Twelve sometimes means thirteen

Apostles and Apostolicity in Early Christianity

One of the remarkable things about the earliest history of what would become Christianity is the brief and largely unremarkable careers of the group known as the Apostles and their glorious, if mostly anonymous, afterlife in Christian tradition.

The Church’s “Twelve Apostles” were in fact both “The Twelve” and “apostles,” so called after their two chief roles in the New Testament. They were of course the Gospels’ familiar apostoloi, “those sent forth” (John 13:16). Somewhat like the contemporary Jewish sheliah, the apostles served as deputies and spokespersons for their master Jesus. Their “sending forth,” by Jesus was accompanied by elaborate instructions and admonitions (Mt. 10: 5-23), and its purpose was to spread the “Good News” in Israel (Mt. 10:5-6); these earliest Christian missionaries were also invested with the power to work cures and perform exorcisms, though we are never shown them doing such during Jesus’ own lifetime (Mt. 10:7-8).

Though the Gospels are somewhat uncertain about the exact names of Jesus’ recruits—the Gospel lists (Mk. 3:16;Mt. 10:2-4; Lk. 6:14-16) vary– they are very clear that they were “the Twelve,” and with the defection and death of Judas Iscariot, a special election was held to choose his successor in order to keep the company at the prescribed number since they were to be, they are told by Jesus (Mt. 19:28), the rulers of the restored twelve tribes of Israel in the approaching End Time.

This eschatological role of the Apostles as rulers of the Tribes of Israel was the notion that kept the number 12 tied firmly to the group even though their performance of this particular function fades from Christian memory as the imminence of the Last Days recedes into an indefinite future. No so with the final and equally explicit assignment of Jesus’ inner circle: they were regarded as the official witnesses of the cornerstone of Christian belief, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15:5; Acts 1:22). This function and its implications that lay at the heart of the content of the message that had been entrusted to the Twelve and which constituted both the foundation of Christian doctrine and, at the same time, the guarantee of its validity.

To put it in is simplest terms, in the beginning was the Twelve, Jesus’ only institution. The Twelve, who were appointed to be the future princes of the reconstituted Twelve Tribes of Israel in the approaching End Time, were also dispatched, hence apostoloi, “those sent forth,” by Jesus to proclaim the “Good News” to Israel. This is the Gospel evidence, which seems to reflect, not without some ambiguity, both an institution, the eschatological Twelve, and a function, broadcasting the Word, that was current in Jesus’ own day.

The eschatological role of the Apostles as putative rulers of the restored Tribes in the Kingdom was a function that kept the number 12 permanently attached to the Apostles even though the expectation of its imminent fulfillment waned over the years. But neither “The Twelve” nor “Apostles” displays what may have been the most important role of those men chosen by Jesus. They were the official witnesses to his resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15:3; Acts 1:22). It is this concept and its implications that was the essential center of the message that was entrusted to the Twelve and which constituted both the cornerstone of Christian doctrine and, at the same time, its validation.

Peter apart, the Synoptic Gospels, which were composed three or four decades after Jesus’ lifetime, seem to have known little about the individuals who made up the Twelve, though Mark’s casual remark (1: 30) about Peter’s mother-in-law and the unexpected leap into focus life of a Mrs. Bar Jonah reminds us that there were actual lives behind the names. The two sets of brothers, Peter and Andrew and James and John, were all Galilean fishermen (Mk. 1:16-20); Matthew was a tax collector on behalf of the Romans (Mt. 9:9) and Simon is called “the zealot” (Mk. 3:18) though we are not sure what that means. The others are nomina tantum, “just names,” except for Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus to the Jewish authorities and came to a terrible, if legendarily “folkloric” end. Paul, who was much closer to the events and who had met with some of the Twelve in the flesh, was aware of their role as witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection (1 Cor. 15:5), but otherwise they seem to have been of little interest to him as a group.

If the Twelve Apostles disappear both collectively and individually from Luke’s narrative after the early chapters in Acts, lost perhaps in the glare of the spotlight that the author has centered on that other “apostle,” Paul, they soon make an important, indeed a crucial, return. The Apostles reenter Christian history first, however, as an idea, “Apostolicity,” before their profiles as both individual personalities and as a group begin to emerge in Christian writings of the second century.

“Apostolicity,” the quality of being based on or faithfully reflecting the witness of Jesus’ twelve Apostles to the events of his life and the authenticity of his reported teaching, is a relatively new term for an old, and indeed crucial concept in the making of Christianity. It is never a question of the teachings peculiar to Peter or to Andrew, for example; rather, it is the tradition of the Apostles, what they “handed down” by way of testimony regarding Jesus and his message and of their own Jesus-derived authority. The first is expressed in the Apostolic text tradition of the four canonical Gospels in the New Testament and in the interpretation of those texts that constitutes Christian doctrine; the latter in the ecclesiastical office of bishop. In each instance it is “Apostolicity,” that vital dependence on the Apostles, that guarantees the authenticity and the veracity of the product.

The dependence is sometimes grounded in the individual Apostle, sometimes collectively in the Apostles as such. Each of the Gospels derives from the memories and witness of an individual Apostle; Christian doctrine, on the hand, the Church’s teaching, is “Apostolic” in the collective sense. Individual bishops do not necessarily claim spiritual descent –the “Apostolic succession”—from individual Apostles, though some Christian communities, Christianity’s “churches” (ekklesiai) may aspire to legitimacy or, more often, preeminence, through its claim to have been founded by one or the other of the Twelve.

But there are no claims in Christian tradition that the Gospel of Luke was based on the recollections of one of the Twelve. Rather, the “Gospel according to Luke” was said to represent the Gospel according to Paul, even though Luke’s work seems very different from Paul’s preaching as recorded in Luke’s own Acts of the Apostles (Acts 13:26-41) and Paul’s letters. More, it is Paul’s understanding of the Jesus event that sits side by side with the Gospels in the New Testament.

What, then, is Paul, a convert to the new faith who had never encountered Jesus of Nazareth, doing in the New Testament limelight? It is because Paul too was “apostolic.” Paul makes the claim to be an apostle on his own behalf (1 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1.1), and he was accepted as such by contemporaries (Acts 14:14) and by the churches. But neither Paul nor anyone else thought he had known Jesus “according to the flesh,” as Paul puts it (Rom. 1: 4), much less that he was a member of the Twelve. But he was, he said, no less than the Twelve, an apostle: “Through him [Jesus] I received the privilege of an apostolic commission to bring people of all nations to faith and obedience in his name…” (Rom. 1:5). And Paul is quite explicit when and where he received that commission: It was while be was travelling on the road to Damascus like an ancient bounty hunter on the trail of the hateful “Christers” (Gal.1:15-16)

In the Gospels “apostle” and “the Twelve,” the putative End Time princes of Israel, are melded into a single “the Twelve Apostles” and they pass as such into Christian tradition. Paul, however, and presumably many others, had a different conception of an “apostle,” and indeed it may have been the original one. In the early 50s Paul provided the Corinthians with a hierarchical list of the “gifts” or, more literally, the “vocations” that the Holy Spirit bestows on Christian congregations: “Within our communities God has appointed in the first place apostles, in the second place prophets, thirdly teachers; then miracle workers, then those who have a gift of healing or the ability to help others and guide them, or the gift of tongues of various kinds” (1 Cor. 14:28).

Paul was familiar with Peter and knew of the Twelve, but by the time of his career in the early 50s, the institution of the Twelve seems little in evidence, though one of them, Peter, still loomed large in Christian affairs. Paul was far more interested in “apostles,” whom he understood as individuals called, like himself, by Jesus or, more usually, by the Holy Spirit, to spread the Gospel of Christ. In Paul’s eyes, the apostle, who is primary among the agents of the Spirit, is a free-standing and autonomous authority, first commissioned by Jesus during his lifetime and now through the Holy Spirit –though in his own case, directly, on the road to Damascus (Gal. 1:15-16; Acts 9:3-6)— to proclaim the Good News. Indeed, the authority of the apostle, the primary bearer of the Gospel and the foundation of all that follows, appears unlimited in Paul, while the others gifts of the Spirit are hedged round with conditions and warnings (1 Cor. 14: 26-33).

Paul’s easy and unquestioned assumption that there were genuinely commissioned apostles other than the Twelve seems borne out by Luke’s account in Acts 6: 1 ff. where the Twelve are constrained to formally appoint —there is a laying on of hands– certain “Hellenists,” that is, Greek-speaking members of the new community of Christers, to administrative tasks so that “we [the Twelve] can devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4). That conclusion is almost immediately refuted in the sequel since it is now Stephen, one of the seven ordained table-servers (diakonoi) and “a man filled with the Holy Spirit,” and not one of the Twelve who is out on the streets of Jerusalem loudly proclaiming the Word. He is shortly followed by Phillip, not the member of the Twelve but another of the Hellenist seven, who is the first to carry the Good News outside of Jerusalem (Acts 8:5-40) and who is later described (Acts 21: 8) as “Phillip the evangelist.”

For Paul, the apostolate is a charismatic vocation rather than an ecclesiastical office like that held by “those reputed to be something,” the so-called “pillars” in the Jerusalem (Gal. 2:6,9). Paul is not a church officer, but a free-ranging Paul apostle, just like “those who were apostles before him” and like some among his contemporaries, like his sometime colleague Barnabas (Acts 14:14) and his sometime rival Apollos (1 Cor. 1:12; Acts 18:24-28).

There were, then, Apostles and apostles. From the beginning there appears to have been a not very clear distinction between the two, the named Twelve who were to be in the End Time the princes of the restored Twelve Tribes of Israel and all those mostly unnamed individuals commissioned by Jesus through the Holy Sprit to promulgate the Good News in his name. According to the Gospels, the Twelve were so commissioned (Mk. 6:7-13 and parr.), a commission that in Matthew (28: 19-20) was already beginning to grow into a legend. But there were others beyond the Twelve who received similar commissions, some during Jesus’ lifetime, others certainly after, as appears from Paul’s own letters, Luke’s late first century Acts and the early second century Didache.

In the understanding of the earliest followers of Jesus, there were numerous commissioned and acknowledged “apostles” who, like Barnabas, whose formal “ecclesiastical” commissioning is recorded in Acts (13:2-3), and Apollos (Acts 18:24-28; 1 Cor. 3:5,22; 16:12), promulgated the Gospel in the towns and cities of the Roman East. But apart from James, the “brother of the Lord,” who was not one of the Twelve but stood at the head of the Jerusalem ekklesia, we have the writings of Paul, but of no other of those early “apostles.” And it was Paul’s claim to “Apostolicity” –“Paul, apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s call and by his will” (1 Cor. 1:1)—and its recognition by the earliest Christian congregations that won him his predominant position in the Church’s collection of foundation documents. Jews read the Torah with a thousand rabbis’ voices whispering to them from the margins of the text; Christians read the Gospels with Paul shouting instructions from the very next page. The New Testament is in fact like a Christian Talmud, with the evangelical text in the center of the page entirely surrounded by Paul’s gemara. Even more tellingly, in the Christian liturgy Paul is read aloud to the congregation before they hear the Gospel text.

The Twelve or, as Luke characterized them, with a shift in emphasis, the twelve Apostles, who are carefully, if not always accurately, named in the Synoptic Gospels, are, however, apart from Peter and Judas, who flies in from the wings in the last act, little more than shadows in the Gospels or occasional supernumeraries with no speaking part. As individuals the Twelve are all, save Peter, invisible in Paul’s letters, and they soon disappear, even the high-profiled Peter, from the early Christian narrative of Acts. they did not fade from popular Christian interest. What restored the twelve Apostles to center stage –the notion of an eschatological Twelve, seems to have quickly vanished—were the second century doctrinal struggles that were provoked by Christians called Gnostics or “The Wise.”

Gnosis in Greek means knowing, knowledge, but in this instance it signifies a privileged understanding imparted by Jesus privately (cf. Mk. 4:10-12), indeed secretly, and accessible only to the initiated “spirituals” (pneumatikoi). To counter this, other Christians, their spiritual descendants called then “orthodox,” put forward the claim of authenticity as manifested in Paul and the four Gospels, each of which was furnished with a genuine Apostolic patent: Mark via Peter, Luke via Paul, and Matthew and John as the work of those Apostles themselves.

What Apostolicity implies is a connection in some fundamental way to the collective witness of the Twelve to the life and teachings of Jesus, a witness that is detailed in the Gospels and confirmed in both Paul (1 Cor. 15:5) and Acts (1:21-22). That connection becomes important because it guarantees authenticity and the legitimacy with respect to doctrine, a matter of great contention in the second century, as well as confirming the authority of both the emerging episcopate and of the new Christian Scripture. In the end “Apostolicity” was claimed for the Church as whole, which asserted in its various creeds that it was “one, holy, universal (katholikê) and Apostolic.”

It did not end there, however. The ideological thrust of Apostolicity provoked new interest in the Apostles themselves. As the embodiment of Apostolicity, that brand name of guaranteed authenticity, members of the Twelve were not only regarded as the authors of the four canonical Gospels but became as well the surrogate fathers of a variety of pseudonymous doctrinal works –they tell us little about their authors– some within, some without the New Testament, that bear their names, either individually like the letters of Peter (certainly the second, perhaps the first), those of John, the Book of Revelation and the Gospels of Peter, or Thomas, etc., or collectively, like the Didache, aka, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.”

The evidence is in the various third and fourth century Acts that are preserved for some of Twelve –it seems probable that all twelve received similar treatment– and the other indirect signs like a church’s possession of an Apostle’s tomb or the chair from which he preached all testify to a widespread cult of these new celebrities. These books of “Deeds” offer little or nothing reliable about the Apostles themselves, but they provide abundant information about the piety and the literary tastes of ordinary late second and third century Christians. The Acts are in part entertainment –historical romance comes closest to describing their literary genre—and in part edification. We learn from the pseudonymous Acts of the Apostles nothing about the historical Peter, Andrew or Thomas, but we can see clearly that there was a widespread second century cult of Christian martyrs –all of the Twelve save John were thought to have suffered martyrdom —and a growing interest in celibacy as a crucial element in Christian life.

From these highly imaginative Apostolic Acts and from other material scattered in the apocryphal Gospels, Gospels allegedly written by one of the Twelve but not included in the New Testament, that occupied the same second century literary terrain, Christians fashioned their portraits of the Apostles, fleshed out with a parallel iconography. The point of departure appears to have been a tradition that the Twelve, after a spell together in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1) apportioned to themselves by lot lands to which each would carry the Good News. It is reported in two roughly contemporaneous works, at the opening of the pseudonymous Acts of Thomas (1) and in Origen’s lost Commentary on Gen., a passage that is cited verbatim in Eusebius’ Church History (3.1.1-3). According to it:

The holy Apostles and disciples of our Savior were scattered throughout the whole inhabited world. Thomas, as tradition relates, obtained by lot Parthia, Andrew Scythia [Thrace and its hinterland], John Asia [i.e., the Roman province of Asia in western Anatolia] (and he stayed there and died in Ephesus), but Peter seems to have preached to the Jews of the Diaspora in in Pontus and Galatia and Bithynia, Cappadocia and (Roman) Asia, and at the end he came to Rome and was crucified head downwards, for so he had demanded to suffer. What need be said of Paul, who fulfilled the Gospel of Christ from Jerusalem to Illyria [the Dalmatian coast] and afterwards was martyred in Rome under Nero?

The Acts of Thomas, whose exotic locale, marvelous deeds and mystical flights made it a best seller in the “What ever happened to…” genre, tells the same story of the Apostles’ casting of lots in a division of missionary territory, but it supplies no information of who went where except to say that Thomas, the hero of his tale, was assigned not merely Parthia, the land eastward of the Euphrates, but well beyond, in India, where a widespread and persistent Christian tradition locates his marvel-filled missionary career.

Eusebius had added to his account of the missionary lottery well-known details of the deaths of Peter and Paul. The Apostles’ death, particularly as witnesses [martyres) to the faith, was, together with the land of their missionary labors, was a leitmotif of the earliest accounts of the fate of the Apostles. An early but brief example is The Twelve Apostles of Christ which bears the name of the historian-theologian Hippolytus (d. 235-236 A.D.) but is likely the work of some anonymous third century author. It provides in two or three succinct sentences where each Apostle preached and when, where and how he met his end. Though the account is a mere skeleton, it is still far more than what we reliably know about any of the Apostles save Peter and Paul.

1. Peter preached the Gospel in Pontus, and Galatia, and Cappadocia, and Bithynia, and Italy, and [Roman] Asia, and was afterwards crucified by Nero in Rome with his head downward, as he had himself desired to suffer in that manner.

2. Andrew preached to the Scythians and Thracians, and was crucified, suspended on an olive tree, at Patrae, a town of Achaia; and there too he was buried.

3. John, again, in [Roman] Asia, was banished by Domitian the king to the isle of Patmos, in which also he wrote his Gospel and saw the apocalyptic vision; and in Trajan’s time he fell asleep at Ephesus, where his remains were sought for, but could not be found.

4. James, his brother, when preaching in Judea, was cut off with the sword by Herod [Agrippa] the tetrarch, and was buried there.

5. Philip preached in Phrygia, and was crucified in Hierapolis with his head downward in the time of Domitian, and was buried there.

6. Bartholomew, again, preached to the Indians, to whom he also gave the Gospel according to Matthew, and was crucified with his head downward, and was buried in Allanum, a town of the great Armenia.

7. And Matthew wrote the Gospel in the Hebrew tongue, and published it at Jerusalem, and fell asleep at Hierees, a town of Parthia.

8. And Thomas preached to the Parthians, Medes, Persians, Hyrcanians, Bactrians, and Margians, and was thrust through in the four members of his body with a pine spears at Calamene, the city of India, and was buried there.

9. And James the son of Alphaeus, when preaching in Jerusalem was stoned to death by the Jews, and was buried there beside the temple.

10. Jude, who is also called Lebbaeus, preached. to the people of Edessa, and to all Mesopotamia, and fell asleep at Berytus, and was buried there.

11. Simon the Zealot, the son of Clopas, who is also called Jude, became bishop of Jerusalem after James the Just, and fell asleep and was buried there at the age of 120 years.

12. And Matthias, who was one of the seventy, was numbered along with the eleven apostles, and preached in Jerusalem, and fell asleep and was buried there.

13. And Paul entered into the apostleship a year after the assumption of Christ; and beginning at Jerusalem, he advanced as far as Illyricum, and Italy, and Spain , preaching the Gospel for five-and-thirty years. And in the time of Nero he was beheaded at Rome, and was buried there.

The author assuredly did not invent this information. This was a mere summary of stories circulating already in the second century. The information, it is clear derives from local traditions churches that possessed what was indentified as a tomb of an Apostle or that claimed to have been founded by one of the Twelve. But for all its brevity and confusions, it passed into the mainstream and became the template upon which all later versions of Lives of the Apostles were fashioned .

More important than the biographical details on the Apostles is the notion of Apostolicity, whether in validating the episcopal office (the “Apostolic succession”) or in grounding Christian doctrine(the “Apostolic tradition”). The Christian episcopal succession from the Apostles was early stated in the 180s by the bishop-historian Hegesippus, who made a particular study of the episcopal succession at Rome, but its true monument is the early fourth century Church History of Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea and Constantine’s court historian. Eusebius was well acquainted with Hegesippus’ work –most of what we know of that latter’s studies, and of much else besides, come from their citation by Eusebius– and used it. One objective of the Church History is to verify from the records and recollections that each bishop of every major Christian community was the duly ordained successor to a bishop who stood in an unbroken episcopal line that stretched back to the Apostles, not Paul’s lower case colleagues and contemporaries but the Twelve and, in the case of Jerusalem, James, the “brother of the Lord.”

The “Apostolic succession” was the retort to schismatic divisions within the new Christian communities, most notably at Rome, which drew the attention of Hegesippus. The “Apostolic tradition” was likewise a response, in this instance to the claim of some Christians, ”The Wise” or “those who know” (gnostikoi), that they were the heirs to a privileged understanding of the Gospels, not merely those of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but of others as well.

If the Twelve served first as bearers and then, for later generations of believers, as the guarantors of Jesus’ authentic teaching, they were also the formal and official witnesses to what was and remains an even more crucial element of the new faith, namely Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Without the resurrection there would be no Christianity, Paul proclaimed (1 Cor. 15:17); without the Twelve, it can be argued, there would be no resurrection.

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