Judas and the Choice of Matthias: A Review

   Posted by: Rob Bowman   in Mormonism, New Testament

Zwiep, Arie W. Judas and the Choice of Matthias: A Study on Context and Concern of Acts 1:15-26. WUNT 2/187. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004.


There have been very few books or even articles published that focus completely on Acts 1:15-26, the passage that narrates the choice of Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot following his betrayal and death. This is a crucial passage, however, for those who claim that the New Testament apostles understood their office as one that was to be perpetuated continuously from one generation to another. As I have explained in previous posts here, there are serious problems with the claim that Matthias’s appointment as apostle establishes a precedent for such an understanding of the office.

I have just finished working through Arie W. Zwiep’s academic monograph, Judas and the Choice of Matthias: A Study on Context and Concern of Acts 1:15-26. Zwiep must really like the first chapter of Acts; his doctoral dissertation was on the first half of Acts 1 (The Ascension of the Messiah in Lukan Christology, NovTSup 87 [Leiden: Brill, 1997]), and Judas and the Choice of Matthias focuses on the second half of the chapter.

Zwiep does not take a particularly conservative approach to the New Testament writings in general or to Acts in particular. For example, he thinks that Luke invented the idea that Judas’s replacement had to know Jesus during his earthly ministry (Acts 1:21-22), since he thinks this requirement differs from the earlier view that an apostle simply had to have an encounter with the risen Jesus:

Whereas the primitive Christian requirements of apostleship demanded a personal encounter with the risen Lord as for instance in the case of Paul, the requirements mentioned here seem to involve much more than that. Luke’s definition is in agreement with his stress on eyewitnesses. Paul and Barnabas would not meet the strict Lukan criteria. This is almost certainly a Lukan innovation…. Not even all twelve disciples had been with Jesus ‘from the baptism of John’ (cf. Mk 1:14-20, where the apostles are called after John’s imprisonment); in the view of Paul an apostle was one who had ‘seen’ the risen Lord and had been commissioned by Him (1 Cor 9:1). (Zwiep, 155, 156)

Zwiep’s argument here presupposes that Luke views the requirement of having been part of the believing community from the time of John the Baptist’s ministry as normative for all apostles. Yet Zwiep himself recognizes that the appointment of Matthias was, for Luke, an unrepeatable event. Why, then, might Luke not be reporting that Peter narrowed the field of candidates from the pool of otherwise qualified individuals on this unusual and unrepeatable occasion?

In any case, on the crucial issue with regards to the notion of the apostolate as a perpetual office intended to continue to future generations, Zwiep agrees that Acts disagrees with this notion. Although his monograph is not focused on this question, along the way he makes note of various features of the text in the context of Luke’s two writings that confirm the conclusion that the apostolate was not a continuing church office. For instance, Zwiep emphasizes the point that Peter explained the reason for a new apostle was that Judas had apostatized and abandoned his office (vv. 16-17, 20, cf. v. 25), not that Judas had merely died. “The circle of the Twelve could not be broken by the death of its individual members (not even that of Judas!), it could only be broken by apostasy, as in the case of Judas” (Zwiep, 52). “Matthias was not chosen because Judas had died, but because he had become an apostate.’ (Zwiep, 179)

One evidence for the uniqueness of Matthias’s appointment that I had not noticed before is the fact that the prayer of the disciples in Acts 1:24-25 “is not a set prayer such as the Lord’s Prayer or prayers in a liturgical setting, but a unique prayer on a specific and unrepeatable occasion.” (Zwiep, 75) Of specific importance here is the fact that the prayer makes reference to Judas having “gone to his own place” (v. 25). Naturally, this would not be the sort of statement one would expect in a liturgical rite of ordination or apostolic succession!

The most interesting and important evidence that Zwiep draws out has to do with the eschatological function of the twelve apostles—that is, their function in relation to the consummation of the present age and the fulfillment of God’s promises concerning the glorious age to come. As Zwiep points out, Christ had promised that the twelve apostles would sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel:

“You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:28-30 NRSV).

In this text, “the twelve apostles are promised an active role in the world to come, comparable to a similar promise in the Testament of Judah, where the twelve patriarchs are promised to rule the twelve tribes of Israel after the resurrection of the dead.” (Zwiep, 49) The obvious implication is that this body of “the twelve” will in the age to come comprise just twelve men—and therefore that Christ had no intention of perpetuating the body of the twelve apostles beyond its first generation.

In the immediate context in the Book of Acts, the appointment of Matthias as the twelfth apostle prepares the way for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Zwiep argues, correctly I think, that in this context the appointment of Matthias was necessary so that Israel’s believing community could be fully represented by twelve men corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel:

Historically, that is, seen from the perspective of the apostles soon after the departure of Jesus, there are good reasons to think that the replacement of Judas had to do with the urgent eschatological expectancy of the early days of the Christian community. The promised outpouring of the Spirit upon the assembled believers—an event of eschatological significance—would be regarded as a fulfillment of divine promises of old as well as a fulfilment [sic] of the promises of the risen Lord. If the Spirit would be poured out upon the whole people, the people should be represented by a full representation, and this was in fact what Jesus had promised in the Saying on the Twelve Thrones (Lk 22:30 par.). (Zwiep, 172-73)

There is more, but suffice it to say that Zwiep’s thorough monograph on the Matthias passage—one of the very few such monographs ever published—confirms that Matthias’s appointment was not precedent for an ongoing institutional office of apostle intended to replenish a quorum of twelve apostles in successive generations. To the contrary, the twelve apostles were a unique group of men whom Christ had chosen to fulfill a unique, eschatological role in redemptive history.

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