The Names of the 12 Disciples
During his mortal ministry, the Savior and his teachings were often met with ridicule, scorn, and outright opposition. But despite these prevailing attitudes, the truth is that Jesus was not unpopular. In fact, during the few short years between his baptism and crucifixion, he amassed a sizable following. There was no denying Jesus’ crowd appeal. And although some sought him out because he had a reputation for freely sharing food and supplies (John 6: 26), and others were simply drawn to the spectacle of a man who was purported to perform miracles, among those crowds were a number of dedicated disciples who truly took Christ’s message into their hearts.
Today, we’d like to focus on the most prominent of those disciples: the 12 Disciples of Jesus, also called ‘apostles,’ who would become leaders in the burgeoning ideology of Christianity.
Jesus Calls the 12 Disciples
As the Savior began to publicly teach and share his unique message, he also started looking for men with the capacity to become teachers themselves. Some of these men were called very dramatically, such as was the case when Jesus approached a group of humble fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, and with relatively few words convinced them to leave their professions behind them and follow him (Matthew 4:18-22; Luke 5:1-11). Others likely experienced less-sensational conversions, or set themselves apart from the rest of Christ’s followers by displaying important insight, faith, and/or talents.
Whatever their origins, it’s clear that Jesus saw in them special destinies. One morning, after having spent the entire night on a mountain praying with God the Father, Jesus called his disciples together. He selected 12 of them, and named them apostles in his service (Luke 6:12-13). The word ‘apostle’ comes from the Greek term ἀπόστολος (apóstolos), which means “messenger” or “delegate” — a title that would take on even more special significance following the Savior’s death and resurrection, when the responsibility for sharing the Gospel would fall to the Apostles themselves.
Jesus’ 12 Disciples’ Names
Who were the 12 Apostles? Unfortunately, that can be a difficult question to answer. While we have relatively clear records of their names and some other basic information, the scriptures don’t share as many details regarding their lives and ministries as we might wish. Still, there are some things we know, some things that are suggested by other histories or traditions, and some things we may be able to speculate on.
The Names of the 12 Disciples
Here, we list the names of each of the original 12 Apostles, along with other important information about their lives and works.
Often considered the foremost and most dedicated of Jesus’ original disciples, Peter nevertheless represents a dichotomy of faith that many modern Christians can relate to. Originally known as “Simon” or “Simeon,” this early follower of Christ demonstrated enormous dedication throughout his life. He was among the disciples who abandoned their occupations (in his case, as a fisherman) and “left everything and followed him” (Luke 5: 10). Peter likewise was the only apostle to follow Jesus out onto the stormy Sea of Galilee when he saw the Savior walking on water.
But with Peter’s great faith also came some doubt and some hesitancy. Although he walked on water, he allowed his fears to take hold and began to slip under. Additionally, when Christ was being put on trial, Peter famously denied knowing him to no fewer than three people in a single night.
Thankfully, Peter overcame his weaknesses, and following Jesus’ resurrection, Peter went on to become one of the most powerful leaders of the early church — a destiny that had been foreseen by the Savior himself when he changed Simon’s name to “Peter” (a name which means rock), and said to him “And I tell you that you are Peter. On this rock I will build My church. The powers of hell will not be able to have power over My church” (Matthew 16:18).
After Christ was resurrected and had spent time further teaching his chosen disciples, he ascended into heaven and left the Christian church in the hands of his successors. Peter rose to his responsibilities, spreading the gospel, performing miracles, and working tirelessly to unite and guide all who believed. Tradition suggests that eventually Peter was martyred in Rome, crucified upside down at his own request, because he felt unworthy to die in the same way that Jesus had.
Another leader among the Disciples, John is well known as the author of not only the Gospel of John, but also of the First, Second, and Third Books of John (early-church epistles). John may also have written the Book of Revelation, though some biblical scholars suggest that the author of this book is actually a different John. In any case, John is responsible for more sections of the New Testament than any other apostle.
John was another of the fishermen who left their nets to follow Jesus. Together with Peter and James, John formed the most-trusted ‘inner circle’ of Christ’s ministry. John is likely also the “disciple whom Jesus loved” mentioned several times throughout the Gospel of John. If this is the case, we can surmise a special friendship between Jesus and John. Jesus even tasked this beloved disciple with taking care of his aging mother, a request made from the cross during the Savior’s final hours of mortality. He was also the first of the Apostles to reach the empty tomb after it had been reported that the Savior had risen from death.
Like the other apostles, John continued to guide the fledgling Church. Tradition suggests that he may have been saved from martyrdom, and lived out the rest of his days preaching the gospel and fighting against incorrect practices in the Church.
James (The Greater)
The brother of the Apostle John, James had also been a fisherman before being called to the work. James was the third member of Christ’s inner-circle of apostles, and was active and present for most of the major events in Christ’s ministry. Together with his Brother, James was a powerful force for Christianity; the Savior called them the “the Sons of Thunder.” James is sometimes also called “James the Greater,” to distinguish him from the other Apostle who was also named James.
Unfortunately, James did not live to see the Church’s significant expansion following the Savior’s death and resurrection; he was the first of the 12 Apostles to be martyred, and the Bible describes his death in Acts 12, where we learn that he was executed by sword by order of King Herod Agrippa I.
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark both place Andrew as one of the fishermen Jesus called away to follow him. The Gospel of John also states that Andrew had been a disciple of John the Baptist before following the Savior. Andrew was present at many events through the Savior's ministry, and must have held a position of responsibility among the 12 Disciples; when the Apostle Philip wanted to report to Jesus that certain Greeks were interested in meeting with him, Phillip first took the matter to Andrew, before the two of them went to speak to Jesus (John 12:20-22).
Like the other apostles, Andrew worked hard to spread the gospel throughout the remainder of his life. Some traditions state that Andrew’s preaching took him as far as Eastern Europe. Tradition also suggests that he was martyred by crucifixion, and like his brother Peter, requested a different type of cross (in this case, an x-shaped cross) because he was unworthy to die in the same manner as Jesus.
There are four different people named Philip in the Bible, which can make it difficult to figure out exactly who Philip the Apostle actually was. This is particularly true when compared to Philip in Acts (known as Philip the Evangelist) who was appointed to help with distributing food among the faithful, and who later preached in Samaria and Caesarea.
Philip the Apostle was one of the first disciples of Jesus, having been called to the work directly following Peter, James, John, and Andrew. Also like several of the other apostles, Philip's calling seemed to come out of the blue, with the scriptures saying that Jesus went and found him when the Savior was getting ready to leave for Galilee.
From the very beginning, Philip was eager to share the Gospel; almost the first thing we learn about him is that he went and found Nathanael (who is usually identified as Bartholomew, who would himself become one of the 12 Apostles), and brought him to meet Jesus. Christian traditions suggest that he may have spread the gospel through Greece and into parts of what is now modern-day Turkey. Tradition is less sure on how Philip died; some sources suggest that he lived until old age, while others claim that he was stoned, beheaded, or crucified upside down.
Bartholomew is another interesting case of identity in the Bible. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, as well as in Acts, Bartholomew is identified as one of the 12 Disciples. In the Gospel of John, however, there is no mention of Bartholomew, with the name Nathanael taking its place. As such, many believe that the Nathaniel that was brought into the church by Philip is also Bartholomew who later became an apostle.
If this is the case, then Bartholomew/Nathanael was certainly a good and just man, even before meeting the Savior. Jesus himself described him as “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” (John 1:47). And although Nathanael was skeptical that the Messiah could have come out of Nazareth (asking his friend Philip “Can anything good come from there?”), he was quickly converted when Jesus revealed knowledge that he could not have had access to without divine insight.
It’s believed that Bartholomew went on to preach in Ethiopia, Mesopotamia, Parthia (modern Iran), Lycaonia (modern Turkey), and Armenia, and that he helped convert Polymius, King of Armenia. Accounts of his death vary widely, with some claiming that he was skinned and then beheaded, while other suggest that he may have been drowned or crucified.
It’s unfortunate that Thomas’ primary claim to fame is his doubt, considering his devotion to the Savior. The Gospel of John shares an account near the end of Christ’s mortal ministry, where it came to the attention of the apostles that certain elements in Judea were conspiring to have Jesus killed. When it became apparent that Jesus planned to journey to Judea despite the dangers, Thomas stood firmly by his side, saying “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).
That said, the most memorable account of Thomas occurs after the Savior’s resurrection. Jesus had already appeared to the other apostles, but Thomas refused to believe them until he had the opportunity to see Christ’s wounds from the crucifixion with his own eyes and to touch them with his hands. The Savior obliged, appearing to “doubting Thomas,” and mercifully providing the proof that Thomas thought he needed. Nevertheless, Jesus went on to emphasize that faith without proof was the greater blessing.
Thomas apparently bounced back from his doubt, and became a powerful advocate for Christianity outside of the Middle East. Tradition states that Thomas later preached in India, and was killed by being pierced with a spear, or possibly several spears.
Traditionally attributed as the author of the Gospel of Matthew (though many modern scholars refute this claim) the Apostle Matthew was nonetheless a noteworthy historical figure who was willing to give up a life of privilege to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The scriptures describe him as a tax collector based in Capernaum, and also identify him using the name Levi.
Although he was ostracized by his countrymen for working with Rome, he was nevertheless a man who was honest with his own heart. When Jesus said to him “Follow me,” Matthew left everything behind. He remained true to the Savior throughout his ministry, and continued to preach in different countries following Christ’s ascension. There is little consensus regarding how Matthew died, with some believing that he died of natural causes, while other claim that he was martyred — either burned, beheaded, stabbed, or stoned.
James (Son of Alphaeus)
Often identified as the same person as James the Less and James the Brother of Jesus, James, Son of Alphaeus is one of the more enigmatic of the 12 Disciples. All that we know for sure about him was that he was called to be an apostle, and that he was present with the other Apostles in the upper room in Jerusalem after Christ ascended to heaven.
Tradition holds that he went on to preach in Egypt. He may have been crucified in the city of Ostrakine, or he may have been pushed from the pinnacle of the temple he was preaching at and then beaten to death.
Judas (The Greater)
Another of the lesser-known and less-understood apostles, Judas the greater (also called Jude, and often identified with Thaddeus), is referenced only briefly in the Bible. We know that he attended Christ’s Last Supper, and that he asked the Savior why he would not openly reveal himself to the entire world.
There is no record of his actions following the Ascension, but tradition suggests that he may have preached in Mesopotamia and Persia. He may also have been killed with an ax.
Simon (The Zealot)
Even less is known about the Apostle Simon than about James Son of Alphaeus or Judas the Greater. In fact, he is mentioned only three times in the Bible, and only when listing the names of the 12 Disciples.
He is, however, identified as “Simon the Zealot” in the Synoptic Gospels. Unfortunately, we don’t have much information on why he held such a title. Some scholars speculate that he may have once belonged to an extremist sect within the Jewish population, while other argue that “zealot” in this case merely describes his zealousness and enthusiasm for Christ’s teachings. There are many different versions of Simon’s death through various traditions, ranging from him dying of old age, to being martyred by being sawed in half.
One of most widely-known of the apostles, Judas Iscariot’s notoriety comes from his infamy rather than his virtue. Judas was the apostle who betrayed the Savior and sold him into execution for the insignificant price of thirty pieces of silver.
But despite recognizing his name, modern Christians have very little to help us understand his motivation. Was he just a thief and opportunist (as suggested in John 12:5-6), or was he lost and confused, misguidedly trying to force Jesus to reveal himself in power and authority, and finally eliminate the Roman threat? Whatever his reasons, Judas Iscariot quickly regretted his actions in betraying Jesus; in both of the scriptural accounts of his death, he took his own life out of grief for what he had done.
Understanding Jesus’ 12 Disciples
The names of the 12 Disciples are not difficult to find in the Bible. Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew/Nathanael, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas the Greater, and Judas Iscariot are names that have been closely associated with the Savior’s teaching since the earliest days of Christianity. But who are the Apostles? And more importantly, what can we learn from them?
Each of the 12 Disciples represent an opportunity for edification. By studying the individuals whom Jesus chose to surround himself with and to carry on his work, we can see many of the qualities that define a true follower of Christ.
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