The Twelve Apostles had to be a very late invention, surely

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by Neil Godfrey

Greek Icon of the Twelve Apostles

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.

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Neil Godfrey

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22 thoughts on “The Twelve Apostles had to be a very late invention, surely”

    1. Many of my posts are taken from notes and thoughts I had been working out for a number of years before I (or anyone) knew what a blog was, and have been waiting to be written up since way back then. My former life was the Bible, and when I disposed of my faith, I was faced with the choice of never touching the Bible again or seeing if I could build something constructive on a wasted life. Many of my posts are reworked from drafts I have had sitting idle for some years. So most of the work was done long ago.

  1. But Neil, the disciples ran away from the garden of Gethsemene, leaving their leader to suffer crucifixion and death. The “early church” would never make up something like that, would they?


  2. Great article. I have often wondered how many of the fundamental Christian beliefs and themes are later than commonly believed. Good for transmission studies, not so good for orthodoxy.

  3. Paul gives some idea of the factions Christians were split into.

    1 Corinthians

    What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

    Did anybody follow the Twelve?

  4. Even as a believer I think I used to deep down wonder how confusion could have arisen over the names of all the Twelve, which we do see in the gospels. And even beyond the gospels there is confusion between Peter and Cephas — both names are used for the supposedly same person in Galatians within just a few verses, and in the Epistula Apostolorum the two names represent two different apostles.

    Maybe it’s just my personal quirk, but I would have thought that if Jesus had called 12-1+1 to be his witnesses, the names would have been memorized and established without any doubt from the very beginning. I mean, weren’t they considered to be the most important people alive at the time, being destined to be the rulers of the twelve tribes of Israel and all that, the very ones who ate honey and fish with the resurrected Jesus himself?

    But if we begin with a range of “Christianities” claiming some genealogy to a favoured name (arguably symbolic, too, like “Paul” meaning “small” — a core motif among gnostic groups), and someone later trying to catholicize these into “the Twelve”, it makes sense that there would be some variation on balance of names required to make up a neat 12. And if one sect traced its foundation to a visionary named Judas the Twin, the Twin meaning the “character reflection” of the Christ, then it is easy to understand how there might arise confusion over whether one of the names should be Judas or Thomas (meaning ‘the Twin’).

    I just find it a little odd that there could have arisen confusion any confusion at all over the names of the twelve people assigned to the be very emissaries of God and his Son and who had lived for three years daily with Jesus and seen him resurrected.

    1. I’m waiting for you to drop your thesis on us explaining how early Christian history is the invention of the second century Apostolic fathers who wanted Christianity to have its origins in first century Judaism. This pussy footing around about whether Paul is a fictional invention or not is confusing, I’m never sure what you actually believe about Christian origins!

  5. Dale Allison points out that human memory is fallible.

    Which explains why Christians had different lists of names in their Gospels…..

    I wonder why there is no similar confusion over the names of Muhammad’s wives.

    1. Yep, human memory is fallible, and I know quite often quite a few of us forget which day of the week it is, but luckily there are enough others around to keep such people in the know whenever needed. I have yet to find a whole neighbourhood simultaneously forgetting if today is Wednesday or Thursday and breaking apart into two factions with different calendars.

    2. Steve, while I haven’t read Allison’s book, it also doesn’t really matter in regards to this/your post. Islam was a unified military movement from act one, so it is easier to keep everyone on the same page. Christianity was a fairly loosey goosey organization without a clear command structure. That is why there aren’t 3 or 4 Korans. While I don’t think this will be accurate according to the Steven Carr, Ignorance is Strength! History of the World, that is my answer to why there is no similar confusion.

      1. ‘Christianity was a fairly loosey goosey organization without a clear command structure.’

        That explains the accurate oral tradition that was passed around about the sayings and deeds of Jesus , which however does not seem to have extended to remembering what exactly the names of the 12 disciples that God, sorry Jesus, had appointed.

          1. Yes, people are hardly likely to remember accurately what their Lord and Saviour said and did.

            Especially when all these sayings and deeds were so well known that Paul could simply allude to them in his letters, as everybody knew them all.

            1. Well known yes, accurately well known, maybe not, I mean it’s well known Nero fiddled while Rome burned, except he probably didn’t. At any rate the Gospels are at least 20 years (or if your Neil, nearly contemporary with or possibly earlier, who knows?) after Paul’s letters and at a time when nearly all adult witnesses would have been dead, so there odds are good that Paul’s deeds and words of Jesus are not Mark’s.

  6. There really is no historical evidence for the 12 Apostles or their actions, just myths and stories. Contrast this with the historical reality (or probability) that the family of Jeshua lived and preached in Jerusalem and led the Community of the Way. Even Paul had to acknowledge this historical reality. I wonder if the whole notion of the 12 Apostles was created to displace the importance of the family, just as the concept of Peter as the “Rock of the Church” must have been created to displace the importance of Mary Magdalene, who arguably was the first apostle.

    1. Contrast this with the historical reality (or probability) that the family of Jeshua lived and preached in Jerusalem and led the Community of the Way. Even Paul had to acknowledge this historical reality.

      Paul did not quite acknowledge this much.

        1. Well Mike, I have quoted five respected scholars within the field of biblical studies — Avalos, Stevan Davies, Hoffmann, Price, Thompson — who have all acknowledged the plausibility of the Christ Myth scenario, and quoted them in posts that even James McGrath has read. And one of those has acknowledged on this blog that the unpopularity of the Christ Myth idea among his academic peers has more to do with questions of security of tenure than the logic of the arguments.

          A scholar like Thompson may be dismissed as a crank in the U.S., but he is a giant in his field and has played a major role in turning the direction of biblical studies towards the principles of historical research as we find in nonbiblical historical topics.

          A number of historical Jesus scholars, or those who claim to be historians in the field of biblical studies, are not trained historians and have no awareness of how history is practiced outside their field, and I cite biblical scholar Scot McKnight for that statement. I am still waiting for McGrath to respond to McKnight’s criticisms that I have directed him to repeatedly.

          Biblical studies is a problematic field, as a number of recent publications have indicated, and the Avalos and McKnight publications are just two of a number of recent supports for this statement. The fact that scholars like McGrath and Crossley come here and respond with ignorant rudeness to my critiques ought to alert anyone to the likelihood that they have little substantial foundation for their works.

  7. I happened upon this older post and felt like responding to it.

    I’ve mentioned before, but not on this post, apparently, that Eisenman suggests that the ‘twelve apostles’ idea (and Paul’s three “pillars” James, Cephas and John in Gal. 2:9) has roots in the Community Rule of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In column 8, the leadership is said to have consisted of “twelve men and three priests” who are described as “an Everlasting Plantation” and “the Foundation of the Community” (col. 1 of the Damascus Document uses the similar refererence “Root of Planting”).

    These “twelve men and three priests” and are linked to the “precious cornerstone” and “way in the wilderness” verses of Is. 28:16 and 40:3, verses that are also used in the NT to describe Jesus and John the Baptist (e.g., Mk. 12:10 and 1:3).

    That Paul’s three “pillars” are distinct from “the twelve” (like the “three priests” in the Community Rule) is arguable from 1 Cor. 15:5: “[H]e appeared to Cephas, and then to the twelve.”

    Paul uses plant and foundation imagery to describe his own congregation: “I planted and Apollos watered, but God gave the growth … I laid a foundation … no other foundation can anyone lay” (1 Cor. 3:6-11).

    The Ascension of Isaiah also uses plant imagery in reference to “the twelve”: “[Beliar] will persecute the plant which the Twelve Apostles of the beloved have planted” (4:3).

    These and other similarities between the Scrolls and early Christian documents (like the “two spirits” and the “two ways” in the Community Rule and the Didache) convince me that the messianic sect in Judea that became Christianity is represented by the Dead Sea Scrolls.

    I suppose that the differing lists of apostles in the NT gospels are an invention, like their Jesus, but I think the basic idea reflected in earlier documents like Paul’s epistles, the Didache and the Ascension of Isaiah originated from the DSS community.

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