I guess I thought there were only twelve apostles -- the original eleven, plus Matthias, and then Paul as the sort of New Testament “half-tribe” apostle. The numbering didn
’t bother me much. After all, there were twelve tribes in the OT, plus Manasseh, which sometimes counted as one of the twelve (Rev 7.6).
I was somewhat taken aback, however, when I noticed
the words in 1 Co 15.5-9 that I italicized below:
“[Jesus] appeared to Cephas
, then to the twelve
. After that he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time . . . then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles
; and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, he appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles . . .”
So we have, in chronological sequence, the twelve apostles, then James, then “all” the apostles, and last of all, to Paul.
Perhaps everyone already knows this, but I was surprised to learn that it seems there were a bunch of other apostles besides the Twelve. I’ll go through some passages, then discuss some implications (including the implication that Paul says that he is the last apostle that Jesus made). I think the argument also sheds light on a couple of puzzles.
First, a regular apostle had to have seen Jesus. This seems to be the upshot of Paul’s argument in 1 Co 9.1 “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” This is also the implication of 1 Co 15.8 (and of the "those who heard" in Heb 2.3). I don’t think Paul here is just talking about catching a glimpse of Jesus, but means someone who has been in Jesus’ presence and has been taught by him.
Paul recognizes the tenuousness of his claim – he recognizes that he is “as it were, one untimely born” vis
seeing Christ (1 Co 15.9) – and that his apostleship is therefore controversial (1 Co 9.2).
But in 1 Co 15.9, when he says that he is “the least of the apostles,” he’s not saying that he’s the least of the twelve, he’s saying that he’s the least of this larger group of ordinary apostles.
So what about the Twelve? This was an “office” (Acts 1.20) with additional requirements:
“It is therefore necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us – beginning with the baptism of John, until the day that he was taken up from us – one of these should become a witness with us of his resurrection” (Acts 1.21-22).
So to be one of the Twelve meant that you had to have accompanied Jesus from his baptism by John to his ascension.
So, first, we should note that there seemed to be a number of men who qualified on this score. Of the group, two were put forward to join the twelve (Acts 1.23).
Secondly, no matter how much Paul interacted with Jesus, he was not with him from the beginning of his earthly ministry to its end, so Paul could not be appointed one of the Twelve. When he claims to be an apostle, he’s not claiming to be one of the Twelve (or claiming that he should be counted as one of the twelve). Rather, he’s claiming to be one of this larger group of “ordinary” apostles.
What does this help with?
First, it makes a lot of sense of Paul’s struggle by way of comparison with “eminent apostles” at Corinth (2 Co 11.5, 13, 22-23, 12.11-12). I always had a hard time thinking that Paul was suggesting that one or more of the Twelve were “false” apostles (2 Co 11.13, 22-23). But if there’s a larger group than the Twelve, it’s entirely possible that some may have been jealous of Paul, or that the Corinthians felt that they hadn
’t been discipled
by a “real” apostle, since Paul did not hang out with Jesus during his earthly ministry.
Secondly, it helps to understand things like this rule in the Didache
“Now concerning the apostles and prophets, deal with them as follows in accordance with the rule of the gospel. Let every apostle who comes to you be welcomed as if he were the Lord. But he is not to stay for more than one day, unless there is need, in which case he may stay another. But if he stays three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle leaves, he is to take nothing except bread until he finds his next night’s lodging. But if he asks for money, he is a false prophet” (11.3-6).
I always thought that passage was a bit weird. If there were only twelve apostles, you’d think that they’d be easily recognizable, and that they’d have more of a claim than allowed in the Didache
. But if there were a whole bunch of apostles, then, first, it might be hard to tell a real one from a false one (after all, they only had to claim that they had seen the Lord). Further, it’s possible that some of even the real apostles might try to stretch their claims. (If even Peter, one of the Twelve, had to be rebuked for public sin at Galatia, then it’s possible that some of the ordinary, non-Twelve apostles might have sinned by trying to trade on Christ.)
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Paul’s statement in 1 Co 15 implies that he is the last apostle.
“. . . and last of all . . . he appeared to me” 1 Co 15.8.
Paul provides a chronological sequence of Jesus’ appearing, to Peter, to the Twelve, to more than 500, to James, to “all” of the apostles, and “last of all,” to Paul. Paul lists those to whom Jesus appeared – including “all” of the apostles – and then states that Jesus appeared to him “last of all.”
At first I took this merely to say that Jesus appeared to Paul as the latest in a sequence of appearances; appearances that need not “necessarily” have ended.
But that makes no sense. What can one do with Paul’s statement in the same verse that Jesus appeared to him as “one untimely born.” The whole thrust of Paul’s argument is that he is the exception. It was inappropriate that Paul be an apostle because Paul did not see or learn from Jesus during his earthly ministry. The whole upshot is that that is what it takes to be an apostle, and Paul completely understands the uniqueness of his position.
So when Paul says that Jesus appeared to him “last of all, as it were to one untimely born,” it means that Jesus appeared to Paul last of all. There will be no more. Paul is the unique exception to the rule that you had to see (or learn from) Jesus during his earthly ministry in order to be an apostle.
So after the apostles who saw Jesus die, and after Paul dies, there cannot be any more apostles. Paul said he was the last that Jesus would appear to.
This then helps to understand what's going on in passages like this in the Didache
“Therefore appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are humble and not avaricious and true and approved, for they too carry out for you the ministry of the prophets and teachers. You must not, therefore, despise them, for they are your honored men, along with the prophets and teachers” (15.1-2).
Recall that, earlier, the Didache
treated apostles as a subset of prophet. Here we see the Didache
seeming to recognize the end of the era of the prophet; the ministry of the prophets (and, presumably, apostles) being superseded by the ministry of pastors and deacons. This is necessarily so, at least with respect to the apostle-prophets, because no more would be made; all would be gone after the death of the original generation of apostles. Pastors and deacons carry on their ministry (and carry on the prophetic ministry more generally, by delivering to us God's word). It's the same purpose -- delivering God's word -- but delivered without the need for the prophet's charism. (This also accounts for the admonition not to despise pastors and deacons, men whose gifts must have appeared a bit fumpy and boring next to the exciting charism of the prophet.)
Secondly, however, is that, if there are no more apostles, then there are no longer men who perform the miraculous signs of an apostle.
Paul writes in 2 Co 12.12 that “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles.”
Without saying that all “signs and wonders and miracles” have necessarily ceased, I think that we nonetheless must grant that with the cessation of apostles the signs of a true apostles must also have ceased. So there is some set of “signs and wonders and miracles” that were the “signs of a true apostle” that necessarily ended with the death of the last apostle – the last individual to have seen and learned from Jesus during his earthly ministry (or with the death of Paul, if he outlived all of the other apostles).
This, too, is suggested in Heb 2.3-4:
“[H]ow shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us
who heard, God also bearing witness with them
, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to his will.”
Note, first, that Jesus’ word was “confirmed to us by those who heard.” The author’s argument here seems to me to be that Jesus’ word was confirmed to the author’s “us” by “those” apostles who heard it directly from the Lord (v. 3). God then bore witness with “them” by “signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit” (v.4).
Note the past tense and the third-party reference in vv
. 3-4. Further, the passage almost exactly echoes Paul’s list of the “signs of a true apostle” in 2 Co 12.12.
The diverse lines of argument seem to join. The set of apostles is finite, limited to the life span of the last living man who learned it directly from Jesus. Therefore, the set of individuals who perform the “signs of a true apostle” is also finite, limited to the life span of the last living man who learned directly from Jesus.
The author of Hebrews seems to recognize that, referring to “those who heard” the gospel directly from Jesus, and noting that God bore witness with “them” (not with “us”) with miraculous signs.
Again, please note that the upshot of this argument is that apostolic
miracles, signs, and gifts have ceased. Nonetheless, it seems to me to be an unavoidable implication, if we grant that no new apostles were made after Paul.
Finally, I might note that the note that there cannot be any continuation of the Twelve after the passing of those alive during Jesus' life. First, the Twelve of course had to qualify has ordinary apostles who saw and heard Jesus. But the criteria to be a member of the Twelve was that you were with Jesus from his baptism through his ascension. Not even Paul qualified for that. So once all the men died who accompanied Jesus from baptism through ascension, then the Twelve must also necessarily come to an end (even if there were still ordinary apostles still living, who had seen and heard Christ, but had not been with him through his entire ministry).
There may be other implications as well. Nonetheless, the big surprise for me is the original implication from 1 Co 15.5-9, that “the Twelve” are not the whole set of apostles, and the upshot for understanding Paul’s interaction with other apostles, as well as understanding the transition period from apostles (and prophets?) to pastors and deacons.