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
Mark's list is suspect on all the above
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
Luke's Gospel (6.12-16) replaces Thaddeus with a second Judas (son of
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.
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.
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 
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.
 Doubleday, 2001