Why Twelve? Mark 3:14-19 (Part 2)

Jesus went up to the mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James, son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges which means ‘sons of thunder’), Andrew, Philip, Bartholemew, Thomas, Matthew, James, son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.     

                     Mark 3:14-19 (NIV)

Horsham 21st Feb 2024

The choosing of the twelve disciples is undoubtedly one of the most critical points in the story so far. Getting it right would be the key to the success or failure of Christ’s mission.  My last post looked at the life challenges faced by the twelve disciples, but  I’ve found myself  asking the question, ‘why twelve?’. Of course my Sunday School teacher would have said something like this – ‘Well, there were twelve tribes of Israel, so obviously there would be twelve disciples.’ I guess that this much is obvious, but why? I have heard it said from the pulpit that twelve was the normal number of disciples who would be associated with a rabbi at that time. My research suggests otherwise.

Gamaliel, a senior rabbi of the 1st Century who is mentioned in Acts 5, has been said to have claimed 500 disciples (although not necessarily at the same time!) (i), one of whom was a young man called Saul (who became the Apostle Paul) (Acts 22:3). If true, Gamaliel was an exception.  My reading suggests that most rabbi’s would typically have had no more than three or four followers at any given time. So, why twelve?

Let’s think about where this scene takes place. If I want a bit of peace and quiet I tend to go to the local forest, or to the top of the South Downs close to my home. We’ve read that Jesus was in the habit of going to the mountainside to pray (Luke 6:12),  but it’s a mistake to think of this excursion in the same way as my relaxing trip to local quiet places and beauty spots.

This is more of ‘a place where people went to plot revolution. And what Jesus now does is amongst his most revolutionary gestures.’(ii)

This was no spur of the moment decision. This was a really important part of Christ’s plan. After spending the night in prayer, Jesus chooses these twelve men to be his disciples – to send them out with authority to teach and cast out demons (Mark 3:14). So, in this place with a hit of the revolutionary, why twelve? There’s something going on here that we can easily miss.

‘It is fascinating to me that Jesus did not choose ten, eight or twenty. He chose twelve, certainly calling to mind the Old Testament structure of the twelve tribes of Israel.’ (RC Sproul) (iii)

The number twelve isn’t a hugely important number in Judaism, but of course it does crop up repeatedly throughout Scripture with reference to those twelve tribes, basically routed on the families of the sons of Jacob. But in Jesus’ day, the twelve tribes didn’t even really exist.

Every Jew knew that there were twelve tribes of Israel – or at least there had been… Ten of the tribes had been lost seven centuries earlier when the Assyrians invaded and carried them off. But the prophets had spoken of a coming restoration, and a great many Jews were longing for it. (iv)

So, on the mountain where revolutions are plotted, this young Rabbi calls to himself a higher than average number of disciples who will follow and learn from him.

‘[…]  by choosing twelve disciples to become the twelve Apostles, Jesus established a symmetry between the Church of the Old Testament and the Church of the New Testament.’ (v)

Turns out my Sunday School teacher was right – although I’m not sure she appreciated how radical this was. In appointing twelve disciples, Christ was setting out a key part of his manifesto, firmly and visibly placing his mission to the Old covenant, as he set about enabling the New. In choosing twelve disciples,  Jesus was heralding the start of a revolution!

Richard Jackson, West Sussex, UK: LifePictureUK


(i) Gamaliel is an established historical figure who held a high position as a leader and teacher in the Sanhedrin at the time of Christ. I have seen references in several articles about there being 500 disciples who, over time, learned ‘at the feet’ of Gamliel. I am grateful to teacher and author Lois Tverberg who makes reference to this suggestion on her blog  at The Reality of Disciples and Rabbis – Our Rabbi Jesus  and refers to Chapter 19, “Education and the Study of Torah” in The Jewish People in the First Century, by Shmuel Safrai (Fortress, 1988)  for more information on the style of Rabinical teaching.
(ii) Tom Wright: Mark for Everyone, p32 (Kindle Edition))
(iii)RC Sproul, an Expositional Commentary, Reformation Trust (Kindle Edition) p55
(iv) Tom Wright, ibid
(v) RC Sproul, ibid

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