The first 12 apostles.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 June

Despite the kingdom’s unlimited resources, let’s not be stupid with them.

Mark 3.13-19 • Matthew 10.1-4 • Luke 6.12-16, 9.1-2

The word apostle means “one who’s been sent out.” We Christians use it to refer to anyone whom Jesus has sent out. If your pastor sends you somewhere, you’re just a representative; maybe a missionary. But if Jesus sends you, you’re an apostle.

I know; some churches insist the only apostles are the 12 guys Jesus designated when he was walking the earth—with a special exception made for Paul, ’cause Jesus appeared to him special. I’d point out Jesus still appears to people special, and can therefore send any one of us to do anything he chooses. So yeah, he still makes apostles. But the first 12 guys are special, ’cause they’re the guys Jesus used to start his church.

As for why he picked ’em, we have to read the bit which comes before the list of apostles. It makes it kinda obvious.

Mark 3.7-12 KWL
7 Jesus went back over the lake, with his students and many groups:
People from the Galilee, Judea, 8 Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond-Jordan, Tyre, and Sidon.
Hearing about whatever Jesus was doing, many groups came to him.
9 Jesus spoke to his students so they’d have a boat nearby, because of the crowds.
Thus they wouldn’t crush him. 10 Jesus had cured many.
So the many plague-sufferers could touch him, they resorted to jumping him.
11 Whenever unclean spirits saw Jesus, they fell down before him,
shouting out, “You’re the son of God!”— 12 and Jesus silenced them, lest they expose him.

This was the massive job Jesus’s ministry was fast becoming. I already wrote about the intensity of the crowds coming to Jesus—it’s no wonder he decided it was time to pick apprentices. So Jesus selected 12 of his best students, took ’em someplace private, and designated them apostles.

Mark 3.13-15 KWL
13 Jesus went up the hill, summoned those he wanted, and they came to him.
14 Jesus made 12 whom he named apostles, who’d be with him
and he could send them to preach 15 and have authority to throw out demons.
Matthew 10.1 KWL
1 Summoning 12 of his students, Jesus gave them authority over unclean spirits,
so as to throw them out and cure every disease, every illness.
Luke 6.12-13 KWL
12 It happened in those days Jesus himself came out to the hill to pray,
and he was spending the night in prayer with God.
13 When day came, Jesus called his students and chose 12 of them, whom he named apostles.
Luke 9.1-2 KWL
1 Calling together the 12 apostles, Jesus gave them power to cure; authority over all demons and disease.
2 Jesus sent them to preach God’s kingdom and to heal the unwell.

Lots of folks assume these 12 were Jesus’s only students. Obviously this isn’t true; after Jesus ascended there were about 120 students praying for the Holy Spirit, and two of ’em were nominated to fill Judas Iscariot’s slot. Ac 1.15-26 The apostles were simply the standouts among Jesus’s students. They were still students, but what made the apostles significant was what Jesus designated and sent ’em to do.

Namely the very same things Jesus did. The same things the crowds were swarming Jesus to get: Cure diseases, drive out their demons, and tell ’em about God’s kingdom. Whenever someone barged into Jesus’s lessons because they had a sick relative, the idea was an apostle could handle it. Where previously Jesus went from town to town with the gospel, he could now send six teams to do the very same thing. (And later, 35 teams.)

It’s all part of Jesus’s ultimate goal: To multiply himself in every Christian. ’Cause we Christians are to do all the stuff he did, and then some.

The twelve—and their fates.

Lists of the 12 apostles come up four times in the New Testament. The list from Luke shows up again in Acts, ’cause the same guy wrote both. Here I’m just comparing the lists in the synoptic gospels.

Mark 3.16-19 KWL
16 Jesus made the 12 apostles and placed the name “Peter” on Simon.
17 Jesus placed on James bar Zavdi and James’s brother John
the name “benei-reghaz” which is Aramaic for “sons of thunder.”
18 Andrew. Philip. Bartholemew. Matthew. Thomas. James bar Alpheus. Thaddeus. Simon the Canaanite.
19 And Judas the Kerioti—who also turned Jesus in.
Matthew 10.2-4 KWL
2 These are the names of the 12 apostles:
First Simon called Peter and Andrew his brother. James bar Zavdi, and John his brother.
3 Philip and Bartholemew. Thomas and Matthew the taxman. James bar Alpheus and Thaddeus.
4 Simon the Canaanite and Judas the Kerioti—who also turned Jesus in.
Luke 6.14-16 KWL
14 Simon who was also named Peter, and Andrew his brother. James. John.
Philip. Bartholemew. 15 Matthew. Thomas. James bar Alpheus. Simon who was called a zealot.
16 Judas bar James. And Judas the Kerioti, who became a traitor.

Of the 12, you’ll notice he gave nicknames to three of them, and they tend to be listed first. That’d be Simon of Bethsaida, whom Jesus nicknamed Kifás (KJV “Cephas,” a transliteration of the Aramaic kefa/“rock”). That’d also be James and John bar Zavdi (KJV “Zebedee”) whom Mark says Jesus nicknamed voanirghés—a transliteration of the Aramaic benei-reghaz/“sons of rage.” Guys must’ve had a temper.

You’ll notice these three got singled out for various things, and people speculate it’s because they were more than students; they were friends. They come first in these lists because of it. Because Matthew bunched the apostles together by pairs (likely the pairs Jesus sent ’em out in), Simon’s brother Andrew got included only the once. But otherwise Jesus’s three closest guys came first.

If you’ve read Acts, you know it only covers the first three decades of the church, and stops right after Paul arrived in Rome round the year 60. And since it was largely Paul-focused by that point, it tells us nothing about what happened to these apostles. For that, we’ve gotta turn to Christian tradition, which isn’t the most reliable history, but it’ll work.

Going in order of Mark’s list.

Peter (Simon bar John). Simon of Bethsaida’s father was either John Jn 1.42 or Jonah Mt 16.17 (one of the authors clearly got that wrong). His brother Andrew was one of the students of John who initially followed Jesus, and introduced him, whereupon Jesus nicknamed him Peter. Jn 1.35-51

Peter was listed first in every apostolic list. Possibly because he was oldest; he had a wife, Mk 1.30, 1Co 9.5 a house, a boat, and a fishing trade, yet he was still young enough where it wasn’t culturally unacceptable for him to set that aside to follow Jesus. Mk 10.28 So, late teens or early 20s when he first followed Jesus. In any event we see him in a leadership role throughout Acts, and Roman Catholics believe he and his successors were meant to perpetually lead the church—under Jesus, of course.

Peter stepped up after Jesus was raptured in the year 33, Ac 1.15 and stepped up again once the Spirit empowered him, Ac 2.14 taking a leadership role in the Jerusalem church until Agrippa Herod’s persecution in the year 42. While held for trial, an angel turned him loose, Ac 12.1-19 and he hid out in Caesarea till Herod’s death in 44. Tradition has it after the Council of Jerusalem in 48, Ac 15 Peter made his way to Rome, and led the church there till his death.

In the year 54, Nero Claudius Caesar was elected emperor. Ten years later, Rome suffered a massive five-day fire, which destroyed three of its 14 districts and damaged seven more. Though Nero was a significant contributor to the relief efforts, a lot of citizens blamed him for not doing enough to stop the fire—or even accused him of hiring arsonists to start it. Nero’s solution was to blame Christians—a small sect which made as good a scapegoat as any. He tortured a few Christians into confessing to the fire, then proceeded to persecute and kill the rest, in typically nasty Roman ways. Some were crucified; some were covered in animal skins and ripped up by dogs; some were burned to death.

Christians took to referring to Rome as “Babylon” 1Pe 5.13, Rv 18.21 and likely got serious about writing the rest of the New Testament, so there’d be some record of Christianity to outlast Nero’s martyrs. Among the martyrs were Paul, who was beheaded; and Peter, who was crucified. Supposedly Peter felt unworthy of dying the same way as Jesus, and asked to be crucified upside-down, which took much longer to kill you, but still. (Hence the pope’s upside-down cross, ’cause popes are considered Peter’s successors.) So, Peter died sometime between the fire in 64, and Nero’s death in 68. The original St. Peter’s Basilica was erected over his tomb; the current St. Peter’s replaced it.

Peter wrote two letters of the New Testament, and some Christians speculate Mark was his son—or at least that Mark’s source of his Jesus stories was Peter.

James bar Zavdi. The Hebrew/Aramaic Yahaqóv got turned into Yákovos in Greek, Iacomus in Latin, James in Old French, and here we are. James was the son of Zavdi and Salomé; she’s the sister of Jesus’s mom Mary, which made him Jesus’s first cousin.

Though James requested a first-place rank in Jesus’s kingdom, Mk 10.37 he wound up instead as the second of the 12 apostles to die, killed in Agrippa Herod’s persecution in the year 42. Killed “with the sword,” Ac 12.2 KJV meaning a beheading. (This, plus his brother John’s exile, implies the two of them might’ve held Roman citizenship.)

John bar Zavdi. James’s brother John is best known for his gospel, three letters, and (probably) recording Jesus’s Revelation. In his gospel he identifies himself as “the student Jesus loved,” Jn 21.20-24 because he wished there to only be one John in the whole gospel—and that’d be John the baptist.

In Acts we see John often working with Peter. Jesus entrusted John with taking care of his mother, Jn 19.26-27 likely because his own siblings weren’t there at the time, and weren’t yet believers. When John went to lead the church of Ephesus, he took Mary with him, and she died there.

During the Neronian persecution in the 60s, John was sentenced to be worked to death at the Patmos island prison colony. From there, he wrote Revelation. Some scholars figure he was sentenced 30 years later, during Domitian’s persecution in the 90s, but since Revelation never alludes to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 (and its references to the Beast may allude to Nero), it must’ve been written in the 60s. Anyway, since this wasn’t an execution, Christians tend to say John was the only one of the apostles not martyred. But suffering for Jesus is just as much martyrdom as dying.

Andrew bar John. After Acts’ list of apostles, Andrew doesn’t come up. He went to Thrace, Achaia (today, southern Greece), and Skythia (Romania, Ukraine, and southern Russia). He was killed in Patras, Achaia, crucified on an X-shaped cross because, like Peter, he didn’t wanna die the same way Jesus had. X-shaped crosses are now known as the St. Andrew’s cross.

Philip of Bethsaida. Frequently Christians mix up the apostle Philip with the deacon Philip, who was a lot more active in Acts. Ac 6.5, 8.5, 8.26, 21.8 That’s largely because of the Christian historian Eusebius Pamphili, who didn’t realize the difference.

This Philip went to Greece, Frygia (western Turkey), and Syria, along with his sister Mariamne and the apostle Bartholemew. After leading the wife of Hierapolis’s proconsul to Jesus, the proconsul had the three of them tortured; then the men crucified upside-down. Bartholemew was eventually freed, but Philip died on the cross.

Bartholemew. An early tradition claims Bartholemew was called by his father’s name (bar means “son of,” and the tolemew part is either the Aramaic name Thalmai or the Greek name Ptolemy) because his first name was John, and there was already a John among the apostles.

Some ninth-century Christian, figuring Philip had introduced Nathanael of Cana to Jesus, Jn 1.43-51 decided Nathanael was Bartholemew—“Nathanael bar Thalmai” or something. Hence various Christians will call him “Nathanael-Bartholemew,” even though there’s no evidence for any such connection. Philip knew lots of people.

After Philip’s death, Bartholemew went to the Armenian Empire (Armenia, eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northern Iran, India). After leading the king of Armenia to Jesus, the king’s brother ordered Bartholemew flayed alive, then crucified upside-down, in Albanopolis.

Matthew bar Alpheus. The story of Levi the taxman we usually know, and since since Matthew calls him “Matthew,” we figure they’re the same guy. Probably are. But if that’s the case, Levi’s identified as “Levi bar Alpheus” Mk 2.14 —and there’s some question as to whether this is the same Alpheus as Jesus’s uncle. Someting to ponder.

Matthew went to Ethiopia, Macedonia, Syria, Persia, and Parthia. It’s said he died a natural death in either Ethiopia or Macedonia. So here we have an apostle who wasn’t killed for Jesus. Still lived for him though.

Whether Matthew wrote the gospel with his name attached to it, we’ve no idea. Whether it was originally written in Aramaic then translated to Greek, we’ve also no idea, though it’s a popular theory. (As a taxman, Matthew would’ve known Greek, so there’s no point in assuming he couldn’t write it in Greek.) Lots of early Christians claimed Matthew wrote this or that book, which is why there are many iffy gospels with Matthew’s name attached.

Thomas. Syrian Christians think Thomas’s actual name was Judas; that Thomas was a nickname to keep all the guys named Judah/Judas/Jude straight. It’s a transliteration of the Aramaic tomá/“twin” (Hebrew taóm). His Greek name Dídymos Jn 20.24 means the same thing. One Egyptian tradition claims Thomas looked an awful lot like Jesus.

Christians still give Thomas crap for not believing Jesus was raised Jn 20.24-29 —for no good reason, ’cause that’s a pretty reasonable doubt. One which Jesus dealt with, I remind you.

Thomas went to Parthia (Iraq, Iran) and southern India. He was killed with spears near Madras.

James bar Alpheus. James “the less” Mk 15.40 was the son of Alpheus and Mary; Alpheus was the brother of Jesus’s adoptive father Joseph, which makes this James Jesus’s first cousin. (Didn’t realize Jesus had so many family members among his followers, didja?)

Because various Christians wanna claim Jesus’s brothers were actually his cousins, Jesus’s brother James often gets mixed up with this cousin James. (And not his other cousin James, who as I already said, died round the year 42.) So they’ll claim this is the James we see all over Acts and the letters, and who wrote a letter himself. Wrong James. ’Cause Paul stated after Jesus was raised, he appeared to Peter and the 11 apostles, James bar Alpheus included; 1Co 15.5 then later to his brother James. 1Co 15.7

This James went to Egypt, and was crucified at Ostrakine.

Thaddeus. Thaddeus appears in Mark and Matthew but not Luke, and he’s often assumed to be the same guy as Luke substitutes for him: Judas “not Iscariot,” Jn 14.22 or Judas bar James. Because Luke literally says Yúdan Yakóvu/“Judas of James,” Lk 6.16 the KJV went with “Judas the brother of James,” which is technically how it could be translated, but is likely not what Luke meant. In any case, Christians try to put ’em together as “Jude Thaddeus”—and sometimes mix ’em up with Jesus’s brother Jude.

Thaddeus may very well have been a nickname; in Aramaic it’s Taddái/“[strong] heart.” Helped to sort out the potentially three Judes among the apostles. But in the Textus Receptus, he’s called Levvaios (KJV “Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus”)… so there’s another name to play with.

Thaddeus was said to be Jesus’s second cousin, the son of Jesus’s mother’s cousin Mary, and Clopas. Supposedly he was the groom at the wedding at Cana. After Jesus’s rapture Thaddeus went to Samaria, Idumaea, Syria (Lebanon, particularly Beirut and Edessa), Libya, Assyria (eastern Iraq), Armenia, and Persia (Iran).

Thaddeus and Simon the Zealot died together in Beirut; he was killed with an ax.

Simon the Canaanite. Recent translations call him Simon the Zealot (ESV, NASB, NIV, NLT) ’cause that’s quicker to explain.

During Quirinius’s census, Lk 2.2 an insurgent, Judas of Galilee, Ac 5.37 started an nativist uprising. His followers referred to themselves as Kananaíos/“Canaanite,” to indicate they were from Canaan, i.e. Palestine. Since Greek-speakers outside the region had no idea what a Canaanite was, they just went with zelotís/“zealot” or “patriot.” The Canaanites wanted Messiah to return and throw out the Romans, so you can see why Simon’d be inclined to follow Jesus. (And why initially working with Matthew probably freaked him out a little.)

Though Gamaliel claimed his followers were scattered, Ac 5.37 clearly they weren’t if Simon was still affiliated with that movement 30 years later. And no, this didn’t mean Simon was a 50-something follower of Jesus; more likely his parents and grandparents were zealots, and therefore so was he.

Some Christians believe Simon is Jesus’s brother Simeon, who took charge of the Jerusalem church after his brother James, but this is more of the brothers-were-really-cousins theory. Anyway, he died in Beirut with Thaddeus, killed by being sawn in half.

Judas bar Simon. Judas was the son of Simon Iskariótu/“Iscariot.” Jn 6.71 That surname is a transliteration of ish Qiryá/“man of Keriot,” one of two different Judean towns; which is why I translate it “the Kerioti.” This’d make Judas the only one of the 12 apostles not from the Galilee.

Judas comes last in every list because he ratted Jesus out to the Judean senate, and committed suicide soon after. John’s gospel, beyond regular reminders of what Judas would eventually do, also includes uncomplimentary statements about him—that he dipped into Jesus’s purse, Jn 12.6 and listened to the devil. Jn 13.2 Jesus even straight-up calls him a devil. Jn 6.70-71

Despite this, Jesus saw enough potential in Judas to include him among the apostles, and he did participate in traveling to towns, proclaiming the kingdom, and healing the sick. There are those Christians who figure Jesus kept him around solely to fulfill that future role of informer. That’d require deception on Jesus’s part—pretending to equip Judas for ministry when really he was setting him up for destruction. That’d be evil, so I don’t buy it. More likely Jesus wanted to win him over, and gave him a shot. That’s who Jesus is. Love hopes all things.

Of course, stories vary.

When I discuss the history of the apostles after Acts, I tend to run into anti-Catholics who complain, “Those are Catholic myths. Don’t go trusting the Catholics.”

Likewise I run into people who don’t believe in miracles, who figure any nonbiblical miracle stories connected to the apostles are bogus. Or people who are just generally skeptical of anything in ancient history, ’cause they figure the ancients were superstitious or gullible, and believed everything they were told. (Thomas’s example to the contrary.)

The common view of these naysayers: We’ll never know what happened to the first apostles. They’re lost to history. All we have are legends.

First, I gotta remind the anti-Catholics these stories predate the whole Orthodox/Catholic schism. They date from the 4th century and before. They’re not as reliable as bible, but they’re still nothing to dismiss. Certainly not because of religious prejudices.

Okay, some of ’em sound a bit legendary. But any historian will tell you legends are nothing to sneeze at. True, local traditions and customs can be misremembered, misrepresented, or wholly made up. Lots of countries wanna claim a biblical apostle for their very own. So bad, they’ll settle for a heavenly vision of that apostle years later, like the Mexicans do with Jesus’s mom, or like the Spanish do with James bar Zavdi.

There’s a popular English myth that Jesus, when he was a teenager, visited their island. There’s absolutely nothing provable in the story. Yet William Blake’s hymn “Jerusalem” is still one of their most popular hymns.

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

Don’t they wish. But that’s a later legend, and the later these legends get, the less likely there’s anything to them.

And archeology fills in the blanks all the time. The specific location of Peter’s tomb, and Peter’s bones, were recently found under St. Peter’s basilica. Research is currently being done on Paul’s tomb. Archeologists tend to find most of our traditions actually have something substantial to them. They may not be 100 percent accurate, but they’re accurate enough.

But the point of this information is this: Every single one of these guys went to their graves proclaiming Jesus.

Despite persecution. Despite torture and death. Despite mad emperors who wanted to light their garden parties with the burning bodies of Christians. People will confess to all sorts of things under torture; the human will isn’t as strong as people assume it is. But these people never cracked. Not even Peter, who definitely cracked on the night Jesus was arrested. All these people saw Jesus alive with their own eyes, 1Jn 1.1-3 and couldn’t help but share that truth.

Few people are willing to die for something which might be true. Or even something which is true. But once you know Jesus is the resurrection, Jn 11.25 death is a minor thing.