In this series of posts, we will explore the history of Jesus’s closest followers as recorded across numerous ancient Christian traditions. Along the way, we will find that these traditions are often confused, contradictory, or seriously lacking in details. Nevertheless, we will attempt to distill all the historical data possible and, at times, risk delving into certain later traditions that sprang up around these near-legendary men (yes, all men; for a discussion of named early Christian women, see my series of posts .
We begin with this review of the many traditional groupings associated with Jesus’s followers and try to sort them all out. In the New Testament, for example, we find references to “disciples,” “apostles,” “the Twelve,” “the seven,” and “the seventy.” Who are they? It may be comforting to know that the terms were not always clear, or used consistently, even in the early church.
The word “disciple” in the New Testament is translated from the Greek mathētēs. It was a generic term for any kind of student. In Hellenistic times (that is, after Alexander the Great’s conquests which left a Greek cultural overlay across the Mediterranean), the word disciple was often understood to refer to the follower of some great master or teacher. The Hebrew word for student is talmid but is rarely found in Jewish literature until the time of the rabbis (late first – early second century CE). In fact there are few references whatsoever to Jewish teachers, students or schools in the Hebrew or Aramaic writings until that time. Thus, the gospels take as their model the Greek master-student relationships prevalent in the Greco-Roman world, the ones most recognizable to the readers of the Greek gospels. Yet, in actuality, there are few formal or substantive similarities between the institutions of learning founded upon this principle and the relationship Jesus had with his followers. Jesus’s disciples constituted a permanent, committed group of followers who had forsaken normal social conventions and offered their complete loyalty to Jesus, and through him, to God. True disciples were depicted as those who followed Jesus when they were called; they, then, took on the responsibility of recruiting others to do the same. And, unlike in Greco-Roman or Jewish schools, with Jesus there was only one master, one teacher, who was irreplaceable.
The Greek term apostolos, as used in the New Testament, means something like “emissary.” It can be traced back to the Jewish institution of shaliach in which one’s agent, or representative, carried with him the full power and authority of the one who sent him. The Greek Bible, or Septuagint, translated this Hebrew word as apostolos or apostellein, often indicating a formal commissioning of a representative who might have been tasked with the transmission of a particular message. Even prophets were considered to have shaliach.
Even as late as twenty to thirty years after Jesus’s death, the definition of an apostle of Jesus had not been settled or consistently applied in the early church. Paul, the earliest New Testament writer, used the term in a variety of ways. For him, an apostle could simply be a messenger (Phil 2:25; 2 Cor 8:23). More often, however, Paul considered an apostle a Christian preacher, commissioned by the Holy Spirit or the risen Lord (2 Cor 11:5, 12:11; Rom 16:7). An apostle possessed divine authority and was thought equivalent to the ancient Hebrew prophets. Paul also used the term apostle to refer to a group surrounding James, the brother of the Lord, who were witnesses to Jesus’s resurrection and had a personal encounter with the Lord (1 Cor 15:7; Gal 1:19). The author of the Acts of the Apostles limits apostleship to the Twelve, as Peter puts it, “men who have accompanied us during all the time the Lord Jesus associated with us, beginning from his baptism by John until the day he was taken up from us …[and] a witness of his resurrection together with us” (Acts 1:21-22).
Paul considered himself as an apostle, “one untimely born”, even though he did not fit the criteria laid down in Acts (1 Cor 15:8). The church later recognized Paul as an apostle and elevated Peter and Paul to primary positions as founders of the faith despite the resistance of many Christ-believing Jews toward Paul and his teaching. However, once Paul’s letters became officially accepted as scriptural, his consecration as apostle was irrevocably established.
The institution of a committee of twelve was likely based on the imminent expectation of the end of the age in which a specially ordained group of twelve followers of Jesus would each sit in judgment over one of the twelve tribes of Israel (Q = Matt 19:28//Luke 22:30). The concept may have originated with Jesus himself who appointed the original members of the Twelve (e.g., Matt 10:2). But with the death of Jesus and the delay in the arrival of the new age, the necessity for a group of twelve sitting judges may have seemed less urgent. The requirement for messengers, or apostles, however, increased. It is possible that the Twelve, at least as constituted by Jesus, no longer existed by the time of Paul. Paul wrote that when he traveled to Jerusalem it was to meet with some of those who were apostles before him such as Cephas and James, the Lord’s brother, not to meet with the Twelve (Gal 1:17-19).
The possibility that the Twelve was already an institution of the past, at least by the time of the New Testament gospels, may be demonstrated by the confusion among some of the names appearing in the lists of the Twelve which they offer.
By the time of the publication of the Gospel of John (late 1st cent.), only seven special followers of Jesus were considered worth identifying (John 21:2). The so-called Gospel of the Ebionites (early 2nd cent.?) lists nine.
There may be additional evidence outside the New Testament, according to scholar Richard Bauckham, that a group of twelve acted in a leadership capacity in the early Jerusalem church under the stewardship of James, the Lord’s brother. In a list reported by fourth-century church historian Eusebius (Church History 4.5.3-4; ca. 263-ca. 340 CE), fifteen “bishops” of the Jerusalem church, beginning with James, the Lord’s brother, led the church until approximately AD 132.
The second bishop in the list, Symeon is known in other traditions as the son of Clopas (John 19:25) and to have been martyred during the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan (likely either 107 or 108 CE; see Church History 3.32.1-6). If this list were an actual list of successive bishops, then we would have to conclude that it took thirteen bishops to fill the post for a period of only 25 years. Eusebius attributes this strange anomaly to a “tradition” that the bishops were “short-lived” (Church History 4.5.1). Bauckham suggests an alternate possibility. On the assumption that only one bishop, Justus (number three on the list), filled the office from the time of Symeon’s death to AD 132, we would be left with twelve names of people who were not bishops. And although Eusebius reproduced what he thought was a list of successive “bishops,” the individuals on the list may actually be from an earlier time. For example, an apocryphal letter of James, the Lord’s brother, to Quadratus (ca. early 2nd cent.) mentions six of the names on Eusebius’s list as being co-workers of James, not later bishops. It is possible, then, that Eusebius’s garbled list does not preserve twelve successive bishops who succeeded Justus, but a college of twelve elders who served with James, the first “bishop,” or overseer, of the Jerusalem church.
A group of unnamed elders is also mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (11:30), initially acting in tandem with the twelve apostles (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4), then conducting themselves independently with no further mention made of the apostles (Acts 21:18). Scholars suggest that, as the original members of the Twelve began to dwindle through defection or death, their ranks came to be filled by other highly-regarded Christian leaders. Some of the names on Eusebius’s list suggest that a few of the original Twelve may have remained in the group for quite a while, for example, John, Matthias (Acts 1:26), and Philip. Other names on the list may represent respected disciples who are also mentioned in the gospel traditions including Levi (Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27, 29), and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:2-8). Still others may have been prominent members of the Jerusalem church as mentioned in Acts such as Justus (Acts 1:23 as “Joseph Barsabbas”; cf. 15:22, “Judas called Barsabbas”). Could Judas and Joseph, also on the list, have been two of Jesus’s younger brothers (Mark 6:3)?
A group of seven specially-chosen disciples, identified in Acts, consisted of Greek-speaking, Christ-believing Jews appointed by the Twelve after the death of Jesus to tend to the needs of other Greek-speaking Jews (Acts 6:3-5). The so-called seventy, or seventy-two (depending on the manuscript tradition), were supposedly a group of “others” sent by Jesus to conduct missionary work. They are only mentioned in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 10:1-16). Was this number chosen in imitation of the seventy elders selected by Moses to assist him (Exod 24:1; Num 11:16, 24)? Or was it a reference to the seventy nations of the world as envisioned in the Book of Genesis (Gen10:2-31)? Regardless, scholars generally consider the group of seventy an invention by the author of Luke and not evidence of any historical selection by Jesus.
Quite a number of ancient texts claimed authorship by the Twelve or by the apostles as a group. A Gospel of the Twelveand a Gospel of the Seventy are referred to by name but are no longer in existence. The Epistula Apostolorum (“Letter of the Apostles”; ca. 2nd c.), the Syriac Didascalia Apostolorum (“Teaching of the Apostles”; ca. 3rd c.), and the Apostolic Church Order (ca. 3rd c.) are all credited to the twelve. A widespread tradition sought to affirm that the Twelve had divided up the (Roman) world into twelve missionary territories possibly awarded by lot.
Non-Christians were also confused about the number of Jesus’s apostles. The anti-Christian Platonist philosopher Celsus (second half of the second century), against whom the Alexandrian theologian Origen (ca. 185-ca. 254) wrote, believed there to be only ten or eleven of them. The Babylonian Talmud records the names of five special disciples of Jesus not otherwise known: Matthai, Nagai, Nezer, Buni and Thoda.
Gnostic groups chose as their spiritual champions members of the Twelve often neglected by orthodox Christian writers. While the orthodox Christians revered primarily Peter, Paul, and John, Gnostics attributed special teachings to Philip, Matthew, and Thomas, as well as John.
Our next installment in this series will concentrate on assessing the historical evidence for individual members of the Twelve. Subscribe or check back soon!
References for this essay include:
Bauckham, Richard, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990)
Beinert, Wolfgang A., “The Picture of the Apostle in Early Christian Tradition,” in NTA 2:7.
Fitzmyer, Joseph A., The Gospel According to Luke, 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1970/1985)
Saldarini, Anthony J., Matthew’s Christian-Jewish Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994)
 This was the beginning of the second revolt of the Jews in Palestine under their messiah-leader, Simon bar Kokhba. This led to the permanent banishment of Jews from Jerusalem by the Roman emperor Hadrian.
 The Greek, or Septuagint version of the bible, names seventy-two.
 Origen, Homily on Luke 1, ca. 3rd cent. AD
 Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī, The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries (Athâr-ul-Bâkiya), ca. 1,000 AD.
 Syriac Didascalia. Cf. Beinert 2:18.
 Origen, Commentary on Genesis. Cf. Beinert 2:19.
 Origen, Against Celsus 2.46; 1.62.
 Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 43a. Matthai of course could refer to Matthias or Matthew.