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The Twelve Apostles

by Elizabeth McNamer

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 of Matthias.

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 to Galilee.

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 life.

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 Jesus.

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 against it."

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 at night.

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 fire.

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.

Elizabeth McNamer, one of the general editors of Scripture From Scratch and a frequent contributor, spends each June working at an archeological dig in Bethsaida. She teaches Scripture at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana.

Next: The Bible—s Human Bridges (by Virginia Smith)



Living the Scriptures

The apostles were commissioned by Jesus to take his message to the whole world. All but one of them lost his life doing so. "Love," someone has said, "is a costly proposition." We are expected to continue taking that message. What are you doing to spread the important message of Christianity?



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