Resurrection #26: “Twelve” or Eleven Disciples?

Resurrection #26: “Twelve” or Eleven Disciples? May 4, 2021

Michael J. Alter is the author of the copiously researched, 913-page volume, The Resurrection: a Critical Inquiry (2015). I initially offered  59 “brief” replies to as many alleged New Testament contradictions (March 2021). We later engaged in amiable correspondence and decided to enter into a major ongoing dialogue about his book. He graciously (and impressively!) sent me a PDF file of it, free of charge, for my review. 

Mike describes himself as “of the Jewish faith” but is quick to point out that labels are often “misleading” and “divisive” (I agree to a large extent). He continues to be influenced by, for example, “Reformed, Conservative, Orthodox, and Chabad” variants of Judaism and learns “from those of other faiths, the secular, the non-theists, etc.” Fair enough. I have a great many influences, too, am very ecumenical, and am a great admirer of Judaism, as I told Michael in a combox comment on my blog.

He says his book “can be described as Jewish apologetics” and one that provides reasons for “why members of the Jewish community should not convert to Christianity.” I will be writing many critiques of the book and we’ll be engaging in ongoing discussion for likely a long time. I’m quite excited about it and am most grateful for Mike’s willingness to interact, minus any personal hostility.

To see all the other installments, search “Michael J. Alter” on either my Jews and Judaism or Trinitarianism & Christology web pages. That will take you to the subsection with the series.

I use RSV for all Bible verses that I cite. His words will be in blue.


Michael Alter wrote:

CONTRADICTION #93 The Number of Disciples Who Saw Jesus

Church tradition contradicts itself as to whether or not Jesus appeared before eleven disciples or twelve disciples. Paul, writing in 1 Corinthians 15:5, states unequivocally that after Cephas, Jesus was witnessed by the Twelve: “And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve.” Similarly, Mark 16:14 reported: “And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve:”

In direct contradiction, Luke 24:33 states that following Jesus’s postresurrection he appeared to “the eleven” in Jerusalem: “And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together, and them that were with them.” Therefore, this appearance occurs on Easter Sunday evening.

Luke’s narrative provides information that someone was missing, but who? Based on Matthew 27 and Acts 1, one would naturally think that it
is Judas because he had already supposedly hanged himself after repenting his treason against Jesus or he died as a consequence of a fall. . . . 

John 20:24 states that the missing disciple is Thomas: “But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.”
Therefore, the question remains, was Jesus appearance witnessed by eleven disciples or twelve disciples?

One rationale challenging the view of Christian apologists is that this “group of Twelve” had to have included Judas because Acts 1:26 records
that it was not until after the Ascension, some forty-plus days after Jesus’s crucifixion, that another person, Mathias, was voted in to replace Judas. (This topic is also discussed later.) “And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Mathias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.” However, this Christian apologetic is meaningless because Judas could not have been one of “the eleven” if he was already supposedly dead, according to Matthew 27:5. (pp. 562-564)

Protestant apologist Eric Lyons provides the rebuttal:

Numerous alleged Bible discrepancies arise because skeptics frequently interpret figurative language in a literal fashion. They treat God’s Word as if it were a dissertation on the Pythagorean theorem rather than a book written using ordinary language. . . . The simple solution to this numbering “problem” is that “the twelve” to which Paul referred was not a literal number, but the designation of an office. This term is used merely “to point out the society of the apostles, who, though at this time they were only eleven, were still called the twelve, because this was their original number, and a number which was afterward filled up” (Clarke, 1996). Gordon Fee stated that Paul’s use of the term “twelve” in 1 Corinthians 15:5 “is a clear indication that in the early going this was a title given to the special group of twelve whom Jesus called to ‘be with him’ (Mark 3:14).

This figurative use of numbers is just as common in English vernacular as it was in the ancient languages. In certain collegiate sports, one can refer to the Big Ten conference, which consists of 14 teams, or the Atlantic Ten conference, which is also made up of 14 teams. At one time, these conferences only had ten teams, but when they exceeded that number, they kept their original conference “names.” Their names are a designation for a particular conference, not a literal number.

In 1884, the term “two-by-four” was coined to refer to a piece of lumber two-by-four inches. Interestingly, a two-by-four still is called a two-by-four, even though today it is trimmed to slightly smaller dimensions (1 5/8 by 3 5/8). Again, the numbers are more of a designation than a literal number.

Biblical use of “the twelve” as a designation for the original disciples is strongly indicated in many Gospel passages. Jesus Himself did this: “Did I not choose you, the twelve . . .?” (Jn 6:70). He didn’t say, “did I not choose you twelve men?” By saying, “the twelve” in the way He did, it’s proven that it was a [not always literal] title for the group. Hence, John refers to “Thomas, one of the twelve” after Judas departed, and before he was replaced by Matthias (Jn 20:24). Paul simply continues the same practice. It was also used because “twelve” was an important number in biblical thinking (40 and 70 are two other such numbers). For a plain and undeniable example of this, see Revelation 21:12, 14, 21.

Mark always uses “the twelve” specifically like a title. Every time he refers to “twelve” (nine times), he says “the twelve”; never “the twelve disciples” or “twelve apostles”. As for Mark 16:14, Alter makes a mistake. The KJV that he uses for his book has “eleven” and not “twelve.” So do (it looks like) all other translations. On a “parallel Bible” page for this verse I couldn’t find a single translation that has “twelve.” So even though Mark used “the twelve” like a title, he was still being literal, since he switched to “eleven” after Judas departed in infamy.

Luke follows Mark’s practice exactly, by using the phrase “the twelve” six times, then switching to “the eleven” in Luke 24:9, 33. So he, too, was also being literal.

Matthew is interesting, because in five uses before Judas’ departure, he uses “the twelve” twice (26:14, 47), “the twelve disciples” twice (20:17; 26:20), and “the twelve apostles” once (10:2). He, too, uses “eleven” after Judas’ betrayal: “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them” (28:16). Once again, then (like Mark and Luke), he is being literal as well about the number of Jesus’ original disciples / apostles.

John, in four usages, always says “the twelve” (6:67, 70-71; 20:24). In the last instance, Judas had left the group, so it was an instance of the non-literal use of the title, as in Paul (as explained above). John never uses “eleven.”

In the book of Acts, Luke follows his literal use. When a vote was taken for an apostle to replace Judas, Luke wrote: “And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthi’as; and he was enrolled with the eleven apostles” (1:26). In 2:14 (i.e., after Matthias has joined the ranks) he states: “But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them, . . .” And in 6:2: “And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples . . .”

So we see no contradiction at all here. The Synoptic Gospels + Luke in Acts all refer to the group of disciples / apostles in a literal way, whether using “the twelve” as a title or not. John is literal three times and non-literal once. Paul is also non-literal on one occasion. In those two instances, it’s quite sufficiently explained by apologist Eric Lyons above (and I think, bolstered by my further observations and documentation). We use the same non-literal technique today (as he noted) by referring to the Big Ten and Atlantic Ten conferences in college sports (both conferences actually having 14 teams), and “two by four” for lumber (when the actual size is 1 5/8 by 3 5/8).

Much ado about nothing again, but Alter can apparently never concede even a single example of a botched supposed “contradiction” because he appears to think that the New Testament always has to contradict itself if there is the slightest perceived difficulty in interpreting it. When called on it, as I have been doing, he objects to the lack of simplicity in the explanation, by repeating the same canned boilerplate in my comboxes over and over. Here he is again utilizing this silly technique and (as almost always) refusing to actually interact point-by-point with my specific arguments, on 5-3-21 on my blog:

Dave’s position and those of other apologists is simple: Instead of letting the text speak for itself, Dave and other apologists are saying, “Let me explain to you what the author meant to say.” Dave and other apologists strongly imply that they, as guardians of the truth, are the only ones capable of explaining what the original authors of the text meant to say . . .. The final decision belongs to the reader. Your intellectual and common sense is respected.

Readers, this writer will implore you to use your brains. What does the text mean to any average person after any sensible hearing or reading (possibly one or two languages removed from the original)? In no uncertain words, Dave implies that as a guardian of the truth, he and other apologists are the ones capable of explaining what the original authors of the text meant to say.

Nothing personal here against Michael, of course. I have enjoyed our cordial relations. This is notad hominem.” I am objecting to his arguments and also to some extent, his technique in argumentation, which are things separate from him as a person.

It’s precisely because God expects us to use our brains and not be gullible advocates of blind faith (another charge Alter has leveled again and again at the NT writers and other Christians), that we can use our noggins and figure out what is going on here with the use of numbers. Alter seems to prefer to keep it on a “simpleton’s” level, where something appears to be a contradiction but actually isn’t when we actually think and rationally analyze and use our brains in closely examining it. That fits his anti-New Testament “agenda” quite nicely. He’s always railing about the “theological agenda” of the NT writers, as if it is an inherently dishonest and shameful thing to believe in a particular theology and inevitably hostile to accuracy and factuality and historicity.

But he wouldn’t dream of applying this cynical, simplistic technique to the interpretation of his Hebrew Bible, which is the basis of his own religious practice (which I greatly respect) of piously adhering to the restrictions of the Sabbath every week. Historic Judaism certainly doesn’t take such an approach. Anyone can read the Talmud to see thousands of examples of a robust thinking interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and also the oral law delivered to Moses on Mt. Sinai (that I firmly believe in as a Christian). It wasn’t a “simple matter” to those rabbis; nor is NT interpretation the domain of simpletons and uneducated people. Christianity is a thinking man’s religion, just as Judaism is.

People (usually atheists) tear down the Hebrew Bible all the time, as immoral and self-contradictory (complete with mockery of God: or what is caricatured as “God”), just as they go after the New Testament with a hatchet and a buzz saw. I defend both, because I believe in faith (with abundant reason and not “blind faith”) that both documents are inspired and infallible revelation from God to us.

But when it comes to the New Testament, Alter has decided to be quite hostile and impervious to any reason that resolves what he wrongly insists is a “contradiction.” This goes beyond simply not being a Christian and honest, sincere theological disputes. I’m not talking about that. What I am referring to is an extraordinary level of bias and irrational prejudice against the NT texts: whether or not NT theology is rejected. This leads to the weak and feeble arguments that I have been refuting over and over (only to have my arguments ignored at least 90% of the time).

The sky wouldn’t fall down if Michael Alter admitted that he was mistaken and in error regarding this alleged “contradiction” and many others. He wouldn’t have to forsake his Judaism (however he construes it) or become a Christian. The stakes aren’t that high. These are questions having to do with logic and reason, and only indirectly theological. He can always revise his book and admit that he blew some of his arguments; that he accepted correction here and there (maybe on five out of 913 pages?). People would only respect him for that. He would lose nothing.

I’m merely calling for an objective, educated, informed analysis of the New Testament texts without the extreme bias and hostility (that was documented in my previous reply). It seems to me that if Alter is an objective thinker, and assuming he is an honest one (as I do) and open-minded, that it stands to reason that he could and would admit that one or two of his 120 or so proposed “contradictions” fail and have been refuted by myself or someone else. I don’t think he regards himself as infallible and incapable of error.


Photo credit: Selva Rasalingam as Jesus in the The Gospel of Luke (2016, Netflix USA) [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication]

Summary: Michael Alter submits supposed “contradictions” regarding “twelve” or eleven disciples (before & after Judas’ departure). In fact, the numerical usage is mostly literal but sometimes not.

Tags: alleged Bible contradictions, alleged Resurrection contradictions, Bible “contradictions”, Bible “difficulties”, Bible Only, biblical inspiration, biblical prooftexts, biblical skeptics, biblical theology, exegesis, hermeneutics, Holy Bible, inerrancy, infallibility, Jewish anti-Christian polemics, Jewish apologetics, Jewish critique of Christianity, Jewish-Christian discussion, Michael J. Alter, New Testament, New Testament critics, New Testament skepticism, Resurrection “Contradictions”, Resurrection of Jesus, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, “twelve” or eleven disciples?

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