The Twelve: Dale Allison’s argument for their historical reality

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by Neil Godfrey

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This is from pages 67 to 76 of Constructing Jesus (2010) by Dale C. Allison. Allison begins with the evidence for the twelve.

1 Corinthians 15:5 is the earliest reference we think we have to the twelve. The letter is usually dated to the mid-50s, twenty or twenty-five years after the usually accepted date of Jesus’ crucifixion. It refers to the twelve as if the readers of the letter should already know who they are. (Will discuss the Corinthians passage again later in the post.)

3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. 6 After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. 7 After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. 8 Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.

The Gospel of Mark uses the same designation (“the twelve”) for disciples selected to be with Jesus: Mark 3:14 f.; 4:10; 6:7

[3:14] And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach,
[3:15] And to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils:

[4:10] And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable.

[6:7] And he called unto him the twelve, and began to send them forth by two and two; and gave them power over unclean spirits;

John’s gospel also speaks of these:

[6:67] Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?

[6:70] Jesus answered them, Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?
[6:71] He spake of Judas Iscariot the son of Simon: for he it was that should betray him, being one of the twelve.

[20:24] But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.

Then there is the story in Acts about the replacement being made for Judas. This is in Acts 1:12-26.

The book of Revelation also speaks of the twelve apostles:

21:14 Now the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

Then there is the famous passage in Matthew 19:28 and Luke 22:28-30 (considered by many to be derived from Q) that presumes the audience of Jesus is the twelve:

Matt: 19:28 So Jesus said to them, “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Luke 22:28 “But you are those who have continued with Me in My trials. 29 And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me, 30 that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

All this looks straightforward enough. Why should there be any doubt that Jesus really did have a band of twelve with him? A number of biblical scholars have raised doubts, however, and Allison attempt to persuade readers their doubts are groundless.

Before discussing Allison’s rebuttals of sceptics, it is worth noting what the above references do and do not say about the twelve. There is nothing here to indicate that the twelve were to have any sort of supervisory role over the church. They are simply said to have been chosen by Jesus to be with him and to preach and heal.

Are the twelve a mere legend?

Allison lists several names who believe they are: Bultmann, Andries van Aarde, Günter Klein, Philipp Vielhauer, Walter Schmithals.

One reason for doubting their historicity is 1 Corinthians 15:5 read through the perspective of the later Gospels. The Gospel narratives tell us that there were only eleven disciples who witnessed the resurrected Jesus, Judas having left the group. 1 Cor. 15:5 claims that Jesus appeared to “the twelve”.

This, of course, indicates that Judas was one of those to whom the resurrected Christ appeared. Schmithals has reasoned that Judas was therefore a post-Easter heretic, and the twelve themselves did not exist as a group until after Easter. They were later backdated to the time of Jesus, along with the apostasy of Judas.

Dale Allison describes Schmithals’ suggestion as a

series of conjectures, for which there is no real evidence (p. 68)

Allison then proceeds to replace this conjecture with another, and finds “supporting evidence” in the names of Greek and Roman political entities.

Perhaps to add a little more persuasiveness to his case Allison spells Twelve with a capital T, thus reinforcing in the reader’s mind that he sees them as a formally instituted body along the lines of the Thirty Tyrants of Athens or the second Triumvirate of Rome.

Since the twelve were chosen to represent the twelve tribes of Israel, the term “twelve” should be seen as something like a corporate body that was known as the Twelve despite (momentary) changes in its number of members.

So the Athenian political body 400 years before Christ was known as “The Thirty” even when two of its members (Critias and Hippomachus) were executed. Octavian and Mark Antony could still be referred to as triumvirs even after their original third member, Lepidus, was deposed. Allison’s argument with the latter is not clear to me. He says that “Triumvirate” was a “title” that was retained by Antony and Octavian, but Triumvirate is no more a title than is the Thirty. It is a name of a corporate entity. Simply calling two of the remaining members “triumvirs” as an identifier does not seem the same thing as saying that the Triumvirate itself was still acknowledged as a corporate entity once a member had left it. That would seem to be necessary if a genuine analogy is to be made with calling the Twelve a corporate entity independent of head-counts.

What does one make of an argument that relies on an analogy with institutions so far afield? Especially when one of the analogies belongs four centuries before Jesus in another culture and people, and the other seems to involve some fudging of the difference between a title and a corporate name that leaves it short of being a genuine analogy.

Underscoring these doubts, note that in the Gospel references cited above there is not the slightest suggestion that the twelve are to continue as a management board of the church after Jesus departs. Their only function is to be with Jesus and to teach and heal as directed. All views to the contrary rely, I believe, entirely on Acts. And Acts is surely a second-century propaganda and entertainment tract that ties the twelve to Jerusalem for catholicizing reasons. Its purpose is to bring together the Pauline Christians with those claiming links to the Twelve. (Have discussed this in depth with posts on works by Pervo and Tyson.)

A simpler alternative?

Is not there a simpler explanation that does not rely on such remote and specious analogies?

Try this.

The Corinthian passage, being written long before the Gospels, knew nothing of Judas or a betrayal. This is consistent with other Christian authors likewise appearing to know nothing of a traitor among the twelve.

  1. The Gospel of Peter knows nothing of a Judas and expressly states that after the crucifixion all twelve of the disciples of the Lord — not “The [impersonal] Twelve” — wept and grieved, and that “each one” departed to his home.
  2. Justin Martyr in the mid-second century appears to know only of this same or a similar narrative and nothing of a disciple who betrayed Jesus. He always speaks of the disciples as a united group that only had to repent of deserting Jesus at his crucifixion (not arrest), and to whom Jesus subsequently appeared.

Judas was later introduced into the developing narrative (see my earlier post on Spong’s discussion of this: Judas Did Not Exist for details).

This is surely the simplest accounting for the evidence we have. It explains why some Christians knew nothing of Judas and why, when Judas does first appear, his appearance is quite awkward without motivation and without any obvious necessity to make sense of the plot. It explains why the evidence appears to begin with no Judas, then moves to an inchoate Judas, then to more and more details being added over time, and why later authors came to find various ways to weave him more naturally into the plot.

The only thing one has to give up to make it work is faith in the historicity of the narrative in the canonical gospels.

If one wants to add a little more complexity then we can tag on the following.

The Corinthians reference to the twelve was, like the Book of Acts, a later catholicizing passage. As noted by Robert M. Price (The Pre-Nicene New Testament) the passage looks very much like it is trying to cover all the different Christianities into one basket. Jesus appears to individuals and groups who in other contexts appear to be in conflict with one another (e.g. Cephas and the twelve vs James and the apostles). Thus he appears to

  1. Cephas
  2. the twelve
  3. 500 (I haven’t read of anyone comparing this with the fifth century Athenian Council of 500 yet)
  4. James
  5. the apostles
  6. Paul

(There is more to the argument than this, but I’ll save the details for another post. Or maybe they can be found online anyway. Further, Robert Price, Arthur Drews, G. A. Wells, Winsome Munro, J. C. O’Neill and R. Joseph Hoffmann have argued that this reference is part of an extended passage that is a later insertion into Paul’s letter.)

The Jesus Seminar argument for the nonexistence of the twelve in the (first) lifetime of Jesus

Luckily Dale Allison explains that Robert Funk was the chief spokesperson for this Jesus Seminar or “independent” scholars and students like Maurice Casey and Stephanie Fisher would have been quite confused and possibly have thought he meant the British Jesus Seminar.

Funk finds significance in the absence of any mention of the twelve in the following:

  1. the earliest layer of the Sayings Gospel Q
  2. the Gospel of Thomas
  3. the Didache (apart from in the title which was not original)
  4. the first letter of Clement to the church at Corinth, ca 96 ce
  5. the letters of Ignatius, ca 110-117 ce

Support for “this highly symbolic designation” depends upon:

  1. the Gospel of Mark
  2. the later layer of Q
  3. a single reference in Paul (1 Cor. 15:5)

Funk adds:

However, Paul does not seem to know the twelve as an actual group of leaders with special authority. Instead, he is acquainted with an inner circle of “pillars” to which he refers in his letter to the Galatians (2:1-10). (p. 69 in Allison)

John Dominic Crossan has said:

If the institution of Twelve Apostles, with all its profound symbolic connotations, had been established by Jesus during his lifetime, it would have been more widely known and noted. (p. 70 in Allison)

Allison’s response

Allison objects to the (American) Jesus Seminar’s arguments from silence re the capital T Twelve in the cases of Q, Thomas, et al.

The absence of the Twelve . . . . is, however, an argument from silence, which is cogent only if the silence is unexpected. (p. 69)

In the case of the Q sayings material and Thomas, Allison points out that Jesus was speaking to his twelve, not about them.

In the case of the Didache, Clement and Ignatius, they don’t say lots of important things that we know they must have known (sic), and besides, the silence in those sources is “more than matched” by their mention in the Gospels, 1 Corinthians 15:5 and Revelation.

As for Paul never appealing to or referencing an authoritative group of twelve, Allison pulls out Dennis Nineham’s “argument” (more a rhetorical debating point, I think) that if the twelve were not mentioned by Paul as a body of any importance, then that fact indicates the church had no reason to make them up. They would have no reason to make up a group of twelve if they played no significant role in the church after the time of Jesus.

Allison treats the two arguments — the unexpected silence in Paul pointing to (1) the nonexistence of such a body (Funk) and (2) the existence of such a body (Nineham) — as of equal weight:

What good is an argument that one can effortlessly flip to establish its contrary?

I hardly think they are of equal weight. The “can’t think of no reason why not” type argument of Nineham has been addressed often enough before in posts and comments on this blog. The reason why “the church” would surely want to make up such a body has been screaming at readers through the pages of Allison’s discussion of the twelve. It is such a symbolic number and meets the needs of the church to identify themselves as a new Israel to replace the old. The twelve disciples/apostles chosen by Jesus are the founders of the new Israel just as the twelve patriarchs are the founders of the old Israel being replaced by the new.

So I suspect that not even Allison believes his own “what good is an argument” rejoinder and has perhaps slipped into a little sophistry here.

Allison also adds in a footnote the argument by Joseph Klausner that the church would have had no reason to have made up the names of all twelve disciples, since most were never heard of again after the Gospels. But one might reply: What good is an argument that can effortlessly be flipped to establish its contrary? Surely there is a natural tendency to satisfy curiosity by assigning names to what would otherwise be a largely anonymous twelve, and the fact that they were not later known or significant supports the argument that they were manufactured just for this purpose by the Gospel authors.

Allison versus Casey on the strength of the argument from silence

If Allison says that we should not be the least surprised by the relative absence of mention of the twelve outside the Gospels, Maurice Casey probably reflects the more widespread instinctive reaction when he writes

It is remarkable how little information we have about most of these men. (p. 192 of Jesus of Nazareth).

The argument from relative silences in this case is persuasive because these silences really are so unexpected IF the twelve were truly historical.

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Neil Godfrey

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13 thoughts on “The Twelve: Dale Allison’s argument for their historical reality”

  1. The argument for 12 disciples surely runs contrary to the line of reasoning represented in your post about the Curious Criterion. That is, if the number of disciples were some number other than 12, wouldn’t theologians use that to argue in favor of its believability? According to the 12 Wikipedia, the number 12 became culturally and religiously significant prior to its appearance in the bible with the 12 sons of Jacob engendering the 12 tribes of Israel. I see that as ample reason for being all the more suspicious of the of 12 disciples thing.

    1. Agreed. This post was my follow up to one a few days ago “Why Jesus Chose the Twelve”. Ihere I said of the first appearance of the twelve in the gospels:

      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.

  2. Bob the problem is that people have a tendency to recycle culturally significant numbers, so historically, they are more likely to turn up in institutions that place stock in that sort of symbolic thinking. It depends on the situation. Of course in the example from Paul, it is entirely possible that the church already designated 12 disciple to be the “12” independent of anything Jesus did, though it does increase likelihood that it goes back to Jesus. I personally find the evidence that Jesus designated 12 himself persuasive.

    Neil, could you describe R.J. Hoffmann’s argument for a Corinthians interpolation? I find him to be an intelligent enough person on his blog, but I haven’t read much of his scholarly work. His arguments might be persuasive.

    Regarding Alison’s explanation of Paul’s 12 and your’s (the “no Judas the betrayer”) which I’m not sure you believe, since I don’t think you believe there were ever any such people called the twelve disciples of Jesus, I don’t think Alison had to go looking for ancient references for this issue to be cleared up. It in fact never puzzled me, for reasons of the corporate nature of a group like that, and the likelihood that quitters would be replaced. That they don’t figure more in Paul and others isn’t surprising either. in the decades between the appearances to the 12 and Paul’s letters, they very well may have slid from relevance. They didn’t seem to be hanging around James and John, if they dispersed or were dead, then their authority as a corporate body would be diminished. I find no need to contemplate how or why this institution was fictionally invented to account for the discrepancy any more than I need to resort to fiction for Alexander’s miraculous defeat of the Persian army, there is in fact no miracle, no problem, it fully explainable by and consistent with military science.

  3. “The Gospel narratives tell us that there were only eleven disciples who witnessed the resurrected Jesus, Judas having left the group.”

    Not if you harmonize Mark and John and leave Matthew out. Then you get a picture where Jesus appears to the 11 because Thomas is not present, not because Judas is dead. And then Thomas gets to put his hand in the nail scars, so per Mark and John, Jesus appears to all 12.

  4. There’s something meaty in the twelve/eleven, however hazy and legendary, but Judas seems a clear late addition.

    I’m not convinced 1 Cor 15:5 is interpolated, at least yet. I think the easiest explanation is that there was an initial list of five to which Paul adds himself as a endpoint, much like Luke inserts an ascension to close off any future appearances.

  5. While I agree with you that all the mentions/evidence for “the twelve” is not as tidy as one may hope for I am not sure that your solution is any more simple than the normal “historical” view. It seems your view bases a lot on silence and the sort of argument that wonders why one wouldn’t have spoken about this or that view. I, personally, have never been to keen on those sorts of arguments. Maybe its right maybe its not who knows? Those sorts of views are worth considering but not in the way that excludes other views.

    Also, I have often wondered about the traditions that made it into or were rejected by the second century Greek Christians. Maybe Justin (or his tradition) couldn’t stomach the idead of one of the 12 being a traitor? I at least respect the idea of a mythical Judas because all the evidence doesn’t fit nicely but I am not sure it is any more “historical.” Until the synoptic problem is solved (yeah right) and we can place the documents in correct order and correctly understand which are the earliest traditions and how they were used by each subsequent writer I think we must remain somewhat agnostic on these “borderline” issues.

    Is that at least fair in your view? Or am I not being critical enough of the documents?

    1. The silence on the twelve is unexpected and problematic given the view that the early church was struggling with variant views of doctrine. If there were such an authoritative body to appeal to it is curious that they are not appealed to.

      And if they really were based in Jerusalem then we are left with explaining how some early Christian sources knew nothing of this but, on the contrary, had them all leave Jerusalem and go off into the lands of setting and risinng suns never to be heard from again, until later mythmakers came along.

      John Meier’s defence of the historicity of the twelve is sometimes said to be the best and most persuasive, but I found it a little on the flakey side: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2007/02/04/bauckham%E2%80%99s-jesus-and-the-eyewitnesses-chapter-5a/

      I think it’s right to be agnostic about claims of documents until we find evidence to tilt the scales one way or the other.

  6. As far as the argument from silence turning on the silence being unexpected, rather the theory presented says silence is expected. That is, a mythical Jesus theory predicts that Paul would be silent on earthly details of Jesus’ birth, life and death. The silence is expected. The theory that the 12 were invented for theological and catholicizing purposes predicts that early writings would be silent on any details of the 12 and that silence is expected.

    1. Yes, I’ve read that, and thinks for posting the link. It is an interesting observation. Numbers were particularly important to the author(s) of John’s gospel. The gospel itself is all about seven signs. One scholar at least has published a detailed analysis of how one or some of its authors/redactors even crafted passages so that there would be numerical significance in the syllable counts vis a vis key words in a text: Numerical Literary Techniques in John: the Fourth Evangelist’s Use of Numbers of Words and Syllables (M. J. J. Menken). So I don’t know if we need to go beyond the Johannine community’s own literary and theological creativity for the number.

      Seven, twelve, five, three, five hundred, seventy and seventy-two, five thousand, four thousand — all these numbers are associated with groups of disciples or witnesses of Jesus, and all “coincidentally” bear “ideological” significances.

  7. The passage containing 15:5 is a treacherous post-marcionite interpolation, committed to subdue, in the vein of the Acts, Paul to Peter and the other “false brethren”.

    1. Klaus, please give arguments to justify your assertions. Simply going to the various posts and leaving a contrary viewpoint expressed dogmatically would not be accepted from an apologist or fundamentalist here. The comments are a space for engagement with the posts, not blanket contradictions.

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