Monday, May 18, 2015

An Exercise in Moderation

Last Supper, Cologne Cathedral
A diversion: I happened the other day across a Tumblr discussion that batted around the issue of the age of the disciples.

This is a question I had never considered. I have a “default” picture in my mind, of course, as most semi-creative people tend to, probably comprised largely of impressions from classical art. Only three of Duccio’s apostles in The Farewell Discourse are clean shaven; the rest range from middle-aged to positively ancient. The disciples in Da Vinci’s ubiquitous Last Supper fare even worse: only two are without significant quantities of facial hair (and some argue that one of these, for reasons unclear, may have been intended to represent Mary Magdalene).

Short version: these guys look pretty weathered.

Then there are the movies. The actors chosen to portray disciples in recent movies have been uniformly middle-aged: in the excellent Gospel of John (2003), Daniel Kash played Peter as a 44-year old and Tristan Gemmill’s Andrew was 36. Even John — often thought to be among the more junior disciples — was played by 32-year old Stuart Bunce. (Of course Hollywood has a tradition of depicting high schoolers with twenty-something actors so we are wise not to depend too much for our mental imagery on the whimsy of professional casting directors.)

I don’t think I’m alone in not devoting a lot of synaptic energy to the question, but others clearly have: K. Bonikowsky lists biblical pros and cons for a posse of teenage disciples but wisely declines to attach much significance to the issue, while David Paul Kirkpatrick, with a moviemaker’s professional detachment, argues for disciples (except Peter) ranging from 15 to 18.

To some people, the age of the disciples matters a good deal more. The Tumblr discussion was triggered by this comment:
“No you don’t understand how frustrated I am that we always depicted the Apostles as old men, especially when it comes to during-Jesus-alive stuff.

They were probably late teens to early 20s, given the time and the description and some Biblical passages.

They were not ancient old men with long beards and wrinkles at the Last Supper.

They were young adult rebels with a cause.”
Well sure, if that’s how you insist on seeing them, but it seems to me a bit speculative. This quickly led to a second and third comment referencing a couple of relevant scriptures, resulting in this speedy conclusion:
“So! The ‘Disciples were ancient old men with long beards and wrinkles’ factoid is actually just statistical error. The average disciple was under 20. Simon Peter, who lived with his mother-in-law and his fishing boat and paid the temple tax was an outlier and should not have been counted.”
At which point a more moderate voice chimes in:
“Seriously, though, I don’t know that we can be sure from the temple tax incident that none of the other disciples were old enough to pay, because the question of whether Jesus was in the habit of paying the tax was asked specifically to Simon Peter, who appears to have been on his own at the time the tax collectors approached him. It’s entirely possible that there were other disciples over the age of 20 who would have been expected to pay the tax, but they had either paid it already, or they simply weren’t around when the tax collectors approached Peter to ask about it.”
Quite so. It is unwise to make much of inferences from information that is NOT given, as this commenter points out.

The fact that Peter is the only disciple who is mentioned as having a mother-in-law tells us nothing about the other eleven. Their mother-in-laws, if they had them, were not in need of miraculous healing, so they are simply irrelevant. They do not come into the story, and nothing may be legitimately deduced from that. Likewise, the fact that only Simon Peter was asked about the temple tax tells us nothing about the other disciples, especially Matthew, whose job as a tax collector makes him a less-likely teen. Even the fact that James and John were working with their father when Jesus called them is far from conclusive, though it may be suggestive.

When information is not given to us in scripture, we can reasonably conclude we do not need it.

Any theory we bring to scripture will generally explain some things we wonder about (in this case some of the goofy questions the disciples sometimes ask, or their characteristic impetuousness) and may give us a greater sense of connection to the narrative. If the disciples were teens, teens may find them more relatable. Equally, if they were thirty-somethings or even forty-somethings, we could argue that parents may find them more relatable.

Mind you, this is only true if one only connects with (or relates best to) characters or people whom one perceives as peers or precise equivalents, something I suspect is a bit of a myth. The characters to which I related most strongly as a teenager were not teens (Doc Savage, any character written by Alistair MacLean) or at very least were not boys (Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), and in many cases were not even human (Reepicheep the mouse, Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle, Bilbo Baggins, etc.). I suspect we become attached to any character whose worldview, actions and character we can respect, regardless of their age, sex, race or species.

In the end, does it matter a whole lot whether we like the disciples, can connect with them or find them relatable? I’m not sure it does, provided we learn the lessons from scripture that they are there to teach us.

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