It is an accepted fact among New Testament scholars and historians that the historical Jesus selected twelve disciples to accompany him during his ministry (1).
Although this entry will examine several historical reasons for accepting this as an authentic component to Christ’s ministry we will also want to say one or two things about the number twelve. That Christ selected twelve disciples is a symbol as it stood for much more than just the number and is revealing concerning the statement he wished to make. In some ways, Christ revealed more about who he was through his actions than through his words.
The most common explanation for selecting this number of disciples is to replicate the image of the twelve tribes of Israel and thus symbolically represent her restoration and unification. This goes back to the Old Testament where the sons of Jacob form the twelve tribes of the nation (see Genesis 42:13, 32, 49:28). It also symbolically represents other acts: the twelve pillars of Israel (Exodus 24:4), twelve stones on the high priest’s breastplate (Exodus 39:14), twelve rams, lambs, bulls or goats (Numbers 17:17), cutting a prostitute into twelve pieces (Judges 19:29), and more. Twelve tribes are formalized by Joshua when they crossed the Jordan River (Joshua 4:1-20). Thus, the twelve disciples Christ selected became in effect leaders of a new community, a community that is a faithful remnant (a continuity of the twelve tribes of Israel) and faithful to God. Although it is tied to history, the twelve is also tied to continuity as it is designed to take the nation in a new direction and proclaim the arrival of a new era of God’s old promise tied to Christ’s proclamation of the kingdom.
But the rich symbology of Christ’s selection aside, what historical grounds do we have to accept that Christ selected twelve disciples?
The first, and perhaps most important, evidence is that his selection of twelve disciples is multiply and independently attested. This criterion states that an event or saying appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which the event/saying is alleged to have occurred and which depend neither upon each other nor a common source. We find the name of the twelve disciples in Mark 3:16-19, Matthew 10:2-4, Luke 6:14-16, and Acts 1:13. However, despite this being broad attestation these traditions are rooted in Mark, and so these count only as a single source. The historian has a second independent source: Q. Q is a hypothetical source that both Matthew and Luke had access to. In this case Q = Matthew 19:29 and Luke 22:30. Further, material unique to Matthew (M = 11:1, 20:17, 26:20), Luke (L = 8:1, 18:31), and John (6:67, 70; 20:24) provides names of the twelve. We have another attestation in Paul’s creed in 1 Corinthians 15:5 where he refers to “the Twelve.” This creed dates from anywhere between eighteen months and five years of Christ’s death, thus making the tradition of the Twelve early. Finally, Acts 1:13 refers to the Twelve.
Historians are content to have two independent historical sources corroborating an event of history, and for the twelve disciples we have no fewer than six independent sources in the form of Q, Mark, L, M, John, and Paul. Finally, it is worth noting that this multiple attestation encompasses forms. The twelve disciples are referenced in narrative (Mark and Acts), sayings from Q and John, a catalogue (Mark and Acts), and in a creed (1 Corinthians). Given this wide and independent attestation, it is almost certain that Christ’s selection of twelve disciples is a genuine historical fact.
Criterion of Embarrassment
According to the criterion of embarrassment, a saying/event is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information for the saying/event. The saying/event is therefore likely historical because the author who serves as the source of information would not, or is very unlikely to, have made up the saying/event had it not actually occurred. We find that this applies to Christ’s selecting of the Twelve, particularly because it includes Judas, who always appears in the last slot in the catalogue of names. According to gospel tradition, Judas is remembered for betraying Christ, and it is unlikely that the gospel authors, or the Church, would have made up this detail had there not really have been a traitor in Christ’s group. This is reasonable given its embarrassing nature as Christ, believed by the early Christians and Church to have been God incarnate and God’s chosen Messiah, would have been the one responsible for selecting an individual, namely Judas, who would eventually betray him (2). Certainly, it does not put Christ in a good light and is difficult to explain away unless it is a genuine historical fact, namely that Christ had disciples he selected, one of which betrayed him.
Lack of Development
A final point worth noting is the lack of the development of the named individuals. Despite us having the names of the twelve disciples we know very little about them. This would be odd if the Church or gospel authors had made them up for if they had then we might expect much more to be said about the people and their activities. We do not get this and we find that the disciples disappear after Acts 6:2 and make one appearance in Revelation 21:14. It seems that if the disciples were a fabrication of the early Church then very little is ever made of them.
1. Sanders, E. P. 1985. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. p. 373.
2. Cross, John Dominic. 1995. Who Killed Jesus? San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. p. 71.