I do not mean to single out Eamonn Clark of the Christian Renaissance Movement for his presentation of what I believe is an unfair and exaggerated criticism of eleven of the Twelve Apostles. It is all too common to see simplistic, rhetorical criticism of those men chosen by God Himself to be the foundation of His Church. I do not understand why, to some extent, certain writers of short columns do this. And I am speaking here of more traditional Catholic websites. Perhaps the intent is to encourage us sinners to have confidence in our own unworthy election by grace. Whatever the reason, I believe that it is unjust to paint a skewed picture of the inadequacies of the good Apostles as this sweeping portrait by Mr. Clark: “Our Lord chose losers, dummies, and wicked sinners as the foundation of His Church. Of the original Twelve, ten were ambitious cowards. One of those ten was also arrogant (Peter).”
“Losers”? “Dummies”? “Wicked sinners”? “Ambitious cowards”? That’s more than a little over the edge. As with all men, the Apostles suffered from the effects of original sin: disorder in the passions, darkness in the intellect, and weakness in the will. Were they especially conspicuous as sinners compared to the rest of us? Certainly not. Judging from Mr. Clark’s résumé one would think that Our Lord went to Galilee’s “special school for spiritually impaired flunkies” to select the twelve worst sinners He could find for the mission. No, they were not saints. Ordinary sinners? No doubt. And thank God for that. In this respect they could serve as examples to encourage the rest of us. Therefore Saint Paul (who, no “dummy,” was very well educated as a Pharisee under the learned doctor Gamaliel) could affirm in truth:
“But the foolish things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the wise; and the weak things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the strong. And the base things of the world, and the things that are contemptible, hath God chosen, and things that are not, that he might bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his sight” (1 Cor. 1:27).
I will be brief.
First of all, Saint Peter may well have been somewhat “arrogant,” as he was at the Last Supper when he protested that if all the “others” shortly would be scandalized in Jesus, he would not be scandalized (Matthew 26:33). But he was not an “ambitious coward.” I find no indication of ambition in Peter in the Gospels. Rather, I believe he was, if anything, perplexed as to why Our Lord changed his name in the first place from Simon to Peter “the Rock”. And, as far as being a coward, that is an accusation that needs to be distinguished. To put it simply: in the Garden of Olives, Peter was certainly ready and willing to die for Christ. He did strike at the enemy with his sword to protect his Master, did he not? When he realized, after the Lord’s command to put the weapon back into the scabbard, that he was not going to die in battle glory, then it was that he fled with the others. Still, he followed his Master from a distance, with Saint John. In the courtyard of the high priest, that is when Peter failed thrice; twice, in fact, before maidservants. And why? Because he trusted in his own strength rather than the grace of God, and, furthermore, he had not yet received the supernatural gift of fortitude to enable him to follow Christ in an ignominious and shameful death. He was too proud for that. Finally, after the Resurrection, when Jesus asked him: “Simon, son of John, lovest thou Me more than these?” he did not dare to reply “Yes, I love you more than these others,” but simply, “Yes, Lord I love thee.”
Then, there is Peter’s brother Andrew. He had the distinction of being the first of the Apostles called by Christ. Yet, he was content to stay in the background. He was a disciple of John the Baptist as was Peter also, as we see in the Gospels. Peter and Andrew were fishermen from Bethsaida in Galilee. In fact, so Hellenized was Andrew that we only know him by his Greek name If they were “losers, dummies, and wicked sinners,” then why would they be drawn to a prophet such as John?
We proceed with the brothers James the Greater and John the Beloved, whom Our Lord called “Sons of Thunder.” We know from his own Gospel’s account of the Passion that John was known to the high priest. That would be odd indeed if he were a “loser” or a “dummy.” The two brothers were also known to Our Lord before their calling. How is that? Because, their mother Salome’s mother was Mary of Cleophas and this Mary’s sons, three of whom we know are also Apostles, are called the “brethren” of the Lord (as cousins-german were then called) in the Gospels. That would make these sons of Cleophas and Mary the uncles of Saints James the Greater and John. All of these were Galileans. Several fathers offer the opinion that Cleophas was the brother of Saint Joseph. That would make his children cousins of the Savior, not by blood, but through their most strong and chaste uncle, Saint Joseph, the Virginal Spouse of the Mother of God.
Are you following me?
And who were these sons of Mary and Cleophas? Tradition has it that three of them, all Apostles, Simon, James, and Jude Thaddeus, were all brothers. Simon is called “the Cananean;” that would indicate that he may have been friends with Nathanael who was also from this town wherein Our Lord worked His first miracle (John 21:2). More on Nathanael in a moment.
Before I mention the other Apostles that hailed from Galilee, let it be understood that the Jews in Galilee were not illiterate, nevermind “dummies.” They knew Hebrew and Greek, along with their native Aramaic. In Our Lord’s time Galilee was called, “Galilee of the Gentiles.” There were ten cities, called the Decapolis, in Galilee where Jews and Greeks intermingled doing business. Jews went to their local synagogue to hear or read the Old Testament in Hebrew. They were not illiterate. How could they do business with the Greeks or read the Hebrew scriptures if they were illiterate? They were educated, at least in their religion, from their youth.
Some may object to what I’ve alleged because Saints Peter and John are called “illiterate” in Acts 4:13: “Now seeing the constancy of Peter and of John, understanding that they were illiterate and ignorant men, they wondered; and they knew them that they had been with Jesus.” Bear in mind that Saint Luke, author of the Acts, is relating the state of mind of the temple priests.
The words “illiterate” and “ignorant” (idiotai in the inspired Greek) must be taken in the etymological sense of the original Greek. “Illiterate” (agrammatoi ) simply means “unversed in grammar,” not necessarily unable to read and write. They were not trained in the schools, if there even were such schools in Galilee. But they could read and write. There are reputed scholars affirming both sides of this question, some maintaining that Galilean Jewish boys in Our Lord’s day were taught to read and write, if not at the synagogue, then at home, others holding that only a small percent of them could do so. (How they come up with this assumption I do not know. As the Latin adage goes “Quod gratis affirmatur gratis negatur” (what is affirmed without proof is freely denied). There is abundant evidence, even archaeological evidence, that favors the former opinion, such as a 2000 year-old sign discovered near Nazareth and written in Greek that warned the villagers to beware of robbers on the highways. Written signs presume the ability to read them, no? Nazareth was a completely Jewish village, not one of the ten cities of the Gentile Decopolis, nevertheless this posting was written in Greek which, I contend, Galileans were able to both read and speak. Too, was the inscription placed by Pilate above Our Lord on the Cross meant only for the well- schooled to read? Not only was the sign written in Hebrew, but in Greek and Latin. For what purpose if only a few could read it?
Our Lord Himself caused astonishment among the Jews, who frequented the temple of Jerusalem, for His wisdom and knowledge of the scriptures: “And the Jews wondered, saying: How doth this man know letters, having never learned?” (John 7:15) What amazed them was not that Jesus knew the scriptures, but that He knew them so well. “Letters” meaning in this verse, “knowledge of the scriptures.” For, when He taught in the temple, Jesus did not need to read from scrolls (which we know that He did do in the synagogue at Capharnaum from John chapter six), He drew from His human memory. Yes, to be Christologically correct, even in His human intellect Jesus knew all things. That study, however, goes beyond the scope of this essay.
I do not wish to belabor the point, but there is also archaeological evidence that the Essene Jews of the first century, living in and around Qumran and west of the Dead Sea, were educated in reading and writing Hebrew (ergo, also Aramaic of course), and not only the men but women as well.
And, the Greek word idiotoi, which is rendered “ignorant” in English, can only be taken in the sense of “unschooled.” The priests who were interrogating Saints Peter and John only knew that these two men, who had just cured a lame man in the Name of Jesus at the temple gate, were previously timid and fearful, for Annas and Caiphas remembered them both as being quiet disciples with Christ. Now the two disciples were “constant,” strong, fearless and confident, and one of them, Peter, was fluent in the scriptures which he recited so effortlessly before them in testimony of Christ (Acts 4:13). What the priests did not know was that the Apostles were supernaturally changed men, supernaturally charged men, and their words were inspired now by the Holy Ghost, as Jesus had prophesied would happen after Pentecost.
There are a few more of the eleven Apostles to vindicate.
We come to Philip and Bartholomew whose Greek names are linked together in the lists of the Apostles — and that for a reason. Bartholomew, “son of Ptolemy,” was this Apostle’s Greek name. His Hebrew name was Nathanael. He was a friend of Philip who, as with Andrew, we only know by his Greek name. Their story and calling is found in the first chapter of the Gospel of Saint John, from whom we also are informed that Nathanael was from Cana in Galilee. Philip, who was from Bethsaida, the town of Peter and Andrew, was with John the Baptist when the prophet testified that Jesus, who had come to be baptized, was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Of Nathanael, Jesus said: “Behold an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” Have we seen any “losers, dummies, and wicked sinners” yet?
Now, Matthew was a tax collector. His Jewish name was Levi. Not a good profession for a pious Jew, to be sure. That is why, out of humility, he refers to himself in the Gospel list of the Twelve as “the publican.” He was also Galilean, from Capharnaum. It would appear that, owing to his immediate abandonment of his profession at the calling of Christ, Matthew was acquainted with the teaching and miracles of Jesus. In fact, just moments prior to His calling of the tax collector, Jesus had healed a paralytic in the same town. So enthralled was Matthew with Jesus that he called together all his friends, including other “publicans and sinners,” for a banquet to honor Christ. He, Matthew, wished to win them to Jesus as well. A “wicked sinner”? It would hardly seem so at the time he was called. Else why would he immediately vacate his seat at the custom house and follow Our Lord? It would seem that Matthew was stirred by actual grace before he was called to be an Apostle and conquered by saving grace during and afterwards.
Thomas? “Loser, dummy, wicked sinner”? Nothing in the Gospels would so indicate. Doubter? Yes, and stubbornly so. He was also overconfident, like Peter. When Jesus had set His face to go to Jerusalem where the chief priests sought to kill Him Thomas was determined to follow suit, even encouraging the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). Nevertheless, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he fled with the other Apostles.
And Judas, the only Apostle not from Galilee? “Loser, dummy, wicked sinner, ambitious coward”? Minus the “dummy,” guilty of all. Too, he was, as we read in the New Testament, a “thief” and a “son of perdition.” And what was his greatest sin that moved him to suicide? It was this: Judas hated himself more than he loved God.
In summary: the Apostles were not learned in the sense that they were trained in any school, as was Saint Paul. But they were certainly educated to some extent; certainly they were literate; and certainly they were not “dummies.” I can still hear Brother Francis’ indignation when he came across any article, no matter whether the intent was malicious or innocently depreciating, that made the eleven Apostles to be less than the honorable men they were.