DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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The Historical Jesus
The Twelve Apostles

Commentators on the gospels over the decades appear to have struggled with references to "The Twelve". This is because the evidence is inconsistent about exactly who they were and how many there were .
 
A very early Christian manual (dating from about 96) is called The Lord's Teaching According to the Twelve Apostles. The existence of the Didache (as it is known) indicates that from the earliest times Christians have thought of "The Twelve" as a distinct group of men. 

Even earlier than that, according to Luke's The Acts of the Apostles, at least one group of early Christians preserved the tradition of The Twelve as originally including Judas. When he died, Matthias was appointed in his place to make up the original number (Acts 1.15-26) and he "was added to the eleven apostles".
 
Mark's Gospel is generally thought of as the earliest of the four. Matthew and Luke used him as a reference.  So the question is, can Mark's list be relied on as good history - that is, as "what really happened". For a source to be good history, it usually has to conform to certain standards. In this case, Mark's list needs

  • independent, witnesses for the names of the apostles, as confirmation that there was actually a distinct group which was called "The Twelve".

  • And because the New Testament writers use the Old Testament to validate theological points, if this sort of reference is present (as in the Acts passage), one needs to take it with a pinch of salt. This is not to say that dishonesty is involved, but rather that the gospel authors thought of history very differently from us. 

  • If other good sources don't mention such a list which is potentially so important to our assessment of the later life of the Church then one needs to regard Mark's emphasis on "The Twelve" with a tinge of scepticism.

Mark's list is suspect on all the above grounds:

  1. Matthew's (10.1-4) lists the same individuals as Mark (3.14-19) though in a different order. Most commentators think that Matthew used Mark as his source.

    Luke's Gospel (6.12-16) replaces Thaddeus with a second Judas (son of James). 

    John has no list as such - though he mentions ten of the traditional names (including "the beloved disciple", whoever he was) in various places. None of our other primary sources have such a list. 

    The title of the Didache is generally thought to have been a later addition. Ignatius, the second (or third, according to one source) Bishop of Antioch (35-107), does not mention "The Twelve" in his letters to various churches of his time. One would expect this mention is so early a source.

  2. Because of the strong theological significance of the Twelve Tribes of Israel in the Old Testament, we have to be cautious about the number of the "twelve" apostles. It seems to have been important to the early Church - probably still closely connected with the Jewish religion and establishment - to establish and preserve a strong connection between their new religious direction and older Jewish traditions.

  3. There is good evidence that reference to "The Twelve" didn't appear in the earliest parts of the material common to Matthew and Luke (usually called "Q"). This indicates that it may have been a later tradition, since Matthew's Gospel was not written until around the year 80.

    Paul writes of the "Twelve" (1 Corinthians 15.5) only once and then names only Peter in this context. In Galatians 2.1-10 Paul talks of "the leaders" (in Greek the "pillars") and "those who seemed to be the leaders", in this context mentioning James, Peter and John. 

    Paul's leadership was clearly widely acknowledged in the early Church. Even he had no direct contact with the Jesus of history he nevertheless thought of himself as an "apostle to the Gentiles" just as Peter was made an "apostle to the Jews". His apostolate, he says, was derived "by God's will" not from Jesus or by election as was Matthias.

It seems quite likely that some of the followers of Jesus - particularly Peter - became important in the very early days of the Church. The others seem to have faded away, though James and John are mentioned by Paul and by Luke in Acts. Scraps of evidence and tradition indicate that other Christian leaders may have travelled across the Roman Empire to found local churches as far afield as Britain.

The primacy of Peter as one of "The Twelve" has become a cornerstone of the Roman Catholic Church's theology of authority. 

For example, John Meier in his A Marginal Jew [1] allots no fewer than 160 pages to arguing for the existence and nature of "The Twelve". He thinks that some of those whose conclusions about "the Twelve" are negative hold this view because they argue from a modern presupposition of egalitarianism. Meier concludes that the weight of evidence supports the existence of the Twelve Apostles as a group commissioned by Jesus himself.

To sum up: We can be certain that Jesus had followers, perhaps quite a number of them. The very early tradition that some of these followers were more important than the others is clear. But we mustn't conclude that there were twelve of them. Nor can we be absolutely sure just what all their names were. 

The early Church's conception of and need for history as we know it was non existent. So by the time of Paul the tradition of "The Twelve" was already well on the way to becoming "fact". In later centuries the fact hardened into a doctrine which now supports the type and degree of authority to which 80 percent of all Christians nominally submit.
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[1] Doubleday, 2001

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