Women played a variety of important roles in the early Jesus movement. Tabitha is called a “disciple” (μαθήτρια; mathétria; Acts 9:36); Phoebe is a “deacon” (διάκονον; diákonon) and a “patron” (προστάτις; prostátis; Rom 16:1-2); Euodia and Syntyche labor “side by side in the gospel” with Paul (Phil 4:2-3); and women both follow and fund Yeshua in his ministry (Acts 8:2-3). Yet, if women held such significant positions, why were Jesus’ twelve disciples men? The reason lies not in some inherent superiority of men over women, but rather in what the disciples’ gender and number exemplify: the twelve disciples represent the twelve sons of Jacob from whom the tribes of Israel emerge. In order to recall the male monikers of Israel’s tribes, Yeshua needed to choose twelve men; in doing so, Jesus does not make an exclusionary claim about gender restrictions, but rather a symbolic and inclusive declaration that his teaching and salvation is for all Israel.
Genesis explicates that “the sons of Jacob were twelve (שׁנים עשׂר; shneim asar)” (35:25). When some of these sons reunite with their brother Joseph in Egypt, they say to him, “We, your servants, are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in Canaan” (Gen 42:13; cf. 42:32). Ultimately, these sons become the patriarchs of Israel’s twelve tribes; their legacies are memorialized in the breastplate of Israel’s priests, on which there were “twelve stones with their names according to the names of the sons of Israel (בני ישׂראל; benei Yisrael)… each engraved with its name for the twelve tribes (שׁני עשׂר שׁבט; shnei asar shavet)” (Exodus 28:21). The priest’s garment referred to Jacob’s sons and their respective tribes as a reminder that priestly service united all of Israel in worship. Likewise, Yeshua calls twelve apostolic “sons” to underscore his role as a priestly Messiah who would “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
Jesus clarifies that his choice of twelve disciples coincides with the twelve tribes of Israel. He tells these twelve men, “Amen, I say to you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28; cf. Luke 22:30). Revelation envisions this “renewal of all things” at the arrival of the New Jerusalem on whose “gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel” (21:12) and whose walls bear “the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (21:14). The New Testament highlights the link between Jacob’s sons and Jesus’ twelve male students. The reason for these disciples being men has nothing to do with any intrinsic value of men over women; instead, Jesus chooses the twelve in order to represent the twelve sons of Jacob, and to proclaim his messianic mission to reunify the twelve tribes of Israel.