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Admissions and Confessions of a Progressive Christian Layman – Jesus’ Followers

“Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary.”
John Lennon, singer, songwriter and guitarist for the Beatles

Those Who Followed Jesus

The four gospels divide Jesus’ followers into three groups. The Greek word “ochloi” refers to the crowds who gathered when Jesus preached; “Mathetes” refers to the followers who stuck around for more teaching; and “Apostolos” refers to the disciples, those chosen by Jesus as his inner circle.

According to the synoptic gospels and Q, Jesus attracted large crowds, the “ochloi,” but the numbers and consistency of this group was subject to frequent change. Since his primary audience was the peasant farmers and manual laborers in the small towns, villages, hamlets, and the countryside of Galilee, they were not free to follow him around from town to town due to everyday activities like planting and reaping crops, whatever manual labor they could find, and housekeeping. This Jewish preacher, teacher, and healer from Galilee would have never raised concern among the Roman authorities unless he actually attracted large, enthusiastic crowds, but most of these people never became more than curious sympathizers. However, some of his closest disciples came from the crowds.

Another group, the “mathetes,” are those who became so impressed that they wanted to know more. They were his devotees – sometime the gospel writers refer to those in his sympathetic audience as disciples – but these were not the inner circle of disciples; maybe they should be called pseudo-disciples. The distinction is that these people were not individually called by Jesus to be his disciples.

The Disciples

The group commonly referred to as “the Twelve” or “the disciples,” is covered by the Greek word “apostolos.” These men (the reason the Catholic Church gives for an all male priesthood is that all the disciples were male), and perhaps women, heeded Jesus’ individual call and were willing to face hostility and danger to become part of his inner circle. Although the twelve disciples (several biblical scholars believe the number “twelve” was chosen to correspond to the twelve tribes of Israel) appeared to be a set group, there is some confusion among the gospel writers about their identities.

Chronologically speaking, Paul introduced the concept of “the twelve” when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:5 that the resurrected Jesus manifested himself to Cephas (Peter) and “the twelve” (Peter and the twelve would make thirteen, wouldn’t it?), but Paul never mentioned their names. In Galatians 1:17, Paul wrote that prior to his visit with Peter he did not attempt to contact the “apostles before me.” He seems to be equating the twelve with the apostles. However, later he appears to consider them two different groups when he referred to James, Jesus’ brother, as an apostle. No other biblical record suggested that Jesus’ brother, James, was one of the original twelve. Paul also called himself an “apostle.” Many people tend to use the words interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. Apostle means those who were sent out, so most of the disciples were also apostles.

Why did Jesus select the disciples? Mark wrote Jesus chose the disciples “to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons” (Mark 3:14b-15). Matthew modified their purpose slightly: “(He) gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness” (Matthew 10:1). But, he also limited their mission to Israel (Matthew 10:6).

Mark was the first to name the twelve as they are selected by Jesus (Mark 3:13-19). According to Mark, Jesus called the twelve “apostles.” The twelve he appointed were Simon (Jesus added his surname, Peter); James and John, the sons of Zebedee (who he called Boanerges, which Mark said meant “sons of thunder”), Andrew (earlier Mark identified Andrew as Simon’s brother and suggested that those brothers, along with the two sons of Zebedee, were fishermen), Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James (the son of Alphaeus), Thaddaeus, Simon the Cananaean (if this Simon was from the nation of Canaan, he would have been a Gentile, but the word may have come from the word qan’a na, which was the name of a onetime adherent of an early revolutionary movement that later was known as “the zealots”), and Judas Iscariot (Mark added “who betrayed him”). This is the first mention anywhere in the Christian tradition that one of Jesus’ disciples became his traitor. Paul mentioned a betrayal (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), but does not associate it with one of the twelve.

Matthew’s list of the “twelve apostles” is “Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew,” James and John, the sons of Zebedee; Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, the tax-collector; James, the son of Alphaeus; Thaddaeus, Simon, the Cananaean; “and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him” (Matthew 10:2-4).

Luke says that Jesus went up into a mountain and, after spending all night in prayer, he chose his twelve disciples “whom he also named apostles.” Luke names the twelve as Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew; James and John (but he doesn’t call them the “sons of thunder” or the sons of Zebedee); Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James, the son of Alphaeus, “Simon, who was called the Zealot” (not “the Cananaean”), Judas, the son of James, and “Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.” So, Luke omitted Thaddaeus, but names two Judases (Luke 6:12-16).

In Acts 9:26, Luke wrote that when Paul went to Jerusalem, “he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.” In this context, Luke used the word “disciple” to mean a follower of Jesus, because the group in Jerusalem was not what Luke called the twelve.

In John’s gospel there are only three references to the twelve (chapter 6: 67, 71 and 20:24) but he never named all twelve. John said Andrew, one of John the Baptist’s disciples, was the first one to follow Jesus (with Andrew was another unnamed disciple of the Baptizer, who also followed Jesus). Andrew recruited his brother, Simon, who Jesus called “Cephas.” The following day in Galilee, Jesus called Philip, “from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter,” to follow him. Philip then recruited Nathanael. When Philip tells him that Jesus is from Nazareth, Nathanael asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:35-49) John also mentioned a disciple named “Judas (not Iscariot)” (John 14:22), which might corroborate Luke’s two Judases. In chapter 21 when John described the Galilean post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to the disciples, he named those present as Simon Peter, “Thomas called the twin,” Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee and two other unnamed disciples (John 21:1-2). After Judas’ betrayal, Matthias was chosen as his replacement.

If we list all the people the gospel writers claim were disciples, there were as many as seventeen:

1. Simon (Peter), Andrew’s brother
2. James, the son of Zebedee
3. John, the son of Zebedee, brother of James
4. Andrew, Simon’s brother
5. Philip
6. Bartholomew
7. Matthew (Matthew says this person was a tax collector)
8. Thomas
9. James, the son of Alphaeus
10. Thaddaeus
11. Simon the Cananaean or the Zealot
12. Judas Iscariot
13. Judas, the son of James, or Judas (not Iscariot)
14. Nathanael of Cana in Galilee
15. an unnamed disciple (in John)
16. another unnamed disciple (in John)
17. Matthias (replaced Judas Iscariot)

Women Disciples

Please read my next article, Mary Magdalene, concerning the women in Jesus’ ministry.

Review & Commentary