Nowhere is the distinction between exegesis and eisegesis clearer than in our interpretation of "the Twelve."

We exegete Scripture when we try to surface the meaning which the sacred authors originally intended to convey in their writings. We eisegete when we ignore the writers' meaning, and insert our own thoughts and agendas into the text.

The authors of the Christian Scriptures employ three terms when they speak of Jesus' followers: disciples, apostles and the Twelve. A disciple is any follower of Jesus; an apostle, a disciple sent by Jesus on a special mission; the Twelve is simply the Twelve. We surface its meaning only by combining the Jewish symbolism of the number with the historical Jesus' unique ministry.

Reformer

Those who regard Jesus solely as the divine founder of a new religion ignore the sacred authors' intentions and eisegete the Twelve into Jesus' first priests or bishops (or even as His "college of Cardinals!").

These people forget the earliest writers of the Christian Scripture regard Jesus more as a reformer of Judaism than as the founder of Christianity, a perspective which gives a totally different meaning to the Twelve. These authors cast Jesus in the mold of prophets like Amos, people who minister not as religious innovators, but as consciences for a religion they already profess. Prophets always call people to return to the beginnings of their faith.

In the first reading (Amos 7: 12-15), Amaziah tries to kick Amos out of Bethel. This nomadic shepherd runs afoul of the shrine's religious leader because he challenge people to return to the faith of their ancestors a faith which existed before shrines and liturgies, before priests and kings, a faith revolving solely around one's relationship with Yahweh and Yahweh's people.

Amos's message has rarely been heard at Bethel. The "shrine prophets" -- preachers on Amaziah's payroll -- never teach pilgrims anything beyond the relatively recent traditions and customs that serve the interests, egos and pockets of their religious bosses. No wonder Amos recoils at being called a prophet.

Significant number

Amos's ministry reminds us that Jesus, as prophet, also calls His disciples to return to the beginnings of faith. But the carpenter from Galilee employs a unique piece of symbolism to remind people of those roots: the Twelve. Jesus and His audience know that each Jew belongs to one of Israel's 12 tribes. So, anyone preaching reform, accompanied by "the Twelve," is telling His hearers that He's expecting them to take their faith back to the days of Jacob and his 12 sons, a period 500 years before the Exodus and Moses, just three generations after Abraham.

It's of no consequence that Matthew, Mark and Luke differ on the Twelve's individual names. As long as Jesus' group consists of 12 men who parallel Jacob's 12 sons, the prophetic symbolism is intact.

In the Gospel (Mk 6: 7-12), we see that Jesus also employs the Twelve to show that His ministry isn't just a "one-man show." What He does, His followers are expected to do. The Twelve are to share His mindset; no worry about personal comfort, no house hopping to find the best bed or food, no regrets about not being listened to. They preach the same repentance Jesus preaches; they proclaim the same life-giving message Jesus proclaims. Paul has no other choice but to remind his Ephesians community of their dependence on Jesus (Eph 1: 3-14). "God...has blessed us in Christ," he writes, "with every spiritual blessing....He chose us in Him...to be holy and without blemish....In love He destined us for adoption to Himself."

Paul's reminder only makes sense if all Christians are expected to carry on Jesus' ministry. Modern prophets constantly challenge us to return to this early Christian conviction. Faith built on any other premise simply isn't the faith of Jesus. (07-13-00)