The Twelve Apostles Part 6: Thaddaeus, Simon, Judas & the Rest

With this post, we complete our historical survey of the lives of the twelve apostles. Here, we discuss the apostles Thaddaeus, Simon, Judas, “and the rest.”

Thaddaeus/Lebbaeus/Judas son of James

            It is possible, though unlikely, that these three names all refer to the same person.  Some suggest that the names Thaddaeus and Lebbaeus ultimately derive from the Semitic Theudas. Others trace Lebbaeus to the Hebrew leb, meaning “heart.” 

Thaddaeus is the name given to an apostle in the Gospel of Mark (3:18). His name also appears in most early manuscripts of Matthew though others replace the name with Lebbaeus, or “Lebbaeus called Thaddeus” (Matt 10:3). The Gospel of Luke substitutes for these names Judas, son (or, possibly, brother – the Greek is uncertain) of James (Luke 6:14-16). The Gospel of John does not include a list of the Twelve but does refer to “Judas (not Iscariot)” in a single verse (14:22). We cannot really be sure whether Luke and John are referring to the same man.  Early Sahidic Coptic[1] manuscripts of the fourth gospel (3rd-7th cent.) have instead “Judas the Cananean,” either confusing or contrasting him with Simon the Cananean, another of the Twelve also named in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. Old Syriac (2nd-7th c.)[2] manuscripts of the Gospel of John instead refer to him as “Judas Thomas.” As we saw in an earlier post, the Aramaic tĕ’oma means “twin.” Thus Judas would be a twin; just whose twin is not specified. According to the Acts of the Apostles as it appears in a number of Old Latin codices,[3] the list of apostles at 1:13 includes “Judas Zealotes.” So, too, does the list appearing in the Epistula Apostolorum (“Letter of the Apostles,” mid-2nd c. CE). Legends soon developed making Judas the twin brother of Jesus (who did have a brother named Judas, according to Mark).

            However, most scholars insist that Judas the apostle was not the brother of Jesus. Their conclusion rests primarily on the seemingly negative opinion, expressed in the Gospel of Mark, concerning Jesus’s family together with their alleged lack of participation in Jesus’s ministry during his lifetime. Based on this interpretation, the brothers of Jesus could hardly have been selected as members of the twelve. (Legends related to [Judas] Thomas were explored in an earlier post.) 

Thaddaeus spent is life healing, preaching to, and converting residents of Edessa if the fourth-century church historian Eusebius (Church History 1.13; 2.1.6-8) and the Acts of Thaddeus are to be believed. Also, according to Eusebius, Thaddaeus was one of the seventy, or seventy-two, other disciples (see Luke 10:1, 17).

            Eusebius further claimed to have discovered certain documents in an archive in Edessa related to Thaddeus, who was known in Syriac as Addai. Edessa was an early center for Jewish-Christianity outside the Roman Empire as well as the capital city of Osrhoene, one of a string of small buffer states along the border between the warring empires of Rome and Parthia. Two caravan routes passed through it. One was the Old Silk Road that led from Antioch in Syria through India and into China. The second was a north-south route from the mountains of Armenia down through Arabia and into Egypt.  According to tradition, Abraham was said to have dwelt at Edessa where he received his call to prophesy.

            The documents reviewed by Eusebius mention Addai in connection with the first century Edessan toparch[4] Abgar V Ukkama (Ukkama = “the black,” d. 50 CE). These pages included a letter by Abgar to Jesus requesting a cure from an unknown disease. The archives also included the letter that Jesus supposedly sent in response indicating that he would direct a disciple to attend to Abgar in his stead. Eusebius explained that, following the resurrection, the apostle Thomas received a divine impulse to send Thaddeus/Addai to Edessa for this purpose. Upon his arrival, Thaddeus promptly healed Abgar and many others while preaching the word of Christ. The story is further elaborated in the Doctrine of Addai, a late fourth or early fifth century text, that claims Jesus dictated his reply to toparch’s messenger, Hanan. But before Hanan departed Palestine, he managed to paint a portrait of Jesus which he took back with him to Edessa along with Jesus’ reply.

            Even though Eusebius claimed to have translated the two letters “word for word from the Syriac,” scholars are nearly certain that these letters are forgeries. Christianity did come to Edessa early, perhaps around 150 CE. But the reigning king at that time was Abgar VIII; it was he who was converted and baptized. So despite the legendary qualities of the Abgar correspondence with Jesus, Edessa did become an important early center of Christianity, one that attempted, through mythical narrative, to trace its spiritual roots back to the first apostles, especially to Thomas and Addai.

Simon the Cananean

            Identified in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew by the epithet Kananaion, this disciple may have been known in Aramaic as qan’ān, meaning “zealous one.” The author of the Gospel of Luke understood the word this way; he identified him as “Simon the Zealot.” Historically, the actual Jewish zealot party is not believed to have existed prior to the 60s CE. Simon could have joined the revolutionary party at that time and then have been remembered for it or, more likely, was zealous in some other way, as for example with regard to the Law of Moses. Little else is known of him. From church authorities such as Basil, bishop of Caesarea (late fourth century CE) we learn that either Simon worked and died a natural death in Edessa, or he was active along the northern coast of Africa. Some legends even place him in Britain around the year 50 just after it became a Roman colony. The thirteenth-century Christian Nestorian writer Solomon of Basra gave the following biography:

Simon Zelôtes was from Galilee, of the tribe of Ephraim. He preached in Shemêshât (Samosâta), Pârîn (Perrhê), Zeugma, Hâlâb (Aleppo), Mabbôg (Manbig), and Kenneshrîn (Kinnesrîn). He built a church in Kyrrhos, and died and was buried there.

Cyrrhus was an ancient city in Syria.

Judas Iscariot

            In light of the recent discovery of the Gospel of Judas (see below), scholars have begun to reinvestigate this member of the Twelve, not so much in an attempt to exonerate him from any moral crime he may have committed, but to uncover the historical Judas from beneath the accretion of two-thousand years of polemical bias. What, exactly, did the gospel writers intend for us to think about Judas when they described his relationship with Jesus and his participation in Jesus’s arrest?

            We possess little background regarding the man.  “Judas” is from the Hebrew Yĕhûdâ.  His “last” name, Iscariot, may be a key to understanding something of what the gospel writers intended for us to know about him. Scholars suggest a number of possible translations for the word: it may indicate that Judas came from a town called Kerioth in Judea, or that he worked with red dye, or that he was a fruit grower, or that he carried a “sicarius” blade and was thus a member of a revolutionary group, or that he was a “false one” (shachar), or that he was a “deliverer” (sakar, i.e., he handed Jesus over), or that he simply came from “the city” (i.e., Jerusalem). None of these possibilities has met with universal acceptance.

            Scholars have therefore turned their attention to the meaning(s) behind the original Greek verb often used in the New Testament to describe what Judas did with regard to Jesus. The Greek paradidōmi is usually translated elsewhere in modern bibles as “handed over.” But in passages where the verb describes the action of Judas, the word is usually translated as “betray” introducing a bias that is not present in the original Greek. In fact, only the Gospel of Luke uses prodotes, or “traitor,” to describe Judas (6:16).

            Ancient Greek literature abounds with examples of the use of paradidōmi in the sense of handing something or someone that is within one’s control, often prisoners of war or property, over to someone else. There is no clear textual evidence that it was used to mean “betray.” But what did Judas possess that he could “hand over”? The Gospel of Mark tells the story of Judas handing over Jesus in a relatively straightforward way. Rather than intending to castigate Judas, the author may have had in mind showing how Jesus embodied the Suffering Servant passages from the book of Isaiah. There it is God who hands his servant over into the hands of sinners (Isa 50:5; 53:6, 10). Jesus’s own predictions bear this out (Luke 22:37, etc.). Jesus is depicted in Mark as having been aware of what was going to happen to him and intentionally allowing for it. If that wasthe case, the thinking goes, how could Judas’s actions constitute betrayal or treachery? The other gospel writers apply increasingly dark motives to Judas’s actions even though Jesus is never shown to rebuke Judas for his actions though he vehemently rebuked Peter when Peter objected to Jesus’s prediction of his own suffering and death (Mark 8:33).

            There are clearly two competing and contradictory layers of tradition combined in the story of Judas handing Jesus over. One layer tells us that Judas handed over, or delivered, Jesus to the Jewish authorities the night he was arrested, for what intended purpose we do not know. A different layer of the story, addressing the infallibility of Jesus, assures us of Jesus’s perfect foreknowledge. He knew all the time what Judas was up to and even encouraged, or at least acknowledged, his plans at the Last Supper. Yet the competing traditions clash when the reader realizes that Jesus, knowing what was about to happen, could have eluded capture at any moment up until the time of his arrest.  If Jesus chose not to escape, how can Judas be blamed for “betraying” Jesus?

            The earliest tradition about Jesus’s arrest is found in the letters of Paul (1 Cor 11:27). Paul noted that Jesus was handed over but does not name the person or persons responsible. Paul also repeated the tradition that, after Jesus’s resurrection, he appeared to “the Twelve” (1 Cor 15:5). Paul received these traditions from the very apostles who originated them, including Peter. Is it likely that those apostles would have begun a tradition in which Jesus appeared to twelve, and not eleven, apostles if Judas had not been present? On the other hand, other scholars counter that by the time Paul learned about Jesus from Peter, the “Twelve” had become a technical term and no longer referred to any specific individuals but rather to an established collective. Nevertheless, the gospel writers would later ensure that there was no misunderstanding, stating unequivocally that the risen Jesus appeared to only eleven of the original twelve apostles (Matt 28:16; Mark 16:14; Luke 24:9, 33; Acts 1:26, 2:14). 

            Some non-canonical gospels omit any mention of Judas’s role in Jesus’s arrest.  For example, the admittedly incomplete Gospel of Peter (early second century CE but believed to incorporate older traditions), features a story of the passion that does not mention Judas.

            Historians have begun to ask many insightful questions about the whole affair.  Was Jesus in agreement with Judas’s actions? Was there some attempt on the part of Judas to introduce Jesus to the high priest in order to discuss Jesus’s message or to clarify his recent actions in the temple? Jesus apparently agonized in Gethsemane over the coming of the authorities (Mark 14:32-33). He seems to have been fully aware that nothing good would come from his instructions to Judas to “do quickly what you are going to do” (John 13:27). Was there perhaps a plan that went awry? Did the two of them fail to anticipate the deliverance of Jesus to the Roman prefect? Perhaps it was this very development that drove Judas to despair. It was considered a grievous sin for any Jew to deliver a fellow Jew into the hands of gentile authorities. Whether Judas was originally despised for his actions by his fellow disciples is also uncertain. Peter’s speech, as represented in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, is strikingly neutral about Judas’s behavior. Peter informs his audience that Judas only acted as a guide for those who arrested Jesus (Acts 1:16). It is the author of Acts who then negatively interprets Judas’s actions by citing the Psalms (Pss 69:26, 109:8).

            The Gospel of Matthew features a story about the death of Judas (27:3-10). Having recognized his “sin,” Judas attempts to return to the temple authorities the “thirty pieces of silver” he was paid for handing Jesus over. The money, now tainted and unsuitable for the temple treasury, was used by the priests to buy a potter’s field in which to bury foreigners. Judas then hanged himself. According to the timeline in Matthew’s gospel, Judas’s death preceded that of Jesus. Elements of Matthew’s story seem drawn from, or amplified by, passages from Jewish Scripture, specifically from the books of Zechariah (11:13) and Jeremiah (18:2-4; 19:1-3; 32 [39]:6-15). 

            It is noteworthy that Judas attempted to repent after recognizing his sin of delivering a fellow Jew with “innocent blood” to pagan authorities (the Romans), a development he may not have anticipated. In the story, Judas attempts to undo his misguided deed in a culturally acceptable way, by returning his ill-gotten gains. Then, in order to expiate his crime fully, he offered his own life so that he could, in the eyes of the ancient world, restore his honor.[5]

            The Acts of the Apostles offers a different story of the death of Judas (1:18-20).  According to Acts it was Judas who bought the field with the “reward of his unjust deed.”  Under circumstances that are not further explained, he fell to his death at which time his bowels burst open and his entrails spilled out. Whether the author attributes this to natural or supernatural causes is uncertain. In this account however, Judas’s death seems to follow that of Jesus. We cannot be historically certain about the timing or the way in which Judas died.

Surprisingly, perhaps, there were groups within the early church that may not have looked upon Judas as the ultimate betrayer. The recently discovered, mid-second-century Gospel of Judas was composed by Christians who believed that Judas was the only disciple who fully grasped that Jesus was the liberator of souls from death.

…And the Rest: Alternate Members of the Twelve?

            Two other disciples deserve our attention before we complete our survey of the Twelve. Each was considered important enough to be highlighted in the New Testament; one was specifically said to have later become a member of the twelve apostles.

            Nathanael

            Nathanael (Hebrew = “God has given”) only appears in the fourth gospel (John 1:45-51; 21:2). There he is said to be from Cana in Galilee, the same town where Jesus turned water into wine at a marriage feast (2:1-11). The way Nathanael is characterized in the gospel may indicate that he was a teacher or scribe. For example, sitting under a fig tree may allude to the traditional location of teachers in Jewish lore. 

Jesus promised Nathanael that he would experience a vision in which the heavens would open and angels would ascend and descend upon the Son of Man (John 1:51). Jesus’s language here recalls a vision attributed to the Biblical patriarch Jacob. While in a trance, Jacob witnessed angels going up and down a stairway that extended to heaven (Gen 32:28-30). Scholars suggest that Jacob’s vision was of a stairway that would eventually lead to a new temple. Jesus, however, may have been suggesting that he himself would replace the temple as the divine connection between heaven and earth. By the ninth century, Nathanael had become identified with Bartholomew (see my previous post).

            Matthias

            Matthias was the disciple chosen by the Twelve (actually, the eleven) to replace Judas Iscariot after his death (Acts 1:23, 26). In making this choice, candidates were sought who had accompanied the Twelve for the entire period in which they were associated with Jesus. In Greek, Matthias is the same name as Matthew. 

There are a few scanty references to Matthias in the ancient traditions. Eusebius heard that Matthias was one of the seventy sent out by Jesus (Church History 1.12). A few passages from a lost work known as the Traditions of Matthias (3rd c.?) were quoted by Clement of Alexandria (Miscellanies 2.9.45; 3.4.6; 7.13.82; 7.17.108).

The Alexandrian Christian preacher Basilides (fl. 117-138 CE) taught a type of Gnostic Christianity in Alexandria that the Christian presbyter Hippolytus (ca. 170-ca. 235 CE) judged to be heretical (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 7.8). Nevertheless, Basilides claimed to have based his theology on secret instruction he received from Matthias, instruction which Matthias claimed to have received from Jesus himself. These “instructions” may have been part of the Traditions cited by Clement. If this is not the same work as the Gospel of Matthias referred to by Eusebius (Church History 3.25), then we have another example of a condemned work attributed to Matthias that is now lost.

That completes our historical survey of the twelve apostles. Their lives are shrouded in mystery, their stories the stuff of legend. This is surely what we can expect when men from the backwaters of the Roman world who professed a singular and slowly-accepted message later became towering figures in a religious movement that overtook an empire. Such men must be afforded great stories of magnificent deeds – it was judged only fitting by their followers.

Sources consulted for this essay:

Encyclopædia Britannica. “Saint Simon the Apostle.”

Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John, 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1966/1970).

Budge, E. A. Wallis. The Book of the Bee (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1886).

Collins, Raymond F., “Nathanael,” ABD.

DeConick, April D., The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says (New York: Continuum, 2007).

Ehrman, Bart D., “Christianity Turned on Its Head: The Alternative Vision of the Gospel of Judas” in The Gospel of Judas, ed. Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer and

Gregor Wurst (Washington, D. C.: National Geographic, 2006). 

Facaros, Dana and Michael Pauls, Turkey, rev. Alex Lay (London: Cadogan, 2000).

Fitzmyer, Joseph A., The Gospel According to Luke, 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1970/1985).

Miller, Robert D., II, “Judas,” ABD.

Jenkins, Philip. The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How It Died. (New York: HarperOne, 2008).

Klassen, William, “Judas Iscariot” ABD.

Klassen, William, Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996).

Moffett, Samuel Hugh. A History of Christianity in Asia Volume 1: Beginnings to 1500 (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992).

Watson, JoAnn Ford, “Thaddeus,” ABD.


[1] Coptic was the Egyptian language written using the Greek alphabet. Sahidic was a prominent dialect.

[2] Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic) was a Semitic language used in Edessa and Mesopotamia.

[3] Vercellinus, Veronensis, Sangermanensis and Claromontanus (all 4th-9th cent.).

[4] Ruler of a small state or realm.

[5] Suicide was considered a noble exit from life in the Greco-Roman world.  It was not considered a crime in either Gentile or Jewish societies of Jesus’ day although there were moral reservations in the latter.  Christians only began to condemn it from the time of Augustine.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s