I don’t accept that because Jesus picked twelve men, he was excluding women from church leadership. So, why twelve men? Honestly, I don’t know for sure. My tendency is to look to history for answers. Here’s my guess.
The significance of Twelve Jewish Men
There is more to the Twelve than their role as foundation pillars of the church. (Notice, I do not call them apostles because I don’t wish to confuse the fact that there were more than twelve that were called apostles. So I will distinguish Jesus’ chosen twelve apostles as the Twelve.) To teach that the Twelve were only the founding leaders of the church is to miss their prophesied purpose to Israel.
Although they hold much responsibility in birthing the church, the significance of their number and gender is found looking back to the Old Covenant, not forward to birth of the Church. These men were chosen to mark the END of Israel’s time, and to be an eyewitness to the finale of God’s promise to Israel: the fulfillment of Messiah who will bless the entire world. Hence, there is a gender and numerical symbolism at play. 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.
Twelve men will judge the twelve sons of Israel.
These chosen Twelve men fulfill Isaiah 1:26.
“I will restore your judges as at first.”
Jesus confirms this purpose in Matthew 19:28 and Luke 22:30.
“Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
“…you may…sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
What did they judge about Israel?
Acting as “justice” for Israel involved the transitioning of covenants from the nation of Israel to a global priesthood of believers. As judges, they passed sentence on Israel by initiating the transfer of the Holy Spirit to all nationalities. Their ministry ended Israel’s unique connection to God. Their preaching also warned of coming catastrophes. They watched the signs of the time as Jesus instructed and warned the Jewish people “Judgement was near!”(Matthew 24) For Israel, the final judgement or “the end of the age” was the Roman dispersion of the Jewish people, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
The Twelve may also have a future role in passing sentence on Israel at the final judgement… but I’m not sure what that looks like.
The Twelve are linked to Israel and the fulfillment of the patriarchal Old Covenant. The Old Covenant was designed around promises to men, the service and sacrifices of males, and would be fulfilled by a future coming male Messiah. This is why there were twelve; why they were Jewish and why they were male. This is also why Judas Iscariot was replaced quickly after his suicide. Because twelve was important symbolically to Israel. Yet, when James died 10-15 years later, he was not replaced. It was the end of “times.” The chosen Twelve and their message, “Judgement is near, but Salvation has come for everyone!” concluded the Old Covenant in the transitional period preceding the destruction of the temple in 70 AC and the explosion of Christianity to the Gentiles thereafter.
Twelve was no longer an important symbolic number to the Gentiles, neither were the patriarchal promises to the sons of Israel.
What counts is the new creation. (Galatians 6:15)
The Chosen Twelve condemned/judged/ended the old era of Israel, but their teaching also built the foundation of the Global Church. But in this role, their number, nationality or gender is no longer significant. How can I say this beyond a shadow of a doubt? Because the old was gone, and the new has come. Jesus insists we don’t pour our new wine back into the old wineskins. (Matthew 9) The church is new wine, folks! Patriarchy and male-based religion based on circumcision and exclusion is an old wineskin, and we must burst those weak constraints.
The Chosen Twelve men were tasked with judging Israel. But, “Do you not know,” Paul says, “that the saints will judge the world? Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (1 Cor. 6:2-3). All believers will fulfill this role as judge at the end of our “age.” Our covenant is not only with a chosen few, but with all who will believe. Our sphere of justice is not one nation, but the whole globe. Our temple is a personal and intimate indwelling of the same Spirit, and our priesthood knows no restriction to heritage, nationality or gender.
The example of Twelve Jewish Males is not for the new Church, but a dying symbol of Old Israel.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 2 Corinthians 5:17
10 thoughts on “Why Twelve Men?”
Interesting post, Kay.
You fit Mary Magdalene in nicely.
“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, He rebuked them for not believing the women. ”
If you see significance in the gender of the 12, you must see significance in the gender of the first gospel bringer as well.
Wait– as far as men seeing Jesus, it was earlier than eight hours later if you count the travelers on the road to Emmaus. But Jesus did not reveal His identity to them until they stopped for the evening meal.
I agree with the symbolic nature of the 12 Jewish men. There is also a very practical dynamic going on. The 12 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 considered legal or 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. Other women also saw Him shortly afterwards– but no male saw the Lord until that evening, eight hours or more afterwards.
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, He rebuked them for not believing the women.
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. 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 negigible. That’s why they began to be persecuted as well.
It’s all right there in the text, when we start looking at it the way they would have seen it at that time, in that place.
Given the realities of travel back then, (sleeping in fields together, no privacy, etc), it would pose some parenting issues if half the disciples had been women.
“But Mom, there’s nothing wrong with coed sleepover parties. Even JESUS thought they were okay”
More seriously, I tend to view cultural and practical limitations as a bigger reason that the Twelve were all men. If Israel had transformed to an egalitarian society by the of Christ, I don’t think God would have had any problem using a coed group to fulfill any prophecies.
He did travel with women, right? Because his larger group consisted of women. Didn’t all those practical considerations need to happen with those women? Wasn’t it a co-ed group already?
Yes, I agree. Jesus did travel with women, and He also considered them His disciples.
Yes, he traveled with women but I’d make a distinction between families and large groups vs. an informal band of unmarried individuals. In the former, there would be social conventions and older respected people to chaperone.
Compare that with the image of a dozen single men and women renting a room for the night or Jesus ‘going to pray’ in a garden with 3 female disciples (a field was the closest thing to a drive-in theatre or parking on a bluff that young couples had). Modern middle eastern cultures still have similar social mores about unmarried women running around with men.