I would argue that the answer to these questions lies in early church politics. Christianity condensed out of a variety of Jewish and pagan mystery cult and club associations,5 and there came a time of fierce competition among these organizations. One group of Jewish proto-Christians claimed that their church was the only authentic one because it was supposed to have been founded by men (apostles) who had had visions of the risen Christ.6 To this, the Pauline (Gentile) churches could reply, “We’re authentic too: our founder, Paul, also had visions of Christ and Christ told him what’s what.” The Jewish church could only top its rivals by adding some more details to the history of its alleged foundation. It turned out, wouldn’t you know, that the apostles who founded it not only had had visions of the risen Christ, they had eaten meals with him and studied with him before he died. That made their church much more authoritative than churches whose founders had only had visions. Thus, the invention of twelve apostles led to the invention of the twelve disciples. Probably, one of the Jewish churches was led by twelve officials called apostles (perhaps equivalent to the “pillars” mentioned in Galatians 2:9) – one for each of the imaginary tribes of Israel. The tribes in turn, as you may know, were associated with the twelve signs of the zodiac. The twelve governing apostles were descended, it was claimed, from the original twelve apostles, at least eleven of whom had also been disciples.7 Top THAT for justification of a church’s authority!
It is highly likely that the apologists for certain other proto-Christian groups did in fact try to do that justification one better. I can just hear one of their apologists exclaiming, “MY Jewish church is ruled by people who are descended from Jesus’ family! You can’t get any closer to Jesus than that!” Now, at the time that this competition was flaring up, probably no one remembered that in the early days of that particular church there were officials known as “Brothers of the Lord.” They were no closer to Jesus family-wise than are today’s monks and nuns. (Many monks and nuns, you may know, are “brothers and sisters of the Lord” too.) At some point in proto-Christian history, the title “Brother of the Lord” became politically more useful if it was misunderstood or deliberately misrepresented as signifying blood relationship to Jesus. So how do you trump the ace of the church that claims authority by virtue of blood relationship to Jesus?
Easy. You write gospels in which Jesus himself puts down his supposed family. Of course, you will have to create a family for him to put down. But it will be worth it if you establish the superiority of your own church over the others. So, you will make Jesus be rude to his mother at the wedding at Cana: “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” [John 2:4] You will have him reject his entire family at once as in Mark 3:3ff: “There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him. …And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren? And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.”
Politically, having Jesus put down his whole family this way must have been devastating to the churches claiming family relations as the basis of their authority. But so it is; the New Testament is political history written by the victors – even if its substance is mythical.
Disciples in the Making When in the course of ecclesiastical events it became necessary to create disciples as the earliest embodiment of the Christian faith, there was a minor difficulty: no Twelve Disciples and no Jesus Christ had ever existed in actuality. What to do?
Just as various evangelists found it useful to mimic Old Testament themes and stories when inventing things for Jesus to do (e.g., making him a new Moses), the author of Mark (the oldest of the official gospels) mined the Old Testament for a model involving disciples. The best he could come up with was that of the story of Elijah’s calling of his disciple Elisha (See sidebar “Old Testament Model For the Calling Of Disciples”). It was a start.
In Mark 1:16-39 there is an account of the calling of four disciples and some relatively integrated narrative telling of Jesus’ adventures with them. The four names introduced in this story are Simon (not yet “Peter” in this early account), his brother Andrew, and James and John, the sons of Zebedee (they are given the epithet “Boanerges, Sons of Thunder” in the separate story told in 3:13-19). The significance of Simon will be discussed later, but the significance of Andrew (Andreas, “manly”: a Greek, not Hebrew, name) is unclear to me. It is possible that he was created to symbolize the Hellenized Jews that were the focus of so much controversy in the early church. The characters James and John, however, may have astrological meaning. The name Zebedee resembles the Old Babylonian Zalbatanu, the equivalent of Jupiter “the Thunderer,” making it only reasonable that James and John would be the sons of thunder.
Mark 2:14, a passage seemingly just dropped at random into the text, tells a separate story about how Jesus acquired a disciple, a tax-gatherer named Levi, the son of Alphæus. Both Levi and Alphæus appear to have symbolic purpose here. Levi, of course, symbolizes the priestly tribe of Levites – Israelites imagined to have served Moses by taking charge of the old tabernacle cult, a cult now fancied to be superseded by the cult of Christ. The name Alphæus, it would appear, has astrological significance. It probably derives from the Babylonian alpu, ‘bull’ [Taurus] a name of the chief god Marduk, or to the zodiacal sign Taurus. It would appear that the purpose of this disciple story is to reduce the priesthood, the erstwhile leaders of the Israelite religion, to the rank of simple students at the feet of the new teacher.
Finally, we must consider yet a third disciple story (Mark 3:13-19) retailed by Mark. Like the Levi story, this one also seems gratuitously introduced into the midst of an unrelated narrative.8 It is in this story that the connection between disciples and apostles is forged. It is here, finally, that we get a list of all twelve disciples and – by implication – all twelve apostles:
3:13. And he goeth up into a mountain [even though he has just been on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and there are no mountains for miles] and calleth unto him whom he would: and they came unto him. 14. And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach, 15. And to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils. [The names of eleven disciples-apostles are then listed.] 19. And Judas Iscariot, which also betrayed him: and they went into an house. 20. And the multitude cometh together again [in a house on a mountain?!] so that they could not so much as eat bread.
The wording in verse 14 makes it appear that in one fell swoop, Jesus appointed all twelve as both disciples and apostles, high-lighting the obvious interpolation “which also betrayed him” after the name Judas Iscariot in verse 19. As a matter of fact, the manuscript text history of this story is quite confused and variable. The earliest manuscripts do not mention that the twelve had “the power to heal sicknesses.” Other manuscripts do various things to clarify the distinction between disciples and apostles. The manuscript known as W (the so-called Freer Gospels, in Washington), for example expands verse 14 to read “And he appointed twelve disciples to be with him, who also were named apostles, whom he could send out to preach the gospel.” Curiously, even though W makes it still more clear that theTwelve Apostles were the same guys as the Twelve Disciples, it too has a comment about Judas being a betrayer. The comment differs grammatically, however, from the wording of the other major manuscripts.
Once again, the variability in our text reinforces the notion that we are dealing with the growth of a tale of fiction. If the twelve disciples had actually existed, wouldn’t we have a single, connected narrative telling how they came to hold their office? Even if they had not been appointed all on one occasion, can we not expect that the narrative explaining the stages by which this sacred college accreted would be more coherent? As it is, we have at least three unrelated stories in this oldest gospel’s attempts to account for the origins of the church’s first board of directors. Even so, despite the assertion that there were twelve of them, combination of the three stories yields a total of thirteen, not twelve disciples! Don’t we find an attempt by the author of Luke to cover up and smooth over this embarrassing situation when he tells us (Luke 6:13) that Jesus “called his disciples to him, and from among them he chose twelve and named them Apostles”? Isn’t this an attempt to reduce the thirteen to twelve?
The political motivation behind the creation of disciples and apostles can be seen especially clearly in the contradictory9 account of disciple-calling given in the gospel of John. The story related in Chapter 1:35ff tells how John the Baptist lost two of his own disciples (Andrew and an unspecified other one) to Jesus when the latter simply passed by the Baptizer at the imaginary “Bethany beyond Jordan.” John previously has made the Baptist confess his inferiority to Jesus; now he has him lose his disciples to the one who was to become the victor in the cult competitions of the late first and early second centuries. This story also has Jesus acquire Simon – who already is known as Peter – and give him the Aramaic epithet Cephas, which is explained as being the equivalent of Peter, “the rock.” All this makes sense if at the time this story was written there was intense competition between a proto-Christian church and a Baptist cult on one side and a Peter cult on the other. Rivals are subjugated, reduced in status, and harnessed to pull the plough for Christ.
Astral Apostles? Although the twelve disciples and twelve apostles clearly have astrological or zodiacal significance, attempts to relate all their names (there are, remember, more than twelve names!) to particular signs have not been very successful. Although we have already seen that several of the disciples’ names may have astral (e.g., planetary) or zodiacal significance, even if we explain the name Thomas (perhaps from Babylonian Tuâmu, ‘twin’, or ‘Gemini’) or suppose that the female disciples listed in some of the noncanonical gospels were put there to represent Virgo, we still fall short of explaining all the names zodiacally.
This may be due to the fact that we know too little of the details of the astrological systems in vogue in the East Mediterranean world at the turn of the era, or it may be due to the fact that political necessities forced some characters (such as Peter) who were not strictly zodiacal but originally rival gods to be subjugated and made to serve as mere understudies of the real savior. It also may be due to the equally political necessity of subjugating vaguely remembered but actual leaders of various proto-Christian “churches.” (The various characters named James may fall into this category.) To make things even more confusing, it is highly likely that the names of some early leaders were related to gods that had to be subdued. Thus, the “Cephas” of the Pauline writings is usually equated with the Simon Peter of the gospels. But the Peter of the gospels is clearly a god who had to be shown inferior to Jesus.
There appears to have been a Samaritan god named Simon who, like Mithra, was given the nickname of Peter (“rock”). He could walk on water and held the keys to the gates of heaven. In this regard, he was the equivalent of the Roman god Janus, whose cult was headquartered a short distance from the present-day Vatican (the site of an equivalent “Peter cult”). It is altogether possible that the Cephas of the Pauline literature was a real person, a leader of the quasi-Jewish Samaritan savior cult who took the title of his god. If so, Matthew (14:30) scored a “two-fer” when he portrayed Peter’s failure to walk successfully on the water. The god Simon was shown to be inferior to Jesus in power, and Simon’s earthly representative’s Peter (Cephas) was made to matriculate as just another pupil in the Christian Playtime Academy.
Despite all the exceptions just discussed, the Twelve clearly serve a zodiacal function in the gospels, and the sun-god nature of Jesus becomes clear as crystal when one examines the early history of the Christian cult. (Excavations beneath the vatican have revealed a mosaic depiction of Christ as the sun-god Helios – with solar chariot, horses, and all!) The core narrative of the gospel of Mark is played out in twelve months (suggestively solar), and some scholars have thought that the original version of the gospel of Mark had a twelve-part structure sort of the Christian equivalent of the Twelve Labors of Hercules (another savior godlet). In later works, however, the time of Jesus’ ministry is increased – to as much as three years in the late gospel of John. In any case, the purposes and beliefs of the various churches that controlled the rewriting of the gospels changed from time to time, and so what might originally have been clear patterns became obscured as more material was inserted into the sacred texts and as some material most surely was expunged.10
The solarity of Jesus and the zodiacal nature of the Twelve is further underscored by the fact that the latter are related to the mythical Twelve Tribes of Israel:
Matt. 19:28. Jesus replied, ‘I tell you this: in the world that is to be, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne in heavenly splendour [what is this, if not the sun?], you my followers will have thrones of your own [i.e. the twelve zodiacal houses], where you will sit as judges of the twelve tribes of Israel.
It has long been known that the tribes are themselves zodiacal symbols, part of the solar development of the Yahweh cult that took place centuries before the turn of the era. The disciples both represent the twelve tribes and judge them.
Those Dumb Disciples It yet remains to explain one further function of The Twelve, a function that has seemed to many scholars inexplicable: the disciples function as veritable stooges. Again and again, we are startled in reading some of the gospels to learn that the disciples were uncomprehending when Jesus said something any second-grader should have understood.11 Why did the evangelists portray the disciples as slow-witted, unreliable, or even treacherous? Some have even argued that this was evidence of the genuine historicity of the gospels. Why, it has been asked, would the evangelists paint such unflattering pictures of the Twelve if it weren't true? If they were just making up stories to glorify the founders of their church, wouldn't they make them up without warts?
The answer seems simple enough if one considers once again the political framework in which the gospels (or at least, certain parts of some of them) were written. For some period it was necessary for the nascent society to disassociate itself from the Jews, the group from which it claimed some considerable degree of descent. It was necessary to curry favor (or at least acceptance) with the Romans. It was unable, unlike the full-fledged Gnostics, to disavow Judaism entirely and discount the Old Testament as the record of a fiend. Too much of its doctrine was derived from Judaic models, and of course the church founders needing to be justified had long before already been identified as being in some sense Jewish. What could the church do?
The church could explain that it wasn't really Pilate or the Romans who killed Jesus, rather it was the Jews. A disciple could be created to betray him and could be given the name Judas, which means ‘Jew’. Further, it could be shown that Jesus tried to get the Jews to mend their wicked ways and tried to teach them a higher philosophy. Twelve disciples could be created to represent the uncomprehending, stubborn, and fickle twelve tribes of Jews whom the Romans had to put down in 70 CE and for some time thereafter (until 135 CE). The disciples were thus created at least in part as surrogates for the reprobate Jews. In the strategy to survive in the world of Roman power, it was deemed necessary to cut the church free from what was seen as a Jewish albatross around the neck. The antisemitism of the gospels all derives, I would suggest, from this historical circumstance.
Although much more could be written on the subject of the Twelve, it seems that enough has been presented here to show at a minimum that there is no good reason to suppose the Twelve Disciples or the Twelve Apostles ever existed as groups of men who actually had known the god-man Jesus “in the flesh.” It is possible to account for their creation by the evangelists without the assumption of their reality. By Ockham’s Razor – going with the explanation that requires the fewest fundamental assumptions to account for the facts adequately – a fictional Twelve seems more reasonable than a historical Twelve. Whether any of the individual characters listed as disciples or apostles ever existed – of course, without any real-life association with the Jesus character – is another question that I hope to deal with in future articles.
|Old Testament Model For The Calling of Disciples
Mark’s story about the calling of the first disciples is modeled after the call of Elisha by Elijah in I Kings 19:19ff (probably known to the evangelist only it its Greek form), but it outdoes its model. Elijah “calls” just one man (at the rear of twelve yoke of oxen) and allows the man to say goodbye to his family. Jesus “calls” five men by commanding them to follow him, without allowing them to take leave of their families. Instead of twelve yoke of oxen, Jesus will have twelve “fishers of men.”
|The Greek Septuagint version of Elijah’s calling of Elisha
III Kings (= I Kings in the Hebrew bible) XIX:19. And he [Elijah] departed thence, and finds Elisaie [Elisha] the son of Saphat, and he was ploughing with oxen; there were twelve yoke before him, and he with the twelve, and he passed by to him, and cast his mantle upon him. 20. And Elisaie left the cattle, and ran after Eliu [Elijah] and said, I will kiss my father, and follow after thee. And Eliu said, Return, for I have done a work for thee. 21. And he returned from following him, and took a yoke of oxen, and slew them, and boiled them with the instruments of the oxen, and gave to the people, and they ate: and he arose, and went after Eliu, and ministered to him.
|Mark’s version of Jesus calling four disciples
Mark 1:16. Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee when he saw Simon and his brother Andrew on the lake at work with a casting-net; for they were fishermen. 17. Jesus said to them, “Come with me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 18. And at once they left their nets and followed him. 19. When he had gone a little further he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in the boat overhauling their nets. 20. He called them; and, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, they went off to follow him. 2:14. As he went along, he saw Levi son of Alphæus at his seat in the custom-house, and said to him “Follow me”; and Levi rose and followed him.
|Disciples and Apostles: How Many and Who? The canonical New Testament, the apocryphal New Testament, and Jewish sources give names to the followers of Jesus, and many assert that those persons constituted a group known as “The Twelve.” Nevertheless, only the gospel of Matthew gives exactly twelve names. As shown below, named members of The Twelve ranged in number from three to thirteen, depending upon the source.
The Thirteen disciples or Apostles in Mark [2:14 and 3:14ff]
- Levi, son of Alphæus, a tax gatherer
- Simon, renamed Peter
- James, son of Zebedee
- John, son of Zebedee
- James, son of Alphæus
- Thaddæus, or Lebbæus, or Daddæus (manuscripts disagree on the name)
- Simon the Canaanite
- Judas Iscariot
The Thirteen or More Disciples-Apostles in Luke [5:27ff and 6:12ff]
- Levi, or Levi son of Alphæus, a tax gatherer
- Simon, given the name of Peter
- Bartholomew, or Martholomew
- Thomas, or Thomas the Twin
- James, son of Alphæus
- Simon, called the Zealot
- Judas, son of James
- Judas Iscariot
The Seven or Eight disciples in John [1:40, 1:42, 1:44ff, 6:71, 11:16, 12:22, 20:2]
- Andrew (brother of Simon Peter) and an unnamed other
- Simon, son of John (or Jonah), to be called Cephas (interpreted “the Rock”) (manuscripts disagree on Simon’s father)
- Judas son of Simon Iscariot (or Simon from Karyot) (manuscripts disagree on the name)
- Thomas the Twin
- Judas not Iscariot
- “The other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved.”
The Four or Five Disciples in Thomas [Prologue, 13:2-4, 21:1, 61:2-4]
- Didymos Judas Thomas
- Simon Peter
- Mary (not certainly a disciple)
The Five Disciples in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 43a)
The Twelve Apostles in Matthew [10:2]
- Simon, called Peter
- James, son of Zebedee
- John, son of Zebedee
- Matthew, the tax gatherer
- James, son of Alphæus
- Lebbæus, or Lebeus, or Thaddæus, or Lebbæus surnamed Thaddæus, or Thaddæus surnamed Lebbæus (manuscripts disagree on the name)
- Simon the Canaanite
- Judas Iscariot
The Seven Disciples in the Gospel of Ebionites [Epiphanius Adversus Hæreses I 30:13]
- Simon, surnamed Peter
- John, son of Zebedee
- James, son of Zebedee
- Simon the Zealog
- Judas Iscariot
Three Disciples Remaining in the Gospel of Peter [14:1-3]
- Simon Peter
- Levi, son of Alphæus
1 In my article “Where Jesus Never Walked” (American Atheist, Winter 1996-1997) I show that the “Capernaum” mentioned by Josephus is a spring, not the city of the New Testament!
2 For example, the supposition that King Herod (who died in 4 Bce) was still alive at the time of the census under Quirinius in 6 ce, or the erroneous report by the author of Acts that Theudas (who appeared at the time of the procurator Cuspius Fadus, ca. 44 ce) came before Judas the Galilean (who appeared at the time of the census in 6 ce.).
3 Mark Chapter 5 tells of Jesus and The Twelve crossing the Sea of Galilee and landing in the region of the Gerasenes, unaware of the fact that Gerasa was at least 31 miles from the shore and did not have control of that area. The evangelist did not realize that when he had Jesus make 2,000 pigs run down a slope to drown they would have to run a course longer than a marathon! Further ignorance of Palestinian geography is found in the story about Jesus going from Tyre, on the Mediterranean, to the Sea of Galilee, thirty miles inland. According to Mark 7:31, Jesus did this by way of Sidon, twenty miles north of Tyre on the Mediterranean coast. Since to Sidon and back would be forty miles, this means that the wisest of all men walked seventy miles when he could have walked only thirty.
4 This compensates, perhaps, for the fact that John names only seven disciples and refers obliquely to a possible eighth: the disciple whom Jesus “loved.” Why Jesus couldn’t have been in love with Nathanael I’d like to know. After all, Nathanael means “God’s gift.” Shouldn’t that have sufficed?
5 The cult of Christianity is older than the scriptures it caused to be written. The various epistles and gospels were written to create fictional histories that could be used to validate and justify the peculiar practices, governance, and political stances of the cult – or more accurately, cults, since Catholic Christianity resulted from the amalgamation of a number of different religious bodies.
6 These were among the many groups that depended upon “oracles” to convey supposed messages from the deity to members of the cult. Oracles could involve visions of the risen Christ who, it was claimed, orally conveyed knowledge of the mysteries (as in the case of Paul) or bits of wisdom (as in the case of the author of the gospel of Thomas). The receipt of oracular knowledge from hallucinations of the resurrected savior god was the warrant for taking up the life of an apostle or missionary. Of course, this also conveyed great prestige and probably led to ranks and privileges above those of the ordinary faithful – whose eyes and ears could only function normally.
7 Not all the churches knew of the story of the traitor Judas and his two deaths – a story unknown even to Paul. (I Cor. 15:5, even though a late interpolation into the Pauline text, has the resurrected Jesus appear “to Cephas, and afterwards to the Twelve,” not Eleven.) Nor does I Cor. 11:23 show any knowledge of the Judas story. While the King James Version reads “Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed…” – incorrectly rendering the Greek verb paredideto as “betrayed” – the New English Bible reads “Jesus, on the night of his arrest…”
8 Jesus already has disciples in Mark 3:7-12, and they are told to have a boat ready for Jesus to save him from being crushed by a crowd. The boat is never heard of again until the beginning of Chapter 4, where Jesus is forced to get into the boat to preach because of the large size of the crowd. Besides the passage describing the calling of the Twelve, material denigrating the family of Jesus has also been inserted, further interrupting the story about Jesus preaching from a boat.
9 According to Mark 1:16, as we have already seen, Jesus is walking on the shore of the Sea of Galilee when he sees Simon and Andrew fishing and invites the two of them simultaneously to join him in fishing for men. In John 1:35-42, however, the acquisition of Andrew takes place at the mythical “Bethany beyond Jordan,” and Andrew is not fishing but in the entourage of John the Baptist, his master. Jesus attracts to himself Andrew and an unnamed second Johannine disciple. Simon explicitly is not with Andrew when the latter runs off to see where Jesus is living.
10 If it be true that the Gospel of Mark originally existed in the form of larger “Secret Mark” document used for instruction in the Christian mysteries but then was drastically expurgated for use by the uninitiated, a very great amount of material may have been expunged indeed! If the brief note (Mark 14:51-52) about the youth who fled naked during the melee attendant upon the arrest of Jesus is an example of a passage that accidentally eluded the expunger, the mind runs wild contemplating what sort of document Secret Mark must have been before being neutered for public display.
11 For example, in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew we read that right after Jesus has performed his second miracle involving the multiplication of loaves of bread, the disciples are made to suppose that Jesus’ admonition “Beware, be on your guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” was in reference to their having forgotten to bring bread along on the boat – as though anyone would ever again be concerned over a lack of bread! Jesus, after reading their minds, says (Matt. 16:8ff) “Why do you talk about bringing no bread? Where is your faith? Do you not understand even yet? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you picked up? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you picked up? How can you fail to see that I was not speaking about bread?”
Formerly a professor of biology and geology, Frank R. Zindler is now a science writer. He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the New York Academy of Science, The Society of Biblical Literature, and the American Schools of Oriental Research. He is the Editor of American Atheist.