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Women in the Gospels: Why Are There No Women Amongst the Twelve?

July 9, 2012
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In the last article I did a brief overview of the material to examine women in the gospels and discussed why one particular story was unimportant to our larger goal.  The next unimportant story (I promise we’ll get to the important ones soon enough) isn’t really a story but the oft-mentioned fact that all of Jesus’ closest disciples (the Twelve, a term less ambiguous than either “disciples” or “apostles”, both of which can be used for much larger groups) are men.  Now, I wish to be careful about how I say that this is unimportant in regards to our larger question.  Obviously, if Jesus had called six men and six women to make up the Twelve that would be important.  However, what I am about to argue is that there are a number of reasons why Jesus may have called twelve men that have nothing to do with any general theory about male leadership and so, while Jesus clearly missed an opportunity to strike a blow for gender equality (which indicates that it ranked lower on his list of things to do than it does for some modern readers), this doesn’t necessarily say anything about the roles of men versus the roles of women.

This is part of a larger important theme when reading these stories: what should we realistically expect?  Ideally we would make a prediction from each of the basic ideas we wish to test and then see if the result is more like what we predicted from one idea or the other.  For instance, let’s imagine that we wanted to test Newton’s theories against Einstein’s (much neater than testing messy stories).  We would want to find a situation in which the two theories predicted different things.  Since Einstein’s theories predict the same things as Newton’s at velocities under about 10% the speed of light (about 18,628 mph) testing these theories by observing a car driving at highway speeds would be inconclusive – both theories would predict almost exactly the same thing, probably things that differed by less than your measurement error.

Now, the sorts of theories we are dealing with are less precise than Newton’s or Einstein’s equations.  However, we find ourselves in a somewhat similar situation.  Here are predictions for four possible base ideas running from one extreme to the other.

Idea: Jesus believes that men are better than women, period.

Prediction: Jesus will choose only men for the Twelve.

Idea: Jesus believes that men are better than women at specific sorts of roles including leadership and public teaching.

Prediction: Jesus will choose only men for the Twelve.

Idea: Jesus believes that men and women are both capable of leading and teaching.

Prediction: Jesus will choose whomever is individually best able to carry out the roles of the Twelve.

Idea: Jesus believes that men and women are both capable of leading and teaching and Jesus wishes to push this point very strongly.

Prediction: Jesus will choose exactly even numbers of men and women for the Twelve regardless of personal qualifications.

Only in the very last case do we predict something that clearly did not happen.  The three remaining possibilities all predict scenarios which at least allow for what actually occurred, Jesus calling twelve men.

A short diversion is required here.  I picked four categories deliberately.  In reality there are not four categories, or two, or seventeen, but two different scales.  One scale is the extent to which men and women are seen as different in the crucial capabilities and the other is the extent to which we believe Jesus wished to make a point of his position on the first scale.  An infinite number of positions can be chosen out of these two scales but these four cover some of the more notable combinations.  (We could, for instance, add a position in which men and women are strongly not equal and Jesus wishes to make a point of this in which case we would predict that Jesus would both pick men and make a public show of rejecting women.  There actually are some people like this and look, the data does not support them.)  I think it is important to reject an abbreviated version in which there are two categories, the second and fourth ones, because this division is often suggested but the third and fourth categories produce noticeably different conclusions.

Now, if we examine the third category it is certainly true that it allows for a group of twelve men to be called.  Many of you may be thinking that this is unlikely, though.  Indeed, if Jesus randomly selected people the odds of drawing twelve men would be one-half to the twelfth power, 1 in 4,096.  If that were the end of the matter it would be safe to say that Jesus’ selection of the Twelve is proof that he believed that men and women are different in capability or roles.  However, what I wish to argue is that the assumption that Jesus would pull people at random from the general population is untenable.  Jesus has some specific purposes for the Twelve beyond “eventually lead the church” and these purposes heavily favor men for reasons that are primarily cultural.

One of the purposes of the Twelve was that the Twelve would travel with Jesus very closely, doing tasks for him that allowed him to teach (buying food, finding boats, rooms, and donkeys, and so on).  It would have been scandalous to call women to travel in the close company of men they were not married to.  Women did travel with Jesus, but the Twelve shared a closeness with him that would be hard to replicate without raising eyebrows.  It’s a little unclear how women managed to follow Jesus without creating a stir but none of these logistical issues apply to men.  If you stop in a town where you have no relatives or other suitable chaperones, that simply doesn’t matter with an all-male group where everyone can sleep in the same room without issue.  Jesus also travelled out into the wilderness accompanied by the Twelve on several occasions.  For men to take unmarried women with them out into the wilderness would have been more than eyebrow-raising.  Now, married women could have potentially traveled with their husbands or adult sons but this would have necessitated taking these people into the inner circle as well.

There’s also what might appear to be a minor issue to us but is probably worth noting: Jesus spends his ministry as a Jewish rabbi and in Judaism women are unclean (and can transmit uncleanliness to anyone or anything they touch) for at least seven days a month (Leviticus 15:19-23).  Jesus certainly offends the purity laws in important ways (for instance, he touches lepers to heal them) but this issue is probably large enough to be worth noting.  If Jesus had had women amongst the Twelve a whole new set of purity controversies would have been raised almost constantly.  Perhaps these issues would not have been sufficient to deter Jesus but I suspect they would have been enough of a distraction to be worth considering.

A larger reason is that the Twelve are part of an important symbol.  Jesus doesn’t call twelve disciples to form his inner circle just by chance (although there’s an inner inner circle of three as well).  Instead, the Twelve seem to represent the twelve tribes of Israel, a new Israel constituted around Jesus who, depending on one’s angle, might be the new Moses, the new David, or God Himself.  (By this, of course, I mean that he serves in all of these functions which are highlighted in different ways by different passages.)  A few passages in the Bible make this connection more apparent.  In both Matthew 19:28 and Luke 22:30 Jesus talks about how the Twelve will sit on twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel.  In Revelation 21:12-14 the new Jerusalem has twelve gates named for the twelve tribes and twelve foundations named for the Twelve.  However, perhaps more importantly, all four gospels record that Jesus somehow marked out twelve disciples from the larger crowd specifically.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all list the names of the Twelve at some point.  John simply refers to “the Twelve” as if we know who these are.  Given the loaded symbolism of picking twelve disciples like this, it would be very odd if Jesus did so without intending to symbolically recreate Israel around himself and it would be odder still for the gospel writers to highlight this if it were unimportant.  What’s more, in Acts 1:15-26 the disciples replace the now-deceased Judas.  This is an action they take soon after Judas’ death as if it were important and yet unless it were important that the disciples numbered twelve, it would be a very odd action.  If Jesus had simply picked the best people he could find and they happened to number eleven plus Judas (who is obviously not the best of the best) then there would be no reason to replace Judas.

So why does any of this matter?  Well, the twelve tribes are symbolized by their twelve patriarchs.  “Symbolized” might even be too light a word since the tribes are named after their patriarchs following a custom common amongst the people-group to which the Hebrews probably belong1 where a tribe’s name effectively means “the descendants of [famous ancestor]”.  Now, modern Judaism apparently reckons Jewish-ness through one’s mother, but ancient Judaism reckoned tribal affiliation in a patrilineal manner and so it would be difficult to substitute a woman for a patriarch2.  In fact, given prevailing attitudes about women, I suspect any attempt to include women in this group would be seen as an insulting comment about one or more tribes if it could even be understood.

This is the final point about symbolizing twelve tribes.  Even in a much more egalitarian culture we might read six men and six women as six couples or pairs (even if none of these people were romantically involved).  It seems a little unclear that a group of eight men and four women, say, would be seen as a group of twelve representing Isaac’s twelve sons and not as something else entirely.

For these reasons I think that it is hard to claim that Jesus’ failure to include any women within the Twelve tells us much about women.  Now, obviously, the strength of these arguments depends partly on the extent to which one thinks Jesus intended to recreate Israel around himself in his appointment of the Twelve.  I happen to think that the Israel themes in Jesus ministry are both pronounced and quite important.  (Specifically, I think that it is only because Jesus does Israel right that we can talk about a more global message.)  If one thinks these are a sidebar then perhaps one would not be convinced that the clarity of the twelve tribes symbolism is all that important and that Jesus should have included women if he meant to allow them to ever hold positions of leadership.  Ultimately, though, an argument about the Twelve is an argument about reconstructed mental states and reasons.  We have no story in which Jesus explains his reason for picking men or any story in which he makes a decision to pass over a woman.  For these reasons I do not think that this particular incident tells us anything useful about the role of women in the modern church.


[1] The Arameans.  The Hebrews themselves record a kinship with the Arameans, both in Genesis where the patriarchs find wives for themselves amongst their Aramean relatives and in the famous phrase from Deuteronomy 26:5 “my father was a wandering Aramean”.  The fact that Aramaic and Hebrew are obviously closely-related languages provides additional evidence that the Hebrews and Arameans probably originally come from the same place and people.

[2] This issue is somewhat more complex than my sentence would imply.  Jewishness (the status of being a Jew) may already be passed from mother to child in Jewish culture of Jesus’ time.  However, a number of other things are reckoned patrilinealy, to the point where the genealogies of Jesus both feature a line of men leading to Jesus’ earthly father.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2012 1:24 pm

    This is great. I like what you said about the disciples symbolizing 12 tribes. I’ve always missed that and wondered why replacing Judas was significant. I wonder if his betrayal and death is even significant symbolically? Or that he was in charge of their money?

    • July 9, 2012 1:26 pm

      *Judas’ betrayal

      • Eric permalink
        July 9, 2012 2:09 pm

        As far as the Twelve representing tribes I don’t think Judas’ betrayal is particularly significant. It might be if each of the Twelve represented a specific tribe (i.e., Thomas represents Dan, Andrew represents Benjamin) but they don’t and so Judas doesn’t represent the betrayal of any given tribe in Israel’s history, Instead, I think it’s mostly important that Judas is close to Jesus and yet betrays him. It’s not a stranger or someone who flirted with Jesus’ ideas before rejecting them who sells Jesus out, it’s someone who has given up a normal life to follow Jesus.

        Without checking, I think it’s John who tells us that Judas has charge of the money and he also tells us that Judas used to help himself to it. I think that’s told to us to help establish Judas’ character – he’s the sort of person who when you say, “We’d like you to betray your rabbi and your friends,” says, “Hmm….well, how much are you paying?”

        I did cover a bit more about Judas death (and his returning the money he was paid) here but the summary is that I think it is important that even Judas recognizes that he was wrong.

  2. July 9, 2012 2:12 pm

    One word: fascinating! Really enjoyed it. I had always made the connection between the tribes and the original 12 disciples, but it never occurred to me before that Jesus would, of course!, be so mindful of the difficult position a woman would be in if she traveled with him. I’m smacking my forehead…duh! Because he certainly had female disciples, I guess it never dawned on me to wonder why none were among the Twelve.

    Great stuff.

  3. July 10, 2012 1:32 pm

    It seems to be a relatively standard argument against female leaders. It’s certainly not an awful one – the question deserves an answers – but it does seem to skip over the fact that there could be many reasons why Jesus did not choose any women that have nothing to do with a grand plan for women.

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  1. Women in the Gospels: Jesus and His Female Benefactors « The Jawbone Of an Ass

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