Tag Archives: The Twelve Disciples

The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels #2: John the Baptist and the Twelve Disciples

Continuing the series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper . . . .

–o–

John the Baptist

Maybe I’m just naturally resistant to new ideas but I found myself having some difficulty with Nanine Charbonnel’s [NC] opening stage of her discussion about John the Baptist. (Recall we have been looking at plausibility of gospel figures being personifications of certain groups, with Jesus himself symbolizing a new Israel.) NC begins with an extract from Maximus of Turin’s interpretation: by cross-referencing to Paul’s statements that the “head of a man is Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3) Maximus concluded that the decapitation of John the Baptist represented Christ being cut off from the adherents to the Law, the Jews. Without the head they were a lifeless corpse.

Further, if we accept the passage about Jesus in Josephus’s Antiquities as genuine, NC suggests that it is not impossible that Josephus was writing of what he had heard indirectly from messianic Jews in Rome who had spoken of a figurative or literary figure that was confused at some point with a historical one.

We may not like that interpretation but at least Maximus recognized something symbolic about John the Baptist. As NC reminds us, he was the one who greets the messiah from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:41), the one who asks questions designed to recognize Jesus, the one who acts out Elijah’s confrontation with the lawless Jezebel and king Ahab. Even if we accept the entry about John the Baptist in Josephus as genuine and acknowledge that there was a historical “John the Baptist”, this person is depicted in symbolic roles in the gospels.

John the Baptist by Titian. Wikimedia Commons

NC has more to say but permit me to give my own view, or perhaps a mix of my own with NC’s. John the Baptist is presented initially in the physical image of the arch-prophet, Elijah, and is calling upon all Israel to repent and prepare for the messiah. They all come out into the wilderness to do so. In Luke’s gospel when different groups (soldiers, tax collectors and others) ask John what they should do John replies with the fundamental spiritual intent of the law in each case: be merciful. Surely this is all symbolic of the Law and Prophets being the articles of the covenant made between Israel and God in the wilderness, and just as the early Christians found Jesus predicted in the prophets so John, the final prophet, points them to Jesus the messiah. Later we find the same prophet asking Jesus if he is the one, with Jesus replying with signs as recorded in the Prophets to assure him. John, meanwhile (as NC herself notes as significant), is martyred just as many other prophets before him, and just as Jesus himself will be. The tale is surely told as symbolism and the character John as a literary personification. Jesus emerges from the Prophets. It is the Prophets who all point towards Jesus Christ.

So when John says he is not worthy to baptize Jesus, he is saying that Jesus is greater than the Law and Prophets. Jesus, however, replies that he has come to submit to the Law and Prophets. His baptism represents the emerging in his full spiritual reality the new Israel, the one prophesied in the prophets. This is not the baptism described in Josephus. It is a baptism of repentance, of preparation for the Christ.

The absence of biographical or other historical information is telling. We only have details that call out for symbolic interpretation. The reason each evangelist can modify the narrative is not because they were working with historical data but entirely in their own imaginative interpretation of the way the Prophets pointed readers to Christ.

“John” and Peter race to the tomb

I say “John” for convenience and according to tradition. The Gospel of John notably does not name the disciple, appearing to identify him with the “beloved” disciple

The famous Gregory who became the Pope in the sixth/seventh century identified a possible symbolic meaning of the Gospel of John’s account of John and Peter running to the empty tomb.  Quoted by NC, Gregory sought a meaning in John arriving first at the tomb but not entering, with Peter coming later yet being the first to enter. John was interpreted as the Synagogue, the Jews, who had “come first” to Christ, but failed to “enter”. Peter, representing the gentiles, arrived later but was the first to believe. [See Gregory the Great Homily 22 on the Gospels; see also comments below for further discussion]

The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed . . . (John 20:4-8)

Disciples Running to the Tomb / E. Burnand. Wikimedia Commons

Interesting possibility. But if the “beloved disciple” is rather meant to be an unfalsifiable witness (and he, not Peter, is said to be the one who believed), it is hard to identify the same with the “Jews of the synagogue”. On the other hand, given what we know of Peter as the apostle to the gentiles, the one who stands between Jews and gentiles (hence his “double-minded” reputation?) something along the lines of Gregory’s interpretation does have some appeal.

Other points to consider, as per NC: John (meaning God is gracious) does have a sound similarity to Jonah, another representative of Jews in the old story. (Then we also have Peter being identified in the Gospels of Matthew and John with the son of Jonah.) NC promises to return to Peter in the last chapter. I will be patient.

Again, we have details that are not typically found in biographies. Recall the same point (especially with respect to the Gospel of John) in How the Gospels Became History. Such details appear pointless in themselves; they scream out for symbolic interpretation — and many ministers and preachers have understood this point well enough to prepare many sermons drawing out various meanings for their congregations.

The Twelve Apostles: the twelve tribes of Israel

This one is easier. The twelve patriarchs in Genesis are treated as symbolic representatives of the tribes that bore their names. I think many of us have seen in the Twelve Disciples a new founding group of the “new Israel”.

NC sees three principles underlying any interpretation of the Twelve. read more »

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

The Last Supper
Image via Wikipedia

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. read more »

Why Jesus chose the Twelve: Dale Allison’s exegesis

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 laypeople 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. read more »

The Twelve Disciples: New Insights from Emeritus Professor Maurice Casey

Let’s make this my last post for a little while on Maurice Casey’s ad hominem stained book on the historical Jesus (Jesus of Nazareth) that will surely long stand alone as a truly independent tribute to the Huckleberry Finn criterion for historical authenticity. (robertb will heave a sigh of relief.)

This post looks at the biblical seven number of topics:

  1. Casey’s unassailable proof for the historicity of the Twelve
  2. A schizophrenic case for the disciples being filthy rich (or dirt poor)
  3. The clear evidence that Matthew wrote much of the Q material
  4. How Peter and Jesus changed the course of history by exchanging a bit of idle and nonsensical banter (in Aramaic, of course)
  5. Why the Twelve disappear from history (almost) as soon as the Gospels finish their story
  6. What Jesus did every time one of his Twelve disciples went and died on him
  7. And the evidence Jesus never tolerated a political rebel among his followers.

read more »

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

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. read more »

The Fall of Jesus’ Disciples as Enoch’s Watchers

This post concludes the series of posts covering Strelan’s argument that Mark’s disciples are based on Enoch’s Fallen Watchers.

The Mount of Olives was “sacred space” for the author of the Gospel of Mark. This was the place where Jesus took Peter, James and John into to the revelation of the mystery of the signs — Mark 13:3 (the Little Apocalypse/Olivet Prophecy).

Called to Watch, but “like children of the earth” fall asleep

So for the fourth time (see previous post for the previous 3 times) Jesus takes Peter, James and John aside to be “with him” – (14:33). These three are thus appointed to stay awake with Jesus, just as Watchers are ordained to be awake in the presence of the Lord day and night.

Faithful watchers do not sleep.

Enoch 39:12-13

12. Those who sleep not bless Thee: they stand before Thy glory and bless, praise, and extol, saying: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Spirits: He filleth the earth with spirits.”‘ 13. And here my eyes saw all those who sleep not: they stand before Him and bless and say: ‘Blessed be Thou, and blessed be the name of the Lord for ever and ever.’

Enoch 40:2

2. And on the four sides of the Lord of Spirits I saw four presences, different from those that sleep not

Enoch 71:7

7. And round about were Seraphin, Cherubic, and Ophannin:
And these are they who sleep not
And guard the throne of His glory.

Here on the Mount of Olives Jesus addresses his head disciple by his real name, Simon, (not “Peter”), “thus suggesting the ambiguity of their relationship”. This is the same Simon who, in Mark 1:36 (as addressed in my previous and earlier posts) had, along with those “with him”, pursued (with hostile intent) Jesus, to turn him away from the desert place where he had gone to pray.

Now again we find Jesus alone praying. This time, however, Peter lacks the strength to pursue him aggressively, and falls asleep instead. The disciples, like the “children of the earth”, fall asleep. Jesus exhorts them to “watch and pray” (14:38) lest they enter temptation.

Watching and praying are the duties of Enoch’s Watchers and angels in general. Their task is to intercede for humans and bring their prayers to God — e.g. 1 Enoch 9:4-9; 15:1-2; Tobit 3:16, 12:12, 15.

Jesus alone is the true “son of the father” (14:36), or son of heaven. His disciples show themselves to be, instead, sons of the earth.

Temptation and Fall read more »

Peter and the 12 Disciples; Satan and the Fallen Watchers

Continuing from Rick Strelan’s article notes in Fallen Watchers of Enoch and the 12 Disciples in Mark’s Gospel

I’m taking notes from Strelan’s article without much modification and only little of my own comment. Readers can decide for themselves the strength of his case, how suggestive it might be . . . .

The Gospel of Mark

Rick Strelan sees the author of the Gospel of Mark, like the authors of the pseudepigraphic and Qumran writings, being most conscious of his time being the time of a faithless generation (Mark 9:19). The Gospel begins with a call to repentance, and follows with Jesus battling against and overcoming the powers that ruled and oppressed that generation. These powers of evil were demons, and according to the Enochian legend of the Watchers, were the offspring of fallen angels and human women (Mark 3:22-27).

Like the Enochian Son of Man in Enoch, Jesus gathers angel-disciples around him and gives them authority to cast out demons and unclean spirits (3:15; 6:7). But they can only execute that authority if they are faithful (9:14-29).

The gospel is about faithless generation in a time of testing. The disciples (and Mark’s Christian audience) are tested by persecutions, cares of the world and the desire for riches (4:14-19). Jesus’ followers are commanded to Watch.

He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given to it.” (Mark 8:12)

He answereth him, and saith, O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? (Mark 9:19)

And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch. (Mark 13:37)

The Watchers legend was used to condemn illicit priestly marriages. Strelan suggests the possibility that Mark had something like this in mind from the several times he does very strictly address marriage and sexual issues:

John the Baptist was executed over his condemnation of Herod’s marriage (6:14-29)

Jesus is very strict on divorce and remarriage (10:2-12)

Jesus calls his followers to stand out from “this adulterous and sinful generation” (8:38)

The sins Jesus singles out include illicit sex, adultery, and (possibly relevant for Strelan) “the evil eye” (Mark 7:21-22)

Reading the Gospel of Mark against the background of Enoch’s Watchers

Called to come after/follow behind

Peter, Andrew, James and John are the first and only disciples explicitly called to “come behind” (οπισω) Jesus. Hence they are the leaders of the band appointed to be with Jesus.

Strelan cites H. Seesemann in TDNT, V, pp. 289-92 to explain that this preposition, οπισω, is used in the Septuagint to express the relation between God and his chosen people, and implies full commitment and service to God.

Fishermen read more »

Fallen Watchers of Enoch and the 12 Disciples in Mark’s Gospel

I found this article by Rick Strelan interesting reading:

The Fallen Watchers and the Disciples in Mark, Journal for the Study of Pseudepigrapha, 20 (1999) 73-92

Rick Strelan begins by showing the likelihood that the gospel authors knew and drew upon Enochian legends and themes.

The legend of the Fallen Watchers — those angels who left the high heaven and descended to marry the daughters of humans — is one of the myths most often cited in the Jewish-Christian literature of the period 200 BCE to 300 CE.

The ‘Book of Watchers’ of 1 Enoch is referred to in

  1. Jubilees
  2. 2 Enoch
  3. 3 Enoch
  4. 2 Baruch
  5. The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
  6. Philo’s ‘On Giants’
  7. Josephus in Antiquities 1.3.1
  8. Qumran documents
  9. Jude 6
  10. 2 Peter 2:4
  11. 1 Peter 3:19-20
  12. Justin Martyr (2 Apology 5)
  13. Athenagoras (Plea 24-26)
  14. Irenaeus (Against Heresies 1.10.1; 1.15.6; 4.16.2; 4.36.4)
  15. Pseudo-Clementine Homilies (8.12-18)
  16. Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions (4.26)
  17. Manichaean writings (The Kephalaia of the Teacher 92, 93, 117, 171)
  18. Nag Hammadi documents (e.g. Ap John 19:16-20:11)

Strelan writes that in nearly all of these references, the myth of the Fallen Watchers is told to illustrate the lesson that the present generation is sinful and is facing a test of faithfulness to the law of God.

A related theme that comes through, especially in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Reuben) is the evil of women. Women are lying schemers and seducers of men. They brought about the fall of the Watcher angels, and the faithful are warned to guard against sexual lust, and women.

Strelan refers to an article by George Nickelsburg in which he sees the Gospel of Mark’s Passion Narrative drawing on Jewish stories of Joseph, Ahikar, Esther, Daniel and Susanna. Strelan sees Mark as also constructing the disciples of Jesus according to the fallen Watchers legend of Enoch. And again, it is to present the same lesson: the unfaithfulness of his own generation. read more »

The Embarrassing Honesty of Matthew

Updated with a new para near the end, Or if we take John 20. . .

In response to a few comments on previous posts (Funk’s mix and Cracked argument) I have been giving a few moments to reflect on “embarrassment” as a criterion to establish historicity of a narrative.

In Matthew’s gospel, after Jesus has been born of a virgin, performed all his miracles, preached good things, fulfilled prophecy and been crucified and resurrected, he makes one final appearance to his (presumably eleven) remaining disciples. But some of them doubted (Matt. 28:17). Not all of the remaining eleven disciples believed a resurrected Jesus really did appear to them. Some original disciples did not believe that they had ever witnessed Jesus resurrected.

That is surely an embarrassing admission for a Christian author to make at the conclusion of his gospel. The admission could do nothing to assist the cause of Christianity. It is a damaging admission. One must therefore assume (if we take the criterion of embarrassment seriously) that this is one of the truest of true facts facing the disciples and church after the death and burial of Jesus.

We cannot help but wonder how many is meant by Matthew’s “some”. John’s gospel gives as reason for thinking “some doubters” amounted to as many as four persons. In his last chapter he relates — again with surely stark embarrassment — that the response of the faithful disciples remaining, only seven in total, after supposedly seeing the resurrected Jesus in Jerusalem was to think, “Well, that was an interesting little adventure. Fun and pain while it lasted. But now time to get back to real life and resume fishing.” The resurrected Jesus then appears to these seven. The author refers to this appearance as “the third” one to “his disciples”. Nowhere does the Gospel of John inform readers that the resurrected Jesus actually appeared to all eleven remaining disciples.  In chapter 21 John quietly passes over the missing four in silence.

The Gospel of Mark, likewise, is vague about the final fate of the disciples. It’s ending, like several other details in the gospel, is ambiguous at best. (I am assuming that verse 8 is the original ending. Also here.)

So, in summary, if we are taking the “criterion of embarrassment” seriously, here is how the different evangelists responded to the bedrock certain fact that “some” of the original disciples doubted the resurrection of Jesus.

Matthew openly admitted it. Most honest of all. Does this mean that some of the disciples Jesus sent out were actually false apostles, even from the original twelve? Presumably so.

Mark can be said to be playing with words, leaving readers to make of his narrative what they will.

John passes over the failures in silence. But he implies that only seven of the original Twelve were reliable witnesses. This did not stop him from expecting readers to believe his narrative even though four of Jesus’ real life companions appear not to have believed.

(Or if we take John 20 as the original concluding chapter of this gospel, then the situation is no better. The last we hear of Peter there is that he went home after seeing the empty tomb and not knowing what to make of it (John 20:10). We are given no hint about how many disciples were later in the locked room for fear of the Jews when Jesus supernaturally appeared before them. An early reader unfamiliar with other gospels might well conclude that Peter could not have been among them since he no longer had reason to be in fear of the Jews, having denied Jesus three times. Nor does John’s gospel suggest Peter had any remorse over his denials. Peter does not weep after the cock crows in John’s gospel – 18:26.)

Luke simply lies and implies they all believed. Well, not quite, maybe. He does say that “they could not believe for joy”, whatever that might mean exactly. Either way, they were all sent out by Jesus to preach in his name. Well, not quite that either. Luke for some reason remains quiet about the activities of all but Peter, James and John after Jesus left the earth.

And of Paul’s 500 witnesses to the resurrected Jesus? We are not informed how many of these believed such an appearance was the real thing. Given Matthew’s frankness we should not assume as fact what Paul implies. We do “know” that Paul was quite capable of suppressing uncomfortable details: in his resurrection chapter he hides the fact that the resurrected Jesus first appeared to silly women.

Saint Matthew, from the 9th-century Ebbo Gospels.
Image via Wikipedia

Manufacturing “evidence” for the historicity of 12 apostles

An illustration of how evidence is manufactured to support historicity in biblical studies:  the twelve disciples

(The following criteria are taken from John Meier’s defence of the historicity of the Twelve, JBL, 116/4 (1997) 635-672 that promises to apply “with rigor” “the criteria of historicity” (636). This post is also in one sense a complement of my earlier post on the meanings of the names of the twelve disciples — a list that badly needs updating to incorporate a wider range of scholarly views.)

Criteria of multiple attestation

Attestation 1: It can be reasonably inferred that the author of Mark’s gospel knew of a list of names of twelve close followers of Jesus that he chose to edit and adapt to incorporate in his narrative. This is because of certain syntactical oddities in the list of names. John Meier writes of the Gospel of Mark’s list of Twelve (3:13-19) that

various repetitions, parenthetical explanations, and disruptions of syntax . . . create the overall impression that Mark is reworking and explaining an earlier tradition” (p. 645)

I don’t know if the author really was working from an earlier list, but I can accept that this is a reasonable argument to propose. read more »

How the Gospel of Matthew Converted the Gospel of Mark’s Disciples

Let’s imagine Mark was the first gospel to be written, and let’s imagine a reader had only the Jewish scriptures in mind with which to compare it. Just suppose there was no prior oral tradition by which the narrative had come to the readers in any form at all. Here (indented in black) are the passages from the Jewish scriptures that I suggest such a discrete or original reading of Mark 8:16-21 would bring to the mind . . . . read more »

The Twelve Disciples: their names, name-meanings, associations, etc

This post is nothing more than a bit of idle trivia per se. But maybe Kakadu Dreamtime wisdom somewhere says “Clever bower bird can find something among trivia to relocate so it has power to attract a mate.”

The data comes primarily (not exclusively) from two sources:

The Gospel of Mark as Midrash on Earlier Jewish and New Testament Literature by Dale and Patricia Miller (marked with *)

The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable is the Gospel Tradition by Robert M. Price (marked with *)

Both these works discuss some of the following name-meanings within a broader context of what the various gospel authors were attempting to convey through their characters. But for most part here I’m skipping that side of the discussion.

read more »

Reasons for Luke to change Mark’s account of the calling of the disciples

Someone on a discussion list recently drew attention to how the Gospel of Luke changes the position of the call of the disciples to a period later than that found in the Gospel of Mark, so that it appears awkwardly out of place. Mark first describes Jesus calling Peter and others before going into Peter’s house to heal his mother-in-law. Luke, oddly, first has Jesus going into Peter’s house, and only afterwards calling him and others. It looks like Luke or some later redactor has got into a muddle and put the first meeting of Peter and Jesus AFTER Jesus visited Peter’s place.

Well having recently completed some notes and thoughts about canonical Luke being a possible redaction of an earlier gospel that may well have been closer in many respects to the gospel of Mark, I had to take a few minutes to see if there might be any particular redactional agenda for such a switch of order in events. Or was it just a consequence of clumsy editing? (I’m rolling with the general view that the author of Luke’s gospel knew and copied much from Mark’s gospel.)

We can’t know the latter author’s reasons for making the switch, but we can look at how the change functions in the narrative and see if that can suggest some clue about what the author might have been trying to do.

The Gospel of Mark’s sequence

Jesus starts his ministry in Capernaum

Jesus calls disciples

Jesus casts out a demon – his fame spreads

Jesus enters Peter’s house and heals Peter’s mother-in-law

Jesus heals many after sabbath

Many look for Jesus but Jesus leaves them behind

Apart from calling his disciples at the beginning of his ministry, there is little obvious narrative structural sequence to the events in Mark. It is episodic in the sense of just one thing after the other. I do think there is a structure that holds these episodes together in Mark, but it is not at the narrative level, and is another topic for another time. The most we can see here is that Jesus, logically, calls Peter for the first time before joining him in his house.

The Gospel of Luke’s sequence

Jesus begins his ministry in Nazareth

Jesus moves to Capernaum

Jesus casts out a demon – his fame spreads

Jesus enters Peter’s house and heals Peter’s mother-in-law

Jesus heals many after sabbath

Jesus is hindered by crowds as he teaches throughout Galilee

Crowds press upon Jesus by the lake and Jesus preaches to them

Jesus commissions his first disciples

Is it my imagination or is there really a sequential narrative development that I see here?

  • Jesus begins his ministry in his home town. Result: he is cast out.
  • He then moves to Capernaum. Result. a demon is cast out and Jesus’ fame spreads.
  • After healing in Peter’s house, he heals many more after the sabbath.
  • The crowds are so thick around Jesus he finds it hard to move anywhere.
  • The crowds press on Jesus so he has to get into a boat to preach to them.
  • Jesus then commissions his first disciples to “catch men”.

This looks very much like the sort of thing we read in Exodus and Acts. Crowds become too much for the prophet or apostle. Helpers are marshaled in response to the growing need for help given the escalating success of Jesus’ ministry. The author uses the same trope in Acts, such as when Barnabas enlisted Paul’s help because of the mass conversions at Antioch. (Talbert, p.63)

And Luke elsewhere repeats the theme of needing labourers for the spiritual harvest.

Talbert also observes that with Luke’s narrative the disciples are supplied with a reason to believe in Jesus and follow him. This can be seen in the passages below. In Mark, Jesus calls and the disciples mysteriously follow immediately. In Luke, Peter has already seen the power of Jesus’ word when he exorcised a demon with a command and healed Peter’s mother-in-law with a rebuke. (In Mark Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law without a word.) So when Peter is commanded to cast his net in the sea and he replies, “At your word I will do it”, it is plausibly to think that the reader is meant to understand that Peter already knows the power of Jesus’ word.

So despite the incongruity of Jesus appearing to enter Peter’s house before we appear to be told how the two met, there is a discernible narrative logic to the Lukan sequence. It may not feel complete. Where did Peter come from? Why is he mentioned without any explanation when he first appears? And in other areas too: Why does Jesus mention his deeds at Capernaum before he is said to have entered Capernaum? Nonetheless, there is a narrative logic overlaying the incongruities.

The Gospel of Mark’s calling

Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers.
And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.
And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him.
And when he had gone a little further thence, he saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the ship mending their nets.
And straightway he called them: and they left their father Zebedee in the ship with the hired servants, and went after him.

The Gospel of Luke’s commissioning

And it came to pass, that, as the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he stood by the lake of Gennesaret,
And saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets.
And he entered into one of the ships, which was Simon’s, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land. And he sat down, and taught the people out of the ship.
Now when he had left speaking, he said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught.
And Simon answering said unto him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net.
And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake.
And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink.
When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.
For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken:
And so was also James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, which were partners with Simon. And Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men.
And when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him.

Comparing the two

Secondly, the Luke 5 lake scene is not a calling of the disciples as it is in Mark’s gospel. Canonical Luke does not narrate the calling of the disciples but their commissioning.

Compare Luke’s:

From now on you will catch men!

with the contingent Markan hope:

Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.

The idea in Luke of Jesus commissioning his disciples to help him is supported by the narrative logic already discussed. The crowds make the commissioning of the disciples, more than their calling in the hope they will succeed to the end, the real need.

There is also some ambiguity in the Markan passage about the meaning of being becoming fishers of men. If this is taken from Jeremiah 16:16 it could well be implying judgment, not salvation. But in Luke the theme of the crowds and the miracle of the fish-catch make it clear that the image means the converting of people to Christ.

This is further supported if one embraces the hypothesis that the author of canonical Luke knew John’s gospel and was blending John’s last chapter with the calling in Mark. John’s last chapter also depicts a miracle of an overwhelming catch of fish at the word of Jesus, and in that context it is clearly a metaphor for the conversions that Peter is expected to accomplish.

The theme of commissioning the disciples is elsewhere a prominent one in Luke’s gospel. The resurrected Jesus opens their understanding to the Jewish scriptures that were said to be prophetic of him, and he commands them to remain in Jerusalem until they are given heavenly power. They are confirmed as his witnesses. In Mark’s gospel, there is no certainty about the fate of the disciples at the conclusion, and in Matthew some of the disciples even doubted the resurrected Jesus.

Further, reflecting on the narrative logic above, this commissioning of the disciples arises directly out of the need for them to help with the spiritual harvest. It is the mushrooming crowds that make them a necessity. Calling to follow, with the possibility of failure, is not an option in Luke:

And the Lord said, Simon, Simon! Indeed Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to me, strengthen your brethren. (Luke 22:31-32)

By contrast it is readily possible to read the Gospel of Mark as concluding with the total failure of Jesus’ disciples. There is no resurrection appearance to them, and the narrative development has not encouraged the reader to expect them to follow Jesus at the end when or even if they hear he as gone on (again) before them. Like the seed in rocky soil they end their association with Jesus in fear, denial and betrayal.

Anti-Marcionite / proto-orthodox agenda?

Both these points combined — the need for the disciples on Jesus’ part, and the complementary commissioning of the disciples — are not found in Mark, yet they are consistent with canonical Luke’s interest elsewhere in establishing the authority of the disciples as commissioned witnesses and coworkers with and for Jesus. (See Luke’s resurrection chapter discussion.)

Canonical Luke can therefore be read as making changes to Mark’s gospel that reflect a program to strengthen the foundational place of the disciples in the Church. If so, this may be seen as one more of many other arguably anti-Marcionite agendas in canonical Luke-Acts. (See the Infancy Narratives discussion and the Body of Luke discussion.)

Missing a real Peter in Acts

Crazy as it might sound to some, there is simply no biographical information about Peter in the book of Acts. Every story told in relation to Peter has a miracle as its absolute base. In other words, remove the mythical element from each anecdote concerning Peter and there is nothing left. It is not as though the author has tagged a miracle on to some biographical detail of Peter’s life to give it sparkle, as we sometimes find in genuine biographies. There is simply no Peter apart from the mythical in this book.

Episode 1: Reconstituting the Twelve

If Mark’s gospel was the first, and if we concede the arguments that Judas was Mark’s literary creation, then the arguments that this event which Peter leads is a theological construct than a dedication to historical sources are surely strengthened. The way Judas is placed in Mark’s gospel is without narrative coherence (e.g. Jesus was well enough known not to need one of his disciples to point him out, no motive is given to explain his betrayal. . . .), appearing to be unnaturally introduced into the story simply to make the plot work. If there ever were a body of Twelve based at Jerusalem and recognized as eyewitnesses of Jesus and authoritative guardians of the original faith, Paul’s, and even Acts’, failures to appeal to them for dispute resolution is inexplicable. The names of the Twelve vary in different writings, as happens with free-floating legends, and they are little known except as an abstraction beyond the canonical documents until the later second century. If, as Bauckham affirms, the most solid basis for believing their existence to be historical is found in Meier’s study, they have precious little substantial foundation indeed. (See my post on Meier’s discussion of the evidence for the Twelve.)

But even apart from the implausibility of the existence of the Twelve, and of an historical Judas who occasions this scene in Acts, the story itself climaxes with an act of God demonstrating the continuity of the church on Pentecost with the earlier Mosaic tradition. The meaning of the story is bound up in the casting of lots to ascertain the divine will (as per Aaronic practice) in order to establish the divine appointment of the Twelve. The author portrays this as a direct act of God without which Peter’s role would be meaningless. Readers are left without any biographical or historical story in association with this divine act. There is no discussion of Peter’s relationship with the Twelve, or feedback on the discussions and concerns that one would expect among the players in the context. The is interested in nothing more than proof-texting from Scriptures and describing an act of God for his readers. There is no history, no biography here.
We can safely hold the first anecdote in which Peter is the focus in abeyance pending further support for its historicity.

Episode 2: Pentecost

Peter’s function here in chapter 2 of Acts is to act as the interpreter of the public miracle of the sound of wind, tongues of fire, and miracle of linguistic communication. He is used as the mouthpiece for assuring both real audience and his narrative audience that all that is happening to the disciples in Jerusalem is a direct fulfilment of prophecy. His preaching is so effective that 3000 Jews turn around from fickle Christ-crucifiers to a converted utopian community of believers.

Again, not surprisingly in such a scene, there is no background historical or biographical description or discussion. What you read is all there is: a tale of the miraculous and its theological meaning.

We are still no nearer to knowing anything of a man Peter. We know about scriptural fulfilments and miracles, but nothing about real people and history.

Episode 3: Miracle and Sanhedrin

In Peter’s first miracle (Acts 3) there is no detail offered that is not integral to the miracle story itself. In the subsequent arrest and interrogation before the Sanhedrin where one might hope for some enlightenment of an historical exchange for us to better glimpse the real historical goings on in the early church, and its relations with Jewish authorities, there is again nothing. Only a discussion that pivots around the performing of a miracle and the theological message it conveys.

Unless one believes that life, history, and the interventions of the divine were quite unlike anything we know today, then there is no news about history or a real Peter here either. And if we did believe that, then to be fair we’d have to have pretty good grounds for accepting that things were only validly different for the “peoples of the Book” and not for pagans who also experienced miracles and interventions of deities.

Episode 4: Striking liars dead and healing with a shadow

No discussion is required concerning Peter’s appearance in the Ananias and Sapphira incident. Fortunately we can safely assume that these two were not struck dead at a word from Peter’s mouth, any more than we will assume that his shadow really did heal the sick.

But what we are looking for is something else beside these tall tales that might suggest some genuine biographical source. Unfortunately, there is nothing but the tall tales.

Episode 5: Prison break out and another interrogation

Peter is imprisoned with the others but an angel miraculously releases them. Hardly a basis for a presumption of historicity. Unless the angel did intervene the story would lose its meaning. It is intended to amuse the audiences as they find opportunity to snicker at the trembling guards and authorities who are at a loss to comprehend their freedom. No miracle or angel, no story. That is, the miracle is not tacked on to an historical event. The miracle is presented as the central historical event.

Again one might hope for some survival of sources to seep through to the telling of the official interrogation that follows, but this session is narratively a sequel to the earlier one that was itself a direct consequence of a miracle. If some do see some historical source behind the account of Gamaliel’s advice, it unfortunately throws no light on an historical Peter.

Episode 6: A real event?

The dispute between 2 groups over handouts sounds plausible enough. It’s the sort of incident one would expect to read about in a new community working out its ways. But if this is the first whiff we have of something that reads like history, it is not only very generalized and sweeping in its account, — it also finds Peter completely out of sight.

Episode 7: Putting super magicians in their place

Peter’s encounter with Simon Magus is obviously designed to demonstrate the superiority of Peter to this Samaritan would-be rival. The dialogue is tailored to pronounce doom on this arch-heretic and to depict the victim as cowering and begging for mercy in response. The theological and political message underlying the anecdote is obvious. Peter stands for the theological and political message. There is nothing else of Peter here. The account of Simon is so cryptic it serves to raise questions rather than enlighten. It tells us more about Simon than Peter and it drapes Simon himself beneath an impenetrable shroud. If Simon here is a substitute for Paul as some have argued (Detering), then Peter likewise is as much a metonym.

Episode 8: Aeneas and Dorcas

As the plot of Acts advances toward the full inclusion of gentiles, Peter is found performing miracles firstly on the namesake of the Romans, Aeneas, and secondly on one nicknamed Deer. One miracle is at a place that reads like a homonym for Lydia — from where the Romans traced their descent; the other at Joppa, from where Jonah embarked on his (unintended) way to preach to the gentile Assyrians. Both miracles are obvious re-writes of miracles already attributed to Jesus and Elijah and Elisha. The symbolic nature of the stories, and their clear literary borrowing, is enough to attribute them to authorial imagination and creativity.

But of course, Peter here is placed in no historical or biographical context. He is nothing more than the agent of the miracles — which obviously are the what the anecdotes are about. Not Peter.

Episode 9: Vision and Cornelius

Here the author gives us some detailed narrative fillers for Peter as a character. But that’s all — only narrative filler. More dialogue as opposed to monologue, more detail about where he is and what he’s doing and how he’s feeling (e.g. on a roof, sleepy, hungry). Unfortunately, it’s not the sort of detail that will help a historian or biographer learn anything about the real man. There is no discussion, as one would expect in a document if it were aiming at recording and instructing in an historical past, of the viewpoints within the Church or among its leaders on the issue of Jewish customs. There is only one person discussed, and that’s Peter himself. He is being used to inform readers how of a “Just-So” story of how the church came to be made up of gentiles. There is no discussion of the different persons who must have been involved in any such real event. But we know it is not a real event because its plot hinges squarely on 2 miraculous visions and then another miracle of a visible display of the descent of the spirit.

Episode 10: Last jail break

Just like in a Greek play about a mythical character, this near-final scene of Peter’s tells us nothing about a real event, let alone a real person. I sometimes think it would have been a nice touch if the author had added that Peter sent condolences to the families of the guards who were executed as a result of his escape. “I’m very sorry about what happened to your Brutus and Cassius back there, but with that angel coming in and striking chains in two and swinging iron gates open with just a look I was too frightened to do anything but run like the blazes. It’s a real shame our God does not have more pity for you pagans.”

Episode 11: Summing up

Finally at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 Peter makes his last appearance. But all he does is repeat a litany of miracles.

Missing the real Peter

From first to last, there is no real Peter, no historical material. There is only miracle and theology, of which Peter is a mouthpiece or agent.

And this Peter of narrative is different from the Peter of the epistle to the Galatians. He is also different from the Peter in the gospel of Mark, and again from the one in the gospels of John and Matthew.

Like Paul, he is a Protean figure who can be turned into whatever the narrator cum theologian requires.