Who were the Twelve?

Jesus attracted a wide range of Jewish followers, both men and women. Inasmuch as he was trying to get all Israel to turn away from foreign influences and back to the Mosaic Law, he was talking to all parts of Jewish society.

It would be reasonable, then, for his closest followers to include representatives of the various philosophies and social classes, and to be a cross-section of Jewish male society. When Jesus debated with “the Pharisees”, for example, there is no reason to think that they weren’t members of the Twelve.

Jesus and the Twelve

In “The Gospel According to the Romans” I identify the Twelve in this way:

    • The fishermen James and John, and Andrew and Simon Peter – illiterate, unaffiliated with a particular philosophy, but anti-Roman
    • Judas Iscariot (or “the Sicariot”) and Simon Zealotes (“the Zealot”) as Zealots – part of the armed resistance to the Romans
    • Little James and his brother Judas Thaddeus as Essenes who avoided Romans
    • Philip and Bartholomew, Pharisees who argued about correct attitudes regarding the Law and the Romans
    • Thomas, a Sadducee willing to make allowances for the Romans
    • Matthew, a foreign-born Greek-educated Jew who had worked for the Romans – a lost sheep who was returned to the flock

This covers the range of Jewish men. Jesus also had a diversity of  women among his followers, such as the three who lived in Tiberias at Herod Antipas’ court: Mary Magdalene; Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza; and Susanna. A couple more, Mary and Martha, were sisters of Lazarus, close associates of Jesus, and assistants at the resurrection of Lazarus.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

After the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1940s and 1950s, scholars hoarded them jealously while trying to carve out a little piece of immortality for themselves as translators and revealers. The dribs and drabs of selective translation allowed a pacifist, even hippie, interpretation of the community at Qumran, where Essenes were deemed to have been the owners of the texts.

It was only with the appearance of an almost complete translation, including the War Scroll and details of the authoritarian and militaristic aspects of daily life that comprise 30% of the manuscripts, that it became clear that the library was not Essene. What is thought to have happened is that Essenes indeed used to live at Qumran until a severe earthquake in 31 BCE damaged many of the buildings, triggered an extensive fire, and possibly led to poisonous fumes being released from the Dead Sea. The site was abandoned for several decades.

Some of Jesus' teaching echoes scrolls found in the caves at Qumran

I propose that the remnants of Judas of Galilee’s Zealot army, crushed by the Romans in response to his violent insurrection in 6 CE, took refuge in Qumran, and that the library is theirs. That was the uprising that ended with the Romans crucifying 2,000 Jews (and incidentally, Jesus’ father Joseph is never mentioned again after that time – make of it what you will – I personally make a lot).

Regarding translations and interpretations of the Dead Sea Scrolls, I recommend the translation by Wise, Abegg and Cook (HarperCollins, 1996). Avoid anything earlier than that as being too selective and biased to be worth reading.

Roughly 40% of the material is standard-Biblical, 30% is apocryphal-Biblical, and the remaining 30% is bizarre and fascinating, with everything from formidably tough social laws (“A man who draws out his left hand to gesture during conversation is to suffer ten days’ reduced rations”) to details of a future war with the Romans, both preparations (“On the trumpets of ambush they shall write, Mysteries of God to wipe out wickedness. On the trumpets of pursuit they shall write, God has struck all Sons of Darkness, He shall not abate His anger until they are annihilated“) and the prophesied outcomes of individual battles.

It is a strange and wonderful text, showing the daily lives and background mythology of a violent fundamentalist sect.

The Four Philosophies

Judaism in the time of Jesus was monotheistic, but not monolithic. Josephus famously divided Jewish thought in four: Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes and “the fourth philosophy”. They all awaited the Messiah, or Anointed One, a leader anointed by God who would reunite the Jewish tribes and, perhaps, rule them as King of Israel directly descended from David. How the Messiah would appear – born as a child, or descending from Heaven – was not certain. (But he would be a man, not a God or some Son of God.)

Sadducees - the pro-Roman philosophy under the Occupation

The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection. With no real sense of an afterlife, let alone a Day of Judgment, they were inclined toward what was presently available. They were comfortable working with (or for) the Romans, and therefore were the religious and political ruling class among Jews.

The Pharisees believed that, God being just, all people would have to be resurrected so that they could be appropriately rewarded. This sentiment was more attractive to the lower classes than to the rulers, and the Pharisees were stricter than the Sadducees about social justice, adherence to the Law and not collaborating with the Romans.

The Essenes sought purity by withdrawing from everything to do with the Roman occupation – they didn’t like the idolatrous coins, let alone having to pay taxes, so they lived in isolated communities away from the cities.

And the Fourth Philosophy was that of the military resistance to the occupation: the Zealots. Heroes and patriots, or robbers and murderers, depending on your point of view, they led province-wide insurrections about once a generation for a period of 200 years – from the time the Romans occupied Palestine, until the Romans finally massacred, enslaved and deported almost the entire Jewish population.