entête

John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v.3, ch. 26 : The Existence and Nature of the Twelve,
pp 125-197

(Detailed summary)


Was the group of Twelve around Jesus an invention of the early Christians?


Summary

The Twelve refers to this group of disciples forming a circle of intimates around Jesus. Now, there are biblical scholars who believe that this group was created from scratch by the first Christians and, to give it some credibility, was projected to the time of Jesus. This hypothesis does not hold up to our usual criteria of historicity.

The existence of the group of Twelve during Jesus' ministry is supported by the multiple attestation standard.

  1. First of all, Mark and Luke seem to have had in their hands two independent lists of the names of the Twelve, which would explain the presence of Thaddeus in the first, replaced by Jude (of) James in the other; it is possible that one of them left the group or died, causing Jesus to replace him.
  2. John also offers another independent attestation, as he speaks of Peter, Judas Iscariot and Thomas Didymus as members of the Twelve.
  3. The Q Document offers yet another independent source when it presents Jesus promising the Twelve to sit on twelve thrones to rule the twelve tribes of Israel.
  4. Finally, Paul, but indirectly, also gives us an independent attestation when he recalls the Creed received at his conversion and mentions the appearance of the risen Jesus to the Twelve.

The historical existence of the Twelve also supported by the embarrassment criterion: the fact that Judas, one of the group of intimates, handed over Jesus into the hands of the authorities must have been something truly shocking, and it would have been understandable if Christians had sought to cover it up; one simple reason for keeping the memory of one of the Twelve handing over his master to the authorities is that it is a true fact.

Finally, the role of the Twelve is difficult to understand outside the framework of Jesus' mission. Very early in the history of the early church, this role disappeared completely. But for Jesus this group represented not only the model of discipleship, but also symbolically and prophetically the gathering of the twelve tribes of Israel which he saw as his urgent mission in these last days inseparable from the coming of the reign of God. This group will not only participate in his mission, but will constitute the beginning and the foundations of the gathered Israel.


  1. Disciples, apostles and the Twelve: the problem of terminology

    The expression "The Twelve" refers to a group of twelve men who were not only disciples of Jesus but also formed a circle of intimates around him. Moreover, at the time of Jesus, the expression is used in an absolute way, without adding the qualifiers of disciple or apostle, even if Matthew sometimes speaks of "Twelve disciples" or "Twelve apostles". The disciples or apostles represented larger groups than the Twelve. It is the evangelist Luke who is responsible for making the Twelve and the apostles two interchangeable groups.

  2. The existence of the Twelve during the ministry of Jesus

    1. The first criterion: multiple attestations

      1. Mark uses the term Twelve 10 or 11 times. We know that he pays special attention to this group in his theology. But he prefers to use the term disciple. There are several reasons to believe that he did not invent the term Twelve and, on the contrary, it is something he received from tradition. This is the case in Mk 3:16-19 (So he appointed the Twelve and named Simon Peter...). This is also the case in Mk 14:43 (Judas, one of the Twelve, and with him a band armed with swords and sticks...), which uses the same expression as in Jn 6:71 (He spoke of Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, who was to betray him, one of the Twelve).

      2. In the four passages that list the Twelve, there are slight differences, suggesting that Mark and Luke are using independent traditions.

        Mark 3: 16-19 Matthew 10: 2-4 Luke 6: 14-16 Acts 1: 13
        A first group of four
        Simon Peter
        James, the son of Zebedee
        John, the brother of James
        Andrew
        Simon Peter
        Andrew his brother
        James (son of) Zebedee
        John his brother
        Simon Peter
        Andrew his brother
        James
        John
        Peter
        John
        James
        Andrew
        A second group of four
        Philip
        Bartholomew
        Matthew
        Thomas
        Philip
        Bartholomew
        Thomas
        Matthew the Tax Collector
        Philip
        Bartholomew
        Matthew
        Thomas
        Philip
        Thomas
        Bartholomew
        Matthew
        A third group of four
        James (the son of) Alpheus
        Thaddeus
        Simon the Canaanite
        Judas Iscariot
        James (the son of) Alpheus
        Thaddeus
        Simon the Canaanite
        Judas Iscariot
        James (the son of) Alpheus
        Simon the Zealot
        Jude (of) James
        Judas Iscariot
        James (the son of) Alpheus
        Simon the Zealot
        Jude (of) James
        ______

        When we look at the four lists, there is only one fundamental difference: Thaddeus mentioned by Mark and Matthew is replaced by Jude in Luke and Acts. Otherwise, not only are the names the same, but they can be grouped into three groups of four names: these groups always begin with the same person and always contain the same names, except for the last group. It may be surprising to see a list of names passed on in this way to the first and second generation of Christians, when some of the names represented unknown people.

        How can we explain this variation between the names of Thaddeus and Simon the Zealot in the 3rd group?

        • A first explanation would be that this list lost its importance in the early Church and its memory has not been well preserved.
        • A second explanation would be that, since Jesus' ministry spanned two and a half years, Jesus had to replace one of his disciples for whatever reason, departure, illness, death or dismissal: this would show the importance for Jesus of the number twelve in representing eschatological Israel.

        This slight difference raises the question: did Matthew and Luke have at their disposal another list than the one transmitted by Mark?

        1. Matthew's differences can be explained by his editorial work and his theological vision:
          • Matthew likes beautiful structures, so he groups people in pairs, like brothers
          • Matthew likes to associate the people Jesus calls as disciples with the group of Twelve, and so the one called Levi, the tax collector, in Jesus' call in Mark, suddenly becomes Matthew in order to keep this consistency

        2. The case of Luke and Acts is more complicated.
          • We can easily explain the replacement of "Canaanite" by "Zealot" in Simon's name, because Luke tries to avoid Hebrew or Aramaic names
          • But the replacement of Thaddeus by Jude (or Judas) cannot be explained for literary reasons. In fact, John mentions this Jude at Jesus' last supper (Jn 14:22: "Jude (Judas), not the Iscariot"). Luke therefore confirms that there was a second list.

        3. In the Acts of the Apostles we find a mixture of editorial work (John accompanies Peter and James will die soon, likewise Judas is already dead) which explains the order of James and John and the absence of Judas the Iscariot, but also the use of the second list, which explains the presence of Jude.

      3. The Johannine tradition offers an independent attestation of the Twelve. For John has no special interest in the Twelve, his attention being focused rather on other disciples, such as Nathanael, Lazarus and the anonymous disciple called "beloved" who does not seem to belong to the Twelve. This mention of the Twelve appears sporadically, for example in chapter 6 in the discourse on the bread of life. We do not know their names, however, except for Peter, Judas Iscariot and Thomas Didymus (the twin), who is given a unique role by John in a scene after the resurrection. We can of course believe that Andrew, James and John are among them, but this is not explicitly stated. Thus we have a very different tradition from that of the synoptics.

      4. Although the reference to the Twelve is indirect, the Q Document (Mt 19:28 || Lk 22:30) offers further evidence of its existence. The text reads as follows:

        Matthew 19: 28 Luke 2: 30
        (context: speech by Jesus on his way to Jerusalem)
        when the Son of Man sits on his throne of glory,
        You also shall sit on twelve thrones, to judge the twelve tribes of Israel.
        (context: Jesus' last meal)
         
        you will eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom,
        and you will sit on thrones to judge the twelve tribes of Israel.

        Matthew's version contains the expression "twelve thrones" while Luke's version is limited to thrones. It is Matthew that better reflects the Q Document and it is Luke who would have modified it: the latter would have dropped the expression twelve to avoid including Judas when Jesus has just announced Judas' betrayal. This idea of associating the Twelve with the governance of the reconstituted Israel is coherent with Jesus' creation of the group of Twelve that symbolizes the beginning of the gathering of the twelve tribes of Israel in the context of the arrival of God's reign. It is therefore highly likely that the expression goes back to Jesus himself.

      5. Finally, let us turn to Paul.
        1 Corinthians 15: 3-5
        I therefore passed on to you first of all what I myself had received, namely that
        Christ died for our sins
        according to the Scriptures,
        that he was laid in the tomb,
        that he rose on the third day
        according to the Scriptures,
        that he appeared to Cephas and then to the Twelve.

        So Paul presents us with the Creed he received at the time of his conversion a few years after Jesus' death around the year 30. Just as Peter was called Cephas during Jesus' ministry, it is logical to think that the expressions Cephas and Twelve in this Creed also go back to Jesus himself.

        Thus, with Mark, John, Paul, Luke and the Q Document we not only have multiple sources to attest to the historicity of the group of Twelve, but we have different literary genres: narratives, list-catalogue, creed.

    2. The second criterion: embarrassment

      The fact that Jesus died by crucifixion, a horrible and vile death in the ancient world, was shocking to a Christian who had to preach that he was the messiah. That is why the early church felt the need to insist that this scandalous death was consistent with the content of the Scriptures. Parallel to Jesus' death is the fact, attested to by Mark, John, the traditions behind Matthew (Mt 27:3-10) and Luke (Acts 1:16-20), that Judas, one of the Twelve, was the one who delivered Jesus to the authorities. The very fact that one of the Twelve, chosen by Jesus to be part of the inner circle, betrayed Jesus was extremely embarrassing for the early Christians and required an explanation. Again, they turned to the Scriptures to soften the blow and affirm that all this was prophesied. It goes further to find the act of Judas in particular passages, for example Ps 41:10 (Even the confidant on whom I relied and who ate my bread, is exalted at my expense).

      We can identify three points.

      1. Judas was a member of the group of the Twelve as proven by multiple attestations
      2. Judas gave over Jesus to the authorities, also supported by multiple attestations
      3. Finally, the fact that Judas, from the group of Twelve, handed Jesus over to the authorities is also supported by the character of embarrassment as we have seen, and therefore allows us to affirm that the betrayal of Judas is firmly rooted in tradition and corollary confirms the existence of the group of Twelve.

    3. The mainstream of the tradition

      The way in which the tradition about the Twelve appears and then disappears in the New Testament period argues for the group's appearance during Jesus' ministry and not during the early church. For if the group of Twelve were a creation of the early Christians, one would expect to encounter multiple examples of their role. The exact opposite is true. The last mention of the Twelve in Acts is at the beginning of chapter 6, so at the very beginning of the account of the early church. As for Paul, he never mentions them, except in this citation from the ancient Creed that he received and that we mentioned above. This is all the more astonishing since he boasts of having met the main leaders of the church, Peter, James, Barnabas, Apollos, the Apostles. The conclusion is obvious: the Twelve had an intimate relationship with Jesus during his ministry, and this relationship was restored and confirmed by the experience of the risen Jesus, but the role of the Twelve quickly declined thereafter and disappeared.

      How can we explain the rapid disappearance of this reference to the Twelve? A first explanation would be the death of a certain number in the decade following the crucifixion, such as James who died a martyr. Since they are no longer replaced to keep the same number, it becomes incongruous to continue to speak of the Twelve if not to remember the time of Jesus. Another explanation would be the disintegration of the power of the Twelve as a group in favor of great leaders like Peter or James, a disintegration that may have been accentuated by the fact that they left Palestine to go on mission all over the diaspora.

  3. The nature and function of the Twelve

    1. The Twelve as a model of discipleship

      The Twelve publicly embody what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and permanently present the three conditions.

      • Being called by Jesus
      • To follow Jesus physically, and therefore break the ties with the family
      • Accepting to be exposed to suffering

  4. The Twelve as a prophetic symbol of the gathering of the twelve tribes of Israel.

    The group of Twelve represents much more than an example of discipleship. To understand this, we need to go back to the history of Israel. Genesis tells of Yahweh's choice of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be the origin of a special nation. Then through Jacob, Yahweh gives himself a people formed of twelve tribes. It will be David's role to weld these tribes together to form a unified kingdom. But very soon rebellion sets in and, at the time of David's grandsons, the kingdom splits in two, with ten tribes in the north and two in the south. In the 8th century, Assyria invaded the north and exiled the ten tribes. In the 6th century Babylon invaded the south and exiled some of the people. The nation of Israel seems to be almost destroyed. Eventually, some of the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi returned to Palestine. But the effort to restore Jerusalem and its temple is paltry and disappointing.

    It is in the wake of these tragic events that we must understand the appearance of a whole literature, both from the prophets and the sages, announcing that at the end of time Yahweh will recreate his people in all their integrity. In particular, he will raise up an offspring of David who will gather the scattered tribes or send the prophet Elisha to reign over this people. This hope is described everywhere, not only in the literature after the last exile, but also in the pseudepigraphic texts and at Qumran. This gives an idea of the religious environment at the beginning of the first century.

    We now have the context for interpreting Jesus' gesture of creating a group of Twelve. From the perspective of the new Elisha announcing that the end times are at hand, his proclamation of God's reign is inseparable from the gathering of all Israel. This means that his interest is focused on a specific people, and this interest includes all the people, rich or poor. By creating the group of twelve, he not only symbolically announces the goal of his mission, i.e. to gather the twelve tribes of Israel, but also lays the foundation for it.

  5. The Twelve as prophetic missionaries to Israel

    It is likely that Jesus sent the Twelve on brief, urgent missions to the towns and villages of Israel. This was an extension of the prophetic gesture of gathering all the people. The very fact that Jesus sent out disciples on mission is supported by two different sources, Mark and the Q Document.

    • Mk 6: 1-13 is an abbreviated excerpt from a pre-Marcian version
    • Luke probably had Mark's version and the Q Document in hand, and according to his habit, he preferred to create two mission sending stories to present the two versions: the sending of the Twelve (Lk 9:1-4) which takes up Mark's version, and the sending of the group of Seventy-Two (Lk 10:1-12) which takes up the Q Document and for which Luke has to invent this group.
    • In keeping with his tendency to merge narratives, Matthew combines the two sources into one long discourse, adding elements of personal source

    In addition to the criterion of multiple attestations, we can invoke the criterion of coherence to support the fact of missionary sending: it makes perfect sense, that after inviting his disciples to share in his ministry, he would invite them to share in his traveling mission. Without being able to say how many times, we can say that Jesus sent his disciples on short and urgent missions in Israel.

    We can't reconstruct the exact words of this mission sending, but we can nevertheless reconstruct its main components.

    • The story begins with Jesus explicitly sending the disciples on mission
    • Jesus gives instructions on how to behave on the road: no money, no provisions
    • Jesus gives instructions on how to behave in the host's home: greet him and accept his hospitality
    • Jesus gives instructions on how to behave in front of a city: either stay there or leave
    • The attitude towards the missionary reveals the attitude towards Jesus

When we look at the sources used by the evangelists, we notice that the audience for the mission speeches is not clearly identified, or at least is lost today. But we can believe that Mark is right to link this audience to the Twelve. Here is why.

  • Since we have established the historical existence of the Twelve during Jesus' ministry as well as the symbolic value of their number, it is quite logical and normal that these are the people whom Jesus sent on mission
  • Biblical scholars who claim that the group of Twelve is a creation of the early church that was later projected to the time of Jesus must recognize that the Twelve never went to Galilee during the early days of the church, but remained in Jerusalem; we only hear of Peter going to Antioch in Syria and perhaps to Corinth. The only basis for explaining this mission to Galilee is to admit that Jesus sent the Twelve.
  • When Jesus calls Peter and Andrew as recorded in Mark and Matthew (Mk 1:16-20 || Mt 4:18-22), he makes a unique promise to make them fishers of men. The expression "fisher of men" in its positive sense is found neither in Jewish literature nor in the Hellenic tradition. This criterion of discontinuity supports the claim that this expression originates with the historical Jesus, that it is not addressed to everyone but to particular people, including Peter and Andrew, and that it associates these people with his mission to gather eschatological Israel. And since Peter is the leader of the Twelve and Andrew is a prominent member of the Twelve, it is easy to deduce that it is the whole of the Twelve that Jesus has associated with his mission.

What do we know about each person in the Group of Twelve?

List of all chapters