Jesus had many followers who chose to believe in his teachings, but within that multitude, he had an inner circle of a dozen men that he selected for the mission of helping him to spread his message. Those men were the apostles, a term which comes from the Greek apostolos (“person sent”). As detailed in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus handpicked them from his larger group of disciples after a night of solitary prayer on a mountaintop. The elite cadre included Simon (Peter), Andrew, James the Greater, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the less, Simon the Zealot, Thaddeus (also variously known as Lebbaeus, Jude or Judas) and Judas Iscariot. Their number was significant; some scholars see it as an allusion to the 12 tribes of Israel.
The apostles’ identity as a group, in some ways, subsumed their individual natures. We only know a limited amount about even the most recognizable ones. Peter and Andrew, who were brothers and worked as fishermen, were Jesus’ first two recruits. He approached them while they were casting their nets into the sea and offered to make them “fishers of men.” James the Greater and his brother John, “the sons of Zebedee,” were fishermen as well. Matthew was a tax collector, whom Jesus saw sitting in his collection booth and recruited with the simple words, “Follow me.”
Thomas’ recruitment isn’t described in the gospels; he’s described as being so loyal to Jesus that he offered to die with him, but has become best known as “doubting Thomas” for initially expressing incredulity at the news of Jesus’ resurrection. Thaddeus’ biggest moment comes at the Last Supper, when he asks Jesus how he will manifest himself secretly to the apostles after his death, but not to the rest of the world. Judas Iscariot is known mostly for stealing money from the apostles’ treasury, and for betraying Jesus and then committing suicide in remorse.
Simon is described in Matthew and Mark as a Canaanite and in Luke as a Zealot, likely for his strict adherence to Jewish law. We know little about Philip, except that he was from the same Galilean town, Bethsaida, as Peter and Andrew, and that he was present when Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and advised him beforehand that it would too expensive to buy food for the crowd.
Two of the apostles are mystery men. The only New Testament mentions of Bartholomew and James the less are in lists of the apostles.
Being an apostle wasn’t an easy job. Not only were expected to travel with Jesus, but they also underwent a sort of on-the-job training in which he honed their minds and spirits to prepare them for the job of continuing his work. In Matthew 10, Jesus gave the apostles a description of their eventual duties as missionaries and instructions on how to perform them. “As ye go, preach, saying, ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils."
As ye go, preach, saying, ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils.
If that wasn’t difficult enough, Jesus also admonished the apostles that they would have to live an austere lifestyle, traveling with no gold or silver in their purses, and only the clothes on their backs and the shoes on their feet. When they arrived at a new city, he expected them to search out a benevolent person who was willing to provide them with food and shelter. If they couldn’t find a suitably pious host, they were instructed to hit the road again, with the knowledge that on judgment day, the inhospitable would be punished more severely than Sodom and Gomorrah had been.
But before they got to the moment when they would have to operate on their own, the apostles had plenty to do and plenty to learn. In Matthew 17, for example, Jesus’ trainees watched as he cast out a “demon” from a mentally disturbed young boy. When they asked him why they couldn’t perform the same feat, he explained that they would need to have more faith. “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed,” Jesus instructed, “ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.”
If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed. Ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.
Jesus’ betrayal and violent death was an experience that presumably helped the apostles mature, by exposing their human frailties. The prime example is Peter, whom the gospels portray as having volatile emotions. When he refuses to believe Jesus’ prophecy that the apostles will scatter after his arrest and execution, Jesus responds by informing Peter that he will pretend not to know Jesus three times that very night—a prediction is borne out, causing Peter to weep in shame. Thus humbled, he would become more resolute.
In Matthew 16, Jesus had selected Peter as the leader—the “rock” upon whom he would build his church, and to whom he would provide the keys to heaven. In Acts 1, Peter took the helm, guiding the process by which the group selected Matthias to replace the dead traitor Judas Iscariot. He subsequently demonstrated that that the apostles could perform miracles, by going to the Temple in Jerusalem with John and healing a lame beggar in the name of Jesus—filling the crowd around them with “wonder and amazement at that which had happened unto him.” Peter’s preaching was so effective that in a single day, he converted 3,000 listeners to the new faith.
Of all the apostles, according to legend and apocryphal texts, it was Thomas who took the evangelical mission the furthest. He is thought to have traveled east through modern-day Syria and Iran and eventually reached India, covering even more territory than Paul, the convert who traveled the Mediterranean region preaching to the gentiles.
The apostles’ mission was a dangerous one, and in the end, 11 of them were martyred, with Christian tradition holding that only John died of old age. But they apparently accomplished their goal, as evidenced by the widespread acceptance of Christianity today.