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The Other Apostles

by Barbara Reid, O.P.

Can you name the apostles? If you are old enough to remember memorizing the list of apostles from the Baltimore Catechism, you would probably begin with "Peter, Andrew, James and John" and work your way through the list of the Twelve.

Indeed, the Synoptic Gospels each give a list of twelve apostles (Mark 3:13-19; Matthew 10:1-4; Luke 6:13-16) as does Acts 1:13-14, each of which varies slightly. This is, however, only a part of the picture of the apostolic ministry in the early Church. In this issue of Scripture From Scratch we take a broader look at the apostles.

The noun "apostle" (apostolos) derives from the Greek verb apostello, which means "to send." Accordingly, an apostle is "one sent," that is, an envoy or a missionary. The word did not originate with Christians, but is found in secular Greek literature, where it refers to a bearer of a message (e.g., Herodotus 1.21; Plato, Ep. 7.346a).

The verb is also found in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) at Ezra 7:14 and Daniel 5:24. In the early third century Origen defined the term this way: "Everyone who is sent by someone is an apostle of the one who sent them" (Jo 32:17). In the New Testament, the purpose for the sending is to carry on the mission of Jesus.

The Synoptic Gospels

In the New Testament there are differing understandings of how one gets to be an apostle. In the Synoptic Gospels there are twelve men called by Jesus "to be with him" and sent "to preach and to have authority to drive out demons" (Mark 3:15; similarly Matthew 10:1-2; Luke 6:13; 9:1-2).

Yet these functions are not exclusive to the Twelve. In Mark's Gospel, for example, there are many others in addition to the Twelve who follow Jesus, including Bartimaeus (10:52) and crowds (2:15; 3:7; 5:24; 8:34; 11:9). Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome followed both in Galilee and all the way to Jesus' crucifixion in Jerusalem (15:40-41). And another exorcist who is not one of the Twelve is able to drive out demons, though this does not sit well with Jesus' followers (Mark 9:38-41).

As for proclaiming the Good News, the Twelve are not the only followers who are commissioned by Jesus to do so. When the man who had been healed of a legion of demons wanted to stay with Jesus, he sent him instead, saying, "Go home to your family and announce to them all that the Lord in his pity has done for you." The man then went off "and began to proclaim (keryssein) in the Decapolis what Jesus had done for him; and all were amazed" (Mark 5:19-20).

Similarly, the man who had been healed of leprosy (1:45) and the one healed of deafness and a speech impediment (7:36) proclaimed (keryssein) what Jesus had done, though in these latter instances, they were not sent by Jesus to do so.

In the closing scene of Mark's Gospel the heavenly messenger clothed in white commissions Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome to "go and tell [Jesus'] disciples and Peter, 'He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you'" (16:7). This Gospel ends, however, with the women saying nothing to anyone out of fear. In this way Mark leaves the story open-ended, inviting his readers to take up the commission to go forth and proclaim.

In the Gospel of Matthew the women are commissioned to tell the other disciples both by the angel at the tomb (28:7) and directly by the risen Christ (28:10). That they do fulfill this directive is implied by 28:8, where they run to tell the disciples, and 28:16, where the eleven go to Galilee as they were directed. Luke relates that the women "told all this to the eleven and to the rest" (24:9-10) but they were not believed (24:11).

The Gospel of John

In the Fourth Gospel the word apostle never appears. Likewise, the Twelve do not play the role that they have in the Synoptic tradition. There is no story of the call of the Twelve (although there is an allusion to it in 6:70), nor of their being sent out on mission. The Twelve only appear in the scene after the feeding of the 5,000, where Jesus asks them if they also want to go away (6:67). In this same episode Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, is identified as one of the Twelve, as is Thomas the doubter in the postresurrection appearance of Jesus to the disciples (20:24). These few allusions to the Twelve appear to be traces that have remained from the evangelist's source, since the Twelve do not have a distinct function in the Fourth Gospel.

The characters who best exemplify apostleship in the Gospel of John are the Samaritan woman (4:4-42) and Mary Magdalene (20:1-2, 11-18). The woman who Jesus meets at the well engages in theological discussion with him, as she comes to deeper and deeper understanding of who he is. She moves from identification of him simply as a Jew (4:9), to the possibility that he is "greater than our father Jacob" (4:12), a "prophet" (4:19), "Messiah" (4:25, 29), and finally, "savior of the world" (4:42). Just as the fishermen in the Synoptic Gospels leave behind their nets to follow Jesus and to be sent as apostles, so the Samaritan woman leaves her water jar at the well and goes to testify about him to all her townspeople (4:28). Just as the Twelve experience initial success in their mission (e.g., Mark 6:30-33) and cause people to come to Jesus, so does the Samaritan woman (4:39-42).

The account of the empty tomb in the Gospel of John is distinctive in the way it portrays Mary Magdalene as apostle to the apostles. In this Gospel it is not the heavenly messengers who send her to proclaim to the others, but Jesus himself appears to her and commissions her, "go to my brothers and sisters and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' " (20:17). The episode concludes with Mary going and saying to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord" and telling them the things he had said to her (20:18).

Acts and Paul

Although Luke relays the tradition that Jesus sent a further seventy[-two] on mission (Luke 10:1-12), he generally equates the Twelve with "apostles" (Luke 6:13). He tells in Acts 1:15-26 how the Twelve were reconstituted after the death of Judas. Luke's criterion for Judas' replacement is that he be a male (aner) member of the company of believers, who has been an eyewitness from the beginning (1:21-22). Paul, however, clearly has a different understanding of qualifications for apostolic ministry. Interestingly, after James is killed by Herod (Acts 12:1) no replacement is chosen for him. The Twelve disappear from the story after Acts 6:2, and Peter fades from view as spokesperson after 15:7, when James takes over as the leader of the community in Jerusalem, along with the apostles and elders (15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4).

In the letters of Paul there is mention of a number of apostles who are not on the list of the Twelve. The most obvious is Paul himself, who begins most of his letters with a reminder of his apostolic credentials, "Paul, . . . called to be an apostle" (Rom 1:1; similarly 1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:1; Eph 1:1; Col 1:1; 1 Tim 1:1; 2 Tim 1:1; Tit). In 1 Cor 9:1-27, where Paul is defending his apostleship, he asserts that his experience of the risen Christ and his commission to proclaim the gospel (which can be inferred from the fact that the Corinthians have, indeed, been brought to faith by his preaching), are evidence of his call to be an apostle. In his second letter to that community, when his authority is being challenged by others whom Paul asserts are "false apostles" (2 Cor 11:13), he reminds the Corinthians that his authority has been confirmed by the "signs and wonders and mighty works" of a true apostle that were performed among them (2 Cor 12:12). In his letter to the Galatians Paul is particularly insistent that his apostolic commission came directly from Jesus Christ and God the Father (Gal 1:1). Paul understands his particular mission to be apostle to the Gentiles (Rom 11:13; Gal 2:8). He recognizes his unworthiness to be an apostle because of having persecuted the church, but claims the grace of God to be the hard-working apostle he is (1 Cor 15:9-10).

In the same context as this last reference to his unworthiness to be an apostle, Paul lists also Cephas (the Aramaic name for Peter) and the Twelve as apostles (1 Cor 15:5), but mentions as well "James and all the apostles" and the "more than five hundred brothers and sisters" to whom the risen Christ appeared (1 Cor 15:6-7). He also mentions "James the brother of the Lord" in Gal 1:19. Other apostles to whom Paul refers include Apollos (1 Cor 4:9), Barnabas (1 Cor 9:5-6; so also mentioned in Acts 14:4, 14), Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25, note that some translations render apostolos here as "messenger"), Silvanus and Timothy (1 Thessalonians 2:7 with 1:1), and Andronicus and Junia, who were "prominent among the apostles" (Romans 16:7). It is notable that Junia was a woman. Unfortunately we know nothing more of these two "prominent" apostles who were relatives of Paul.

Early Christian Tradition

In the early Church and into the Middle Ages Christian tradition preserved the memory of other apostles in addition to the Twelve. In commentaries on Scripture, liturgical works, novels and literature about the saints, figures such as Thecla, Nino, the Samaritan woman and Mary Magdalene are spoken of approvingly as apostles.

Origen (185-ca.251), for example, spoke of the Samaritan woman as an apostle and evangelist: "Christ sends the woman as an apostle to the inhabitants of the city because his words have inflamed this woman" (Comm. S. Jean 4, 26-27). Such an estimation of her as apostolos as well as "anointed with priesthood" is found in the writings of Theophylact (ca. 1050-1108), the archbishop of Bulgaria (Joh. 4, 28ff [MPG 123, 1241D]). Hippolytus of Rome, who died ca. 235, interprets the empty tomb tradition, "so that women, too, would be Christ's apostles" (Kommentar zum Hohenlied XV 3,1-4 (GCS 1, 350-55).

In the Acts of Thecla, written in Asia Minor in the late second century, Thecla is depicted as an apostle accompanying Paul in his missionary work. A fifth-century work entitled Acts of the Holy Apostle and Witness of Christ, Thecla, attests to the ongoing popularity of the cult of the apostle Thecla. Several works preserve the traditions about Nino, a woman apostle who received her theological education from a woman teacher in Jerusalem, and then was given a cross and commissioned with a blessing by Juvenal of Jerusalem to proclaim the resurrection wherever she may go. Her missionary travels took her to Georgia, where she preached the gospel as a prisoner of war during the reign of Constantine.

Numerous legends and artwork dating into the Middle Ages elaborate on the tradition of Mary Magdalene as apostle to the apostles. In southern France, for example, legends arose about the missionary work there of both Mary Magdalene and Martha, who are said to preach, convert and baptize. Stained-glass windows of the late 13th century in the cathedral at Semur in Burgundy preserved images of these two women preaching.

Fluid Roles

What is clear from the New Testament evidence and the ongoing Christian tradition is that the definition of "apostle" was not uniform in the first communities of believers. While the Gospels narrate the call and sending of Twelve, the picture from Paul's letters is of a whole contingent of apostles sent out to preach and evangelize. There are not yet fixed "job descriptions" for ministers in the early Church. Some, like apostles, are sent away from home to proclaim to others. Others, like the healed man in Mark 5:20, and hosts of house churches, such as Mary (Acts 12:12), Nympha (Col 4:14), and Lydia (Acts 16:40), are to remain at home and announce God's goodness there.

When we try, then, to name the apostles, it is a much bigger challenge than trying to memorize the list of the Twelve. There were also Andronicus, Junia, Barnabas, Apollos, Epaphroditus, Paul, James the brother of the Lord, Silvanus, Timothy, Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan woman, Thecla, Nino and countless others, whose names are now lost to us.

Barbara E. Reid, O.P., holds a Ph.D. in biblical studies from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and is Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She is the author of Parables for Preachers (3 volumes) (Liturgical Press, 1999; 2000; 2001), A Retreat With Luke (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2000), and is New Testament Book Review Editor for the Catholic Biblical Quarterly. She has led a number of CTU's Israel Study Programs and Retreats.


Living the Scriptures  

As you have experienced Christ's call, how are you sent to proclaim the gospel? Are you an apostle who is commissioned to speak good news in a distant place? Or is your calling to make known God's graciousness at home?



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