Skip to main content

Twelve, The


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 1.2026). 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; 21.1015). 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 192033) 5:3759. a. legner, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 195765) 1:739. v. taylor, ed., The Gospel According to St. Mark (London 1952) 619627. j. dupont, Le Nom d'apôtres a-t-il été donné aux douze par Jesus? (Bruges 1956); also appeared in Orient Syrien 1 (1956) 266290, 425444.

[m. l. held]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Twelve, The." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . 18 Feb. 2019 <>.

"Twelve, The." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . (February 18, 2019).

"Twelve, The." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved February 18, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.