Saturday, February 4, 2012

Why Did Jesus Choose Twelve Men?

One of the main arguments used against the full participation of women in church leadership is that the twelve Apostles were all male. Jesus chose twelve males, it is said, because Jesus intended that the leaders of the church should be male.

But could there be other reasons why Jesus chose twelve male apostles?

Kay Bonikowsky, on her blog “The Happy Surprise,” has written a very good piece about the symbolic nature of Jesus’ choice: not just that they were male, but that there were twelve of them and that they were all Jews. Pointing out that Jesus’ choice was a fulfillment of Isaiah 1:26: “I will restore your judges as of days of old, your rulers as at the beginning,” she writes:

As twelve Jewish males, they were symbolic for the twelve tribes and their patriarchal heads. In this role, their number and gender is not an example for the new church to follow, but indicative of the closure of the Old Covenant.

Matthew 19:28 and Luke 22:30 show that Jesus did this deliberately, so that the twelve Apostles were to “sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” This was the fulfillment of the Old Covenant even as it looked forward to the New Covenant. Jesus was not saying all church leaders afterwards had to be male any more than He was saying all church leaders afterwards had to be Jewish.

But there was also a very practical dynamic that we can easily overlook from our modern mindset. The twelve were the main witnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Christ. In the Ancient Near East and Roman cultures, the testimony of women was considered invalid. It was not accepted in court; it was not legally binding in any way. The world was simply not going to listen to women, and Jesus knew it.

So here’s what He did. His very first act upon Resurrection was to appear to the women. In fact, John tells us that though Peter and John ran ahead of Mary Magdalene on the way to the tomb, they saw nothing. Then after they left, Mary Magdalene was the first to see the Resurrected Christ. John 20:3-14. Other women also saw Him shortly afterwards– but no male saw the Lord, revealed for who He was, until that evening, eight hours or more afterwards. He walked with the disciples on their way to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32), but they did not know that He was Jesus. Only Mary Magdalene and the other women knew.

The significance of this would not have been lost on the male disciples in that patriarchal culture. They knew that they themselves had refused to believe the women’s testimony that morning. Then when Jesus appeared to them, they realized the women had been telling the truth.

Jesus was communicating this very clearly (the fact that we miss it today is a product of our culture): “The world will not accept the testimony of your sisters, but I have just forced you to listen to it. My kingdom is to be different from the world. You are to listen to your women and allow them to testify of Me.”

And that’s just what they did. That’s why when Saul began persecuting the church, he “dragged away men and women” to prison. Acts 8:3. At the Crucifixion, the women were safe. They knew they didn’t need to hide like the male disciples, because the authorities considered them negligible. But what women began doing after the Resurrection proved they were no longer to be considered negligible. That’s why they began to be persecuted as well.

The world still did not believe the testimony of women. This shows clearly in the oral tradition that began to circulate immediately after the Resurrection, which Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred at the same time. . . .” The appearance of Jesus to 500 witnesses together was the evidence the disciples gave publicly, to prove Jesus was indeed risen. But they didn’t mention that He had appeared to the female disciples first. This would, in the eyes of the world of that time, have detracted from the weight of the message rather than added to it. In fact, there was only one reason why the writers of the Gospels would have put this embarrassing detail into their accounts: that it actually happened that way. This is one of the points that textual critics use to determine whether a story is factual or not: if it includes embarrassing details that would not have been put into a story if it were fictional. The appearance of Jesus to the women first, was an embarrassing detail in a factual account, which had to be included in the written text because that was what had happened.

But because Jesus had in fact appeared first to the women, the apostles simply could not just tell the women to be quiet, go home and serve their families. Jesus had made them witnesses, and so witnesses they had to be. The acceptance by the male apostles of the testimony of women, allowing them to actually preach (and to become a threat that persecutors took into account), was one of the first steps in the elevation of women that Jesus intended in His church.

Jesus chose twelve men as the fulfillment of the Old Covenant. But Jesus’ death and resurrection inaugurated the New Covenant, in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is not male and female.” Gal. 3:28. If we are going to give weight to the maleness of the twelve Apostles, we must also give weight to the femaleness of the first witnesses. And we have to look at it the way the original readers would have seen it, in order to understand how very important that simple fact was.


Anonymous said...

Sometimes, I hate making an issue out of the gender of those first faithful. Don't you? Who frickin' cares!!? Sigh.

Good thoughts, I just wish they weren't necessary. Lord Jesus, come quickly.


shadowspring said...

I appreciate this post, Kristen. Thanks. SS

The Politics of Heaven said...

"Matthew 19:28 and Luke 22:30 show that Jesus did this deliberately, so that the twelve Apostles were to “sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” This was the fulfillment of the Old Covenant even as it looked forward to the New Covenant."

In light of Isaiah 1:26, how is this the fulfillment of the Old Covenant, seeing that Jesus own words of the disciples sitting on twelve thrones were looking to the future time when He would "sit on the throne of his glory?"

Kristen said...

Easy. It was the Old Covenant that was for the twelves tribes of Israel. The New Covenant is for every people and every nation.

helium73b said...

Maybe they were all men because at that time men had little focus on women at that time. Getting a wife in those days was a lot easier. To go without a wife was easier too because they knew at any time they could take a wife. Women however had more focus on finding a husband and starting a family. The lack of something increases it's importance. Women lacked men in those days and so they would have more trouble. I think there is evidence of jealousy among the disciples just as the sons of Jacob were jealous for their fathers affection. How much more this would have been multiplied. Having female disciples would have multiplied that aspect. Women didn't have the freedom in those days that men had to pick up and go wherever they were needed. They probably weren't allowed to speak in synagog which is why Paul didn't think women should speak in church. He says that's his opinion and his advice. There are many things that Paul says but he will also state they are his advice because he doesn't know what God would say about it. Although God did say that man would rule over the woman. I think that is what has happened in the world and it's not a rule we have to follow. God didn't say don't listen to women. Adam shouldn't have done what she said so listening in that case was wrong.

Kristen said...

Hi Mark, and thanks for your interesting speculations! If what you're saying is that men didn't need women the way women needed men in biblical times, I completely agree. Women had very few options in life besides marriage. It's also true that they were not allowed to speak in synagogue-- in fact, they were not allowed to speak in public at all, in any setting. My post on Paul's words against women speaking in church goes into this in more detail. As for women being disciples, however, the text does indicate in several places that women were disciples-- just not among the Twelve. Certainly Jesus had a number of women, married and single, who traveled with Him. These appeared to be largely women of independent means.