We have long been fascinated by the apostles,
the chosen circle of associates who travelled with Jesus during
his earthly ministry. Tradition and legends through the centuries
have embellished the stories of their activities in the early
days of the Church. But the kernels of truth behind these legends
lie in the Bible.
Scripture tells us that there were 12 of them:
Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew (called Nathaniel
in John—s Gospel), Matthew (Levi), Thomas, James, Jude, Simon
and Judas. The number 12 was significant, meaning completeness
in the minds of the writers of the Scriptures. The 12 tribes
of Israel represented the whole of the Chosen People. Luke tells
us in the Acts of the Apostles that after the Ascension of Jesus
and they had been reduced to 11 (Judas Iscariot had disappeared
from the scene), the number was made full again by the addition
These men were especially chosen by Jesus to
take his message to the whole world. They were with him from
the beginning of his public ministry; he sent them out two-by-two
to preach the need for repentance and to cure the sick; he made
little retreats with them to give them special instruction;
he celebrated the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist
with them the night before he died; they were with him in the
garden of Gethsemane at the time of his arrest; they were the
first witnesses of the resurrection and received his gift of
the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. From these 12 apostles, the first
communities of the Church began to gather and to grow and then
to change the world.
Who Were They?
Just who were these men, where did they come
from and why were they chosen? The classified advertisement
of the time might have listed under positions available: "Wanted:
12 men willing to give up careers and homes to spread an important
message. Requires dangerous travel. No pay, no pension, no power
or prestige attached to the job. Must cope well with rejection.
Death by execution probable. Message extremely worthwhile."
Was there something about these men that made
them likely candidates for the task? Would they have answered
such a job description? The answer is probably yes.
We know from the Gospels that several of them
were already searching for truth. They were followers of John
the Baptist. Andrew is named as a disciple of the Baptist and
scholars suggest that John was the other disciple who immediately
followed Jesus and stayed with him (John 1:38-40). It is probable
that Peter was among John—s disciples since Andrew "first thing"
goes to find him. Presumably Philip and Nathaniel (Bartholomew)
were there too, since they joined the company before the return
The place where John was baptizing is disputed,
but many scholars think that he was conducting his ministry
at Batanea some 30 miles across the Jordan. It was on the main
route from Babylon to Jerusalem and much traveled by pilgrims
en route from Babylon to Jerusalem for the great pilgrim feasts.
The Baptist was calling people to repentance and was himself
anxiously awaiting the coming of the Messiah. His followers
presumably shared his beliefs and expectations. These men were
conscientiously religious Jews.
We know personal and occupational information
about them as well. There may have been three sets of brothers
among them: Peter and Andrew; James and John; Matthew and James
the less (both referred to as sons of Alphaeus). Some have surmised
that Jude and Simon were brothers also.
We know from John—s Gospel (21:1-3) that at least
six of them were fishermen: Peter, Andrew, James, John, Thomas,
Nathaniel (Bartholomew). James and John and their father, Zebedee,
owned a fleet of fishing vessels, and Peter and Andrew may have
been partners with them.
Bethsaida, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee,
may have been the hometown of five of the apostles. Fishermen—s
houses have been unearthed there with courtyards big enough
to accommodate a hundred people. Found among the ruins of these
houses were not only fish hooks, anchors and needles to mend
nets, but golden jewelry and wine jars that had been imported
from the island of Rhodes (the Bordeaux of the time), suggesting
that fishing was a thriving and lucrative industry in Galilee.
Matthew was a tax collector (also a profitable
business) with an office at Capernaum, right on the Sea of Galilee.
Jesus spent a great deal of time during his public ministry
in Capernaum, a border town just inside the territory of Herod
Antipas. All the fish caught in the sea were theoretically owned
by Herod and taxes had to be paid on all catches. Matthew would
not have been a favorite with the fishermen.
We do not know the occupations of Philip, Simon
or Judas, but we do know something of their associations with
groups active in that day. Simon is referred to as a Zealot,
a member of a political group determined to get rid of the Romans.
It is surmised that Judas also had Zealot leanings, the name
"Iscariot" referring to a small dagger often used in political
assassinations. His name, however, may also suggest that he
came from Kerioth, a small town south of Hebron.
Religion and Politics
What did being a Jew mean in the first century?
Judaism was not just one monolithic religion but was quite pluralistic.
The three main sects within Judaism were the Sadducees,
Pharisees and Essenes. All three groups had different interpretations
of the Law.
The Sadducees, the priestly aristocracy, accepted
the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, but rejected the
authority of the Prophets and the Writings, the other divisions
of the sacred Scriptures recognized at that time. They laid
particular store by Temple worship, where the sacrificial system
was seen as a means of atoning for sins both individual and
communal. They did not believe in the resurrection of the dead
and seem to have felt that God gave out all rewards in this
The historian Josephus tells us that the Sadducees
found their adherents primarily among the wealthy and not among
the ordinary people.
The Essenes strongly disagreed with the Sadducees.
They were strict observers of the Law, and they disapproved
of Temple worship and no longer offered sacrifice, but practiced
ritual bathing as a way to forgive sins. They were mostly celibate
but had many adherents who were married and lived out in various
towns. There were groups of them at Bethany (home of Martha,
Mary and Lazarus). They had a community at Qumran and at Mount
Zion (believed by many to be the place where Jesus celebrated
the Last Supper). They used a different calendar than the other
groups. Theirs had 364 days and they celebrated the Passover
feast always on a Tuesday night. Documents found among the Dead
Sea Scrolls at Qumran suggest that the Essenes were expecting
two Messiahs, a priestly one and a prophet.
The Pharisees were the "separate ones," scrupulous
observers of the Law. Their enthusiasm was such that they surrounded
the basic laws of the Torah (613 of them) with still other laws
in order to safeguard it. As much emphasis was put on oral law
as on written. One could scarcely move without infringing on
the law in some way or other. They were looking for a Messiah
who would bring complete reform, politically and religiously.
The political climate was tense. Palestine was
under the thumb of Rome. The Romans were often cruel and were
greatly resented by the Jews. The Zealots had been formed with
the express idea of ousting the Romans as early as 47 B.C. and
they would rise in rebellion in 67 C.E. These patriots believed
that the Messiah when he came would be a military leader in
the line of David. Gamla, a town not too far from Bethsaida,
was a haunt for Zealots. (It was from here that the Jewish revolt
of 67 C.E. would start.)
To which sect or political party did the apostles
belong? Apart from telling us that Simon was a Zealot, the Gospels
do not say. Perhaps they were smorgasborders, selecting what
they liked. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that he himself
belonged to all three sects at various times.
Men of Character
There was great diversity among the Twelve. Peter
was the undoubted leader, outspoken, inquisitive, courageous,
emotional, impetuous, sometimes confused, but always loyal and
trusting. John, who is usually associated with Peter, was equally
trusting, loving and loyal. (He was the only one present while
Jesus died.) He and his brother James had given up much to follow
Jesus and they were in his "inner circle." Their pushy mother
was not about to let them go easily: "Who will sit at your right
and who on your left when you come into your kingdom?" she asks
Andrew is often mentioned with the first three,
but is conspicuously absent at important events like the Transfiguration
and the raising of the daughter of Jairus. However, he was the
one who brought the boy with the loaves and fishes to Jesus.
He has a Greek name meaning "manly," and he is usually mentioned
with the other apostle who had a Greek name, Philip.
Philip started out with enthusiasm but seemed
to be less trusting as time went on so that Jesus had to rebuke
him, "Philip, after I have been with you all this time, you
still do not know me?" He is the one who brought Nathaniel to
Jesus. Nathaniel was perhaps a student. Jesus says to him, "I
saw you while you were still under the fig tree," possibly referring
to the place where classes were conducted.
Matthew, the tax collector, seems to have wanted
to be accepted by the group and we presume he eventually was.
Thomas needed to be convinced. James and Jude were conspicuously
quiet. Simon and Judas Iscariot may have been restless, wanting
Jesus to get on with things.
Journeying With Jesus
One can well imagine the arguments as they traveled
along the roads of Galilee with the master. We are privy to
some of them: surprise at seeing him talking to a woman at the
Samaritan well; astonishment that he should ask them to feed
people; complaining that some people who were not his disciples
were casting out demons; arguing over who was the greatest;
failing to understand much of his teaching; chasing others,
especially children, away.
One can see them journeying to Caesarea Philippi,
a city built in the north by Herod Philip and used by the Roman
soldiers for rest and relaxation. The two-day journey there
from the lake would have afforded time for talk, explanation
and bonding. When they got there, standing before the statue
of the Greek God Pan set in the rocks, by the cave which reputedly
led to Hades (the Greek underworld), Jesus asked "Who do men
say that I am?" It was Peter who answered, "You are the Messiah."
Jesus rewarded him with, "You are Peter and upon this rock I
will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail
Expectations and Realizations
One of the mysteries of the Gospels is whether
the apostles ever understood who Jesus was or what to expect
from him during his lifetime.
They displayed amazement when Jesus told them
of his impending death; they argued about which of them was
the greatest; they asked if he would restore the kingdom again
to Israel; they slept when he most needed their comfort; they
ran away when they saw that he was in danger; they were so demoralized
by his death that they hid and bolted the doors of the room
in which they were staying. Even after the resurrection, John—s
Gospel tells us, "They still did not understand from Scripture
that Jesus had to rise from the dead."
When the Passover celebrations in Jerusalem were
over, the eleven returned to Galilee to normalize their lives.
John—s Gospel tells us that they went fishing. They were net
fishermen, using cast-nets which were most effectively used
One early morning returning home with no catch,
they saw a figure on the beach. "Cast your nets on the starboard
side," he said. They did, and they caught 153 fish. Then they
breakfasted on bread and fish which Jesus prepared over a charcoal
Matthew—s Gospel tells us that he took them to
a mountain top and declared: "Go and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and
of the Holy Spirit.... I will be with you always to the very
end of the earth."
It would not be an easy task for any of them.
From the Acts of the Apostles we learn something about just
three of them, Peter, John and James, but tradition has it that
all (except John) met their death through martyrdom as they
went to spread the message of Jesus. This message would eventually
take over western civilization and influence the world as no
other message ever has.
Next: The Bible—s Human Bridges (by Virginia