The earliest of the evangelists, Mark, reports that Jesus went up the mountain and “called whom he would to himself, and they came to him. And he made them Twelve, to be with him and to be sent to preach and to have authority to cast out demons.” (Mark 3:13). This solemn, but somewhat cryptic, announcement is followed by a list of names, which, with minor exceptions in terms of the actual individuals and their order in the lists, is repeated by both Matthew and Luke (Matt 10:2-4, Luke 6:13-16, Acts 1:13).
Both these later evangelists say that Jesus also called the 12 “apostles” (a term that received special currency and wider application in early Christian mission discourse, because of Paul’s claims with regard to his own right to be called an apostle, though not a member of the Twelve (1Cor 9:1-2, 1Cor 15:9). Thus, popular Christian vocabulary today makes no distinctions between “the 12 apostles” in earlier and later usage.
However, the evidence suggests that a distinctive group—simply known as the Twelve
—existed already during the ministry of Jesus and continued to be influential in the earliest days of the post-resurrection community in Jerusalem (1Cor 15:5). Indeed, according to Luke, one of the first decisions of the group gathered after the resurrection was to elect a new member to replace the traitor Judas; significantly, the conditions for election would have excluded Paul, since he had not been part of Jesus’ retinue from the baptism of John (Acts 1:21-22).
One saying of Jesus, which Matthew and Luke report in different settings, supplies the key to the Twelve’s importance. Peter asks what reward he and the others will have, and Jesus answers, “You who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt 19:28, also Luke 22:28-30). In other words, the Twelve had a symbolic role to play in Jesus’ ministry to Israel, indicating that the long-awaited restoration of the tribes was about to occur in and through that ministry.
Long before Israel had become a monarchy under David and Solomon, it consisted of a loose configuration of tribes who gathered together at a central sanctuary to renew their covenant commitment to the God who had liberated them from slavery (Josh 24). The number 12 was probably based on the old Babylonian calendar of 12 lunar months and suggested completion or wholeness.
However, the tribal confederation could not resist the centralizing power of the monarchy, and the subsequent loss of tribal territories to the Assyrians and Babylonians gave rise to an expectation of restoration of the allotted tribal lands in later Jewish descriptions of the messianic age.
Jesus’ choice of the Twelve, therefore, demonstrates his claims about the significance of his own movement. The memory of its origins was important to nascent Christianity, even though it did not retain the institution of the Twelve as part of its developing structures among the Gentile churches.
It is surely significant that later Judaism also drew on the symbolism of the Twelve by allowing the sign of the zodiac to adorn some synagogue floors as late as the fifth century C.E. This may have been a subtle form of religious competition between Jews and Christians in late antiquity, both sides claiming to have been founded on the symbolic association of the number 12. Whereas the Jews could point to the cosmic structure of the stars and seasons, the Christians recalled the action of Jesus in choosing 12 founding members and associated them with Israel’s tribal foundation story.