Thursday, July 23, 2015

Who were the first apostles of Jesus?

(by Daniel Peterson 7-23-15)

“I am convinced,” wrote Mark Twain, sarcastically dismissing the testimonies of the Book of Mormon witnesses in his 1872 book “Roughing It.” “I could not feel more satisfied and at rest if the entire Whitmer family had testified.”

It’s a funny comment, and Twain, a professional humorist, was definitely going for laughs, but his jest scarcely constitutes a serious engagement with the historical data.

However, that hasn’t stopped critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from using Twain’s witticism as if it represented a rigorous and adequate scholarly response. The witnesses to the Book of Mormon, they say, were just too provincial and too closely interrelated to be credible.

Many such critics — as I write, I’m looking at a website that uses Twain’s comment as evidence against Mormonism — are conservative Christians. Unfortunately, they call to mind the proverbial warning about throwing stones if you yourself live in a glass house.

Consider the ancient Christian apostles, for example:

Peter and Andrew were brothers, both Galilean fishermen from the tiny village of Bethsaida, which was also likely the home of the apostle and fisherman Philip. But Peter, at least, had moved to equally tiny Capernaum, about six miles away, where he partnered in a small fishing business with James (sometimes called “James the Greater,” to distinguish him from the other apostolic James) and John, the sons of Zebedee. Certain ancient traditions identify their mother as Salome, a sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Matthew, or Levi, was a tax collector in Capernaum. Little is known about James (“the Less”), the son of Alphaeus. But Mark 2:14 identifies Levi also as a son of Alphaeus, so it’s possible that Matthew and James the Less were brothers. Moreover, there is reason to suspect at least some family tie between them and Jude, who is probably the same person as Thaddeus.

Bartholomew, who should probably be identified with Nathanael, seems to have been a friend of Philip, from the small village of Cana in Galilee. He was influenced by local small-town rivalries: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he mockingly asked (John 1:46), when Philip first sought to introduce him to Jesus.

Simon Zelotes, the “Zealot,” so called to distinguish him from Simon Peter,
 probably came from the shore of Galilee. And Thomas, too, was almost certainly a Galilean.

In fact, the only member of the original Twelve who wasn’t from Galilee was Judas Iscariot, and some writers have speculated that estrangement from his 11 Galilean colleagues — including Jesus of Nazareth — may have played at least a minor role in his betrayal of his leader.

Indisputably, ethnic frictions arose within the early Christian movement. In Acts 6:1-6, for example, Greek-speaking Jews from beyond Palestine complain about neglect by their Palestinian Jewish leaders. Significantly, when the apostles responded by choosing seven “deacons,” all seven of them bore Greek names.

Clearly, the first Christian apostles — chosen from a small geographical area along the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, in a backwater sector of the distant and small Roman province of Judea — were closely bound by kinship and business ties, as well as by previous acquaintance. They had distinctive rural accents (see Matthew 26:73), and, at least as portrayed in the ancient Christian “Clementine literature,” when they preached the gospel in sophisticated places like Rome, they were ridiculed as uncultured hayseeds who talked funny.

And yet — apart, of course, from Judas, who committed suicide just after betraying Jesus, and James the Greater, who was stoned to death in Palestine quite early, around A.D. 44 — these were the men chosen to take the message of Christianity to the world.

Peter was crucified in Rome. Tradition holds that Andrew preached in what is now Ukraine and southern Russia and died in Greece. John preached in Greek-speaking Asia Minor (today’s western Turkey); Philip, too, was martyred in that general area. Bartholomew, Jude, Simon the Zealot and Thomas preached and died in Armenia, Iran and India. Matthew may have died in Persia or Ethiopia. James, son of Alphaeus, probably died in Egypt.

People in those lands might reasonably have asked, “Why are all of the apostles Galilean Jews?” “Why don’t they speak our language?” “Is this a Jewish church?”

Since the Christian message was to go through prophets and apostles to the entire world, it might seem strange that Jesus chose only Palestinian Jews to convey it. Nevertheless, says the New Testament, that’s just what he did.


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