Blockbuster secret!

The Thirteenth Disciple

Alastair Bornkamm,  Rainbow, pp342, pbk, 0 884 929765 £23.99


In this ground-breaking book Alistair Bornkamm, Professor of New Testament Studies in the University of Arbroath, has revolutionized thinking about gender distinctions in the New Testament.

Bornkamm’s starting point is a little-noted lacuna in the NT narrative. Thomas, he points out, is called ‘Didymus’ ‘the twin’ [John 20.24; 21.22]. This is clearly a distinguishing name among the disciples – the nick-name of Thomas, in the same way in which ‘Cephas’ is the nick-name of Simon. But there is something odd. Twins, says Bornkamm, are usually defined by their ‘other half,’ by the person they are the twin of. And yet, though John names Thomas ‘the Twin’ twice over, the text never mentions the other person. There is no other ‘twin’ among the listed disciples; no one, in the narrative, to whom Thomas is related. Why should that be?

In the quest to solve this crucial conundrum, Bornkamm begins on a trail of discovery as exciting as any detective novel – one which is set to overturn the assumptions and prejudices of two thousand years of biblical scholarship. For Bornkamm’s answer to the question is simple: because Thomas’s twin was a girl.

Salome, the sister of Thomas (who surfaces in the narrative at Mark 15.40 as one of the women at the tomb) has, he concludes, been edited out of the New Testament narrative in a crude masculine conspiracy. And this leads Bornkamm to his most startling conclusion: there were not twelve but thirteen disciples, and the thirteenth was a woman!

Much patriarchalist biblical exegesis, Bornkamm points out, has been based on the symbolic relationship between the twelve disciples and the twelve patriarchs of Israelite tradition. But there has always been a problem with this apparently neat parallel. The problem is that the lists of the twelve are not consistent. Surely, if twelve were the significant, essential number, the tradition would have preserved for us a single coherent list of their names. But not so. The accounts differ. The explanation is obvious, Bornkamm maintains, once it is grasped that those differing accounts are the results of later revision and interpolation. A male conspiracy was seeking to expunge the unsettling truth that there were, in fact, thirteen – and that one of them was female.

Jesus, the professor claims, was certainly building upon the Jewish past. But as always, he sought both to adapt and to subvert it; not least in his choice of his closest followers. The traditional interpretation contains part of the answer: that Jesus was self-consciously looking back to the Patriarchs of old, the Sons of Israel. But, by the equally self-conscious addition of a female disciple, Jesus had introduced a new element, pregnant with hope for the role of women in the New Israel. Salome the Twin is the beginning of a New Era in the life of the People of God.

Sometime, at the beginning of the second century of the Christian era, the theory goes, virtually every mention of Salome was excised by the increasingly dominant male hierarchy which was establishing its stranglehold on the life of the infant Church – a stranglehold which has continued down to our own day. Contributory to this, perhaps, was the fact that Salome, like that other female apostle, Mary of Magdala, had a somewhat dubious past. As the daughter of Herodias, who danced before Herod, her name has survived only in oral tradition. Her leading role among those who attended the empty tomb has been all but eclipsed by the more famous Magdalene.

The embarrassingly close connections between the Jesus Movement and the Herodian Court were another factor in the same process of excision. (Junia, ‘Joanna’ the apostle in Romans 16, was, after all, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward.) So the received text came to obscure the fact that two of Jesus’ closest disciples were step-children of Herod. But now the full story, with its rich burden of meaning for the modern church, can be brought once more into the open.

The implications of Bornkamm’s discoveries for women in the contemporary world and church cannot be overestimated. The patriarchalist exegesis of the Twelve has been exploded once and for all. When it is seen that Jesus chose a woman, the twin of a male disciple, to be the thirteenth member – taking that significant grouping out of the past into a new, open and inclusive future – then the most substantial argument of those who oppose the equal ministry of women and men falls at the first hurdle. Their highest claim is that they are being obedient to the Scriptures. They are, in fact, being obedient only to a gross distortion, created by a dominant male clique with prejudices which match their own!

Bornkamm’s exhilarating book, full of carefully researched scholarship and bold imaginative leaps of intuition, will excite, inform and empower. It has already been widely acclaimed as a key text for those who are campaigning for a ministry which truly reflects the inclusive intention of Jesus.

As Dr Jayne Shaw says in her powerful preface: ‘This is the book we have all been waiting for.’

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