28 April 2023

The first 12 apostles.

The word apostle means “one who’s been sent out.” We Christians use it to refer to anyone whom Jesus has sent to do something.

Really, anything. If Jesus sends you to Peets to go get him a coffee, that is—no foolin’—being his apostle. Now, once you’re done, are you still an apostle? Well, that’s debatable… and usually debated vigorously by all the people whom Jesus sent on one mission or another, who now include “apostle” among their titles, and even make it part of their screen names on social media. (He’s not just “Maximilián Bernardi” on Facebook; he’s “Apostle Maximilián Bernardi.” As far as Facebook knows, his full first name is “Apostle Maximilián.” Imagine if gas station attendants did this. But I digress.)

I know; some churches insist the only apostles are the 12 guys Jesus designated when he walked 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 this bit first, which makes it kinda obvious:

Mark 3.7-12 NET
7 Then Jesus went away with his disciples to the sea, and a great multitude from Galilee followed him. And from Judea, 8 Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan River, and around Tyre and Sidon a great multitude came to him when they heard about the things he had done. 9 Because of the crowd, he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him so the crowd would not press toward him. 10 For he had healed many, so that all who were afflicted with diseases pressed toward him in order to touch him. 11 And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” 12 But he sternly ordered them not to make him known.

For those who can’t see the obvious: Jesus was busy. This was a massive ministry he had undertaken. And though he’s Jesus, he’s still just one man; he needed help! He needed apprentices. So he picked 12 of his best students.

Mark 3.13-15 NET
13 Now Jesus went up the mountain and called for those he wanted, and they came to him. 14 He appointed twelve so that they would be with him and he could send them to preach 15 and to have authority to cast out demons.

Matthew makes it sound like these were his only students, and maybe they were at the time.

Matthew 10.1 NET
Jesus called his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits so they could cast them out and heal every kind of disease and sickness.

But Luke indicates they were among his students.

Luke 6.12-13 NET
12 Now it was during this time that Jesus went out to the mountain to pray, and he spent all night in prayer to God. 13 When morning came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles…
Luke 9.1-2 NET
1 After Jesus called the twelve together, he gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.

Jesus chose students to do this, and all his apostles—including present-day apostles—are still his students. Still gotta learn from the Master. But what makes ’em apostles is Jesus designated and sent them to do stuff.

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, and our Lord didn’t need to be interrupted unless this problem was simply too great for the apprentice to handle. 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.

1. Simon bar John (“Peter”), of Bethsaida.

Simon of Bethsaida’s father was either John Jn 1.42 or Jonah. Mt 16.17 We don’t know which. No, John isn’t a shortened version of Jonah; no, Jonah’s not a variant of John. Maybe he was adopted; maybe one of the gospels’ authors got that wrong. Doesn’t matter.

Simon’s brother Andrew was one of the students of John who initially followed Jesus, and introduced him, whereupon Jesus nicknamed him Κηφᾶς/Kifás (KJV “Cephas,”) a transliteration of the Aramaic כֵּיפָא/keyfá, “rock.” Jn 1.35-51

Peter gets listed first in every apostolic list in the New Testament. 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 ditch these things 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 May of 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 Herod Agrippa’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 before the first Christians were all murdered by Nero. Among the martyrs were Paul, who was beheaded; and Peter, who was crucified. The usual story is Peter felt unworthy of dying the very 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 the 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.

2. James bar Zebedee, of Capharnaum.

The Hebrew/Aramaic name יַעֲקֹב/Yaaqóv, the name of Israel’s founding patriarch, got turned into Ἰάκωβος/Yákovos in Greek, Iacomus in Latin, James in Old French… so that’s why our English name looks so very different than Yaaqóv.

James was the son of Zebedee and Salomé. She’s the sister of Jesus’s mom Mary, which made him Jesus’s first cousin.

Mark says Jesus nicknamed James and his brother Βοανεργές/Voanerghés, which he translates as “sons of thunder.” Mk 3.17 Thing is, scholars figure it’s more a transliteration of בְּנֵ֤י רְגַז/benéi reghaz, “sons of rage”—so Mark was being generous in his translation.

Though James requested a first-place rank in Jesus’s kingdom, Mk 10.37 he wound up instead as the second of the apostles to die in Acts, killed in Herod Agrippa’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; they weren’t crucified like non-Romans, but given punishments befitting someone with that status.

3. John bar Zebedee, of Capharnaum.

James’s brother John, the other of the Voanerghés, 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 person named John in his gospel—and that’d be John the baptist.

In Acts we see John frequently 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 Revelation’s references to the Beast may allude to Nero), it must’ve been written in the 60s. Anyway, since exile wasn’t an execution, Christians tend to say John was the only one of the Twelve not martyred. But suffering for Jesus is just as much martyrdom as dying.

4. Andrew bar John, of Capharnaum.

You recall Andrew introduced Peter to Jesus. But after Acts lists him among the Twelve, Andrew doesn’t appear again.

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.

5. 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 these were two different guys.

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 unappreciative proconsul had the three of them tortured, then the men crucified upside-down. Bartholemew was eventually freed, but Philip died on the cross.

6. Bartholemew. (Nathanael? Probably not.)

“Bartholemew” means בַּר תלמי/bar-Talmi, “son of Talmi,” which is either the Aramaic name תלמי/Talmi or the Greek name Πτολεμαῖος/Ptoleméos, “Ptolemy.” An early tradition claims Bartholemew was called by his father’s name because his proper name was John, and there was already a John among the apostles.

Bartholomew and Philip are lumped together in the New Testament’s lists of apostles, and historians think they ministered together during Jesus’s time on earth and thereafter. Some ninth-century Christian, remembering Philip had introduced Nathanael of Cana to Jesus, Jn 1.43-51 decided Bartholomew was this same guy, and his first name was actually Nathanael, making him Nathanael bar Talmi. Various Christians perpetuate this idea, calling him “Nathanael-Bartholemew”… even though there’s no evidence in either the bible or history 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.

7. Matthew (or Levi) 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. Something 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, like John, 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. There’s a popular theory Matthew wrote it in Aramaic, then it was translated into Greek—but we’ve no proof of it either way. As a taxman, Matthew would’ve known Greek anyway, so there’s no point in assuming he couldn’t write his gospel in Greek. Besides which, plenty of early Christians claimed Matthew wrote this or that book, which is why there are many iffy gospels with Matthew’s name attached.

8. Thomas.

Syrian Christians claim Thomas’s actual name was Judas, and Thomas was a nickname to keep all the guys named Judah/Judas/Jude straight. It’s a transliteration of the Aramaic תוֹמָא/tomá (Hebrew תָּאוֹם/taóm), “twin.” His Greek name Δίδυμος/Dídymos Jn 20.24 likewise means “twin.” One Egyptian tradition claims Thomas was called that, not because he had a twin brother or sister, but because he 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.

9. 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 him Jesus’s first cousin. (As were James and John bar Zebedee. Didn’t realize Jesus had so many family members among his followers, didja?)

Because various Christians wanna insist Jesus’s brothers were actually his cousins, Jesus’s brother James often gets mixed up with this particular cousin James. (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 and later to his brother James. 1Co 15.7

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

10. Jude. Or Thaddeus. Or both.

Thaddeus appears in the list of apostles in Mark and Matthew, Mk 3.18, Mt 10.3 but in Luke and Acts he’s swapped out for some other guy, Judas of James, Lk 6.14, Ac 1.13 often translated “Judas [brother] of James,” but sometimes “Judas [son] of James.” Plenty of Christians try to turn ’em into the same guy, “Jude Thaddeus.” And of course, for the same reason they mix up James bar Alpheus with Jesus’s brother James, many of ’em mix up “Jude Thaddeus” with Jesus’s brother Jude.

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.

11. Simon the Canaanite.

Older bibles refer to the other Simon among the Twelve as “the Canaanean,” which is a really sloppy way of rendering Κανανίτης/Kananítis, “Canaanite.” This title tends to confuse people—“Wait, Simon’s a Palestinian?” No, he was a Jew. I’ll explain.

During Quirinius’s census, Lk 2.2 an insurgent, Judas of the Galilee, Ac 5.37 started an nativist uprising, and his followers called themselves Canaanites to indicate they were from Canaan (i.e. Palestine). Since Greek-speakers outside the region had no idea what a Canaanite was, they tended to call such insurgents a Ζηλωτής/Zilotís, “zealot.” That’s what you’ll find in more recent translations of the bible, “Simon the Zealot.” (ESV, NASB, NIV, NLT). Quicker to explain.

The Canaanites expected 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, what with how Canaanites felt about Roman taxes.)

Though Gamaliel claimed Judas of the Galilee’s 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 Judas, then Jesus: More likely his parents and grandparents were part of the Canaanite movement, and he was raised to share their zealotry.

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 iffy but popular Jesus’s-“brothers“-are-actually-cousins theory. Anyway, Simon died in Beirut with Thaddeus, killed by being sawn in half.

12. Judas bar Simon, of Kerioth.

Judas was the son of Simon Ἰσκαριώτης/Iskariótis, “Iscariot.” Jn 6.71 This surname is a transliteration of אִישׁ קִרְיָה/ish Qiryá, “man of Keriot,” one of two different towns in the province of Judea. 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. The gospel of John, 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 at one point. Jn 6.70-71

Despite this, Jesus did see 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 continual 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 about the apostles vary.

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

Likewise I run into people who don’t believe in miracles and 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 by centuries. 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, the Spanish do with James bar Zebedee, or the Scots do with Andrew.

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 England’s 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 valid to them.

And archeology fills in these 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.