What Does the Bible Say About the Twelve Apostles?

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

There were a lot of people that followed Jesus, though some seem to stand out from the rest. They are the ones Jesus not only called, but sent out. These twelve become bearers of the good news of Jesus and the coming kingdom.

When I was researching my novel, Dividing Sword, I needed to dig into these men that weave their way through Beth and Reuben's story. Church tradition gives details of the twelve apostles' ministry, travel, deaths (generally gruesome), and places of burial. I read a fascinating book that attempted to trace the apostles' lives, but most of it was from sources outside the Bible. I'm not saying these traditions or their sources aren't trustworthy, but for those who are skeptical, I was curious to know how much information do we get directly from the Bible about the twelve men Jesus called and sent out.

What made Jesus chose these twelve in particular?

That is the million-dollar question I wish I had an answer for. Scriptures don't really tell us, but we can see from their actions and words in the gospels that it wasn't because these twelve had it all together! The book of Acts describes at least two of the twelve as "uneducated and untrained" (Acts 4:13). They seem like fairly average men, but with an above-average yearning to actively pursue the Messiah.

Jesus didn't choose them lightly, however. We see in Luke 6:12 that right before he chose the twelve, Jesus spent the whole night in prayer.

Who made up the twelve?

Perhaps for the same reason given in Mark 6:7, the apostles are listed in Matthew in groups of two:

“The first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; and James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.” (Matthew 10:1-4)

In Mark this is how they are listed:

“And He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter, and James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means, 'Sons of Thunder'), and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot; and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Him. (Mark 3:16-19)

Then in Luke:

“And when day came, He called His disciples to Him and chose twelve of them, whom He also named as apostles: Simon, whom He also named Peter, and Andrew his brother; and James and John; and Philip and Bartholomew; and Matthew and Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus and Simon who was called the Zealot; Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. (Luke 6:13-16)

John does not give us a list.

Acts give us this list of the eleven:

“When they had entered the city, they went up to the upper room where they were staying; that is, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James.” (Acts 1:13)

There are a couple of things I notice from these lists, from both their similarities and their differences:

Simon Peter is always named first.

I wonder what this says about how Peter was regarded. It does seem as if Peter is given a level of leadership by Jesus himself in John 21:15-17—though this emotional scene is about more than leadership. Several of the other apostles are only mentioned in passing, but Peter's mistakes and successes feature in the gospel accounts, and in the book of Acts we see Peter take a leading role after the day of Pentecost. The first twelve chapters of Acts focus fairly heavily on his actions in the early church.

Nicknames were a thing in Jesus' circle!

We see Jesus gives Simon the name Peter (Rocky), and the brothers James and John get the nickname the “sons of thunder!” What personality traits do you imagine from this colorful nickname?

It isn't uncommon in the scriptures for people to be given new names, such as Abram and Sarai became Abraham and Sarah. In the first century, it also seems common for Jewish people to have a Hebrew name and a Greek name, and perhaps even an Aramaic name too! I talked about Bible names in a previous newsletter, and here are some of the names I referenced:

Peter is a Greek name, and he's also called Simon, which is Hebrew, and Cephas, which is Aramaic. (Matthew 4:18; 1 Corinthians 9:5; Galatians 1:18)

Matthew might also be called Levi. (Matthew 9:9; Mark 2:14)

Joseph is also called Barsabbas and Justus (Acts 1:23)