France, November 2015, the Struggle to be Human

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 19 November 2015 0 Comments
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I’ve heard you say in multiple lectures that the gospels disagree on who the disciples were and that because of this discrepancy, there are technically more than 12. Out of curiosity, I tried to do some basic research on it and it seems like the common explanation is that two of them went by different names, Bartholomew/Nathanael and Thaddeus/Jude. I did also see that “Some biblical scholars reject this theory, however, holding that Jude and Thaddeus did not represent the same person.” I have no intention of trying to argue for one theory or the other but I’m curious if you could briefly explain why you believe that they are not the same person.


Dear Joey,

Does it not occur to you that it is strange to have the same person named both Bartholomew and Nathanael? Or Jude and Thaddeus? That looks to me like a weak attempt to overcome a clear discrepancy in the Bible and thus to preserve “literal” accuracy. That is an unworthy attempt to preserve a false premise.

The facts of the Bible are clear. The idea was firm that Jesus had twelve disciples. That number appears in every gospel and in the writings of Paul. The number twelve was a very important symbol. Israel had twelve tribes. The new Israel, as the church began to think of itself as being, must also be based on twelve units. In Matthew, Jesus brings these two symbols together when he is quoted as saying to the disciples: “You will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt 19:28). It is interesting to note that when Jesus says this, Judas is still among the twelve. In his resurrection story, Matthew acknowledges the defection of Judas when referring to the disciples to whom Jesus was said to have appeared on a Galilean mountaintop as “the Eleven.” Paul had not made that adjustment when he said of the resurrected Jesus that he appeared “first to Cephas, then to the Twelve” even though he claims that these appearances occurred on the third day after the crucifixion. In the first chapter of Acts, Luke tells of how Matthias was chosen to replace Judas so that the number twelve could be restored and preserved. So there is a strong biblical conviction about the disciples being twelve in number. There are, however, many conflicts as to who the twelve actually were. Mark and Matthew have one list, Luke and Acts have another. They do not agree. John speaks of “the twelve” but he never names them. In chapter one, however, he does tell an elaborate story of the call of Nathanael to be a disciple of Jesus. The name Nathanael has never before this moment been heard in Christian circles. John also introduces in chapter 13 the hero of the Fourth Gospel, an unnamed disciple called only: “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” The traditional attempts to identify this “beloved disciple” with John, the son of Zebedee, have been totally dismissed in scholarly circles since the 19th century. Other attempts have been made to identify this unnamed disciple with Thomas, James (the brother of Jesus), Mary Magdalene and even with Lazarus raised from the dead. Only Thomas of these four names was listed as one of the twelve.

In the Epilogue attached to the gospel of John (chapter 21), the unknown author refers to the disciples as now being “seven” in number. He identifies them as being Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James and John (the sons of Zebedee) and two others who do not receive names.

No, there is no agreement in the names of the Twelve in the New Testament and the attempt to force them into being twelve by suggesting that some of them had two names is a silly exercise in the attempt to keep the literal Bible intact. We need to embrace what is surely a fact, namely that the number “twelve” was set in the earliest days of the Christian movement, but who the twelve actually were was apparently never settled.

Thanks for writing.

John Shelby Spong




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