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>The Twelve by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza from <I>Women Priests

The Twelve

by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 114-121.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza studied at the Universities of Wuerzburg and Muenster, earning a Licentiate in Pastoral Theology and a Doctorate in Theology. Her books include Die Getrennte Schwestern, and many book since. An Associate Professor at the University of Notre Dame, she was at the time associate editor of the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Journal of Biblical Literature, and Horizons.

The Vatican Declaration and Commentary not only argue that Jesus did not call any woman to become a member of the Twelve, but they also seek to refute the apologetic arguments explaining why Jesus could not have done so. In order to understand the thesis of the Declaration. therefore, one must also analyze the counterarguments proposed.

It is often maintained that Jesus could not call a woman to be one of the twelve apostles because the customs of the time would not permit this. The Declaration correctly argues that Jesus did not follow the societal and religious customs of the time and therefore could have chosen a woman, but did not do so. The authors are however aware that exegetically it could be maintained that Jesus called women to apostleship and to discipleship but not to the circle of the Twelve. In defense of their position the authors especially address the counter-argument that the Twelve are the foundational group of the renewed Israel and the symbolic representation of the twelve tribes. Since the twelve tribes were a patriarchal institution women were not able to fulfill this symbolic representational function.

Against this contention the Declaration and Commentary argue the following: First, only little importance is given in the NT to the symbolic understanding of the Twelve, since Mark and John do not refer to it. Second, the eschatological symbolism of the Twelve is not decisive for Jesus’ understanding, since it is pronounced only at a relatively late stage of his public ministry. Third, the number twelve in Mt 19:28//Lk 22:30 could simply mean the whole of Israel. Fourth, these two synoptic texts deal only with a particular aspect of the mission of the Twelve, namely, the eschatological judgment of Israel, while it is their main task to preach the gospel (Mk 3:14; 12). These exegetical arguments of the Declaration and Commentary assume that the concept of the Twelve is uniform in the different writings of the NT and that it is formulated by Jesus himself as a blueprint plan for the future Church.

The Vatican Commentary concludes its arguments with a counterthesis: The Twelve represent within the messianic community Jesus and his work and not the twelve tribes of Israel. “That is the real (italics mine) reason why it is fitting that the Apostles should be men.” In other words, women are excluded from the male circle of the apostles not because they unable to represent the patriarchally constituted Israel but because they are not fit to represent Christ and his work. This counter-thesis is an attempt to establish the biblical foundation for the “natural resemblance” thesis developed later in the Declaration. This counter-thesis indicates that not the historical datum that no woman was a member of the Twelve but the assumed theological reasoning behind this fact is decisive for the argument of the Vatican Declaration. The counter-thesis further assumes that the Twelve and the apostles are exactly the same circle of people and that priests and bishops stand in direct succession to them.

However, the authors are well aware that their interpretation of the NT texts and the conclusions deduced from it for the ordination of women to the priesthood are not cogent in themselves. Therefore they caution that the NT evidence has to be understood from the perspective of the Church’s constant praxis to exclude women from the sacramental priesthood. The authors fail to see that they thus not only relinquish the biblical foundation of the argument but they also declare the constant tradition and practice of the Church to be intrinsically discriminatory against women.

In the following I should like to analyze the NT texts and their understanding of the Twelve in order to show that neither the thesis nor its presuppositions or its supporting arguments do justice to the NT texts.

1. The earliest traditions

The Vatican Declaration and Commentary appear to assume that the terms “apostles” and the Twelve are coextensive categories as if they connote the very same circle and function of the disciples. Yet this assumption goes against the NT evidence and the scholarly consensus that the apostles and the twelve were different circles and only in the course of time did they come to be identified.(1) Originally the word “apostle” described a function and was not restricted to any group like the Twelve. Only at a later stage of the tradition are the Twelve called apostles (cf. Mk 6:30; Mt 10:2; Apoc 21:14). Not every apostle is a member of the Twelve, and it is unclear at what point of the tradition the Twelve were also understood as apostles. Paul and Barnabas, for instance, are known as apostles in early Christianity (cf. Acts 14:4 14), but they definitely did not belong to the circle of the Twelve.

The NT literature indicates that the Twelve are firmly rooted in the tradition and are already traditional figures of the past towards the end of the first century (cf. Apoc 21:14). The terms used are “the Twelve,” “the twelve disciples,” the “twelve apostles” and “the Eleven.” It is astonishing that direct references to the Twelve are rare in the Pauline writings (one in a traditional formula) and the Johannine literature (four) and completely absent in the Catholic and Pastoral Epistles. In the Pastorals Paul has become the apostle par excellence.

The Declaration assumes that the male character of the Twelve is essential for their function and mission. We must therefore ask whether the Twelve’s mission and function necessitates that they are males. Do the early traditions about the Twelve emphasize the male character of the Twelve and do they reflect on it? Moreover, is the function and mission of the Twelve according to the NT traditions continued in the structure and leadership of the early church? Did the Twelve have successors, and if so did they have to be male? In other words, do we find any evidence in the NT that the male character is intrinsic to the function and mission of the Twelve and therefore intrinsic to the apostolic office of the Church?

1Cor 15:5 and the Q saying Mt 19:28 (cf. Lk 22:30) are the two oldest texts of the NT that refer to the Twelve. In 1Cor 15:3-5 Paul quotes a tradition which he has already received.(2) This pre-Pauline tradition maintains that the resurrected Lord appeared first to Cephas and then to the Twelve. The text refers to the Twelve as a fixed and well known group, since it does not speak of Peter and the Eleven. The text also does not reflect the defection of Judas as the resurrection narratives of the Gospels do when they consistently refer to the Eleven. Furthermore, the traditional formula of 1Cor 15:3-5 does not indicate whether this group of the Twelve existed already before Easter as a definite circle of disciples in the ministry of Jesus or whether it was constituted by the resurrection appearances and commission of the Lord.

The Pauline account parallels 1Cor 15:5 with 15:7, which refers to the appearance of the risen Lord to James and then to “all the apostles.” It is not clear whether or not Paul parallels 1Cor 15:5 with 15:7 or whether he had already found this parallel in his tradition.(3) In any case, the present text appears to combine two different traditions and to speak of two different groups, namely, the Twelve and the apostles. As Peter stands out from the Twelve, so does James among the apostles. However neither the pre-Pauline tradition nor the Pauline text reflect upon the gender of the Twelve.

The very old saying Mt 19:28 (par. Lk 22:30) has a quite different form and setting in Matthew and Luke. Even though the Matthean and Lukan form of the saying are redactional,(4) the contrast between present sufferings and future glory is common to both. In its original form the saying is an eschatological promise to the disciples who followed Jesus. This Q-logion (5) explicitly interprets the number twelve. When in the new world the Son of Humanity will be revealed in all his splendor and glory, the followers of Jesus also will sit “on twelve thrones and judge (or rule) the twelve tribes of Israel” (Mt 19:28). The text clearly does not underline the historical existence of a group of twelve men but the function of the disciples of Jesus in the eschatological future vis-a-vis Israel. The faithful disciples will share with Jesus in the exercise of authority and power when the kingdom is established. Since at the time of Jesus only two and a half tribes still existed, the number twelve is clearly symbolic in character.

The number twelve refers backwards to the ancient constitution of Israel of twelve tribes as well as forward to the eschatological restitution of the people of God. The “maleness” of the disciples is not explicitly mentioned in this Q-logion. It could be inferred that the leaders of the renewed Israel must be male if the text mainly referred to and symbolized the ancient constitution of Israel, which in its religious and. political form was patriarchal. Yet the logion’s main thrust is not historical but rather points to the eschatological future. The promise is given to the disciples not because they are male but because of their faithful discipleship. Moreover the Q-saying does not postulate a continuum between Jesus—the Twelve—and the Church, but between Jesus—the Twelve—and the eschatological kingdom of God. The NT, however, gives us no indication that Jesus conceived of the kingdom as a male patriarchal institution.

The essential character of the Twelve is eschatological-symbolical and not historical-masculine, as Apoc 21:14 indicates. According to this text the eschatological city, the New Jerusalem, is patterned after the twelve tribes of Israel. “And the wall of the city had twelve foundations and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” Here the twelve apostles are not the foundation of the Church but of the New Jerusalem as an eschatological reality. Finally, it cannot be argued as the Commentary does that the Q-saying was formulated only late in the ministry of Jesus and therefore did not have a great impact on the mission and the function of the Twelve. Since the present position of the saying in Matthew and Luke is editorial, we no longer know when it was formulated. From a tradition-historical point of view, it could have been spoken by Jesus, since it reflects the heart of his eschatological preaching.

II. The Markan and Lukan understanding of the Twelve

The Commentary maintains that not the eschatological symbolic function but the historical mission of the Twelve is decisive. The Twelve represent Jesus to the messianic people of God and carry on his ministry and work. The Commentary bases this interpretation of the Twelve’s function primarily on the Gospel of Mark. “As Jesus before them, the twelve were above all to preach the Good News (Mk 3:14; 6:12). Their mission in Galilee (Mk 6:7-13) was to become the model of the universal mission (Mk 12:10; cf. Mt 28:1620). Within the messianic people the twelve represent Jesus.”

The two main “prooftexts,” Mk 3:13-19 and 6:6b-13, are according to most scholars formulated by the Markan redaction.(6) They do not necessarily reflect the intention of Jesus but definitely spell out the Markan theological understanding of the Twelve. While the Commentary stresses that the Twelve were above all sent out to preach the Good News, the Markan texts stress that the specific power and authority given to the Twelve is that of exorcism.(7) Mk 3:14 mentions their mission to preach but underlines that power is given to them to cast out the demons. According to the commissioning scene (Mk 6:6b-13) they are neither explicitly authorized (v. 7b) nor commissioned (vv. 8-10) to preach. Their preaching is only mentioned in the concluding statement in v. 12. But in the concluding verse 13 Mark stresses again their power to heal and to cast out demons. A careful reading of the text indicates that in Mark’s view the Twelve are primarily sent and have received the power of exorcism and healing, while Jesus is the one who proclaims the gospel of the kingdom (1:14f.).

It should be noted that this theological emphasis of Mark on the empowerment of the Twelve to cast out demons is completely neglected by the Commentary. Moreover, in Mark not only the Twelve preach (keryssein), but also John the Baptist (1:4, 7), those who are healed (1:45; 5:20) or witnesses of a healing (7:36) and the post-Easter community as a whole (13:10; 14:9). Further, the preaching activity of the Twelve addresses Israel. Since Mark does not know of a post-Easter commissioning of the Twelve (Mt 28:16-20) to universal mission, it could be inferred that Mark intends to limit the preaching of the Twelve to the Galilean misson. Finally, Mk 3:13-19 and 6:6b-13 do not stress that the Twelve have to be like Jesus but demand that as the disciples of Jesus the Twelve have to do what Jesus did. In Mark’s view Jesus is the teacher with great authority and power. His power is demonstrated by exorcisms and healing-miracles. If the disciples are in Mark the functional successors of Jesus, then it is not their maleness that makes the Twelve representatives of Jesus. Their preaching, exorcising and healing activity is the continuation of Jesus’ mission.

Important too is the fact that Mark does not differentiate between but rather identifies the Twelve and the disciples.(8) A comparison of Mk 11:11 with 11:14, and Mk 14:12.14 with 14:17 speaks for the overlapping of both groups. Mk 4:10 does not provide a sufficient textual basis for a clear cut distinction between the Twelve and the disciples, since such a separation cannot be maintained for the subsequent passages (Mk 6:35-44; 7:17; 9:28; 10:10). Since Mark does not stress the apostolic character of the Twelve, even though he is aware of it (cf. 3:14 and 6:30) he clearly is not concerned with the theological foundation of apostolic ministry. He primarily understands the Twelve as disciples and attributes to them no distinctive function and mission other than discipleship. The mission of the Twelve to do what Jesus did is therefore according to Mark not restricted to the Twelve but is a task of all disciples.

The second part of the Gospel therefore stresses again and again that the disciples have to suffer the same consequences as Jesus had to suffer for his preaching and mission. Just as the way of Jesus led to suffering and death, so does the way of the true disciple. Connected with each passion prediction are statements stressing that no possibility of discipleship exists apart from taking upon oneself its consequence of suffering. Yet again and again the Twelve with their leading spokesman Peter betray that they do not understand and even reject Jesus’ insistence on suffering discipleship.

The twelve disciples who were called “to be with him” (Mk 3:14) desert Jesus in the hour of his suffering (14:50), and Peter denies him three times (14:66-72). They are not found under the cross of Jesus, nor at his burial, and it remains unclear whether they receive the message of the resurrection (Mk 16:7-8). In marked contrast to the twelve disciples, the women disciples who followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem (cf. 15:40f.) remained faithful until the end.

Not the Twelve but the women followers prove to be the true disciples of Jesus. The women not only accompany Jesus on his way to suffering and death but they also do what he had come to do, namely, to serve (diakonein cf. 10:42-45 and 15:41). Finally: While the twelve disciples are unable to understand and to accept Jesus’ teaching that he must suffer, it is a woman who according to Mark shows such perception and acts accordingly (14:3-9). In Mark her action is the immediate cause for the betrayal of Jesus by one of the Twelve (14:10f.) This contrast between the Twelve and the women disciples would suggest that in Mark’s church women were considered to be the exemplary disciples of Jesus and had their place among the leaders of the community.(9) In Mark’s theological perspective women are the functional successors of Jesus and they represent the true intention of Jesus and his mission within the messianic people of God.

It is debatable whether or not Acts 1:21f. (10) implicitly makes maleness a precondition for replacing a member of the Twelve. The position of Judas can be taken by “one of the men(aner) who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up.” Only one of the original disciples of Jesus could become together with the Eleven a witness to the resurrection. It is not clear whether aner is used in 1:21 in a generic sense, since Luke often uses the address “men, brothers” (1:16; 2:29; 2:37; 7:2; 13:15; 13:26, 38; 15:7, 13; 22:1, 6; 28:17) in an inclusive sense to address the whole community, even when women are present (cf. 1:14 and 1:16). It could, however, also be argued that because of his theological understanding of the Twelve Luke maintains that only one of the male followers of Jesus is eligible to become one of the Twelve. Lk 8:1-3 clearly distinguishes between the women followers of Jesus and the Twelve. Differing from his Markan source, Luke has the women serve Jesus and the Twelve. He qualifies their diakonein insofar as he specifies that the women served them with their possessions. Just as wealthy women were strong supporters of the Jewish missionary endeavor, so according to Luke the Christian women support the ministry of Jesus and of the apostles. Luke therefore seems to limit the role of women in the Christian mission to that of benefactors.(11)

However, it must also be seen that Luke’s theological concept and perspective have room for only a very limited function for the twelve apostles. The Twelve are mentioned for the last time in 6:2ff. and they disappear altogether after chapter 15. It is, moreover, curious that most passages speak only of the work of one man, Peter. Luke does not characterize the Twelve as missionaries, and there is little evidence in Acts that they were at all active outside Jerusalem. Luke knows likewise that the Twelve were not the official local ministers of the Jerusalem church or any other church. According to Paul and Acts the leadership of the Jerusalem church was clearly in the hands of James, the brother of the Lord, who was not one of the Twelve. Moreover, the Twelve were not replaced when they died (cf. Acts 12:2). The twelve apostles had no successors. Thus it is evident that Luke knows only of a very limited function for the Twelve in the primitive Church. Their significance appears to be limited to the very beginning of the Church and to its relationship to the chosen people of Israel Luke seems to historicize their eschatological function vis-a-vis Israel in tradition. He limits their activity to the mission within Israel. After the Gentile mission is under way, the Twelve disappear from the historical scene. The elders and bishops in Acts are not understood as successors of the Twelve.(12) They are either appointed by Paul and Barnabas (14:23) or directly called by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28). Finally, Luke’s requirements for becoming a member of the Twelve preclude the notion that the Twelve could have appointed successors.

In conclusion: The Declaration’s argument that the Church, in faithfulness to the example of Jesus who did not choose women as members of the Twelve, cannot ordain women has no basis in the NT. The NT writers view the circle of the Twelve as belonging to the time of Jesus and to the very beginnings of the Christian movement. The Twelve’s legitimization is rooted in their companionship with Jesus and in their witness to the resurrection. They have a special eschatological (Q) and historical (Acts) function vis-à-vis Israel.

It has to be stressed that according to the NT the Twelve’s function was not continued in the ministries of the Church. Neither their symbolic eschatological and historical-missionary function vis-à-vis Israel nor their function as eyewitnesses of the ministry and resurrection of Jesus is constitutive for the ministry of the Church. Luke’s requirement that the replacement of Judas must be a male follower of the historical Jesus does not say anything about maleness as essential requirement for ordained ministry in the Church, since Luke does not envision any “apostolic succession” of the Twelve.

The theological issue at stake is therefore not whether or not women can be ordained even though Jesus did not call any woman to be a member of the Twelve-circle. The theological problem is whether the theological construct of “apostolic succession” can be maintained without any modification in view of the historical insight that the twelve apostles had no successors. The contention of the Declaration and the Commentary that women cannot be ordained because they were not members of the Twelve and therefore were not called to represent Jesus to the messianic people must therefore be judged as an attempt to solve modern critical problems on the basis of dogmatic statements phrased in a pre-critical era of Catholic biblical scholarship.(13)

Theologians more and more agree that the continuation of the function of the Twelve resides in the Church as a whole.(14) The Church can entrust the apostolic ministry and power to whomever it chooses without maintaining any historical-lineal connection with the Twelve. The Church’s faithfulness to apostolic ministry and to the gospel of Jesus has to be expressed through service (diakonia). Together with the twelve apostles the Church must serve Jesus Christ who came to serve. According to Mark this apostolic witness of service was best exemplified by the women followers of Jesus.


1. For a general discussion of the problem cf. B. Rigaux, “The Twelve Apostles,” Concilium Vol.34 (1968), pp. 5-15; “Die ‘Zwölf’ in Geschichte und Kerygma.” in Ristow-Matthiae, ed., Der historische Jesus und der kerygmatische Christus (Berlin, 2nd ed., 1961), pp. 468-486; G, Klein, Die Zvölf Apostel. Ursprung und Gehalt einer Idee. Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments, Vol. 59 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1961); J. Roloff, Apostolot—Verkündigung—Kirche (Gütersloh: Mohn, 1965); R.Schnackenburg, “Apostolicity: the Present Position of Studies,” One in Christ Vol. 6 (1970), pp. 243-73; V.Taylor, The Gospel according to St. Mark (London: Macmillan, 2nd ed., 1966), pp. 619-627, A. Vögtle in Lexikon fur Theologie und Kirche, Vol. VX (Freiburg: Herder, 2nd ed., 1966), pp. 1443 ff.

2. For the extensive literature cf. H. Conzelmann, 1Corinthians. Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), pp. 251-254.

3. For an extensive discussion and literature cf. H. Merklein, Das kirchliche Amt nach dem Epheserbrief. Studia Antoniana (München: Kösel 1973), pp. 273-278.

4. Cf. V. Taylor, St. Mark, p. 622 H. Schürmann, Traditionsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen zu den Evangelien (Düsseldorf: Patros, 1968) pp. 175f. maintains that the expression “twelve thrones” is found in Q.

5. Q is used to designate the source of the material that is common to Matthew and Luke but is not found in Mark. Since the material is almost wholly teaching material Q is often called “Sayings—source” or Logia source.

6. Cf. J. Coutts, “The Authority of Jesus and of the Twelve in St. Mark’s Gospel,” Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 8 (1957), pp 111-118 K. G. Reploh, Markus—Lehrer der Gemeinde. Stuttgarter biblische Monagraphien, Vol. 9 (Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1969), pp. 43-58, K. Stock, Boten aus dem Mit-lhm-Sein. Das Verhältnis zwischen Jesus und den Zwölf nach Markus. Analecta biblica, Vol. 70 (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1975), G. Schmahl, “Die Berufung der Zwölf im Markusevangelium Trierer theologische Zeitschrift, Vol. 81 (1972), pp. 203-313; R. Pesch, Das Markusevangelium. 1. Teil Herders theologischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament, II, I (Freiburg: Herder, 1976), pp. 202-209,325-332 (literature).

7. Cf. K. Kertelge, “Die Funktion der ‘Zwölft im Markusevangelium,” Trierer theologische Zeitschritt, Vol. 78 (1969), pp. 193-206

8. Against K. Stock, Boten aus dem Mit—Ihm—Sein, who ascribes to the Twelve a special function, namely to represent Jesus and to continue his work. Cf. Hoever, K.G. Reploh, Markus, pp. 47f., who maintains that the Twelve are included among the disciples. They have no special function distinctive from the disciples but they are the origin and beginning of the whole Church.

9. Cf. P.J. Achtemeier, Mark. Proclamation Commentaries (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), pp. 92-100.

10. For Acts 1:15-26 cf. E. Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971), pp. 157-165 (literature).

11. For a different interpretation cf. H. Conzelmann, The Theology of Saint Luke (London: Faber & Faber, 1961), p. 47 n. 1: “Features from the primitive community have naturally been projected back. Just as the male followers are turned into apostles, so the female followers are turned into deaconesses (v. 3).”

12. R.E. Brown, Priest and Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1970), pp. 51-59; R.Schnackenburg, “Lukas als Zeuge verschiedener Gemeindestrukturen,” Bibel und Leben, Vol. 12 (1971), pp. 232-247.

13. Cf. the excellent article of R.E. Brown, “Difficulties in Using the New Testament in American Catholic Discussions,” Louvain Studies, Vol. 6 (1976), pp. 144-158.

14. Cf. H. Küng, The Church (New York: Doubleday, 1976), pp. 443-461, R.E. Brown, Priest, pp. 73-86; K.H.Schelkle, “Dienste und Diener in den Kirchen der neutestamentlichen Zeit,” Concilium, Vol. 5 (1969), pp. 158-164; K. Kertelge, “Die Funktion der‘Zwölf’,” pp. 205f.

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