What were the names of the Twelve Apostles—the group of hand-picked disciples of Jesus that went down in history as the core members of the original Christian church?
I need to know the exact names of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles for my writing. It is fairly clear that such a group existed, and these twelve men, venerated by millions as saints and subject of some of the most celebrated artworks of all time (think da Vinci, think El Greco), are so famous, it should be fairly straightforward to look up their names and discover who they were, shouldn’t it?
It isn’t. Depending on what information and what tradition you look up what you often find is a confusing conflation of names and relations. “This disciple had this name but was also called this and maybe that and was the brother/son/father of that disciple and perhaps related to Jesus” only to be flatly contradicted in another source.
The reason is that although the New Testament does provide several lists of the Twelve Apostles they seem to be in disagreement and people speculate over their connections to other characters in the scriptures. There is also long-standing church tradition as to how to understand these lists that passes as unquestioned knowledge.
I decided to look into the issue from the start, without any assumptions, and come to my own conclusions.
Listing all apostles mentioned in the gospels and Acts.
Information from all Gospels and Acts
Let’s look at the information that we find in the four canonical gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John) and also in the Acts of the Apostles because that book is basically a sequel to Luke’s Gospel written by the same author. I put them together, because we must assume that Luke stays consistent with his/her names.
Formal lists of the Twelve
The synoptical Mark, Matthew, and Luke present lists of all the Twelve Apostles in Mark 3: 16-19, Matthew 10: 1-4 and Luke 6: 12-16. Luke provides another list in Acts 1:13.
John mentions a group of Twelve but he does not give a formal list. However, many names are scattered throughout John’s Gospel. This information can corroborate what we find in the synoptic gospels.
a) I made a chart with all names I could find in each book. If the names differ even a bit from each other, I treat them as different names. I checked all of them in the original Greek language to be sure.
b) Furthermore, I placed the books according to the probably date of their creation: Mark first, John last.
c) I then gave each apostle a score from ‘A’ to ‘E’ based on how many times they are mentioned (attested) in the books.
• A = attested in all five books
• E = attested in only one book.
• X = not mentioned once.
Based on this method this is what we can see:
|Simon called “Peter”||○||○||○/○||○||A|
|Andrew (his brother)||○||○||○/○||○||A|
|James (son of Zebedee)||○||○||○/○||○||A|
|John (his brother)||○||○||○/○||○||A|
|Nathanael from Cana in Galilee||—||—||—/—||○||E|
|Matthew the tax collector (telōnēs)||—||○||—/—||—||E|
|Thomas (also ‘Didymos’ in John)||○||○||○/○||○||A|
|James (of Alphaeus)/Alphaeus’ James||○||○||○/○||—||B|
|Lebbaeus also called Thaddeus||—||○||—/—||—||E|
|Judas (not the Iscariot)||—||—||—/—||○||E|
|Judas Iscariot (s. of Simon in John)||○||○||○/○||○||A|
What we can learn
— All synoptics do have 12 names. 8 of those are matched in John.
— The synoptics are almost in complete agreement.
— Thanks to the scoring, we can clearly see that some of the apostles are attested in all five books: Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Thomas, and Judas Iscariot. They all get an ‘A’ score, highlighted in bold. This is significant, because all writers agree on this Core 7 list.
Now we can do some clean up.
Cleaning up the List
It seems obvious that ‘Matthew’ in Mark and Luke, and ‘Matthew the tax collector’ in Matthew are the same person.
——> We can merge those Matthews to one, upgrading him to ‘B.’
Traditionally, Matthew is said to have been the nickname of a man named “Levi.” However, none of the lists carry that name. A “tax collector Levi” appears in Luke 5, but then he does not reappear as “Matthew,” even though Luke puts a Matthew on the Twelve’s member list! If Luke’s Levi was identical with Luke’s Matthew, why didn’t Luke say so? He/she also never identifies Matthew as a tax collector. Only the writer of Matthew does so.
Scholars say that the gospel writers/copyists tried to include Levi in the list of Twelve because Mark and Luke tell a prominent “calling story” of a ‘tax collector Levi’ but don’t follow up on his role. Only Matthew tells a similar story with a ‘tax collector Matthew,’ but it doesn’t change the fact that Levi does not appear on the list.
——> Levi is not a name featured in any list of Twelve, only Matthew.
Some Matthew manuscripts say that the real name of Thaddeus (Greek: Thaddaios) was Lebbaeus (Lebbaios). However, the phrase “Lebbaeus also called Thaddeus” seems to be a later addition. The name Thaddeus has a stronger tradition as it is recorded in Mark, the earliest gospel, and in all manuscripts of Matthew.
Some scholars say that Lebbaeus is a Latin form of Levi and that it was the copyists way of bringing Levi onto the list (see above), so on that ground the name can be neglected.
Another old explanation is that the Hebrew word for heart lêb (which can also mean courage, wisdom, stubborn-mindedness, conscience, sense, anger, etc) corresponded to the Aramaic tad, the word for “breast.” So, in their Greek forms, the Hebrew “Lebbaios” and the Aramaic “Taddai” basically meant the same: a man of heart. This interpretation is, however, being rejected by scholars today.
——> It seems unlikely that a Lebbaeus was ever included. The tradition for Taddai/Thaddeus is the more reliable one.
——> Merge the Thaddeuses, assign ‘D.’
All synoptics place a Simon toward the end of their lists and give him the nickname Zelotes or Kananaios/Kananites. Zēlōtēs and Kananaios both come from the word “zealous/eager one” (Greek: zēlōtēs, Aramaic: qan’an).
——> This is one and the same person who appears in all synoptics: a ‘B’ Apostle.
Nathanael & Bartholomew
Only John mentions the existence of a disciple named ‘Nathanael from Cana in Galilee.’ Since John offers no formal list of the Twelve there is no reason to assume that this guy was part of that group. Although he features prominently at the beginning and end of the book (chapter 1 and 21) he might have simply been one of Jesus’ many followers.
In church tradition, John’s Nathanael has come to be harmonized with the synoptics’ Bartholomew. Nathanael must simply be another name of Bartholomew, so the reasoning goes.
Indeed, “Bartholomew” (Bartholomaios) is not that a given name as it either means “son [Aramaic bar] of talmai (the furrow) [=farmer]” or “son of Ptolemy (Ptolemaios).” If this was his surname or nickname, what was his given name, then?
Nicknames were often used when the given name was too generic. However, “Nathanael” is rare enough to not meet this criterion. On the other hand, Jesus gave nicknames as he saw fit, and surnames can arise from various reasons.
Church tradition might be right and there existed a ‘Nathanael Bartholomew.’ In that case, he would have been attested by all four gospels. However, it is a wonky speculation since, again, John does not give us reason to believe that Nathanael was part of the Twelve at all.
——> Nathanael cannot be counted as one of the Twelve.
The “Other” Judas Problem
We now come to what I think is the most difficult of all the names: The “other” Judas.
All gospels and Acts are in agreement over Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus. However, there was at least one other person called Judas (Yehudah, or ‘Jude’ in English tradition) in John and Luke/Acts. In John there appears “Judas not the Iscariot.” Luke/Acts lists a “Judas of James,” counting him as one of the Twelve. Mark and Matthew do not mention him.
John’s other Judas
In John 14:22, ‘Judas not the Iscariot’ is part of the last supper with Jesus. As this was a private, ‘members-only’ kind of moment, it makes him a very likely candidate as one of the Twelve.
——> John considers ‘Judas not the Iscariot’ to be one of the Twelve and is very probably identical with Luke’s ‘Judas of James.’
Luke’s Judas is always specified by his relation to a ‘James’.
Here is where it gets complicated.
If you look at modern Bible translations, this Judas is sometimes called “brother of James” and other times “son of James,” depending on what Bible you read. How does this happen?
The problem lies within the ambiguity of the original Greek text where neither the word “brother” nor “son” is given. In the major Greek manuscripts of Luke, the wording is simply “James’s Judas” (Ἰούδαν Ἰακώβου). The relationship between James and Judas is unclear.
Let’s compare this with other disciples.
a) In case of Andrew and John, the gospels clearly state that each one is a ‘brother’ (ἀδελφὸς) of Simon Peter and James son of Zebedee respectively.
—> Luke’s Judas is never given this description although earlier he says “Andrew, brother of Peter.”
b) The word “son” is missing in all of the apostle lists. Instead, we are given an indirect possessive construction. For example:
• James the one of Zebedee (Ἰάκωβον τὸν τοῦ Ζεβεδαίου) = James son of Zebeedee (Matthew 10:2)
• James the one of Alphaeus (Ἰάκωβον τὸν τοῦ Ἁλφαίου) = James son of Alphaeus (Matthew 10:3)
—> However, we never once see a Judas the one of …(Ἰούδαν τὸν τοῦ…) construction in Luke or elsewhere.
c) There is an alternative possessive construction to indicate son-father relations:
• Simon Iskariot’s Judas (Ἰούδαν Σίμωνος Ἰσκαριώτου) = Judas son of Simon Iskariot (John 6:71)
This is the way Luke writes as well. In both Luke 6:15 and in Acts 1: 13 he writes Alphaeus’ James (Ἰάκωβος Ἁλφαίου). Then, immediately in Luke 6:16 and Acts 1:13, he writes James’ Judas (Ἰούδαν Ἰακώβου). There is no reason to believe that he invisibly switched the meaning of words in the same sentence from ‘son’ to ‘brother’ in two different books. There is, in my opinion, no way that Luke’s other Judas was the brother of James.
——> Luke’s other Judas is the son of James. He is not the brother of James son of Alphaeus.
d) As we’ve seen, Luke is ambiguous on the identity of Judas, but he gives us no reason to believe that this Judas and James are related. Luke does not pair James and Judas as if they belonged together (although he does so with the brother pairs Peter & Andrew and James & John). He always puts Judas after Simon Kananaios—not after Alphaeus’ James. This to me looks like a signal to the reader that Judas and James are not related and Judas’ father is just another James.
——> The other Judas and the other James are not related.
Result: All Apostles ranked from A to D
With this merging and purging done, we end up with a clean list:
|Simon called “Peter”||○||○||○/○||○||A|
|Andrew (his brother)||○||○||○/○||○||A|
|James of Zebedee||○||○||○/○||○||A|
|John (his brother)||○||○||○/○||○||A|
|Thomas (also ‘Didymos’ in John)||○||○||○/○||○||A|
|Judas Iscariot (of Simon in John)||○||○||○/○||○||A|
|James of Alphaeus||○||○||○/○||—||B|
|Judas of James (not the Iscariot)||—||—||○/○||○||C|
The grouping reveals the agreements and discrepancies between the synoptics and John. But all in all it seems that we can come up with a very simple list that avoids unnecessary speculation and confusing overlap of names that are commonly found in the literature.
A: We can be quite sure about the names of seven disciples:
Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Thomas, Judas Iscariot
or Shimon “Kepha” and Andreas bar Yonah, Yaakob and Yochanan bar Zebadyah (the “Sons of Thunder”), Philippos, Yehudah “Toma”, Yehudah bar Shimon “Iscarioth”.
B: The names of four disciples are also highly likely:
Bartholomew, Matthew, James “the lesser” son of Alphaeus, Simon Zelotes.
or bar Talmai/Ptolemaios, Mattityahu, Yaakob bar Chalfai, Shimon Qan’an.
C & D: We cannot be sure of the last disciple: was it ‘Judas [son of] of James’ or ‘Thaddeus/Lebbaeus’?
I hesitate merging these two names together as there are good arguments for and against it. The last section is dedicated to this question:
The Riddle: Thaddeus and Judas
Conflict between Mark and Luke
As we can see, the lists match well except for two names: Judas (again!) and Thaddeus. While Mark and Matthew agree on Thaddeus, Luke/Acts has Judas of James.
Both Matthew and Luke copied heavily from Mark, so we need to think about why Luke would intentionally contradict Mark when he/she had Mark’s copy before him/her. This is an interesting conflict. But first of all we must look at Thaddeus again.
Thaddaeus: Both Greek and Aramaic
Who is this apostle?
— Some sources on the internet claim that Thaddaios is derived from the Greek word for “heart” or “courage” (see the reasoning above). However, I cannot find anything to confirm this. Heart is kardios in Greek. Courage is tharrhéō, but doesn’t convince…
— Other sources say that an Aramaic name—“Taddai” (תדאי)—was behind this name. Indeed, the name did exist. A “Rabbi Jose ben Taddai, a man of Tiberias” , and “Eliezer ben Taddai” appear in Jewish Talmudic writings of that era. The names “Tadda” and “Thaddaios” have been discovered on several ancient funeral boxes.
Biblical expert Richard Baukham explains in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses that Taddai was originally a Greek name (like Theodosius, Theodoros or Theodotos) that had evolved into a shorter Aramaic form. This was not uncommon, and many people adopted Greek names additional to Hebrew/Aramaic names, similar to many Chinese people today who adopt Western names.
This is a weird case of double translation: A name that was Greek (Theodo…) turned into an Aramaic nickname (Taddai) and was then jumbled into a new Greek form (Thaddaios). It was also sometimes shortened into Theudas.
——> The apostle had a Greek name such as Theodoros, which was shortened to Taddai. When Mark recorded this Taddai in Greek, it became Thaddaios. A faux Greek name, but not unusual at the time.
A nickname of Judas?
If “Thaddeus” was not the originally given name but an adopted Greek name then the Aramaic/Hebrew ‘Judas of James’ could possibly have been the same person. Judas was so common that people would have come up with and needed nicknames on a regular basis. This would make harmonizing the lists easy.
— Mark may only had recorded the common nickname that was relevant to his community: Thaddeus. Matthew copied it. But then Luke might have removed ‘Thaddeus’ in an attempt to restore the disciples’ original name: Judas of James.
— John might have had an independent information that corroborated this name. Since he drew from different traditions than the synoptics he might have had access to this hard, earlier data. It is for this reason that I believe that Judas of James was the original name of this disciple.
— Alternatively, Mark was in error and there never was a Thaddeus among the Twelve. In that case, Luke and John were trying to correct Mark.
Embarrassment around the name Judas?
Another argument is that because the name Judas was tarnished among the early church following Judas Iscariot’s betrayal, people would prefer to use alternative names.
If that is true, Mark might have known about ‘Judas of James’ but decided to omit his name, and Luke and John might have brought it back with less qualms. (After all, by their time it was all memories as most of the apostles were dead.)
The non-canonical Gospel of Thomas as well as gospel versions of the Eastern Syriac Christian tradition indirectly support this idea. In those books, the apostle Thomas’ full name is ‘Judas Thomas Didymos.’ It makes sense because Thomas and Didymus are just nicknames meaning “twin” in Aramaic and Greek. This Thomas must have had a real name. Why, of all names, would the writer of Thomas and the Syriac gospel translators choose the tarnished Judas if they were just making it up? On that ground, Luke and John might have brought the name Judas back.
——> There is a strong likelihood that Thomas’ given name was Judas.
(On the other hand, why didn’t Luke and John bring this tarnished name back for Thomas when they had the chance? This is not so easy to answer, but in this case, I may trust church tradition.)
Thaddaeus = Nathanael?
Richard Bauckham mentions another interesting detail: Theodotus is the Greek equivalent of Nathanael (=’given by god’). Could it be that Taddai/Thaddaios was Nathanael’s Greek name? In that case, Mark’s Thaddeus and John’s Judas are not the same person as this would create a conflict with Luke.
Although harmonizing Judas of James with Thaddeus looks very sensible and I personally believe it to be true, I want to cautiously keep this open-ended.
Although some of the names required a bit of detective work I feel that much of the confusion and mystery around the apostle list can be cut down by the scoring and exclusion method I used here.
Still, we are left with many questions: What was the real name of Bartholomew? Was Nathanael a part of the Twelve? I might find more answers at a later point when I delve more deeply into the records of church fathers or Syriac sources. For now the results here are good enough.
Richard Baukham: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony
W. David Nelson: Mekhilta De-Rabbi Shimon Bar Yoḥai: Translated into English with Critical Introduction and Annotation
Joan E. Taylor: ‘Two by Two’: Archetypal Language of Mark’s Apostolic Pairings
Marcus van Loopik: The Ways of the Sages and the Way of the World: Minor Tractates of the Babylonian Talmud
Aramaic Lexicon and Concordance: http://www.peshitta.org/lexicon/lexicon.cgi
New Testament Aramaic Lexical Dictionary: https://www.studylight.org/lexicons/aramaic
Bible Hub: https://biblehub.com/