Sunday, September 13, 2009

Who Were the Twelve Disciples?

The twelve disciples of Jesus are widely understood by Christians to have been Jesus’ closest companions in life, his inner circle, made up of fishermen and others who gave up family and career to dedicate their lives to following the man who taught radically about the kingdom of God.

Despite the familiarity of “the twelve disciples” among Christians, there is little doubt that most people couldn’t name all twelve off the cuff. It may surprise some to discover that even the texts of the Bible don’t agree on who made up this most distinguished group of men.


Among the texts of the New Testament, the seven or so authentic letters of Paul represent our earliest sources. In one of these letters – 1 Corinthians – Paul gives us our first Biblical reference to the twelve disciples:

1 Corinthians 15:5b - …[Jesus] appeared to Peter, then to the Twelve.

Outside of the Gospels, there is only one other New Testament reference to the twelve disciples, and that comes from the book of Revelation, where the writer refers to the “names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” Revelation, of course, was one of the last books of the New Testament to be written, probably in the first decade of the 2nd century.

Despite only referring once to “the Twelve,” Paul does mention two disciples by name: Peter and John. Peter is referenced a number of times in 1 Corinthians and Galatians, and John is mentioned one time in Galatians.

Interestingly, Paul never tells us explicitly that either of these men was a disciple of Jesus. Of course, the recipients of his letters would have known who they were, so it stands to reason that he doesn’t go into any biographical details.

Still, if one only had the letters of Paul to go by, we would have an idea that there was a group of twelve people who played some central role in the resurrection, but we would not know who they were. In fact, if we had only the letters of Paul to go on, we would no doubt conclude that Peter was not among “the Twelve,” since his role in the resurrection is separated from the Twelve, as indicated in the quoted passage above.


The majority of what we know of the twelve disciples, of course, comes from the four Gospels of the New Testament. These texts were all written in the 1st century, but the earliest of them was written after the letters of Paul.


In Mark, the first of these Gospels to be written, the writer is kind enough to give us an actual list of names:

Simon Peter
James son of Zebedee
John the brother of James
Andrew (Mark notes elsewhere that Andrew was the brother of Peter)
James son of Alphaeus
Simon the Canaanite
Judas Iscariot

Simple enough on the surface. But there is at least one internal trouble spot. Before providing this list of names, Mark had described a scene in which Jesus dines at the home of a tax collector named Levi, and the text tells us that Jesus called on him to “follow me” – a command Levi obeys. That, of course, is the same formula used elsewhere when Jesus is calling his twelve disciples. It seems clear that Levi is one of the “twelve,” yet he does not appear in Mark’s list in the next chapter.

Complicating that issue even further is the fact that Mark refers to Levi as the “son of Alphaeus.” You will notice that one of the disciples on Mark’s list is also the son of Alphaeus, but it’s a man named James, not Levi. No indication is given by Mark as to whether this is the same person, they are two brothers, or they are unrelated and just happen to have fathers by the name of Alphaeus.

If Mark was our only source for the disciples, we would no doubt conclude that James son of Alphaeus was, in fact, Levi the tax collector.


Moving on chronologically through the Gospels, we come next to Matthew. The writer of this Gospel used Mark as a primary source, and also provided a list of the twelve disciples:

Simon called Peter
Andrew the brother of Simon Peter
James son of Zebedee
John the brother of James
Matthew the tax collector
James son of Alphaeus
Lebbaeus Thaddaeus
Simon the Canaanite
Judas Iscariot

You will notice first that the disciple Matthew is now noted as a tax collector – something not mentioned by Mark. Furthermore, when the story of Levi son of Alphaeus is retold in the Gospel of Matthew, Levi’s name is changed to Matthew, and “son of Alphaeus” is eliminated completely. The writer of Matthew seems to have seen the problem with Mark’s text regarding Levi, and simply fixed the problem by asserting that Levi and Matthew were the same person (and not Levi and James son of Alphaeus). The name “Levi” is never actually mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew.

The other noticeable difference between the two lists is that the Gospel of Matthew notes that the disciple Thaddaeus’s name was actually Lebbaeus.


We come next to Luke. Luke, like Matthew before him, used Mark’s Gospel as a source. However, where Matthew regurgitates something like 90% of Mark, Luke only uses about 60%. And it is when we look at Luke’s list of disciples that we begin to see more prominent discrepancies.

Here is Luke’s list:

Simon Peter
Andrew the brother of Simon Peter
John (Luke notes elsewhere that James and John were brothers and the sons of Zebedee)
James son of Alphaeus
Simon called the Zealot
Judas James
Judas Iscariot

To begin with, Luke follows Mark in regards to the Levi/Matthew issue. When Luke tells the story of the tax collector, he calls him Levi (although he leaves out “son of Alphaeus”), and he never mentions that Matthew the disciple is a tax collector. Like Mark, if we had only the Gospel of Luke to go by, we would have no way of knowing what become of Levi the tax collector who became a disciple of Jesus but was then left off the official list of twelve.

Second, Luke changes Mark and Matthew’s “Simon the Canaanite” to “Simon called the Zealot.” Some textual scholars have attempted to connect the two Greek words in question (Kananaios and Zelotes) with Aramaic roots, but these arguments are tenuous and speculative at best. What is clear is that this disciple’s name seems to have varied in both oral and textual tradition from region to region.

Finally, and most significantly, Luke omits the disciple Thaddaeus all together, and adds in a man named Judas James. Depending on which English translation of the Bible you read, this name is given as “Judas brother of James” or “Judas son of James.” In both cases, it’s just a textual guess. The original Greek doesn’t indicate whether this Judas was the son or the brother of James, who this James was, or whether Judas James was simply known by two names (like Simon Peter).

What is clear is that we now have three different accounts of this disciple’s name. Mark calls him Thaddaeus, Matthew calls him Lebbaeus Thaddaeus, and Luke calls him Judas James. While it’s reasonable to assume Matthew and Mark were talking about the same person, it seems that Luke is thinking of someone else entirely. It’s possible, of course, that Lebbaeus Thaddaeus was also known as Judas (son of/brother of) James, but it seems like a stretch. Of course, if it wasn’t the Bible we were discussing, but instead some random ancient text, no one would question at all whether the texts contradicted one another – it would be taken as a given.

Regardless of one’s personal theological perspective, what is clear is that this disciple – like Simon the Canaanite/Zealot – was known by many different identities in both oral and textual tradition during the 1st century.

(One quick note on Matthew’s Lebbaeus Thaddaeus: if you read any English version other than the King James, you will find only “Thaddaeus” listed – no mention of “Lebbaeus.” The reason for this is because the King James was translated from a Medieval Greek text of the New Testament called the Textus Receptus, which many scholars believe is inferior due to its numerous textual discrepancies and questionable provenance. Other than the KJV, most modern English translations use a different textual tradition when creating their translations, and this different textual tradition does not contain the language about “Lebbaeus” in the Gospel of Matthew. More than likely, Matthew’s actual original text conformed to Mark’s original text on the name of this disciple. Luke’s text, however, most definitely deviated.)


Moving on to the last Gospel of the New Testament, we come to the book of John. Unlike the three Gospels that preceded it, John does not provide a list of Jesus’ disciples. The writer does refer several times to “the Twelve,” but never provides a complete list of their names. He does, however, refer to several disciples by name throughout the text. In order of appearance, they are:

Simon Peter (John notes that Andrew and Peter are brothers)
Judas Iscariot, son of Simon Iscariot
Thomas called Didymus (Didymus means “the twin”)
Judas (John explicitly notes that this is not Judas Iscariot)
The sons of Zebedee (John only refers to them once, and does not use their actual names)

First, John never mentions anyone named Matthew, Levi, Thaddaeus (or Lebbaeus), Bartholomew, Simon the Zealot, Simon the Canaanite, or James son of Alphaeus.

Second, John tells us Thomas was known as Didymus, something none of the other Gospels mention.

Third, John agrees with Luke that there was a second disciple named Judas, though he doesn’t include any second name for him (i.e. Judas James).

Finally, he includes a disciple – Nathanael – that does not appear in any of the other Gospels.


Most of our non-canonical Christian texts were written in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, well after the New Testament era. However, a handful of non-canonical writings may very well have been contemporaries of, or even in some cases predated, the texts of the New Testament. Most of the debates about the dating of these texts deal with the question of whether they are early (before the Gospel era) or late (right after the Gospel era). In either case, most scholars agree that these texts were at least contemporaries of some of the later New Testament texts, and so I will look briefly at what they have to say about the disciples.

The Gospel of Thomas

Some scholars date this text among our earliest Christian written sources. Indeed, there is a whole school of thought that puts Thomas as a contemporary of Paul’s letters, making it well earlier than any of the Biblical Gospels. Even those who are in the “late camp” on the Gospel of Thomas tend to date it around the same time as books like Revelation, 2 Peter, and Jude.

Regardless of your particular take on that issue, Thomas does mention a few of Jesus’ disciples by name. They are:

Didymus Judas Thomas
Simon Peter

This is eye-opening, to say the least. First, the text agrees with John that Thomas was called Didymus (“the twin”). But it also calls him Judas, which causes one to wonder if there wasn’t some sort of general confusion in early Christianity about disciples named Judas. We now have three different men with that name among Jesus’ disciples in our various sources.

Second, of course, is the inclusion of two female disciples. While the Biblical Gospels seem to downplay the role of women in some cases, it is clear even from those texts that women played a significant role in the ministry of Jesus. All four Biblical Gospels, after all, agree that it was women who first experienced the resurrection. Additionally, Mark tells us that women traveled with Jesus and helped to finance his ministry. These Biblical texts, however, most definitely do not list any women among Jesus’ inner core of twelve disciples.

Yet the Gospel of Thomas does. The reference to Mary does not explicitly call her a disciple (nor does it imply which Mary we are talking about), but the only other people with speaking roles in this Gospel are Jesus or his disciples. Secondly, Salome – the other woman mentioned – is, in fact, explicitly called a disciple in the passage in which she speaks.

If the Gospel of Thomas is an early text (predating the canonical Gospels), this is highly significant. But even if Thomas comes from the late 1st or early 2nd century, it still shows that even in the New Testament era, some Christians believed that Jesus had included women among his inner circle of disciples. It is also worth noting that while none of our New Testament Gospels refer to any women as disciples, both Mary and Salome are mentioned as followers of Jesus by the canonical Gospel writers. Furthermore, Mary (assuming we are talking about Mary Magdalene) figures much more prominently in the canonical Gospels than many of the named male disciples.

The Gospel of Peter

Most experts agree that this Gospel is a work of the 2nd century, no earlier than 150 C.E., putting it well outside the New Testament era. However, a number of prominent scholars have argued that its writer used early sources that are not found in the New Testament. Since it potentially contains early Christian source material, I will include it here.

The Gospel of Peter is only a fragment of a much longer work, but in the existing text, the following disciples are mentioned:

Simon Peter
Andrew (who is noted to be Peter’s brother)
Levi son of Alphaeus

The interesting reference, of course, is the last one. Recall that Mark first tells the story of Levi son of Alphaeus, calling him a tax collector who becomes a disciple of Jesus. But Mark then fails to include him later on his list of disciples. Luke follows him in this, but omits the “son of Alphaeus” phrase. Matthew, on the other hand, used Mark’s story of Levi, but changed his name to Matthew, and also didn’t include the “son of Alphaeus” phrase. The writer of the Gospel of Matthew essentially connected Mark’s Levi the tax collector with the disciple Matthew.

Remember also that all three of those Gospels included another disciple named James son of Alphaeus.

In the Gospel of Peter, we again see Levi son of Alphaeus, and again he is clearly one of the twelve disciples.

The Didache and the Egerton Gospel

Just a brief note here. Like the two preceding Gospels, the dating of these two texts is hotly debated. Some very prominent scholars, however, have argued that these two documents may represent our very earliest Christian writings, predating even the letters of Paul, and dated somewhere within 10-15 years of Jesus’ death. The Didache is a short series of Christian teachings, and the Egerton Gospel is just a fragment with four brief stories – two that have loose parallels in the canonical Gospels, and two that are completely unknown in any other source.

Since these texts might represent early Christian material, it is important to include them in this survey. The only thing that need be noted, however, is that neither text names any disciples. The Didache, in fact, doesn’t even use the name of Jesus, but instead refers to him as “Lord.”


The short answer to that question, of course, is that we do not know for sure. Putting together all lists from all available sources, we get the following (the number of sources attesting the name is given in parentheses):

Simon Peter (7)
Andrew the brother of Peter (5)
James son of Zebedee (4)
John son of Zebedee and brother of James (5)
Philip (4)
Bartholomew (3)
Nathanael (1)
Judas James (2)
Judas Iscariot (4)
James son of Alphaeus (3)
Matthew (4)
Levi son of Alphaeus (3)
Simon the Canaanite/Zealot (3)
Thomas (5)
Thaddaeus (2)
Mary (1)
Salome (1)

If we cull this list down based on the most source references, it seems clear that Jesus’ inner circle included Simon Peter, his brother Andrew, the brothers James and John sons of Zebedee, Thomas, Philip, Judas Iscariot, and Matthew.

That’s eight that we can say with a fair amount of certainty, historically-speaking.

More than likely, we can add James son of Alphaeus to that list, as well as Simon the Canaanite (Luke’s slight change of name notwithstanding).

After that, it gets foggy. Church doctrine has long paired Nathanael with Bartholomew, Levi son of Alphaeus with Matthew, and Judas James with Thaddaeus. Mary and Salome, of course, have never even been considered by the Church.

The arguments presented for these pairings go from fairly reasonable to fairly unreasonable. Nathanael is paired with Bartholomew primarily because of his association with Philip and because of the issue between first names and last names. In Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Philip and Bartholomew only appear in the official “lists.” However, they are always listed one after the other. This has led to the argument that they were understood to be a “pair.” In John, we have no Bartholomew, but we do have a Nathanael, and he is paired together with Philip in a story where Philip meets Jesus, then goes and tells Nathanael about him and brings Nathanael into the fold, as it were.

The argument against this theory is simply that it is looking for connections where none really exist. Matthew and Luke pair Philip and Bartholomew together because that’s what Mark did, and they were using Mark as a source. Furthermore, the disciples Thomas and Matthew are always paired together in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and no one supposes that they were a “pair.”

The second argument in regards to Nathanael and Bartholomew deals with first names and last names. Nathanael is a first name, while Bartholomew is a last name – it literally means “son of Ptolemy.” The argument suggests that John used Bartholomew’s first name (Nathanael), while the other Gospel writers referred to him by his last name. Thus, his name may have been Nathanael son of Ptolemy.

In regards to Levi and Matthew, the primary reason for identifying these two people together is because the writer of the Gospel of Matthew did it himself. When copying Mark’s Gospel, he changed the name of Levi to Matthew and went on to note that the disciple Matthew was the same tax collector who had been called earlier by Jesus. Remember that in Mark and Luke, Jesus calls Levi the tax collector, but then Levi is not listed among the twelve disciples. It is accepted that the “son of Alphaeus” designation given by Mark and the Gospel of Peter is accurate, but simply not mentioned by the other Gospel writers.

Judas James is identified with Thaddaeus because those are the only two apostles left. Mark and Matthew name Thaddaeus. Luke and John mention a second Judas (with Luke adding James to the name).

In all three of these scenarios, and especially the last one, it appears that two differently named people are being equated with one another simply in the service of Biblical literalism. Since it is not possible that the Bible contains errors, these problems must be reconciled. In the case of Thaddaeus in particular, how someone can be known as Thaddaeus, Lebbaeus, Judas, and James, all at once, is simply glossed over.

Thus, we get the official Church list:

James son of Zebedee
John son of Zebedee
Nathanael Bartholomew
Levi Matthew son of Alphaeus
Thomas the Twin
Judas Iscariot
Lebbaeus Thaddaeus Judas James
James son of Alphaeus
Simon the Canaanite/Zealot

Mary and Salome have easily been rejected by Church tradition because they are only named disciples by the Gospel of Thomas, a text that itself was long ago rejected by the Church as heretical (no doubt, in part, because it did things like claim women were disciples).

It is interesting to note, however, that if we include the four Gospel references to Mary Magdalene as a close follower of Jesus, and add to that the reference from the Gospel of Thomas to Mary as a disciple, Mary is testified as often in our earliest sources as Andrew, Thomas, and James son of Zebedee, and more often than any remaining disciple except Peter (who leads the pack with testimonies in all of our earliest sources).

Even regarding Salome, if we count her reference in Mark (where she is referenced twice), and add that to the reference in Thomas, Salome – a name most Christians have probably never even heard in regards to Jesus – is mentioned as often as Thaddaeus and Judas James, and more often than Nathanael. The fact that Salome is mentioned by name twice in the same Gospel (Mark) also puts her head of most of the other disciples, who are typically only mentioned once – in the official “list” – and then never heard from again.

As to the question of whether James son of Alphaeus and Levi Matthew son of Alphaeus were brothers, Church tradition has left that question unanswered. They have, however, connected James son of Alphaeus to James the Just and James the Lesser. James the Just is noted by both Paul and Luke to have been the leader of the Church in Jerusalem during the first generation of Christianity, and also the brother of Jesus. How the brother of Jesus could have been the “son of Alphaeus” is anyone’s guess, but the Catholic Encyclopedia makes the claim regardless. James the Lesser, on the other hand, is mentioned in the Gospels as the son of one of the several Mary’s who followed Jesus. It is not unreasonable to connect James son of Alphaeus to this person, but there is certainly nothing in the text to imply the connection.

Lebbaeus Thaddaeus Judas James, on the other hand, has been connected to the writer of the letter of Jude. That text starts out with the assertion that it is being written by “Judas brother of James.” In this case, “brother of” is explicitly stated in the text. However, this letter is generally dated to the early part of the 2nd century, making it far too late to have come from a disciple of Jesus, and the writer even refers to the disciples in the third person (“…remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus foretold…”).

And just to make it a bit more confusing, he is referred to in Catholic circles as St. Jude – to ensure you don’t confuse him with Judas Iscariot.

So now it’s Lebbaeus Thaddaeus Judas James Jude.

I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m skeptical.


Many scholars over the years have argued that the Gospel depictions of Jesus surrounded by an inner circle of twelve disciples is likely legendary. They point out that twelve was a sacred number to ancient Jews, a number strongly associated with God, representing the original twelve tribes of Israel, the original Jewish patriarchs who fathered God’s people. It would be easy to see how Jewish followers of Jesus may have begun to imagine an inner circle of twelve disciples, twelve men symbolizing the original Hebrew fathers, twelve men representing the new covenant God was making with humanity, twelve patriarchs going out into the world to father a whole new flock of God’s people.

Such arguments draw evidence from the points I have outlined above. While most of the names of the twelve disciples are generally agreed upon among our earliest sources, there is a clear sense of variation in the earliest oral and textual traditions that informed our existing documents. No fewer than five of the twelve disciples have name variations among our sources. At least three of those twelve have names that are explicitly opposed from text to text. One disciple has a different name or a name variation in all four sources he is mentioned in, and has been given a fifth name by Church tradition.

Whether Jesus actually had twelve disciples is ultimately impossible to prove one way or the other. My personal belief is that the number twelve is probably a later development (although fairly “early” in the post-resurrection Christian movement), and Jesus likely had a varying number of “inner circle” disciples that traveled with him throughout his ministry, including both men and women. Some were there among his closest companions for most of the time – Peter, Andrew, James, John, Mary, perhaps Thomas and Philip. Others may have come and gone – a Levi here, a Bartholomew there, a Judas here, a Salome or Joanne or Nathanael there. Very good arguments have been made suggesting that the entire character of Judas Iscariot is legendary, but I am undecided on that particular issue. I may share that argument in a later essay.

My personal feelings aside, the textual evidence suggests strongly that even the earliest Christians weren’t quite sure about the existence of the twelve, or were at the very least in disagreement about who they were.


Anonymous said...

Thank you. I have always suspected that women were included in the number of the closest followers of Jesus, and the church has stolen the history away from us.

Scott said...

Thanks for reading, Anon. The suppression of the role of women in Jesus' ministry and in the rise of Christianity after his death is one of the Church's greatest failures, in my opinion. It is clear that women played a central role in Jesus' ministry, and it is equally clear that women were vitally important leaders in Paul's ministry. It's a shame that it has taken nearly 2,000 years for that reality to come back to light.

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