• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Thursday, August 12, 2010

    Gospel Comparison: The Disciples

    Every so often I feel I have to sit down and work out a passage from the four gospels that I've never quite been able to get my head around. The problem, I think, goes back to my childhood. I gradually became aware of differences in certain accounts but, lacked knowledge about how to handle such discrepancies. So I was left trying to harmonise them into a single coherent picture. I gave up that approach a while ago and since I stopped trying to square a circular peg to put it in a square hole* I find it easier to look at these passages and grasp what's going on. (Here's another I did back in 2007 on the woman who anointed Jesus).

    I'm planning to write a few short posts on depictions of some of the disciples in the various films, but the names of the disciples is one such tricky case. As you might expect, the synoptic gospels are fairly similar(Matt 10:2-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16), and Luke's list is repeated in Acts 1:13. They all name Simon (who is called Peter), his brother Andrew, James and John, though Mark puts Andrew 4th (not 2nd as in Luke and Matt). Mark also calls James and John the sons of Zebedee as well as explaining that Jesus called them Boanerges - the sons of thunder. Matt omits the nickname. Luke only gives their names.

    Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew and Thomas are listed next, and all three gospels use the same order. There is a slight complication however. The disciple Matthew has traditionally been associated with the first gospel (which I'll call Matt from here on to avoid confusion) and Matt describes him as a tax collector - in contrast to the other two gospels which both omit this detail. This rings a bell for Matt's readers, who have just heard a story in the previous chapter about a tax collector called Matthew who decides to follow Jesus. However, the parallel accounts call this man Levi rather than Matthew.

    The traditional way of resolving this is to ascribe both names to the same individual. in fact the 1977 film Jesus of Nazareth has Matthew introducing himself as "Matthew, or Levi, I'm known by both names". Simon Peter, who hates Matthew because he's a tax collector counters "And others". At first it appears reasonably difficult to argue against this position, until you realise that none of the gospels actually make this link. Matthew is very much a minor character - only described as a tax collector in Matt, and Levi appears only in the story of his calling. To switch their names without explanation would be odd indeed.

    Even so these are relatively minor objections without a credible alternative. Mine would be that Matt conflates the two characters, perhaps because Matthew was indeed a tax collector, and Matt saw enough in Levi's story to adopt it for his own eponymous author. Incidentally, it seems, to me, that this a reasonably strong evidence against the Greisbach theory (Matthean priority) and a good piece of evidence that the book was written by a Matthean school / disciple adopting Mark. If Matthew had written himself directly into the gospel, then it would be unusual for the other two to contradict him and write him out - he should know, after all. But someone connected to the disciple would be likely to override their source if they wanted to add a bit of colour to their mentor.

    Then we come to the final four - James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Cananaean and Judas Iscariot, as Mark has them. The mention of James's father gives an additional datum for the issue above, because Levi was also known as a "son of Alphaeus". As the villain of the piece Judas Iscariot is always listed last.

    But questions circle around the other two. The Synoptics all agree that there was another Simon, but differ as to his nickname. Mark and Matt both call him a Cananaean. Luke calls him a zealotes. It's a reasonably safe assumption that this is the same man and that Luke simply switched Cananaean for Zealot so his audience would fully understand. Both titles are possible translations of the Hebrew word qana, meaning "the zealous", though for a period it was thought Simon was from Cana the site of Jesus' first miracle.

    The most complicated of all is the identification of the final disciple. Mark calls him Thaddaeus. Luke/Acts opt for Judas of James. But the various ancient copies of Matthew that we have don't even agree amongst themselves. Some agree with Mark's Thaddaeus. Others have simply Lebbaeus and others use both names Lebbaios epikaleō Thaddaios which probably means Lebbaeus whose surname was Thaddeus, but might mean something else. The problem is further complicated by some preferring to use Jude rather than Judas.

    Quite what to make of this I don't really know, particularly given the variations in Matthew. There are three broad possibilities here.

    1 - The original writer of Matthew deliberately changed Thaddeus to Lebbeus, but that later copyists moved back towards Mark's Thaddeus (whether accidentally or deliberately), perhaps using the expanded term as a halfway house.

    2 - The original writer of Matthew also had Thaddeus, but that a copyist made an error and introduced a Lebbeus, perhaps because of the similar name endings.

    3 - The original writer of Matthew expanded Thaddeus's name, perhaps because he had some additional information, but later copyists moved to shorter versions (one the one hand perhaps deliberately to harmonise with Mark, on the other perhaps accidentally to just Lebbeus).

    What's interesting about this is the process has almost moved to completion as many translators simply opt for Thaddeus for Matt, Mark, Luke and Acts. The expanded version is strange though because it only complicated things. All the other names Mark lists are first names. Why would he only give Thaddeus's surname?

    Luke for some reason rejects both options and goes for Judas (son/brother) of James (lit. Jacob). Some commentators maintain that this was his real name and that Thaddeus was only a nickname or a surname (presumably preferring option 2 above). It's possible that even having the same name as the traitor was considered so insulting that Mark and Matthew went for a different name. By the time Luke wrote a little later, and in a non-Jewish context, the stigma had lessened. But its also possible that Luke was thinking of a different man. Either way he seems to draw on the various other sources which he both claim to have, and demonstrably uses elsewhere. John's Gospel also mentions a Judas, stressing that this is a different man from Judas Iscariot, but more on John's account later.

    So the existence of one disciple who had a variety of names remains a strong possibility, but what, then are the others? Well firstly, there is the chance that some of the gospel writers simply got it wrong. Then there's the chance that one of the disciples was replaced part way through Jesus' ministry. A further option is to take seriously those scholars who claim that Judas Iscariot was a rhetorical invention. Assuming Jesus really did have 12 disciples then Judas would have to supplant one of the others. Lastly, some would hold that there never were a clearly defined group of twelve and that Mark simply invents the concept to mirror the 12 tribes of Israel. But none of these theories sit particularly easily with the various solutions to the synoptic problem. The key question is why did Luke, who was copying from at least one of the other two gospels, make the switch? Without knowing that it's difficult to really know the answer to the broader question.

    So what about John’s Gospel? Well somehow, I'd never really appreciated that John never lists the 12 disciples. In fact there are only two occasions when he even uses the term. The first is at the end of chapter 6 (v67-71) - Peter's confession of Christ. Here the word is used several times which is strange given that the only other time is a casual reference in the peultimate chapter of the gospel. So it's even possible that this is copied from some other source and the reference to the twelve was left in. I say this because John frequently uses the term disciples, but the likely number to which this refers seems to vary. Take the previous passage 6:60-66. Here many of his disciples find his teaching too hard and stop following him, leaving only the twelve. The implication is that the number of disciples here is far greater than twelve. Yet "the disciples" are clearly distinct from the masses (6:2-3), are few enough to all fit on a single boat (6:16-17), and in the final chapter of the gospel (perhaps written later) the disciples number only 7 (21:1-2).

    It's here that we find the only list the disciples' names in the gospel. Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. There's a later reference to the disciple whom Jesus loved, but it's unclear whether this is one of the sons of Zebedee (as is usually assumed) or one of the two unnamed disciples. Elsewhere we find references to Judas Iscariot (whose father's name is Simon - 6:71), Peter's brother Andrew (6:8), Judas not Iscariot (14:22) and Philip (1:43). So this is a list of 9 names only one of which is entirely new, Nathanael. For some reason Nathanael is usually associated with Bartholomew, supposedly because the Synoptics list him straight afterwards while John lists Nathanael as being friends with Philip, but that seems pretty weak. But even were it to be true it still means that there's no mention of Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, or Simon the Cananaen (barring a tenuous link between Simon, a zealot, and Judas's father Simon Iscariot which a small minority maintain designates his membership of the sicarii).

    So all in all it doesn't look like John was particularly taken by the concept of the 12 disciples. Some would argue that he was unfamiliar with the Synoptics, though the use of "the twelve" in chapter 6 suggests he was, at least, familiar with traditions that were familiar with such a grouping. Alternatively, it's possible that he knew all too well about the Synoptics and the special twelve, but that either he actively tried to remove it, or that he simply didn't find the concept particularly useful. There's reasonable support for the later as John seems to use the term more inclusively, implying, perhaps, and invitation to become a disciple, and also refers to disciples of John and of Moses.

    I'm not sure what to make of all that. Feel free to chip in your ideas! I've found it helpful however to lay everything out in one go. Hope you've found it useful as well.

    Photo taken at Beverly Minster in East Yorkshire, with Digory getting familiar with the gospel writers and their symbols.

    *This is what I like to call a CJism, based on the character from 70s sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin who, particularly in the third series joins together two phrases with great panache. His are, in general, rather better than this one.

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