The holy dozen: Why twelve Apostles and not thirteen?

Jesus calls the Twelve Apostles in this 15th century work by Ghirlandaio Domenico in the Sistine Chapel. Biblically speaking, the fact that Jesus chose twelve apostles - and only twelve - is symbolically significant. CNS Photo

Jesus calls the Twelve Apostles in this 15th century work by Ghirlandaio Domenico in the Sistine Chapel. Biblically speaking, the fact that Jesus chose twelve apostles – and only twelve – is symbolically significant.
CNS Photo

Several years ago, I ran across a comment by a feminist theologian who stated that if Jesus had a 13th apostle, it would have been Mary Magdalene. What struck me as odd was its presupposition that the number of apostles was arbitrary, as if Jesus could have chosen 11 apostles or even 14. If you dig more into the background of the selection of the Twelve Apostles, some pretty important facts come to light.

The earliest and most obvious connection to the number twelve comes from the patriarch Jacob (also known as Israel). Jacob had twelve sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulon, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph and Benjamin. These twelve individuals eventually formed the twelve tribes of Israel (Genesis 49:28).

What’s interesting about this structure is that each of the twelve tribes was represented by a single individual, usually called a “ruler” (nagid) or a “prince” (sar) (1 Chronicles 27:16, 22 respectively). These rulers or princes were the elected leaders of each tribe, and each of the twelve rulers was in charge of their respective tribes. By the time David became king, the overall structure of the kingdom was quite complex, but still at the heart of it was the king and under him twelve ruler/princes who governed each of the twelve tribes.

So, the number twelve is quite predominant. Jacob had twelve sons, who became twelve tribes, who had elected twelve princes, who were ruled by one king.

This situation didn’t last long. After David’s son Solomon died, his successor Rehaboham refused to relieve the twelve tribes of the heavy tax burden left by Solomon’s expansive government (1 Kings 12:1-19; 2 Chronicles 10:1-19) with the result that ten tribes broke off from David’s kingdom and formed their own kingdom to the north, known as the Kingdom of Israel. This left only two tribes under the Davidic monarchy (Judah and Benjamin). This southern kingdom was known as the Kingdom of Judah.

To make a long story short, the sinfulness of both kingdoms led to disaster. The ten northern tribes were invaded by the Assyrians and taken into exile. Most of these Israelites were scattered, intermarried with the gentiles, and never return as a cohesive group. The two southern tribes of Judah were taken into exile by the Babylonians. Unlike the Kingdom of Israel, the southern tribes did return to their homeland, but they returned without a king.

God had promised David that his “house” (i.e., dynasty) would be everlasting, yet it appeared to have vanished along with the twelve tribes over which he ruled. The prophets reassured the people that this situation would not last forever. David’s family tree might appear to be cut down, but God would raise up “… a shoot from the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1). Micah prophesied that he was to be born in Bethlehem and “when she who is to give birth has borne … the rest of his brethren shall return to the children of Israel.” There would be a Davidic kingdom that would gather in the twelve tribes of Israel scattered throughout the world.

Jesus is the Messiah king, the true son of David, who after his birth in Bethlehem of the Blessed Virgin, “rebuilds the fallen tent of David” (Acts 15:16) and like a Good Shepherd gathers those who are lost back to himself. Just as King David ruled with twelve princes, Jesus chose twelve Apostles. But Christ’s kingdom is more than David’s earthly kingdom. It’s not based on heredity or tied to one geographic location; it’s based on grace. The Apostles are to teach, sanctify and govern all the people of God, regardless of their race. Like the twelve princes, the Apostles held offices which after their death were occupied by successors (bishops) who continued their ministry.

As such, the fact that there were twelve Apostles is very significant and certainly not arbitrary. They are the ones who, in the age to come, will sit on twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28, Luke 22:30). Twelve, in the Bible, means more than a dozen.


Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.