An expression used 39 times in the New Testament to designate the apostles. Its frequent recurrence gives emphasis to the fact that the Twelve formed a distinct group, bound to one another and to Christ by a unity that was clearly discernible. The urgency manifested in the election of Matthias to fill the place left vacant by the defection and suicide of Judas stresses the importance of keeping the number intact (Acts 1.20–26). With the election of Matthias the college of Apostles was closed; it is significant that no further additions occurred.
Aside from the fact that the number 12 served the purpose of Christ, it also contains an intentional symbolism. The Apostles are the 12 patriarchs of the New Israel (Mt 19.28; 21.10–15). In the Old Testament the 12 sons of Israel were the leaders of the 12 tribes of God's chosen people. Now that Israel as a nation was on the verge of rejecting the Messiah, God formed unto Himself a new people under the 12 spiritual heads of the New Testament. Their choice constituted a twofold memorial: one to the old covenant that was past, the other to the new covenant that was being inaugurated.
The earliest extant representations of the Twelve date back to the fourth century. They are rich in historical and doctrinal interest. In the universal unspoken language of symbolism, they give artistic expression to the reality of Christ's choice of the Twelve and to Christian belief in the existence of the apostolic college. The first purely symbolic representations of the Twelve depict them as 12 sheep grouped around Christ, the Good Shepherd, who either bears a lamb in His arms, or holds a cross; He stands on an eminence, a nimbus above His head, while the Twelve, represented by as many lambs, are grouped six to the right and six to the left of Him. Jesus, the Lamb of God, is usually represented as larger than the other sheep, an indication of Christ's transcendence and headship. Later, and less frequently, the Twelve are symbolized by doves.
Toward the end of the fourth century the Twelve are shown as men grouped in a semicircle around the Master, who is seated on a lecture chair holding a scroll (Apse of Lateran Basilica). At the time of Constantine, emphasis was placed on Christ as Lord; Christ is shown receiving the homage of the Twelve, or giving them their commission, against a backdrop of apocalyptic events. In the Middle Ages, when the Last Judgment was a favorite theme, the Twelve were represented as seated on 12 thrones and assisting Christ in the judgment of the nations (cf. Mt 19.28). In the consequent rapid evolution of the arts, the Twelve became one of the most popular themes used for pediments, choir-screens, triumphal arches, roods, reliquaries, and baptistries. (see apostles, iconography of.)
Bibliography: f. j. foakes jackson and k. lake, eds., The Beginnings of Christianity: pt. 1, Acts of the Apostoles (London 1920–33) 5:37–59. a. legner, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 1957–65) 1:739. v. taylor, ed., The Gospel According to St. Mark (London 1952) 619–627. j. dupont, Le Nom d'apôtres a-t-il été donné aux douze par Jesus? (Bruges 1956); also appeared in Orient Syrien 1 (1956) 266–290, 425–444.
[m. l. held]
"Twelve, The." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 14, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/twelve
"Twelve, The." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/twelve