Which Came First, The Symbol Or The Referent? A Study Of The Historical Twelve -- By: Daniel J. Pfeifer

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 172:688 (Oct 2015)
Article: Which Came First, The Symbol Or The Referent? A Study Of The Historical Twelve
Author: Daniel J. Pfeifer


Which Came First, The Symbol Or The Referent? A Study Of The Historical Twelve

Daniel J. Pfeifer

Daniel J. Pfeifer is a PhD student at Dallas Theological Seminary and a curriculum developer.

Abstract

When listing Jesus’s post-resurrection witnesses, Paul states, “He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Cor. 15:5). There were eleven, however, to whom Jesus appeared. While this discrepancy has fueled extreme conclusions, it raises the question Should the Twelve be understood as symbol or referent? To early modern skeptical scholars, the Twelve were an invention of church tradition, pure symbol. In the late twentieth century, however, the conversation has turned to fresh considerations of the historical twelve. Why twelve? Was the choice primarily functional? Or does the number twelve suggest a symbolic core that preceded the specifics of the referent?

“And Jesus appointed twelve [whom he also named apostles]1 so that they would be with him and so that he would send them to preach and to have authority to cast out demons” (Mark 3:14-15). From among Jesus’s more numerous followers, the Synoptic Evangelists single out a group of twelve men. Around two decades later when listing resurrection witnesses, Paul confirms this group: “He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Cor. 15:5). There were, however, eleven when Jesus appeared. Scholars have puzzled over this discrepancy and whether the Twelve should be understood as symbol or referent.2 To the

early modern rationalists who initiated Historical Jesus studies, the Twelve were an invention of church tradition. Paul’s statement was proof. In the late twentieth century, however, fresh considerations of the historical twelve have given rise to new insights and questions, such as Why twelve specifically? Was the choice of these men primarily functional as Mark describes (“so that” in 3:14)? Or was the number twelve intended and understood as a symbol rather than a referent to specific followers of Jesus?

The Twelve In Paul’s First Letter To The Corinthians

Chronologically, the first literary witness to the Twelve in the New Testament is Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15. There, the term refers to eleven men. E. P. Sanders points out, “A few manuscripts correct the reading to ‘eleven’, doubtless with an eye on the tradition of Judas...

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