Contrary to popular belief, the title “apostle” is not limited to the twelve chief male disciples of Jesus the Nazorean plus Paul, nor did it die out in the Apostolic Era of the Church. There were itinerant apostles around up to the early-to-mid second century.
The word “apostle” refers to ‘one who is sent out’; literally, an emissary. Several groups so-designated in the New Testament are of note.
This essay is not about their function or whether they really existed, but about the contradictions in the various lists from different sources of the Early Church.
Groups of Christian apostles
First we should look at the different groups into which those designated as “apostle” were divided by the various writers of works of the New Testament.
The Twelve – Traditionally the disciples who made up his inner circle before the crucifixion. Their identities are the subject of this essay, mostly because no two of the ancient sources agrees on their names. In some cases, only the designation “The Twelve” is given. The number twelve has numerous significance, with Israelite culture in particular referencing the Twelve Tribes.
The Three – ‘James, Cephas, and John’ in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and ‘Peter, James, and John’ in the Synoptic gospels. “James” in the first refers to the “brother of the Lord”, who was often called “James the Just”. In the Synoptics, “James” in the passages where it mentions the Three refers to James, son of Zebedee and brother of John.
The Seventy – According to the Gospel of Luke, these were appointed and given nearly identical instructions to those given the Twelve in the Gospel of Matthew. Several lists have been contrived of their identities, even as the composer of Luke contrived their existence as a group, of which no two agree any more than remotely. Among Jews and Samaritans, the number seventy is symbolic of the Gentile nations of the earth. In some manuscripts, there are seventy-two apostles rather than seventy.
The Seven – In New Testament lore, this refers to the seven men appointed to look after the Hellenistai (Greek-speaking Jews) living in Jerusalem, often called the first deacons. Like the Twelve and the Seventy, the number seven has numerous mystical and philosophical shades of meaning and is likely invented.
Later apostles – The letters of Paul and several ancient church orders from the late first through the second century mention other called “apostle”, sometimes by name.
The Twelve in Christian literature
Now we can look at the contradictions of the various lists of the Twelve.
In the Gospel of Mark, the Twelve are named Simon Peter, Andrew, James bar Zebedee, John bar Zebedee, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James bar Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot. Mark introduced the idea that the Three referred to Peter, James son of Zebedee, and John. Since Paul actually met them and the composer of the Gospel of Mark was an anonymous Alexandrian who likely knew none of them, Paul’s account is probably more accurate.
In the Gospel of Luke, the Twelve are named Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James bar Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas of James, and Judas Iscariot.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the Twelve are named Simon Peter, Andrew, James bar Zebedee, John bar Zebedee, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James bar Alphaeus, Lebbaeus Thaddaeus, Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot.
In the Gospel of John, the Twelve are Simon Peter bar Jonah, Andrew bar Jonah, the two sons of Zebedee, Philip, Nathanael, Thomas Didymus, Judas (not Iscariot), Judas bar Simon Iscariot, and two other disciples unnamed. You may notice this adds up to only eleven.
The Pauline Epistles mention “The Twelve” as a group, and give the names of the apostles James, Cephas, John, Peter, Paul, Apollos, Barnabas, Timothy, Andronicus, Junia, and Silas. Depending on the correct reading of Galatians chapter 2, Cephas and Peter are either the same person or two different people. The oldest manuscripts give the name Cephas at all five points, while many later manuscripts give that name only once.
In the Gospel of the Ebionites, a Jewish Christian gospel quoted by Epiphanius, the Twelve are named Simon, Andrew, James bar Zebedee, John bar Zebedee, Philip, Bartholomew, James bar Alphaeus, Thomas, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas the Iscariot, and Matthew.
In the Doctrina duodecim Apostolorum, a church order of the second century, the apostles are given as James the Just, Simon Cephas, John, Mark, Andrew, Luke, Jude Thomas, Addai (Thaddaeus, identified as one of the seventy-two, or seventy), Aggaeus the disciple of Addai; and also Paul and Timothy.
The Didascalia Apostolorum, a church order of the second century, around 230 CE, begins “We the Twelve” without naming any of those, adding Paul and James the Just. Inserted into Chapter III, “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” names the Twelve as John, Matthew, Peter, Philip, Andrew, Simeon, James, Jude son of James, Nathaniel, Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthias, adding to their ranks as apostles James the Just, Paul, and Addai.
In the Apostolic Church Order of around 300, the Twelve are John, Matthew, Peter, Andrew, Philip, Simon, James, Nathaniel, Thomas, Cephas, Bartholomew, and Judas of James. This is one of the earliest examples to include both “Peter” and “Cephas” among the Twelve. By this time, Galatians, with the alterations, had clearly been distributed throughout Christendom.
In the Apostolic Constitutions, a compilation of church orders compiled around 375 in Antioch, the Twelve are Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James the son of Alpheus, Lebbeus Thaddeus, Simon the Canaanite, and Matthias. To their rank, the compiler adds James “the brother of the Lord, and Bishop of Jerusalem” and Paul “the teacher of the Gentiles”.
In the Epistula Apostolorum, a polemic against Gnostics written in the late fourth to early fifth century, John, Thomas, Peter, Andrew, James, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Nathanael, Judas the Zealot, and Cephas. Some authorities were still confusing the one as two.
In the Testamentum Domini, a church order of fifth century Anatolia, the Apostles are named as Peter, John, Thomas, Matthew, Andrew, Matthias, and “the rest”. The women Mary, Martha, and Salome are treated on the same level and get speaking parts in the preliminary section.
If written today, the Twelve might be called Jim, John, Pete, Andy, Thad, Tom, Phil, Jamie, Matt, Simon, Nate, and Jude, and their leader would be Joshua, or Josh for short. Unless he were Latino, and then it would looked like “Jesus” and be pronounced “HaySOOS”. Josh’s full name would be Joshua Huckleberry Christ; unlike two millennia ago, “Christ” is actually a surname in many parts of the world, in several languages.