Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him. These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Jesus picked twelve followers. Straightforward? Not when commentators get at it. When we read the early commentators on the Scriptures we have the feeling that they were discovering in every word and syllable the significances they themselves had hidden there (as Oscar Wilde remarked in another context). Here is a sample of what they did with the number 12. Remigius wrote, "The number twelve is a perfect number, being made up of the number six, which has perfection because it is formed of its own parts – one, two, three – multiplied into one another; and the number six when doubled amounts to twelve.” Someone else added, “And this doubling seems to have some reference to the two precepts of charity, or to the two Testaments.” But the real impresario was Tertullian (155 AD – 222). “This number twelve,” he wrote, “is typified by many things in the Old Testament; by the twelve sons of Jacob, by the twelve princes of the children of Israel, by the twelve running springs in Helim, by the twelve stones in Aaron's breastplate, by the twelve loaves of the shew-bread, by the twelve spies sent by Moses, by the twelve stones of which the altar was made, by the twelve stones taken out of Jordan, by the twelve oxen which bare the brazen sea. Also in the New Testament, by the twelve stars in the bride's crown, by the twelve foundations of Jerusalem which John saw, and her twelve gates.”
When Chrysostom sees the list of apostles he looks instantly for the order of precedence (from the earliest times till the present day this is the chief sport of the clergy). “Let us observe the order of the list of disciples from the beginning…. Do you note that he does not arrange them according to their dignity? For John seems to me to be greater, not only than the others but even than his brother.” This is precisely what the disciples were squabbling about when Jesus shut them up (Mt 20:17-26). St Jerome (c. 347 AD – 420) has a more worthwhile point to make: “The other Evangelists put Matthew before Thomas, and they do not add the words ‘the tax collector’ to his name, so as not to appear to throw scorn upon the Evangelist by bringing up his former life. But writing of himself he puts Thomas first, and styles himself ‘the tax collector’.” Matthew’s gospel, he was suggesting, does credit to Matthew himself by showing him in a truthful and unflattering light. That is certainly in the Christian spirit.
Some things from the past make sense to us, others not at all. It would be very pretentious to imagine that we are capable of understanding everything in the past – and sitting in judgment on it. That would be an out-and-out lack of humility. So what do we do with things we don't understand? Well, what do we normally do? If we find a book on, say, microbiology we don't feel obliged to burn it, or to say that it is nonsense. We nod reverentially and pass on. When I tried to read my niece’s doctoral thesis in that field I failed to find even one sentence, or part of a sentence, that I could understand. Let it be! as the Beatles recommended. What do we do with Remigius and Tertullian and their number games? Let them be!
But strange to say, unlike biology to the uninitiated, something can still come through the strangeness of an ancient Christian text. We focus on what we find strange – their number play, for example – but for them it was more than number play. It was a kind of frame in which they set what they wanted to say. For example, the Venerable Bede (c. 673 AD – 735) wrote: “The number twelve, which is made up of three multiplied by four, denotes that through the four quarters of the world the apostles were to preach the faith of the holy Trinity.”
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