The Pokey Finger of God

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The Mystery Apostle

December 23rd, 2005 · No Comments · christianity, history

The latest series of programs on the cable science channels about Christianity have been generally pretty good lately. The percentage of time I spend railing about how some antiquated dogma was being passed off as fact has gone down to about 20%, as opposed to the 75% I spent last season or two. Last night’s show about the original 12 Apostles was pretty disappointing. Maybe I missed the part where they talked about who these guys were, but most of what I saw was a tepid rehash of Acts.

The problem with a careful examination of the apostles is that the result usually clashes badly with the traditional view of Jesus as poor or apolitical. Many centuries of controversy within the Church have centered on the supposed poverty of Christ. However, most of the detail of the Gospel story indicates that not only was Jesus fairly well off, most of his close associates were wealthy, too.

The wedding at Cana can be seen either as proof that Jesus had wealthy friends, or possibly, that he himself was the wealthy groom. Jesus is seen near folks doing a day job — typically while encouraging them to quit — but we never see Jesus lift a hammer or a polish a chariot. Folks like that that I know of today generally have some family money keeping them fed. There’s a bit more of a populist appeal, I understand, by having your hero start from scrappy beginnings, so there’s no doubt that such a view was not discouraged, at least in the beginning.

About the Apostles, the New Testament is surprisingly silent. Given that these were supposedly the “founding fathers” of a new religion, you’d think each of these fellows would have their biographies enshrined somewhere. That would be, of course, if Jerusalem, and not Rome, had been responsible for the domination of Christianity over the Empire.

The idea that there would be “twelve” primary apostles that followed Christ is part of the Messianic tradition that equated Christ as a return of Moses, with the apostles representing the twelve tribes of Israel. So the “list of twelve” was a somewhat arbitrary selection of the “top twelve” followers of the Messiah. The top six or eight names on the list are pretty consistent from every source, but some names come up missing depending on where you look.

One such name is “Bartholemew”. The Gospel of John leaves this name out of his list of twelve, adding a “Nathaniel” instead. Most readers presume both names refer to the same individual. In the synoptics, Phillip finds Bartholemew to tell him of the coming Christ, while in John, it is Nathaniel who is alerted by Phillip. “Can anything good come from Nazereth?” Not much further is said about either character, although tradition holds that Nathaniel was the bridegroom at the wedding in Cana, and that he was one of the three that travelled to Emmaus after the resurrection.

Bartholemew is clearly a surname, “son of Tolmai” or “son of Ptolemy”. Now there was a King of Geshur named “Talmai”, and, of course, there was the Ptolemaic family of Egyptian kings. In either case, our boy Bart was likely of royal birth. I’d guess that probably of the latter than the former lineage. The Gospel writers go to some length to describe how certain Apostles were related to specific important local families, but only mentioning the names of others. Name-dropping was as potent a technique then as it is today, so by simply referring to the man as “son of Ptolemy”, they likely assumed that their readership would know who that was. Perhaps you’ve heard of Cleopatra. She was the last of the Ptolemys to rule Egypt. There was a good chance that this guy had a few dinarii to rub together.

In fact, from what I’ve been able to gather, each Apostle was financially well backed and often held more than a little political power. Some interpreters have even seen Mary Magdaline as possessing some of one or both, adding to a political element to the supposed marriage between her and Jesus. It’s clear that the major families in each of the towns around the Galilee provide support to the “movement”, giving housing, and presumably supplies, as needed. Occasionally, one glimpses how the major 12 were related to these powerful families.

Presumably, Jesus was both of royal birth and belonged to a family with enough shekels to throw around. All of the talk about monarchy and having some kind of direct line to God certainly sounds like someone with royal expectations. One finds it difficult to believe that all the rich and famous of ancient Galilee would follow around some poor nobody. Of course, who would have guessed Rasputin, Hitler, or Paul Anka would have had such meteoric rises?

But not much of any of this was mentioned on the program, near as I could tell. I was chasing Zoe around, so maybe I missed the key bit.

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