpler and more charitable explanation for his re-write of Mark’s account, which this post will explain.

Mark’s double accounts

Mark’s most prominent doubled story is the miraculous feeding of the large crowds, first the 5000 men, and secondly the 4000. This doubled story is not a later redactor’s oversight or clumsiness. Mark regularly doubles his stories by introducing the second time with the Greek word for “again”. He is telling his readers that, Yes, they have heard something like this before, so it is part of the game to try to spot the differences and get the message. Some translations of Mark 8:1 that introduces the Feeding of the 4000 hide this fact by writing, A very great multitude having nothing to eat, instead of, Again a great multitude having nothing to eat . . . Mark is very conscious of all his “agains” to alert readers to his doubled up stories:

  • Then they went into Capernaum – 1:21
  • And again he entered Capernaum – 2:1
  • He entered the synagogue – 1:21
  • And he entered the synagogue again – 3:1
  • He walked by the Sea of Galilee – 1:16
  • He went out again by the Sea – 2:13

The repetitions are consciously structured by the author and are not subsequent accidental redactions. And some of them at least are clearly designed to point to firstly a Jewish and secondly a Gentile application of themes and messages, presumably in an attempt to demonstrate the unity of Jew and Gentile in the church. The Feeding of the 5000 takes place in a Jewish area and the Jewish character of the miracle is underscored with the 12 baskets (compare 12 tribes of Israel) of scraps taken up at the end. The miraculous Feeding of the 4000 takes place while Jesus has been visiting the gentile region of Tyre and Sidon and is on the Decapolis side of the “Sea of Galilee”.

Another double is the exorcism performed on a man in a synagogue on a Sabbath day, in Capernaum. Another is performed on a man in a place of pigs, in a region of Gadarenes, and with references to Legion. Sabbath and synagogue are central to the former; pigs and (Roman) Legion central to the latter. Jewish and Gentile episodes are set in apposition.

But not all doubles are about Jew and Gentile counterparts. Others appear to be about physical and spiritual, shadow and substance, or paradoxical reversals.

  • The heavens are torn apart at the baptism of Jesus (1:10)
  • The temple curtain (decorated with the patterns of heaven) are torn at the death of Jesus (15:38)
  • Jesus heals a “withered” hand so that it is made whole (3:1)
  • Jesus curses a fig tree so that it becomes “withered” (11:21)
  • Jesus tells a leper to be silent but he speaks to all
  • A young man tells the women to tell all but they remain silent
  • Early morning Jesus’ followers look for him, find him and continue with him throughout Galilee
  • Early morning Jesus’ followers look for him, but do not find him, since he has gone to Galilee
  • A paralytic reaches Jesus inside a house by having the roof dug out
  • Jesus is laid in a tomb that has been hewn out of rock
  • A very large crowd blocks the entrance to the house but the healed paralytic is able to walk out
  • A very large stone blocks the entrance to the tomb but the resurrected Jesus is able to walk out
  • The first house Jesus enters in Galilee belongs to Simon his disciple; there a woman serves him; his disciples are devoted to him
  • The first house Jesus enters in Judea belongs to Simon the leper; there a woman anoints him; his disciples turn against him

With these contrasts, echoes, doublets, we have a broader context through which to compare the callings of the first four disciples and Levi.

The calling of Peter, Andrew, James and John are clearly the calling of the leaders of the Twelve. Peter, James and John in particular appear as Jesus’ inner circle throughout the gospel. Presumably their names are derived from the same three leaders of the Jerusalem church known to the author of Galatians. Paul does not hide his underwhelmed feelings for their “supposed status”. He even lumps Peter and those sent by James in the same bag as “false brethren” when they insist on observance of the Jewish customs. Given that 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 is almost certainly a later interpolation (See Price’s Apocryphal Apparitions), the Corinthian correspondence also shows Paul’s dismissal of the status of Peter and the other most “eminent apostles” (1 Cor.1:12; 2 Cor.11-12). One cannot but be reminded of the early division in Christianity between the anti-Jewish pro-Pauline Marcionites and the pro-Jewish scriptures and pro-Twelve “proto-orthodox” represented by the writings of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian. (I know, this will seem bizarre to those assuming a date for Mark well within the first century c.e. The date of the composition of Mark is another issue I have discussed elsewhere and will no doubt do so again.)

Peter and the rest of the Twelve fare no better in the Gospel of Mark. Peter (meaning “rock”) stands for all Twelve who are addressed in the parable as the “rocky soil” lacking sufficient depth to be lastingly fruitful. A reader may even be expected to hear an echo of his name at the burial of Jesus when Mark says the corpse was placed in a dug-out “petra” rock (1:46) and which it soon left behind as an empty hole.

The Twelve, led by Peter, James and John, represent the Jewish brethren whose understanding of the Gospel is limited. Jesus regularly complained over their lack of comprehension; they slept through Gethsemane and awoke to find themselves still on the side of Satan attempting to prevent Christ from going the way of suffering and denying him when they saw they could not succeed.

So where does all this leave Levi?

His calling is clearly meant to be interpreted as a calling to be one of Jesus’ “inner disciples”. The narrative has too many resonances with the calling of the leaders of the Twelve to be taken as anything else.

This is where the differences need some thought. Levi is a tax-collector. His job is to take money from his fellow Jews and give it to gentiles. He has many tax-collector friends. He also has many “sinner” friends. And they all come together to have a feast with him and Jesus.

But Jesus also came to Levi with a large crowd which included his disciples. So there were two large groups in Levi’s house: the tax-collectors and sinners and the disciples of Jesus and the multitude with them.

The scribes and Pharisees who looked in had no problem with the crowds on the side of the disciples, but they did raise censorious eyebrows over the “tax-collectors and sinners” from Levi’s side. So they asked the disciples why Jesus mixed with them. Interestingly the disciples do not reply. Presumably we are meant to imagine that they don’t understand either. Maybe they passed on the question to Jesus himself. Because it was Jesus who answered them:

When Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.’ (2:17)

The alert reader will notice that the scribes, Pharisees, and Jesus all addressed Levi’s followers as “the sinners”. The assumption behind the question of the scribes and Pharisees and the response from Jesus is that the disciples are not sinners, but the righteous. The same letter in which Paul accused Peter of acting the same way as “false brethren” also addresses gentiles as “sinners” in the sense of being outside the Jewish covenant (Galatians 2:15)

Those with Levi are the “unwashed”, those who are as far removed from normal Jewish religious observances as are the gentiles. The tax-collectors among them even work for the gentiles. Jesus compares his disciples, on the other hand, only a few versus later, to the followers of David. Later we learn that those same disciples, with the minds of the “righteous” Pharisees, attempted to turn away children from coming close to Jesus; and to stop a man performing exorcisms in Jesus’ name independently of their group. Levi’s house filled with tax-collectors and sinners does not sound like that sort of exclusivist place. The disciples are only there mixing with them at all because of Jesus.

Compare the first called of the Twelve, Simon Peter. The first act after his call and that of his colleagues was to enter a synagogue on the Sabbath and to effectively “cleanse” that synagogue by exorcising a demon from among the worshipers there. After that, they visited Simon’s house. Not the vast numbers of tax-collectors and sinners there, but a sick relative. Jesus healed her and she served Jesus and his close disciples.

  • As soon as they left the synagogue they entered the house of Simon
  • Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick
  • He came and healed her
  • She served them (presumably with food)

The scene subsequent to the call of Levi could not be more different.

  • He entered Levi’s house
  • He was dining there with his followers
  • Jesus refers to the crowd as the sick
  • And to himself as their physician

No synagogue, no Sabbath. Just straight to Levi’s house. Not to heal a solitary woman, but to feast with multitudes of tax-collectors and sinners. Why? Their invitation was an act of healing. Jesus, the physician, called the sick this time. That is, Levi and his many friends.

Simon Peter and the Twelve were not sick, although they did know a few who were sick, such as an in-law (not blood) relative of Simon’s. With Jesus they only reached Simon’s house after first negotiating, as “righteous” Jews, the synagogue on the Sabbath. Levi and his friends went straight from Call to House where they celebrated their newfound association with Jesus and his disciples.

I cannot prove but cannot avoid suspecting that the author of this gospel is setting up Levi as a personification of the call of the gentiles. He is the representative apostle to the gentiles. This accounts for his apposition to the call of the Jerusalem/Jewish apostles, and his absence from the list of the Twelve. It also accounts for the differences in narrative sequence (synagogue/no synagogue intervention), terminology (tax-collectors and sinners for the sick), and micro-themes (immediate large scale celebration) between his call and the call and subsequent movements of the leaders of the Twelve.

Why would the name Levi be changed to Matthew?

Answer: Because the author of the Gospel of Matthew was in many ways determined to re-write Mark and rehabilitate his basic gospel into a Jewish-“proto-orthodox” Christianity. Matthew’s Jesus did not send his disciples to the gentiles until after his resurrection (c.f. Matthew 10:5 and Matthew 28:19); Matthew’s Jesus upheld the law (Matthew 5:17); Matthew’s gospel established Peter and the Twelve as the foundations of the Church (Matthew 16:18).

Mark had already listed the names of the Twelve disciples. Levi was not among them. All it took to restore order, and the authority of the Twelve, was to rename Levi to be one of the Twelve. The most generic name of all, Matthew (meaning “disciple), was taken to replace that of Levi.

Son of Alphaeus?

There remains the curious link Mark establishes between Levi and the Twelve. Both Levi and a certain James in the list of Twelve are sons of Alphaeus. Again one cannot help but wonder (which is why this is in a blog and nowhere else) if the author is pointing to a link nonetheless. Jew and Gentile were, ideally, one in Christ. Reality may have meant something closer to a situation involving family hostilities and disputes, but the unified family idea was nonetheless the ideal and perhaps even the historical beginnings.


Source of the Levi call?
1 Kings 12:31-13:8 – If Mark’s call of Levi is “opposite” each of the following points, does it not stand to reason he had “the opposite” in mind as he wrote?

  • The northern tribes of Israel established a new priesthood from “every class of person [meaning the dregs of society] who were NOT of the [Jewish] sons of Levi” (1 Kings 12:31)
  • Levi with tax-collectors and sinners (Mark 2:16)
  • A feast was celebrated (1 Kings 12:32-33)
  • Jesus dining with Levi and his friends (Mark 2:15)
  • A man of God foretold doom on the established religion by prophesying the birth of a Son of David (1 Kings 13:2)
  • Jesus, thought to be a Son of David, is a central character with Levi (Mark 3:17)
  • and the “splitting apart” of an altar and a “pouring out” of its ashes (1 Kings 13:3)
  • Jesus speaks of garments and wineskins tearing apart to indicate the end of the old covenant (Mark 3:21-22)
  • The king wanting to arrest the prophet stretched out his hand (1 Kings 13:4)
  • Pharisees wanted to arrest and kill Jesus were offended when he told a cripple to stretch out his hand (Mark 3:5)
  • which was withered (1 Kings 13:4)
  • the hand stretched forth was withered (Mark 3:1)
  • The king asked for his hand to be healed (1 Kings 13:6)
  • The expectation was that Jesus would heal the hand (Mark 3:2)
  • The king invited the healing prophet to his house but the prophet refused (1 Kings 13:7-8)
  • The healer entered and was entertained in the house (Mark 2:15)

Has Mark taken the ancient anti-Levi priesthood of northern Israel as a creative template for his narrative of a truly “spiritual Levi” pro-gentile priesthood set in Galilee?


After-after thought:
Not only the call of Elisha but also Achilles?? Mark is the only evangelist to speak of the Sea of Galilee. This body of water is pretty big for a lake but it’s by no means “a sea”. Dennis MacDonald argues that this is one of many instances where Mark is drawing on the imagery of Homer’s Odyssey, in particular the idea that the setting for the hero’s adventures is vast sea.Following this train of thought, I have sometimes wondered if the author of this gospel was not thinking of the call of Elisha only, but also perhaps drawing on the texts he came to know as he learned to read and write in Greek. Does the call of the disciples also echo just as strongly the call of Achilles?

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Neil Godfrey

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5 Comments

  • 2008-06-14 05:24:49 GMT+0000 - 05:24 | Permalink

    Since writing the above I have read an interesting discussion by Dale Miller (The Gospel of Mark as Midrash on earlier Jewish and New Testament Literature) in which he points to the possible significance in the name Alphaeus (the father of both Levi and one of the Twelve, James).

    Alphaeus (also transliterated from Hebrew as Chalphi – cf 1 Macc. 11:70), Miller says, has the meaning of “The Designation Given to a Child Thought of As a Substitute for One Lost”.

    Within the context of a larger discussion about the interest Mark shows in the theme of Twins and brother-pairs and namesake replacements, Miller suggests significance in James (or Jacob) being the namesake of the supplanting twin in Genesis. Here in Mark’s list of Twelve it appears that Levi has been supplanted.

    I think I recall Miller also pointing out the unusual combination of tax collector (Roman) and priestly name Levi (Jew) in Levi. Gentile and Jewish suggestions. Which makes me wonder again at the original significance of the name Levi, meaning “joiner”/”priestly go-between”.

  • Anonymous
    2010-06-23 02:23:02 GMT+0000 - 02:23 | Permalink

    I have a question, (this is good) but was Simon the Levi was he Judas Iscarior father? There’s no mention of him, he also was Jesus disciple.

  • 2010-06-23 21:10:54 GMT+0000 - 21:10 | Permalink

    Not sure I understand your question, sorry. Simon and Levi are listed as different people in Mark. The Gospel of John says Judas was the son of Simon, but I don’t know what or if there was any connection with Simon Peter.

  • Pingback: OT Sources for the Gospel of Mark, chapters 2 and 3 |

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