Who Were the Twelve? — Mark 3:16-19

And he appointed the twelve:
Simon (whom he gave the name Peter),
James son of Zebedee and
John the brother of James (whom he gave the name Boanerges, the sons of Thunder), and
Andrew and
Philip and
Bartholomew and
Matthew and
Thomas and
James son of Alpheus and
Thaddaeus and
Simon the Cananaean and
Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him

— tr. mine

One thing you notice in the New Testament. There is a pretty good agreement that there were a group of Twelve. We call them the Twelve disciples, or Twelve apostles, though both terms have problems. In the NT they are often just called “The Twelve”.

An icon of the Twelve

The Twelve Disciples from a Greek Icon. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

But what you don’t notice is complete agreement about who was in the group. Here is Mark’s version. Matthew agrees with Mark, but there are variations in some texts that change Thaddaeus to Labbaeus (and even a later scribe who hedges his bets and write “Labbaeus called Thaddaeus”). Some variants of Matthew have other Judases, Judas the Zealot, and others add Judas the son of James. Luke has this Judas son of James in his version (both in Luke and Acts), and Simon the Zealot. Earlier, however, during the stories of the calling of the disciples, Luke has Levi son of Alphaeus (James’s brother?), who is called in a story that Matthew uses for Matthew (and this is one of the reasons Matthew’s gospel is so named). John’s gospel doesn’t even name the full set, but he does include a Nathanael who isn’t elsewhere. Paul doesn’t give us a list either, but he refers to them, in terms of their obvious authority in the early Jesus movement (and one can’t help but hear a less than respectful tone for that authority).

There are traditional ways to reconcile these differences (somewhat creatively). What’s fascinating is that it seems clear that the individuals aren’t important. What’s important is that there are Twelve.

Obviously a highly significant number for Jews, mirroring the twelve tribes of Israel. And there’s the irony. There are three different sets of “Twelve Tribes” in the bible too – over time the constituents of the twelve change, but the important part is that there are twelve.

Decades after Jesus, the specifics about the Twelve might have been forgotten, but the number had not. But what’s also interesting is that the era of the Twelve was brief.

After Judas’s exit from the Twelve, Acts tells the story of how a replacement was elected (Matthias). To the early church the number was important enough to hold this election. But then Luke tells us nothing more about them. Paul uses “Twelve” as a name, but doesn’t talk about them as if there were twelve. For Paul (c.f. Galatians 1 and 2), there is only Peter. The other major heavyweight is James (Jesus’s Brother), who doesn’t appear in any list of the Twelve.

Who knows if the loyalty of the Twelve really did survive the Crucifixion. There are hints they did not. We know that their symbolism was more powerful than their reality very soon afterwards. And as the new religion grew beyond Judea, there was very little need for the symbolism any more. The calling of The Twelve was remembered, I think, as an authentic act of the historical Jesus. Like many things he said and did, it was something the early church, particularly the Pauline church, found it no longer needed.

I wonder what Jesus would have made of Paul.


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13 responses to “Who Were the Twelve? — Mark 3:16-19

  1. Matt 28:17 says that some of the eleven doubted the resurrection appearance; the only one reported by Matthew concerning the male followers of Jesus.

  2. I think Jesus would have regarded Saul Paulus as an insufferable wanker, but then people projecting their personal feelings onto the J-boy…

  3. Great job of doin’ the dozens.
    What puzzles me most is how they suddenly cloned themselves six times in Luke so there were 72(or so). Maybe you could shed light on that?

  4. @ Uzza: Maybe each apostle hooked up with five people who were outside the inner circle. Then the 72 of them took off on a missions trip. It either had to be that or some redaction. Or, the Gospel of Matthew author suffered some kind of cognitive dissonance.

  5. Buddhists are fanatical about their numbers — 3s, 4s, 12s and more.
    Perhaps in the age of oral transmission, to make numbers sacred amplified the power of memorization. And maybe most people knew that but now we get serious about it.

  6. Ian

    @Uzza – yes the 72/70 disciples of Luke 10. The text does say that they are 70/72 “others” (ἕτερος – heteros – as in hetero-sexual), assumably other in comparison to the twelve. Maybe these are the minor league disciples, Bob’s point above. The story in Luke 10 is generally rather odd, I feel.

    The numbering isn’t clear. I suspect that 70 was probably original, and this was ‘corrected’ into 72 in some manuscripts we have (72 being more clearly a symbolic number). The consensus among textual critics seems to be that.

    Also the pattern of the greek could mean “appointed another seventy” as if there were seventy before. Unlikely, given that Luke never mentions another seventy, but hey.

  7. uzza

    Oh, I see, 70 heteros, ‘other’ in comparison to the twelve. So then I can believe those rumors that Jesus and the apostles were gay?

    (sorry. I assume you just meant that’s how it’s pronounced.)

  8. good post! for me it points to the idea that symbols are more powerful than facts.

  9. Zero, yes indeed – I think that is exactly the case. When we start teasing apart the symbolism, interesting possibilities emerge. I’ve had a couple of posts on the Transfiguration over at my blog http://answersingenes.blogspot.com (had to get the link in!) including posting all three of the transfiguration accounts together. When you read them together, the similarities of course point to the single documentary source, but the variations are then rendered interesting. These motifs are themselves symbolic – they tell us something about what was going through the minds of Luke and Matthew as they transcribed the source material. The human mind is a symbolic manipulator, really, yet we have very little insight into how internal mental symbols are generated or how they correspond to the real world. We do know that the basis is neurobiology though…

  10. Hi all, I’m guessing that the NT12 first reflects the 12 tribes of Israel and that the 72 reflect the seventy + 2 elders who went to meet God on the mountain in the Moses days. And since Shane is bringing in neurobiology… the number 12 is highly significant in the standard model of elementary particles.
    Impressive post, though. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Ian

    Yes, the 72 is actually just 70 in many manuscripts. It is uncertain which is the original reading, though 70 is often favoured.

    Never thought about it in terms of elementary particles!

  12. Pingback: Resources for Mark 3:16 - 19

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