Christian piety and art have often concentrated on the physical pain of Jesus’s torture, trial, and death. Bernard of Clairvaux (or Arnulf of Leuven) wrote a poetic meditation on wounded parts of Jesus’s body, and Dietrich Buxtehude set it to music. Bridget of Sweden composed a cycle of daily prayers to memorialize each of Jesus’s 5480 wounds, and stigmatics like Francis of Assisi are said to have identified so fully with Jesus’s suffering that his wounds were reproduced on their bodies. Grunewald painted a contorted Christ on a rough-hewn cross, and many modern crucifixes portray his excruciating agony. These meditations can turn morbid, but at its best this piety sees the wounds of Jesus, in Pope Francis’s words, as gateways we enter to “contemplate the love in his heart for you, and you, and you, and me, for everyone.”
Edifying as these meditations may be, they don’t represent the focus of the canonical Gospels, which emphasize Christ’s “relational” anguish more than his physical suffering. He comes to his own people, but they prefer Caesar to their heavenly king. For three years, Jesus and his disciples travel together, preach together, heal and exorcise demons together. They share meals, and in private Jesus teaches them the secrets of the kingdom. But at the climax of the mission, the disciples scatter. Judas betrays him, Peter denies him, and the other ten disciples scamper away at the first sign of danger. Because they defy his exhortations to “take up your cross and follow,” Jesus goes to the cross alone.
Eventually, the eleven reunite, and their dispersal and regathering is a key to the Gospels’ “atonement theology.” Jesus dies for his friends, that is, the Twelve. The Romans don’t kill every member of this Jewish insurgency, but only the head. Jesus doesn’t stay dead, so the disciples return to continue the mission. The crucifixion and resurrection is also the shattering and rebuilding of the apostolate, and the latter is as critical as the former. The totus Christus, the whole Christ, passes through death to life. Although the salvation of the world depends on the resurrection of Jesus, the “Way” would be stillborn unless the apostles also rise again. Without their resurrection, there is no church and no Christianity.
In order to see this whole sequence, you have to read all four Gospels. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) end with the apostles’ future very much in doubt. The Twelve are almost completely absent from the closing chapters of Matthew. After Judas returns his blood money to the temple, no individual disciple is named (Matt. 27:1–10). Another Simon, not Peter, bears the cross for Jesus (Matt. 27:32). Why isn’t Simon Peter, the Rock, carrying the cross? In Matthew, the Twelve return only at the very end, as a reduced collective, “the eleven” (Matt. 28:16). If you take Mark’s shorter ending, Peter is named but doesn’t appear (Mark 16:7). In the longer ending, “the eleven” show up, unnamed (Mark 16:14). If the disputed Luke 24:12 is genuine, Luke briefly records Peter’s actions after the resurrection. In the main, though, Luke sticks with Matthew and Mark in portraying the disciples as “the eleven” (Luke 24:33).
No apostle speaks in the closing chapters of the Synoptics either. In Matthew, Judas speaks the last word from the Twelve: “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” (Matt. 27:4). In Luke, the last word is Peter’s denial: “I do not know what you are talking about” (Luke 22:60). The two disciples on the road to Emmaus are talkative, but the eleven remain silent (Luke 24:13–36). Luke, of course, has more to tell, as his story continues into Acts. Early in Acts, the eleven reassemble and are named (Acts 1:13) and given speaking parts again, beginning with Peter (Acts 1:15–22). As far as Luke’s Gospel is concerned, the Twelve are as silent as in Matthew and Mark.
Some of Jesus’s disciples are present and named at the cross and the tomb. Most of them are women, invisible disciples who followed Jesus from Galilee and come out of the shadows after his death (Matt. 27:55). Women see the angel, receive the first reports of the resurrection, and become messengers to the apostolic messengers. Two are named “Mary,” Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (Matt 27:61). Along with Joseph of Arimathea (Matt. 27:57), they care for Jesus’s dead body. At the cross, the names “Mary” and “Joseph” occur together, just as at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. Unlike the Twelve, these “Marys” and this “Joseph” prepare for Jesus’s rebirth from the virgin grave.
John alone records how the Twelve are re-individualized, reactivated, and reconciled. John is the only Evangelist to inform us that one of the Twelve, the “Beloved Disciple,” is at the cross (19:25–27). John alone writes of Peter’s race with the Beloved Disciple to the empty tomb (20:1–10) and Thomas’s doubts (20:19–29). He alone records the inexpressibly lovely scene when Jesus restores Peter as table companion and shepherd at a seaside breakfast around a charcoal fire (21:1–17).
Jesus is made of no reputation; he is silent as a lamb before his accusers. Through Jesus’s trial, crucifixion, and resurrection, the Twelve are also nameless and speechless, and through three Gospels they remain anonymous and silent right to the end. But they don’t remain so. The fourfold Gospel announces the good news that betrayers become shepherds, the nameless receive names, the silent are given speech. The fourfold Gospel proclaims not only the resurrection of Jesus, but also the resurrection of the apostles, foundation stones on which Jesus builds his church.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.