The 12 apostles, also referred to as the 12 disciples or simply “the Twelve,” were Jesus Christ’s 12 closest followers. Each of them were major leaders in the movement which became Christianity and helped spread the gospel throughout the world.
The names of Jesus’ 12 main disciples are:
(also known as Simon)
son of Zebedee
the tax collector
son of Alphaeus
(also known as Thaddeus)
Matthias the apostle is technically also one of the Twelve, but usually not included in lists for a couple reasons:
- He was appointed after the death of Judas Iscariot
- He wasn’t called into the group by Jesus
Four passages in the Bible list the names of all 12 apostles (technically the last one only lists 11, because Judas Iscariot was dead). Some of the apostles play key roles in well-known Bible stories. Others are only mentioned in the lists of apostles, or they have a single line of dialogue in the gospels.
A few of the apostles were known by multiple names, which can make these lists and other references to them confusing. In some cases, disciples with common names have been mistakenly identified with other biblical figures who had the same name.
(For example, Philip the Apostle is definitely not Philip the Evangelist, who appears in Acts 6:5, Acts 8:5–6, and Acts 21:8.)
Much of what we “know” about the apostles comes from church tradition. Unfortunately, tradition often embraced legends alongside facts, and it can be difficult to discern details about where the disciples went, what they did, and how they died without assuming the legends surrounding them are rooted in truth. This is especially true for the more obscure disciples.
Today, many Christians simply accept tradition (and therefore the legends) at face value. But if we care about truth and claim to represent it, we have a duty to examine this information more critically, and we need to be willing to accept when we simply don’t know something.
At least that’s our position at OverviewBible.
In this guide, we’re going to look at what the Bible says about each of Jesus’ 12 main disciples and explore the ambiguities and unknowns surrounding them. If you want to learn more about any of the disciples, follow the links below to jump into an in-depth guide on each person.
For starters, let’s take a look at the four lists of apostles.
The four lists of the 12 apostles
Four passages in the Bible give us the names of the apostles: Matthew 10:2-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:13-16, and Acts 1:13. While the order the names appear in is generally about the same, these lists don’t actually include all the same names, and some of them provide details the others don’t.
In some cases, early Christians and modern scholars have assumed this meant some of these apostles went by multiple names—such as Judas son of James, who may be listed by the nickname Thaddeus in Matthew and Mark to avoid confusing him with Judas Iscariot, the infamous traitor.
The lists found in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) appear when Jesus calls these 12 disciples aside for a special purpose and officially appoints them as apostles. The list in Acts occurs after Jesus ascends to heaven, and the believers decide to replace Judas Iscariot while waiting for the Holy Spirit.
The apostles are generally listed in order of importance and paired according to their associations. The main exception is Andrew. His brother Peter was the most prominent disciple, but Andrew was less important than James and John, who were part of Jesus’ most inner circle .
To help you see the differences between the lists, here are the names in the order they appear in each passage.
|Andrew (Peter’s brother)|
|James son of Zebedee|
|John (James’ brother)|
|Matthew the tax collector|
|James son of Alphaeus|
|Simon the Zealot|
|James son of Zebedee|
|John (James’ brother)|
|James son of Alphaeus|
|Simon the Zealot|
|Andrew (Peter’s brother)|
|James son of Zebedee|
|James son of Alphaeus|
|Simon the Zealot|
|Judas of James|
|James son of Alphaeus|
|Simon the Zealot|
|Judas of James|
Interestingly, the Gospel of John never lists all 12 apostles, and several of the names in these lists never appear in John. Additionally John appears to introduce a disciple not listed in the other gospels or acts: Nathanael, who is closely associated with Philip. Since Bartholomew is also closely associated with Philip and never appears in John, many traditions assume Bartholomew and Nathanael are the same person. But that may not be true.
While it doesn’t give us a handy list, the Gospel of John is still useful for learning more about some of the disciples. John records dialogue not found in the other gospels, and sometimes gives us unique details about their relationships and other additional information.
Now let’s take a closer look at the disciples.
Jesus’ inner circle
Jesus had a lot of followers. At times, thousands of people gathered to hear him teach and see what he would do. The 12 apostles were some of his closest disciples. But three members of the Twelve were closer than anyone else: Peter, James, and John.
Together, they witnessed miracles and moments the other apostles weren’t privy to, including:
- The time Jesus raised a girl from the dead (Mark 5:35–43)
- The Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–13)
- Jesus’ moment of weakness in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36–46)
Peter in the Bible
In the gospels, Peter is portrayed as impetuous, always speaking his mind and acting on impulse. In the Book of Acts, Peter’s decisiveness transformed him into someone the early Christians constantly relied on and turned to.
Peter was originally known as Simon, but Jesus gave him the nickname Cephas (John 1:42), which translates to Peter, meaning “rock.”
In the New Testament, Peter is most known for:
- Walking on water (Matthew 14:28-33)
- Disowning Jesus to avoid persecution (Luke 22:54-62)
- Addressing the crowd at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-41)
- Envisioning a church that included Jews and Gentiles together (Acts 10:9-48)
- Being a “pillar” of the church (Galatians 2:9)
As one of the three disciples who was closest to Jesus, Peter got to witness miracles and moments the other apostles weren’t privy to, including:
- The time Jesus raised a girl from the dead (Mark 5:35-43)
- The Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13)
- Jesus’ moment of weakness in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46)
Did Peter write any books of the Bible?
Peter didn’t write any of the four gospels himself, but he plays a major role in all of them, and tradition holds that the Gospel of Mark records Peter’s account of Jesus’ ministry through his companion, Mark the Evangelist, who’s widely believed to be the same person as John Mark.
Numerous apocryphal texts claimed to be written about (or even by) Peter, but the church rejected them as inauthentic, though some of them recorded important information.
How did Peter die?
According to tradition, Peter was crucified by Emperor Nero around 64 AD, around the time of the Great Fire of Rome, which Nero blamed on Christians. The Acts of Peter claims he asked to be crucified upside down because he didn’t believe he was worthy of dying the same death as Jesus.
James son of Zebedee is one of at least three important New Testament figures named James. In fact, there’s even another disciple named James. (It was a pretty common name.) This, plus the fact that the Bible tells us so little about any of these Jameses, has led to a lot of confusion about their identities over the centuries.
This James is often referred to as James the Greater to distinguish him from James son of Alphaeus, James the Less (who may be the same person as James son of Alphaeus), and James the brother of Jesus. “Greater” here could refer to height, age, or importance.
James in the Bible
Mark tells us that Jesus nicknamed James and John “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17). Unfortunately, he doesn’t tell us what the nickname means or where it comes from. This has led many to assume it referred to their speech, temperaments, or ambition.
In the Bible, James son of Zebedee is most known for:
- Asking Jesus if he and John should call down fire from heaven to destroy a village which failed to show them hospitality (Luke 9:54)
- Asking Jesus if he and John can sit on either side of Jesus’ throne in heaven, and unwittingly promising to follow Jesus into martyrdom (Mark 10:35–40)
- Being martyred by Herod in Acts 12:2
How did James die?
James is the only disciple whose martyrdom is recorded in the Bible (Acts 12:2). Herod had him killed by sword, and he was likely beheaded. (Judas Iscariot’s death is recorded as well, but it was under very different circumstances.)
Camino de Santiago
Tradition claims James son of Zebedee was a missionary to Spain and that his body was buried there, but since his death took place in Jerusalem very early in the history of the church, there are numerous challenges with this tradition. Nonetheless, the Camino de Santiago—a pilgrimage to the church where James is allegedly buried—was one of the most popular Christian pilgrimages for centuries, and Santiago de Compostela (the shrine dedicated to Saint James) is still a destination for more than 300,000 people every year.
John in the Bible
Like his brother James, John was given the nickname “son of thunder” (Mark 3:17). Whether it was for their explosive temperaments, speech, ambition, or something else, James and John clearly had some defining quality in common.
In the Bible, John is most known for:
- Asking Jesus if he and James should call down fire from heaven to destroy a village which failed to show them hospitality (Luke 9:54)
- Asking Jesus if he and James can sit on either side of Jesus’ throne in heaven, and unwittingly promising to follow Jesus into martyrdom (Mark 10:35–40)
- Taking care of Jesus’ mother, Mary (John 19:26–27)
- Beating Peter in a race to Jesus’ empty tomb (John 20:2–9)
- Being a “pillar” of the church (Galatians 2:9)
Did John write any books of the Bible?
Five books of the New Testament are attributed to someone named “John.” According to tradition, the Apostle John wrote all of them (more than any other member of the Twelve):
- The Gospel of John claims to have been written by the “Beloved Disciple.” Many early Christians assumed this was John, the son of Zebedee—so much so that the book was named after him.
- 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John simply claim “the elder” (or “the presbyter”) as their author. Early Christians believed this elder’s name was John, and many assumed it was the same John who was part of the Twelve.
- Revelation claims to be written by a man named John on the isle of Patmos. Again, through the ages Christians have commonly assumed John of Patmos and John the son of Zebedee were the same guy.
But which (if any) of these books he actually wrote largely depends on if we can identify John the Apostle with the Johns mentioned above, and scholars have come to mixed conclusions about that. Like “James,” “John” is another common first-century name, so it’s unclear which (if any) of these names are referring to this John, and there’s often disagreement and confusion about it.
Tradition says that John is “the disciple whom Jesus loved” in the Gospel of John. John is never mentioned by name in this gospel, and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” appears to be one of the most prominent disciples (he sits next to Jesus at the Passover meal, and Peter often defers to him). At the end of the gospel, the author makes it clear that he is “the disciple whom Jesus loved”:
“This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.” —John 21:24
How did John die?
According to tradition, John died of old age: a rare (and possibly unique) feat among the apostles, most of whom were martyred. Interestingly, John records that Peter asked Jesus what would happen to John, and Jesus basically said “It’s none of your business” in a way that implied there might be something different planned for him:
Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”
Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” —John 21:20–23
Tradition holds that he preached in Ephesus, was exiled to the island of Patmos (where he wrote Revelation), returned to Ephesus, and died of old age after 98 AD.
Some important early Christian writers claimed to learn directly from John himself, including Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch.
“The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus.” —John 1:41–42
But that’s kind of the story of Andrew’s life. Whenever he and Peter are mentioned together, Andrew is always mentioned second, and he’s referred to as Peter’s brother—but Peter is never referred to as Andrew’s brother, indicating that Andrew was either younger or less important.
Fun fact: Andrew’s name is Andreas in Greek, and it’s most often translated as “manly.” It comes from the root word aner or andros, meaning “man.”
Andrew in the Bible
Before he was called by Jesus Christ, Andrew was actually a disciple of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist:
“The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God!’
When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, ‘What do you want?’
They said, ‘Rabbi’ (which means “Teacher”), ‘where are you staying?’
‘Come,’ he replied, ‘and you will see.’
So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.
Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus.” —John 1:35–40
Interestingly, the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) don’t give us this account of Andrew’s calling. Instead, they suggest Andrew was called at the same time as Peter, James, and John, when they were either fishing or cleaning their nets. (Luke never actually mentions Andrew being there, though.) Many would say this represents an obvious contradiction in the Bible, but it’s also possible for both of these accounts to be true. (One just had to happen first.)
In John’s account of the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:1–15), Andrew is the disciple who finds the boy with five loaves of bread and two fish. Apparently John was the only gospel writer who cared enough to give him a shoutout for that.
Later, when a group of Greeks wanted to see Jesus, they came to Philip, and for whatever reason, Philip deferred the decision to Andrew:
“Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we would like to see Jesus.’ Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.” —John 12:20–22
In Mark 13, Peter, James, John, and Andrew share a private moment with Jesus and ask him about the destruction of the temple (Mark 13:3–4). Since Peter, James, and John are clearly Jesus’ closest disciples, this suggests Andrew was pretty important to Jesus, too. This, plus the fact that Philip wanted Andrew to decide what to do about the Greeks in John 12, could indicate that Andrew held a position of leadership among the disciples.
The Bible doesn’t tell us much else about Andrew. And while there’s plenty of church tradition to fill in details about his life and ministry, much of it is rooted in legends and apocryphal texts that were written about him later. However, Eusebius of Caesarea, the father of church history tells us that Origen (a scholar from the second and third century) claimed Andrew was sent to Scythia (an ancient region in central Eurasia).
How did Andrew die?
Tradition claims Andrew was crucified in the Greek city of Patras around 60 AD, and that like Peter, he didn’t consider himself worthy of dying the same way as Jesus. Instead, he was bound to an X shaped cross, which became a symbol known as Saint Andrew’s Cross. According to Acts of Andrew (an apocryphal text), he hung there for three days, preaching the entire time.
“So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’
This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.” —Acts 6:2–6
Later, Philip the Evangelist is referred to as “one of the seven” (Acts 21:8), not an apostle or one of the Twelve. Still, the early church mixed them up, and their mistakes were often passed down, making it difficult to be sure which traditions actually apply to Philip the Apostle.
Philip in the Bible
One of the few details the Bible gives us about Philip the Apostle is that like Peter and Andrew, he comes from Bethsaida, a town near the Sea of Galilee (John 1:44). Later, when some Greek men from Bethsaida want to see Jesus, they come to Philip first, presumably because they knew he was from the same town as them (or possibly because he spoke Greek the best).
Philip’s most notable moment in the gospels is his role in bringing Nathanael to Jesus. Nathanael is only mentioned in the Gospel of John, but many assume this is another name for Bartholomew because:
- John appears to consider him one of the Twelve (John 21:2).
- Bartholomew is never mentioned in John.
- Philip and Bartholomew are almost always listed together, and they’re closely associated in church tradition.
In any case, Nathanael follows Jesus as a result of Philip’s invitation to “come and see” him, “the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote” (John 1:45–46).
The only other mentions of Philip in the Bible occur in John:
- Jesus tests Philip by asking him where they should buy bread to feed the crowd of 5,000 people (John 6:5–7).
- Philip asks Jesus to show them God the Father, and Jesus responds by saying “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:6–10).
According to Clement of Alexandria, who lived in the second and third century, Philip is also mentioned one other time (though not directly).
In Luke 9:57–62 and the parallel passage in Matthew 8:18–22, an unnamed person asks to bury his father before he follows Jesus, and Jesus replies: “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60).
Clement writes in his book, Stromata:
“If they quote the Lord’s words to Philip, “Let dead bury their dead, but do thou follow me . . .’”
How did Philip die?
Philip likely died in the first century, possibly around 80 AD, but traditions vary widely as to how he died—at least partially due to the confusion with Philip the Evangelist. One tradition says he died of natural causes. But others suggest he was stoned to death, beheaded, or crucified upside down.
The earliest account comes from Acts of Philip, which contains legends about Philip’s ministry. According to this text, he was crucified upside down with Bartholomew. Philip preached to the crowd while hanging on the cross, and they wanted to release the two disciples, but Philip told them to free Bartholomew and leave him hanging there.
Is Bartholomew the same person as Nathanael?
Bartholomew’s name most likely comes from the Aramaic name, Bar-Talmai, meaning “son of Talmai.” If that’s the case and this is a patronymic name (meaning a name that derives from a person’s father), it stands to reason that Bartholomew would’ve been known by another name.
In this case, most would argue that this other name is Nathanael, since Nathanael appears to be an apostle in the Gospel of John, is closely associated with Philip (Philip calls him to meet Jesus, after all), and Bartholomew doesn’t appear in John.
But others argue that Bartholomew is a standalone name, and that the Greek text normally represents patronymic names differently:
“The name ‘Bartholomew’ may stand by itself in the apostolic lists as a proper name. It is not necessarily a patronymic. The patronymic is normally expressed in the lists by the Greek genitive, not by the Aramaic bar.” —Professor Michael Wilkins, Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary
That’s not to say Bartholomew was not also known as Nathanael, just that this isn’t necessarily why he would’ve been known by two names. Many modern scholars prefer to take a neutral stance on Nathanael and Bartholomew, suggesting that it’s possible, but not verifiable.
If Bartholomew is Nathanael though, John gives us two additional passages to learn about this disciple. When Philip first tells Nathanael about Jesus, he’s skeptical:
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46)
But after seeing Jesus demonstrate his divinity, he says:
“Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel” (John 1:49)
Toward the end of John’s gospel, Nathanael comes up again. This time, he’s merely listed among seven disciples who went fishing (John 21:1-3). We know several of these disciples are fishermen—Peter, James, and John, plus Andrew if he’s one of the unnamed disciples in the passage—so either Nathanael was a fisherman, too or he’s just taking the opportunity to learn a new trade, since at this point it seemed like the whole disciple thing didn’t work out.
How did Bartholomew die?
Like most of the apostles, Bartholomew was probably martyred. But there are several explanations of his death.
The most popular is also the most gruesome: Bartholomew was allegedly flayed alive and then beheaded. Most art that portrays the apostles includes some iconography related to their death, and so Bartholomew is often portrayed wearing his skin, or in the less grotesque portraits, holding a flaying knife.
Other accounts suggest he was:
- Beaten and then crucified
- Crucified upside down
- Crucified and taken down before he died, then flayed and beheaded
- Just beheaded
- Beaten unconscious and tossed in the sea to drown
No one claims he died of old age or natural causes, though.
That in itself would be enough to make him feel like a political traitor—his profession was a symbol of Israel’s Roman occupation. But to make matters worse, tax collectors made their money by saying people owed Caesar more than they did and then skimming the extra off the top—and there was nothing anyone could do about it. As a result, tax collectors were right up there with prostitutes for the go-to example of the worst sinners.
So it was a big deal that Jesus asked Matthew to follow him and be one of his disciples. Matthew’s inclusion among the Twelve presents a powerful picture of how God partners with all kinds of people—even those you’d least expect—to accomplish his purposes. And despite the fact that Matthew would have been considered a religious outsider, Jesus brought him into the inner circle of what would eventually become the world’s largest religion.
Despite the fact that Matthew is one of the better-known disciples, he’s actually only mentioned seven times in the Bible.
Matthew in the Bible
Matthew is one of the few apostles whose calling is recorded in the gospels. All three synoptic gospels have a version of the same account:
“As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.” —Matthew 9:9
“As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.” —Mark 2:14
“After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.” —Luke 5:27–28
This doesn’t tell us much (other than that he was a tax collector in Capernaum, since Capernaum is where this encounter takes place), but you’ll notice Mark and Luke call this tax collector Levi or Levi son of Alphaeus. Since these are parallel passages, and Levi is never referred to again, and Mark and Luke both include Matthew in the lists of apostles, it’s pretty safe to assume Matthew and Levi are the same person.
Most likely, “Levi” referred to the tribe Matthew was from, but it’s also possible that he had a Greek name (Matthew) and a Hebrew name (Levi), similar to how Paul was also known as Saul. Since Matthew/Levi was a Jew employed by Rome, that wouldn’t be surprising.
Immediately after calling Matthew to follow him, Jesus has dinner at Matthew’s house, and “many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.” The Pharisees—who were always trying to trap Jesus and make him out to be a fraud—were pretty bothered by this:
“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’
On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” —Matthew 9:10–13
The Pharisees see Jesus hanging out with the worst of the worst (in their estimation), and assume this is a reflection of his character. And it is—just not the way they thought. Jesus wasn’t eating with tax collectors and sinners because he was a sinner, too. He was eating with them to demonstrate God’s mercy and to mend the brokenness that came with being treated like religious outsiders.
By including Matthew among his disciples, Jesus showed that no one—not even those society considered irredeemable—would be excluded from God’s table.
Did Matthew write the Gospel of Matthew?
The Gospel of Matthew’s author is anonymous, but Matthew the Apostle is traditionally considered the author. The early church claimed he wrote it, and the attribution “according to Matthew” was added possibly as early as the second century. While there are credible arguments against his authorship, no alternative writer has been named.
How did Matthew die?
Traditions disagree on how and where Matthew died. Various accounts say he was beheaded, stoned, burned, or stabbed. One even suggests he died of old age, like John. Most scholars believe he was probably martyred, though.
After seeing Jesus in the flesh with his own eyes (and possibly touching the wounds), Thomas proclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Jesus responded with one of the most powerful and prophetic statements about faith in all of Scripture: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
Thomas’ moment of skepticism earned him the nickname “Doubting Thomas,” which evolved into a term for anyone who needs proof before they believe something.
Honestly, that’s all you really need to know about the Apostle Thomas. He’s not a major Bible character by any means—he’s only mentioned eight times in the entire New Testament, and four of those times are just lists of the twelve apostles. And while throughout church history people have been happy to fill in the details of his life, few of those details are reliable. (For example, one ancient text even claimed he was Jesus’ twin brother . . . what?!)
But while the Bible tells us little about him, Thomas’ cautious approach to believing in the resurrection laid the foundation for evidence-based faith and for the Protestant teaching of sola fide, or faith alone. And even though he lived 2,000 years ago, Thomas also serves as a foil for Christians today—those who have not seen and yet have believed.
One other thing you should know about Thomas: the Bible didn’t give him a real name.
Thomas wasn’t actually given a name in the original manuscripts. “Thomas” comes from the Aramaic word tĕʾomâ, which means “twin.” To help clarify who we’re talking about though, most manuscripts include the description, “called Didymus” or “called the Twin.”
Didymus is a Greek word which means . . . the twin. And while tĕʾomâ is only used as a description, not a name, Didymus can be used as a description or a name. So a literal translation of John 11:16, John 20:24, and John 21:2 would say “the twin, called the twin . . .”
But you can still call him Thomas.
How did Thomas die?
For such a minor apostle, church tradition is remarkably consistent about his death. An early church calendar reads:
“3 July, St. Thomas who was pierced with a lance in ‘India’.”
Syrian Christian tradition specifies that this took place on July 3, 72 AD. And The Acts of Thomas says he was martyred via spears in Mylapore, India.
No other tradition exists about Thomas’ death.
The main question surrounding James son of Alphaeus is can we assume he is the same person as one or two of the other Jameses in the New Testament?
He’s obviously not the same person as James son of Zebedee (also known as James the Greater). Their names appear in the same lists and they have different fathers. But there are two other Jameses mentioned in the New Testament:
- James the Less (Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:10)
- James, brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19, Galatians 2:9, Acts 15:13)
The early church (most notably, Jerome) assumed both of these Jameses were all the same person as James son of Alphaeus. The strongest link is arguably between James the Less and James, brother of Jesus, so if James son of Alphaeus could be linked to one or the other, it would be reasonable to associate all three.
We know from the gospels that Jesus had at least four brothers: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3). And we know that James the Less has at least one brother named Joseph (Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40).
Some argue that Mark’s attempt to distinguish James the Less suggests there was only one other James to distinguish him from. The word translated as “the Less” or “the younger” could refer to height, age, or importance, but this kind of contrast makes the most sense if there are two people the audience would associate with the name James, not three or four.
If it turned out that James son of Alphaeus was the same person as James the brother of Jesus, that would make him one of the most important leaders of the early church (Galatians 2:9). But many modern scholars take a more cautious position: it’s possible that they’re the same person, but it’s also possible that they’re not.
And it’s always safer not to make assumptions.
One more thing about James son of Alphaeus. There’s another son of Alphaeus mentioned in the New Testament: Levi the tax collector (Mark 2:14). This has led some to assume Matthew and James are brothers.
But the Bible doesn’t say this, and while the lists of apostles make it clear James and John are brothers, and Peter and Andrew are brothers, there’s no mention of a relationship between James and Matthew. In fact, in two of the lists their names aren’t even next to each other (Mark 3:16-19 and Luke 6:13-16).
So they’re probably not related.
How did James son of Alphaeus die?
Since the early church often assumed James son of Alphaeus was the same person as Jesus’ brother James and James the Less, the details of his death and ministry are impossible to separate from the other Jameses.
Tradition says James the Just (Jesus’ brother) was shoved from the pinnacle of a temple, beaten with a fuller’s club, and then stoned to death.
Another tradition says James son of Alphaeus was crucified in Egypt, where he was preaching. Another just says he was stoned to death in Jerusalem.
However he died, odds are pretty good he was martyred.
As with James son of Alphaeus, there’s not much we can say about Jude of James without assuming he’s the same person as another Jude. It’s true that Jesus had a brother named Jude (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3). And the “of James” Luke uses to distinguish him from Judas Iscariot could mean he’s James’ brother, and Jesus had a brother named James. Plus, the Jude who claims to have written the Epistle of Jude says he has a brother named James (Jude 1).
But John 7:3-5 may suggest Jesus’ brother Jude didn’t believe he was who he said he was until later, and at this point Jesus had already called his disciples:
“Jesus’ brothers said to him, ‘Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.’ For even his own brothers did not believe in him.” —John 7:3–5 (emphasis added)
John doesn’t say all of Jesus’ brothers didn’t believe in him, but this could be a signal that Jesus’ brother Jude wasn’t one of his 12 main disciples.
Additionally, the description in Luke 6:16 and Acts 1:13 which often gets translated as “son of James” is actually ambiguous. “Of James” is a more literal translation, and some scholars think it more likely means “son of James” than “brother of James.” Especially since Luke uses a form of the Greek word adelphos (brother) to communicate the relationship between Peter and Andrew (Luke 6:14) and he doesn’t place them next to each other as you’d expect him to do.
Jude AKA Thaddeus
In two of the lists of apostles, Jude appears to be referred to as Thaddeus (Matthew 10:2-4, Mark 3:16–19). Since these two names appear in about the same place in the lists, and the other names are consistent, church tradition (and most modern scholars) have always assumed Thaddeus was a nickname for Jude of James.
Since the name Judas had such strong negative associations in the early church, it wouldn’t be surprising if Jude preferred to go by another name, or if Matthew and Mark used the nickname to avoid confusion. (Thanks for nothing, guys.)
Did Jude the apostle write the Epistle of Jude?
Most traditions assume Jude the apostle wrote the Epistle of Jude because they assume he’s the same person as Jesus’ brother Jude. But unfortunately, Jude was a super common name, and this relies on assumptions. Today’s scholars have mixed opinions on Jude’s authorship.
Read more about who wrote Jude here.
Simon the Zealot may have belonged to a Jewish sect known as the Zealots, who were bent on revolution and looking for a Messiah to violently overthrow Rome. Or he may have simply been zealous for the Mosaic Law. Or zealous for Jesus and his teachings. The Bible doesn’t tell us what “the Zealot” signified, so no one can say for sure.
Simon is mentioned occasionally in early church writings, but centuries after the gospels were written, Jerome and others mistranslated Simon’s title, believing that Matthew and Mark referred to him as Simon the Canaanite or Simon the Cananaean. They assumed he was from Cana—a town within Galilee—or possibly even descended from one of the non-Jewish people groups in the area.
This mistake led to the idea that Simon was present at the wedding in Cana in John 2, where Jesus performed his first miracle and turned water into wine, and that he was the same person as Simon, the brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55).
Some Bible translations preserve Jerome’s mistake out of respect for tradition, calling Simon “the Canaanite” or “the Cananaean” in Matthew 10:3 and Mark 3:18.
While the Bible doesn’t tell us anything more about Simon the Zealot, a later tradition claims he preached in Egypt, then partnered with Judas, the brother of Jesus:
“Judas preached first in Mesopotamia and in Pontus, and Simon preached in Egypt, and from thence came they into Persia, and found there two enchanters, Zaroes and Arphaxat, whom S. Matthew had driven out of Ethiopia.” —The Golden Legend
How did Simon the Zealot die?
There are numerous accounts of Simon the Zealot’s death, but the earliest records came centuries after his death. Like many of the apostles, it’s hard to conclude exactly which tradition (if any) can be trusted:
- In the fifth century, Moses of Chorene wrote that Simon the Zealot was martyred in the
- Kingdom of Iberia.
- The Golden Legend says he was martyred
- in Persia in 65 AD.
- Ethiopian Christians believe he was crucified in Samaria.
- Another account says he was crucified in 61 AD in Britain.
- In the sixteenth century, Justus Lipsius claimed he was sawed in half.
- Eastern tradition claims he died of old age in Edessa.
So maybe he was a martyr. And maybe not.
Judas Iscariot in the Bible
Judas Iscariot may have been considered “good with money” or trustworthy, because somehow he wound up being the designated treasurer for Jesus and his disciples. Ironically, the first passage that tells that he was in charge of the group’s money also tells us that he was completely untrustworthy.
(Granted, Judas was long dead after this was written, so maybe this is John’s hindsight talking.)
“But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?’ He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.” —John 12:4–6
This is part of the reason many people believe Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus out of greed. (But there may have been several other motivations at play as well.)
During the Last Supper, Jesus claims one of the disciples will betray him, and then tells Judas, “What you are about to do, do it quickly” (John 13:27). Somehow none of the other disciples picked up on that though. They assumed it had something to do with him being in charge of the money (John 13:28-29).
Each of the gospels gives a slightly different version of the moment Judas betrayed Jesus, but the main thread goes like this:
- Judas meets with the chief priests and agrees to betray Jesus (Matthew 26:14–16).
- Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray, and the disciples keep falling asleep (Matthew 26:36–44).
- Judas arrives with an armed mob sent from the chief priests, and points out Jesus by greeting him with a kiss (Matthew 26:47–49).
- Shortly after, Judas regrets betraying Jesus, tries and fails to return the money the chief priests gave him (Matthew 27:3–4).
How did Judas Iscariot die?
Judas Iscariot’s death was unique among the disciples. While James son of Zebedee was the only apostle to be martyred in the Bible (Acts 12:2), Judas Iscariot was the first to die. His death is also one of the go-to “gotchas” when people talk about contradictions in the Bible.
The Gospel of Matthew says he hung himself:
“So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.” —Matthew 27:5
The chief priests then used the money to buy a potter’s field (presumably the field Judas hung himself in), because it was blood money, so they couldn’t put it in the treasury (Matthew 27:6-10).
But Luke seems to record a different death for Judas in Acts 1:18–19:
“(With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)”
Some people make a point of trying to reconcile these two accounts, suggesting Judas hung himself and then the rope broke, or that he remained hanging there for so long his body decomposed and . . . yeah, it’s just gross. And that still doesn’t solve the problem of one account saying the priests bought the field after Judas died, and the other says Judas bought the field before he died.
It could be that one of the writers goofed a detail. It could also be that the circumstances were convoluted enough for both writers to be correct. But consider this:
- Both accounts were written decades after Judas’ death
- Neither Matthew nor Luke were present for Judas’ deal with Jesus’ enemies
- Since Judas was dead, much of the information would have to come from the people who made the deal to kill Jesus.
So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the details are so blurry.
Several of the disciples are pretty obscure. But Matthias takes the cake: he’s only mentioned two times in the entire Bible (Acts 1:23 and Acts 1:26). All we really know about Matthias from Scripture is that he met Peter’s requirements for selecting a new member of the Twelve (Acts 1:21–22):
- He’d followed Jesus since his baptism by John the Baptist.
- He witnessed Jesus’ ascension to heaven.
While the Bible doesn’t explicitly say this, the fact that Matthias was clearly following Jesus early on and he was significant enough to be selected makes it possible that he was among the Seventy” (or “Seventy-Two,” depending on the translation) who Jesus sent out ahead of him in Luke 10:1–24.
Jesus gave these disciples the power to heal and drive out demons, and he sent them in pairs to test the hospitality of the places he was going and to spread the gospel.
There are numerous lists of the Seventy, but they emerged so late it’s hard to say if any can be trusted. Some include Matthias, and some don’t. Almost all of the believers on these lists became bishops.
Eusebius of Caesarea (the father of church history) wrote in the fourth century that there was no official list of the Seventy, but that many believed Matthias was among them.
Since Matthias was such an obscure biblical figure who took on a prominent role in the church, some traditions claimed he must have been someone we encountered in other narratives: such as Nathanael, or even Zaccheus. It was pretty common for people to be known by multiple names (like Peter, Matthew, and Jude), but there isn’t enough evidence to support assumptions about Matthias’ identity.
Was he supposed to be one of the Twelve?
One of the biggest questions surrounding Matthias is whether or not God intended for him to replace Judas Iscariot. Some argue that his appointment was more the result of Peter’s restlessness than God’s plan—especially since Paul was personally called by Jesus to be an apostle later.
To choose someone to replace Judas, about 120 believers nominated two people (Matthias and Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus), and then they cast lots. Scholars can’t say for sure what was meant by “casting lots” here—it could’ve just meant voting, drawing a name from a jar, or something else—but the principle of casting lots goes back to the Old Testament. It was a process the Israelites used to discern God’s will, seek his wisdom, or learn the truth.
Before they cast lots in Acts 1, the disciples pray: “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs” (Acts 1:24–25).
Their intent was clearly to learn God’s will. But the problem here is that everything leading up to that moment appears to have been Peter’s will.
Peter assumed it was their duty to select someone to replace Judas, but that doesn’t mean it was, and the fact that God chose Matthias when given the choice between Matthias and Joseph doesn’t mean that the entire process was God’s will. He would’ve had to do something pretty dramatic to prevent a selection or communicate that he had other intentions.
So was Matthias supposed to be one of the Twelve? Maybe. But regardless, he was one, and God used him. As one of the Twelve, Matthias played a key role in helping spread the gospel and lead the church when it was most fragile.
On the road to Damascus, where Paul intended to arrest Christians, Jesus appeared to him, asking: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) Then the Lord told Paul, “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9:6). Paul was struck blind, and Jesus used a man named Ananias to restore his sight in Jerusalem.
From that point forward, Paul became the apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 1:13), and claimed Jesus had specifically called him to reach non-Jewish communities (Acts 22:21).
Since Jesus called Paul, but didn’t call Matthias, some have argued that Paul was intended to be the apostle to replace Judas Iscariot. (Which would be poetic: Satan turned one of Jesus’ closest followers against him, but Jesus turned one of the strongest adversaries of the Church into one of her strongest advocates.)
“After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” —Acts 16:10
And while Luke didn’t personally witness Jesus’ ministry, he claims to have “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (Luke 1:1–4) and he had access to eyewitness accounts, including the Gospel of Mark.
In the fourth century, a bishop claimed Luke was one of the Seventy (or Seventy-Two) disciples mentioned in Luke 10, but that’s unlikely, especially since Luke appears to indicate he was not an eyewitness in Luke 1:1–4.
While he was certainly an important part of the early Christian church, Luke was not one of the 12 apostles.
John Mark was a traveling companion of Paul and Barnabus (and possibly Barnabus’ cousin), and a man named Mark was also a close companion of Paul. Interestingly, when Peter escapes from prison in Acts 12, he flees to John Mark’s mother’s house, which was an important gathering place for the early Christians. So Peter and John Mark likely crossed paths, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they developed a lasting relationship as a result.
All that said, Mark, the traditional author of the Gospel of Mark was not one of the Twelve, and probably wasn’t an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry, either. According to tradition, Mark’s gospel is based on Peter’s account of his time with Jesus—which could be why Matthew and Luke’s gospels appear to be based on the Gospel of Mark, even though Matthew was an eyewitness!
Get more familiar with the Bible
The Bible is a big book. Technically, it’s a collection of 66 books. And it was written over the course of centuries by 35 authors. Whether you’ve never opened the Bible before or you’ve been studying it for decades, it can be overwhelming to keep track of who’s who and what’s important.
That’s why we created The Beginner’s Guide to the Bible. It’s a non-preachy, jargon-free handbook to what the Bible is, where it came from, and what it’s all about.