history seeks to establish what parts of the Gospels are good history -
how much should be acknowledged as "what really happened". The
acknowledgement should come not only from convinced Christians, but also
However, traditional teaching about the "Twelve
Apostles" doesn't stand up to historical examination. Considering the
importance often placed upon who they were, what they said, and what they
did any thinking person is forced to at least consider revising the
The Church maintains that twelve men were chosen by Jesus to be his
"apostles". They were to represent Jesus. The word "apostle" comes from
the Greek apostolos
which means "a messenger" or "one sent on a mission".
Women would not have been thought worth mentioning in
Some societies today increasingly grant women and men equal
status. Most don't - just as the Jewish culture in the Palestine of Jesus'
day didn't. The idea of a woman being an apostle would have been
The term " apostle" occurs about eighty times in the New
Testament (mostly in Paul's' letters and Luke's writings) but hardly ever
anywhere else in Greek writing. It seems to have been a specifically
There are, however, some relevant antecedents from the
The earliest use of the term comes, of course, from Paul's letters.
They predate the Gospels by between ten and thirty years. In them he
calls himself an "apostle of Jesus Christ". He claims to have been sent
by Jesus to spread the gospel or "good news".
Beginning in the second century and developing further in the Medieval
period, a formal connection was made by Christians between the New
Testament apostles and the office of a bishop in the Church.
The early leaders of Christian communities recognised that a link
with biblical leaders, particularly those apparently appointed by Jesus
himself, would bolster their power and authority. This was important
because many new interpretations of the meaning of Jesus to Christians
were cropping up at the time.
Irenaeus (130-200) made the first list of those bishops he thought
went back to the Twelve Apostles. Tertullian (160-220) and Augustine
(354-430) used the teaching of apostolic succession to combat
heresy. They appealed to the pure teachings of the first bishops and
thence back to Jesus himself via the twelve apostles.
Although it may seem strange to us, the primary source of truth for
the gospel writers and early Church teachers and thinkers lay with
"authorities" of the past. It was natural for them to propose that the
truth about what Jesus really said and did was best preserved by
reversion to past authority .
In Luke 1.1-4 (written probably around the year 80) the concern
for witness from the past is already evident:
Dear Theophilus: Many people have done their best to write a report
of the things that have taken place among us. They wrote what we have
been told by those who saw these things from the beginning and who
proclaimed the message. And so, your Excellency, Because I have
carefully studied all these matters from their beginning, I thought it
would be good to write an orderly account for you. I do this so that
you will know the full truth about everything which you have been
Written somewhat later, 1 John 1.1-4 displays a similar concern:
We write to you about the Word of life, which has existed from the
very beginning. We have heard it, and we have seen it with our eyes;
yes, we have seen it, and our hands have touched it ... What we have
seen and heard we announce to you also ...
Many Christians today still think it important to preserve a link
between bishops and the original apostles. The Twelve Apostles are
thought to be, in an historical sense, the foundation upon which the
Church's teaching rests.
The authority of each bishop is supposed to have been established by
those who come before, according to the doctrine of apostolic succession.
Thus historical continuity of consecration by bishops of new bishops is
Briefly, the theory of apostolic succession contains these main
Jesus chose twelve men from among those who followed him.
He deliberately passed on his authority for expressing truth
to "the Twelve". That authority has been passed on through the centuries
to the bishops of today.
Because they possess continuity with Jesus himself, bishops have
the right, duty and "spiritual gifts" (charisms) to interpret
Christian tradition in changing circumstances. When assembled in
council, the bishops can pronounce definitively on God's revealed truth.
Similarly, the bishops have authority (magisterium) to
administer discipline to the faithful on a day-to-day basis.
The bishop whose authority derives in succession directly from
Peter (Greek for "rock"), namely the Bishop of Rome ( the Pope), is
"first amongst equals" (primus inter pares in Latin).
The bishops, having been given authority directly from Jesus,
pass on that authority by making other bishops to succeed them. This is
done by a ceremonial laying on of hands.
Bishops also authorise minor functions such as priests and
deacons, whose authority to state and interpret Christian tradition
derives from the bishops and can't be exercised apart from them.
Attempts to establish as a matter of historical fact a chain of
apostolic succession over 20 centuries have failed. All lists of
succession which purport to demonstrate succession derive from that
produced by Bishop Irenaeus (140-202). The bishops he listed as having
succeeded the apostles were almost certainly not historical successors
as he stated . This is
not to say that bishops or their equivalent were not in place from the
earliest times. It's just that it has proved impossible to convincingly
establish an unbroken chain of succession - if only because we don't
know for sure who the earliest bishops were.
The implausibility of apostolic succession and wholesale corruption of
the episcopal office in medieval times led to the teaching, particularly
during and after the Reformation of the European churches, that apostolic
authority derives not from historical succession but from the Church as a
whole. That is, the authority of bishops is collective, not serial.
Not only does good history contradict historical succession, but the
quality of the information about the apostles at the beginning of the chain
is poor. The names in the New Testament - that is, in our earliest
historical records apart from Paul's letters - can't be reconciled.
Mark in 3.13-19 tells how Jesus "appointed twelve disciples, whom
he also named apostles" (v.14). Almost without pausing Mark recounts
(v16) how Jesus "appointed the twelve" (my italics). The names he
gives are Simon (Peter), James, John, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew,
Matthew, Thomas, another James (son of Alphaeus), Thaddeus, another
Simon (the Cananaean), and Judas (Iscariot "who betrayed him").
Matthew gives the same list (10.14), though the names are in a
different order. He calls them the "twelve apostles". They are Simon
(Peter), Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew,
James (son of Alphaeus), Thaddeus, another Simon (the Cananaean), and
Judas (Iscariot "the one who betrayed him").
It is significant that Matthew is not consistent in using the term
"apostle" about "the twelve". He calls them the "twelve disciples"
four times (10.1, 11.1, 20.17, 26.20). In 10.2, immediately after
having called them the "twelve disciples" he calls them the "twelve
apostles". But then consistent editing was not a priority for the
Luke names the apostles as Simon (Peter), Andrew, James, John,
Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, another James (son of Alphaeus),
another Simon (the Zealot), and two Judases, son of James and Iscariot
"who became a traitor" (6.14-16).
It should be remembered that Luke is the author of The Acts of
the Apostles. In that work he emphasises that there should be twelve
apostles by relating how Matthias was chosen to replace Judas Iscariot.
Their primary role was to testify to the resurrection of Jesus from
death (Acts 4.33). The names of the apostles in Acts 1.13 are the same
as Luke 6.14-16.
Luke also names Paul and Barnabas "apostles" (Acts 14.14) without
apparently distinguishing them from "the [Twelve] apostles" elsewhere in
Acts and his Gospel.
In his letters Paul calls himself an "apostle", claiming to have
had a personal vision of Jesus. His main task in life is to witness to
Paul, in his letter to the Romans (16.7) appears to name
Andronicus and Junias as "men of note among the apostles, [who] were in
Christ before me".
It has often been pointed out that the number twelve is linked
with the twelve tribes of Israel of the Old Testament (Matthew 19.28).
He portrays Jesus as promising the twelve that "... you who have
followed me will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of
Israel". Though it seems strange to us, Christians of the earliest times
thought that if this was stated in the Old Testament, it had to
come about later. If there were twelve tribes, then there must
be twelve apostles.
John's Gospel is by far the latest of the four. And yet he
doesn't use the term "apostle" at all. He refers to Andrew as a disciple
(John 6.8). He mentions "the Twelve" four times, but not as apostles.
Some commentators think that John's Gospel represents an early Christian
tradition widely separated from the other three gospels.
"Bare bones" history (which is what we're concerned with here) tries
to establish with a high degree of probability "what really happened".
That the various lists don't agree constitutes a problem of history.
Which is correct? The problem of conflicting evidence can't be ignored.
The best we can establish for sure, therefore, is that:
Jesus certainly had followers, including women.
The first Jewish Christians preserved the names of a few
important followers. Of those, we can be reasonably sure of Peter,
James, John and Andrew.
Early traditions of who comprised "the Twelve" don't agree. But
that early Christians recognised a group of important witnesses to the
life and teaching of Jesus is likely. They were loosely called "the
Paul called himself an "apostle". His letters are our earliest
material. That he should have done this may have influenced later
sources such as the gospels. That is, if he called himself "one who is
sent", he may have started or at least confirmed the practice elsewhere.
Is it correct to base the authority of the Church's hierarchy on
these grounds? Everyone must, of course, decide that for themselves. But I
think it's important to question the meaning of a bishop as "apostle" for
One traditional formulation of the meaning of the sacramental
consecration of a bishop is that it is an "outward sign of an inward and
spiritual grace". That's as may be - but neither "grace" nor "spiritual"
denote anything which can be objectively or consensually established.
Moreover, traditional teaching gives the impression that the act of
consecration itself conveys something from person to person.
idea that truth can be communicated from person to person like a virus
seems quaint today. And so it should. The idea that the laying on of hands
conveys power and authority through a magical or semi-magical process
doesn't fit current paradigms in the West. This sort of thinking is,
however, still common elsewhere. The laying of hands on a new bishop may
have an indelible emotional impact upon him or her. But it's hard, if not
impossible, for a person embedded in modern knowledge to credit any effect
other than that.
Consecration is supposed also to cement some
sort of real connection between the doctrinal purity of the person
consecrated and the teachings of all the bishops of the past, right back
to the Twelve Apostles.
We have moved far from the older idea of truth
as derived from the past. Some truths are obviously contained in
records of the past. We have no monopoly on truth in the 21st century, but
for most people it is mediated not by authority figures but by other
Consecration can be interpreted as signifying a bishop's
commitment to uphold the teachings of the past regardless of any new
understanding humanity may have reached in the meanwhile. This seems to be
the situation today in the Anglican Church, which I happen to know best. A
heresy trial has only recently been instituted in Northern Ireland forcing
a senior priest out of his job. Many bishops are taking an anti-gay stand
on the basis of a few verses from the New Testament, making it a doctrine
which has been sustained by bishops in succession (so they would claim)
since the earliest days.
What then can one make of consecration? How
does it work and why is it important? If it's impossible to ascertain that
anything is, as it were, passed on like a virus to a new bishop, what
exactly does happen? In what sense are bishops the apostles of today?
might, I suppose, be that the choice of a bishop depends upon an
assessment of his or her personal skills, qualities and convictions. In
business and commerce and in most other spheres of Western society today,
great efforts are made to ensure a match between task and person. To do
that effectively, specific criteria are required against which to match a
person's past experience.
I've never heard of such a comparison being
openly carried out in the choice of a bishop. In the Church of England,
bishops are (still in 2007) appointed by the State in a secret process.
Perhaps candidates are matched against a secret profile. All Roman
Catholic bishops are appointed by the Pope. Who knows what criteria are
applied by him?
Many bishops and their equivalents are elected by
assemblies. This process of selection seems more akin to a political
process. Perhaps this is more appropriate because, after all, it's more
biblical. In Acts 1.23-26 the author tells how Matthias was chosen when
Peter and the other Apostles "cast lots to choose between [the] two men".
In the case of elected bishops, it seems to me that entirely different
factors come into play when assessing their suitability - personality,
speaking ability, popularity, lobbying and a host of other devices usual
There are, however, some criteria for a good bishop in the
New Testament. They are useful if one thinks that the New Testament is
somehow more definitive than other precedents - though this belief is
increasingly being questioned. The "noble task" of a bishop (in Greek,
episkopos, from "watcher over the sheep") should (1 Timothy 3.2-5 and
Titus 1.7-9) go only to
a man who is above reproach, married to one woman, temperate,
sensible, dignified, hospitable, good at teaching, blameless,
respectable, not arrogant, not a drunkard, gentle not violent or
quick-tempered, and not greedy for personal gain or a lover of money;
is good household manager, keeps his children submissive and
is not a recent convert and is well thought of by outsiders.
He must not be addicted to wine and should be
a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout and
He must also have a firm grasp of sound teaching so that he can
preach it and confound anyone who contradicts it.
Some dedicated Christians (elders, deacons and the like) are called
"workers" or "servants". The criteria for their selection are very similar
to those of a bishop. Indeed, it has long been debated, without firm
results, how distinct from bishops are the roles of deacons and presbyters
(ministers) in the New Testament.
It seems to me that the biblical
criteria bear little resemblance to what we know of the historical Jesus.
He was, amongst other things, possibly unmarried, homeless, notorious for
keeping bad company and going to parties. He was not thought respectable.
Nor do the biblical criteria match the characteristics of the ragtag group
of disciples who came to be called apostles. They were a rum lot when
compared with the elite of Jewish and Roman society of the day.
Lately (2007) a debate is continuing over what a bishop shouldn't
be. A homosexual who claims to be sexually abstinent but in a lifelong
supportive relationship has been proposed for an episcopal post in the
Church of England - and then forced to back down. Since then a homosexual
in an ongoing relationship has been consecrated in the Episcopal Church of
the United States of America. Others of the Anglican Church worldwide
threaten schism on the grounds that the "gospel" will be compromised by
this act. To be kosher, they say, a bishop must be either single and
celibate or "the husband of one wife" (1 Timothy 3.2).
Bishops might be
expected to be of a common persuasion on so important a matter as the
nature of their office. Fortunately for the health of the Church, the
opposite is the case. The disagreements are many and fundamental.
the profound disputes between bishops over many centuries, and their
disputatiousness about authority in the Church, does it matter one way or
the other what the traditional teaching is? A negative answer is safer
than it once was. Only five hundred years ago in Europe one could be
killed for saying so. Today the worst consequence might be
excommunication. Penalties for wrong teaching and liturgy might be imposed
in the near future on priests of the Church of England. A tribunal to
review such matters and impose penalties has been proposed.
of Acts seems to have thought that witnessing to Jesus of Nazareth was the
primary activity of the original apostles. There can be no doubt that Paul
thought of witness as primary to his apostolic calling.
bishops and their equivalents in non-episcopal churches should be chosen
for their capacity to witness and their dedication to a witnessing role in
what is increasingly a secular, non-religious world. Witness, with its
attendant difficulties and dangers, might require that gifted people are
solemnly set aside for the purpose, just as they were in the more
hazardous times of the early churches.
If so, I for one have
considerable difficulty with what seems to be a large gap between theory
and reality. Most bishops I have met bear no resemblance to Jesus in the
sense that they live out and develop the demanding quality of life he
pioneered. What bishop can say, "Foxes have holes and the birds their
nests, but I have nowhere to lay my head"? Very few, in my experience -
though I would dearly love to be proved wrong.
On the contrary, the
vast majority seem to lord it over ordinary people in various ways. A
local bishop near me will soon host a garden party to which hundreds of
the finest and the best are invited. His chauffeur-driven car is an
expensive model. One has only to note expensive Mercedes motor cars roll
up to the papal palace in Rome to be disabused of the validity of a
primary episcopal witnessing role.
Bishops in their many forms seem, on
the contrary, to be retained mainly to preserve an organisational pattern
of power and privilege derived from the past. Far from being "those who
are sent" to bear witness, contemporary bishops almost always bear heavy
administrative burdens. Like politicians and business leaders their role
seems primarily as a figurehead for a regional church.
speeches, preach, open and close events and preside over corporate bodies
and committees. Occasionally they exercise discipline and get rid of
dangerous heretics. Rather like the chief executive of a business venture
who manages his subordinates, part of a bishop's task is to supervise the
clergy, for whom they would claim also to exercise pastoral care. But in
my experience the latter function happens more in theory than practice.
In short, witnessing to the Jesus of bare bones history seems not to be
the strong point of most contemporary bishops. Which is not, of course, to
say that it shouldn't be or that a few don't do it. But it does seem as
though they are not selected for it. Nor by all accounts is the
ability and will to witness necessarily passed on to them in their
consecration. Few bishops are apostles in this sense.
None of this is to
say that remarkable men are not appointed or elected as bishops. But it
may be correct to say that their role is essentially one of preserving
organisational forms and patterns whether or not those patterns are
relevant to the societies in which churches exist. They are not there to
spearhead Christian life and action in the world, but to preserve and
protect the past.
A challenging (and therefore probably impossible) way
of making more sense of bishops might be to invert the hierarchical
pyramid. For two thousand years it has been assumed in the Church that
bishops lead the hoi polloi from their station above the herd. They
propose, the faithful dispose. The line of energy begins with God, travels
through Jesus to bishops, goes via the bishop to the clergy, then to the
laity, and then outwards to the great unsaved.
It might be possible to
change Church structures so that the base of the pyramid is at the top,
and its point downwards. When the Church is perceived in this way bishops
and their sidekicks, the clergy, will become those who support rather than
command frontline Christians. So-called lay Christians become, as they
should be, those who are the leaven in the lump.
The Church is
traditionally perceived as "in the world but not of it". A favourite image
is the faithful congregated inside a palisade which protects them from
evildoers. Bishops and their equivalents are those who police the gates of
the Christian fortress. They and their minions are a sort of holy swat
team called in from time-to-time to take care of troublesome internal
terrorists who threaten the status quo. In the Roman Catholic
Church, the Pope is a sort of head of internal security who doubles up as
a watchdog over the morals of the entire world.
The danger of this
self-image is that the Church may increasingly become an isolated
cultus dedicated mainly to the preservation of a Christian museum. The
more this is the case, the more irrelevant are the outward manifestations
of the Church - its buildings, its bishops and its clergy.
A much more
useful perception in the 21st century might be of the Church as totally
in God's creation, quietly working out its purposes as best it can.
Ordinary Christians would then bring Jesus to ordinary life and ordinary
people. It seems to me that the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus (a
Roman Catholic order) are the best example of an embedded presence
available to us today. In this scenario, the role of bishops would be
To sum up: The ancient idea of episcopal oversight
is founded upon an equally ancient idea of top-down leadership based on a
charism passed on semi-magically from person to person. Just as Jesus
is supposed to have appointed his apostles to lead the sheep, so also
bishops are appointed to lead us. Jesus was, if we're to take on board the
images of John's Gospel, in turn appointed by none other than God. Indeed,
Jesus was God. Who are we to argue with bishops?
But - and it's a
big but, as the above demonstrates - what is touted as God's revelation is
proving to be less certain than some might wish. Indeed, so shaky are
traditional foundations about bishops as apostles that I for one find it
difficult to the point of impossibility to give them reasoned allegiance.
 The Death of the Past, J H Plumb, 1969.
The Discarded Image, C S Lewis, 1964
The Use and Abuse of the Bible, D
 The Church and the Papacy, T G Yalland, 1944