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)



... 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)

search engine by freefind

hit counter

The Historical Jesus
The Apostles

"Bare bones" 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 from historians. 

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 accepted story.

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 this regard. 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 outrageous.

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 Christian term.

There are, however, some relevant antecedents from the ancient world:

  • Diogenes tells of Socrates calling Xenophon.

  • Jeremiah and Elisha are called by Yahweh (Jeremiah 1.4; 1Kings 19.19). The gospel authors frequently refer to the Old Testament. It might be that their references to "the sent" are patterned at least partly on Old Testament precedent.

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 [1].

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 taught.

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 important.

Briefly, the theory of apostolic succession contains these main elements:

  1. Jesus chose twelve men from among those who followed him.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. Similarly, the bishops have authority (magisterium) to administer discipline to the faithful on a day-to-day basis. 

  5. 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).

  6. 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.

  7. 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 [2]. 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 gospel authors.

  • 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 non-Jews.

  • 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 Twelve".

  • 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 today.

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.

The 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 means. 

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?

It 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 in politics.

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 respectful;

  • 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 self-controlled.

  • 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.

Given 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.

The author 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. 

Perhaps, then, 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.

They make 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 embedded 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 radically different.

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. 
[1] The Death of the Past, J H Plumb, 1969.
      The Discarded Image, C S Lewis, 1964
      The Use and Abuse of the Bible, D Nineham, 1976
[2] The Church and the Papacy, T G Yalland, 1944

[Home] [Back]