“The twelve” is an expression employed by all the Gospel writers, and once by Paul (1 Cor. 15.5), to denote an inner, more intimate circle of followers of Jesus. They are listed by name in Matthew 10.2–4, Mark 3.16–19, Luke 6.14–16, and Acts 1.13, and although these lists do not always agree in either the names or their order, the reader is always told that Jesus chose twelve disciples in particular. While these twelve are disciples, they are further distinguished by the designation “the twelve.” This is especially the case in Acts 6.1–2, where the disciples and the twelve are juxtaposed; the latter are clearly the authorities in the story. As readers, we know who the twelve are, including Judas Iscariot—a point stressed by all the authors, and we see that they are the recipients of special instruction, have certain expectations from Jesus, and bear the burden of gathering the community of his followers together after the upheaval of the crucifixion and resurrection.
Whether the names and the widespread agreement among the Gospel writers about the number twelve are historical facts is difficult to say. Did Jesus really call twelve followers initially who then called others? This is possible. Did Jesus consciously act as if he were establishing the new Israel by selecting twelve representatives? The symbolic significance of the number twelve is difficult to miss. But there are others in the story who are just as close or closer to him than the twelve, such as some women and others who are called disciples. The twelve do get special teaching; perhaps Jesus was training leaders to carry on in his stead. In Mark, however, the twelve hardly understand anything (See Messianic Secret); the special teaching apparently does not pay off. The roles of the disciples and the twelve are so important in the stories, and they have received so much attention from both the authors and the interpreters, that what actually transpired historically is impossible to retrieve. Matthew himself, for example, uses the terms disciple, apostle, and the twelve interchangeably in chap. 10, as if these were all equivalent or the distinctions were needless.
The symbolism of the number twelve was certainly clear to the authors, and it has not been lost on subsequent interpreters (See Number Symbolism). A program of the renewal if not the reconstitution of Israel by the Jesus movement is strongly suggested by the number itself, as well as the collection of twelve baskets at the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (Matt. 14.20 par; John 6.13), the portrayal of the disciples sitting on twelve thrones judging Israel (Matt. 19.28; cf. Luke 22.30), and the repeated use of the number twelve in the book of Revelation (7.5–8; 12.1; 21.12–14; 21.21; 22.2). The usurpation of Israel's symbols and heroic figures (See Tribes of Israel) along with Israel's scriptures and myths, and in particular use of the potent symbol twelve, points in this direction for early Christianity. Ultimately, however, the church claimed through Melito, Justin, and others to be a “third race” and not the renewed Israel the number twelve suggested.
J. Andrew Overman