The Seven Apostles
An exploratory essay on the disciples of Jesus within and without the canon.
by Peter Kirby (May 22, 2003)

Here is the translation of the passage in Epiphanius (concerning the Gospel of the Ebionites) from M. R. James, transcribed by me.

In the Gospel they have, called according to Matthew, but not wholly complete, but falsified and mutilated (they call it the Hebrew Gospel), it is contained that 'There was a certain man named Jesus, and he was about thirty years old, who chose us. And coming unto Capernaum he entered into the house of Simon who was surnamed Peter, and opened his mouth and said: As I passed by the lake of Tiberias, I chose John and James the sons of Zebedee, and Simon and Andrew and Thaddaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the Iscariot: and thee, Matthew, as thou satest as the receipt of custom I called, and thou followedst me. You therefore I will to be twelve apostles for a testimony unto (of) Israel.

Here is the quote from Epiphanius in a different translation, which I pulled off the net somewhere.

There appeared a certain man named Jesus of about thirty years of age, who chose us. And when he came to Capernaum, he entered into the house of Simon whose surname is Peter, and opened his mouth and said: "As I passed the Lake of Tiberias, I chose John and James the sons of Zebedee, and Simon and Andrew and Thaddeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the Iscariot, and you, Matthew, I called as you sat at the receipt of custom, and you followed me. You, therefore, I will to be twelve apostles for a testimony unto Israel." (Epiphanius, Panarion 30.13.2-3)

Papias mentions Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John, Matthew, and Judas. Here is the quote of Papias from Eusebius as found in the Ante-Nicene Fathers.

But I shall not be unwilling to put down, along with my interpretations, whatsoever instructions I received with care at any time from the elders, and stored up with care in my memory, assuring you at the same time of their truth. For I did not, like the multitude, take pleasure in those who spoke much, but in those who taught the truth; nor in those who related strange commandments, but in those who rehearsed the commandments given by the Lord to faith, and proceeding from truth itself. If, then, any one who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings,--what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord's disciples: which things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice.

The Epistula Apostolorum mentions John, Thomas, Peter, Andrew, James, Philip, Batholomew, Matthew, Nathanael, Judas Zelotes, and Cephas as well as Joseph and Mary. Here is the quote from the Epistula Apostolorum as translated by M. R. James from the Ethiopic.

We, John, Thomas, Peter, Andrew, James, Philip, Batholomew, Matthew, Nathanael, Judas Zelotes, and Cephas, write unto the churches of the east and the west, of the north and the south, the declaring and imparting unto you that which concerneth our Lord Jesus Christ: we do write according as we have seen and heard and touched him, after that he was risen from the dead: and how that he revealed unto us things mighty and wonderful and true.

Now let me quote from some lists of leaders or disciples found in the canonical writings.

Mark 3:16-19. "Simon, whom he named Peter; James, son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James, whom he named Boanerges, that is, sons of thunder; Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus; Thaddeus, Simon the Cananean, and Judas Iscariot who betrayed him."

Matt 10:2-3. "The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon called Peter, and his brother Andrew; James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew the tax collector [note the name change in Mt 9:9 from Levi, son of Alphaeus, as compared with Mk 2:14]; James, the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddeus; Simon the Cananean, and Judas Iscariot who betrayed him."

Luke 6:14-16. "Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called a Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor."

Acts 1:13. "When they entered the city they went into the upper room where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James."

The author of Luke-Acts also mentions the seventy and the seven.

Luke 10:1-17. "Now after these things the Lord appointed seventy others also, and sent them two and two before his face into every city and place where he himself was about to come. . . . And the seventy returned with joy, saying, Lord, even the demons are subject to us through thy name."

Acts 6:3-5. "Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the spirit and wisdom . . ." So they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the holy spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism."

Some suggest that John 1:45-51 suggests that Nathanael can take his place among the college of the apostles. It is often observed that the fourth gospel has no list of the Twelve, but we do find this list in the Johannine appendix:

John 21:2. "There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael who was of Cana of Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples."

If you count these, there are seven disciples mentioned. If you look up above, you will find that Papias also mentions seven disciples: Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John, and Matthew. Papias mentions Judas elsewhere but does not mention him as an apostle here. The Gospel of the Ebionites mentions eight people; the additional four names inserted by M. R. James are a conjectural emendation so that the list adds up to twelve, in accord with the mention of the twelve in Epiphanius' quote, but it is possible that two different traditions are reflected in this quote. If Judas may be excluded, as he is in Papias, the Jewish-Christian Gospel mentioned by Epiphanius names seven disciples: John and James the sons of Zebedee, and Simon and Andrew and Thaddaeus and Simon the Zealot and Matthew.

So we have three lists of seven: John, Papias, and the Ebionite Gospel quoted by Epiphanius. Let me repeat the list for each.

Gospel of John: Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael who was of Cana of Galilee, son of Zebedee, son of Zebedee, one of two other disciples, one of two other disciples

Papias in Eusebius: Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John, and Matthew

Ebionite Gospel in Epiphanius: John son of Zebedee, James the son of Zebedee, Simon, Andrew, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot, Matthew.

There are three persons that appear in all these lists of seven, though without names in the fourth gospel (for his own literary purposes).

= John - Papias - Ebionite =

Simon Peter - Peter - Simon
'sons of Zebedee' - John - John son of Zebedee
'sons of Zebedee' - James - James son of Zebedee

These are the same names found in the Big Three (Gal 2:9; Mark 5:37, 9:2, 13:3, 14:33 and parallels).

There are then four persons whose names may vary.

= John - Papias - Ebionite =

Thomas called Didymus - Thomas - Thaddaeus/Simon the Zealot
Nathanael - Matthew - Matthew
'two others of his disciples' - Andrew - Andrew
'two others of his disciples' - Philip - Thaddaeus/Simon the Zealot

Here is how I constructed this table. First, I noted that Andrew and Philip often appear together in the apostolic lists (Mark 3:18, Acts 1:13). Also, I noted that Andrew and Philip were mentioned in the first chapter of the fourth gospel (Jn 1:40, 1:43-44). They were therefore obvious candidates for the two other disciples, and they both appear in Papias separated only by Peter (the brother of Andrew). Then, it is obvious that Thomas in Papias should be paired up with Thomas called Didymus in the fourth gospel. After that, the only name left unmatched in Papias is Matthew, so I placed it next to Nathanael by a process of elimination. For the Gospel of the Ebionites, Andrew and Matthew are mentioned and so appear in the table next to the names in the list from Papias. I saw no clear way to connect Thaddaeus/Simon the Zealot with Thomas/Philip, so I left these relationships undefined.

With the exception of Nathanael, all of these names appear in the synoptic lists of Twelve, but not in the same order. The lack of a common order with the synoptic Twelve suggests to me that the Seven is a separate tradition from the Twelve. I am not sure how the apostolic Seven relates to the Hellenist Seven in Acts. Is the author of Luke-Acts somehow commenting on an earlier tradition of seven disciples? If so, what is the comment? I haven't worked that out.

Now we come to the lists of Twelve. The slight discrepancy between the list in Mark/Matthew and the list in Luke/Acts is well-known, and the time-worn harmonization tells us that Judas the son of James is Thaddaeus. But not so well-known is the non-synoptic list of Twelve to be found in the Epistula Apostolorum. There we find it written:

"We, John, Thomas, Peter, Andrew, James, Philip, Batholomew, Matthew, Nathanael, Judas Zelotes, and Cephas, write unto the churches . . ."

Count them up, and you will reach the number eleven. Add in Judas Iscariot, excluded from the Twelve after the resurrection (Mt 28:16; Lk 24:9, 24:33), and what you see in the Epistula Apostolorum is a different list of the Twelve apostles.

So let us compare the lists of the Eleven (minus the Iscariot) in these three sources.

Gospel of Mark: Peter, James son of Zebedee, John the brother of James, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddeus, Simon the Cananean

The Work of Luke-Acts: Simon whom he named Peter, his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called a Zealot, Judas the son of James

Epistula Apostolorum: John, Thomas, Peter, Andrew, James, Philip, Batholomew, Matthew, Nathanael, Judas Zelotes, Cephas

The first thing that jumps out at you is that Peter is separated from Cephas in the Epistula Apostolorum. It has been suggested by some that the name of Peter was interpolated into the Pauline epistles to replace the name of Cephas in some places. (Barnikol) This list of the Eleven in the Epistula Apostolorum could provide independent attestation of the tradition that Peter and Cephas were not always identified, regardless of their etymological similarity.

Other striking points in the Epistula Apostolorum include the priority of John, paralleled only in the Ebionite Gospel, and the high position given to Thomas as second, while Thomas usually appears much later. Andrew is mentioned along with Peter, which is not unusual, but three names now place a wedge between John and James: did the author of the Epistula Apostolorum think of them as brothers?

Philip, Bartholomew, and Matthew appear together in the proper order in the Epistula Apostolorum. So far, all of these names are found in the synoptic list. But then we see the name of Nathanael: the list that places John first provides an additional testimony to the apostolate of Nathanael.

Then we come to the apostle that I would dub "Jude the obscure," named here Judas Zelotes, who could be identified with Simon who was called the Zealot in Luke-Acts (Simon the Cananean in Matthew/Mark), or who could be identified with Judas the son of James in Luke-Acts (sometimes identified with Thaddeus in Matthew/Mark). Is it too much to suggest that a name was made up on occasion to round out the number of apostles?

From the list in the Epistula Apostolorum, it is apparent that, if Jesus chose twelve disciples, their names were not committed to memory by the early church, perhaps analogous to the way they are not committed to memory in the church today. All the lists remember Peter and the sons of thunder, and then Andrew or Matthew or Thomas come to mind, but after that the memory gets fuzzy.

We have examined the traditions of the Seven and of the Twelve. Brief mention can be made of the other traditions of disciples.

The Two appear in the Apocryphon of James, "a secret book which was revealed to me and Peter by the Lord," in which Jesus says, "Let me have James and Peter, in order that I may fill them." Then there is that dynamic duo, Peter and Paul, mentioned in First Clement together as follows: "Let us set before our eyes the good Apostles. There was Peter who by reason of unrighteous jealousy endured not one not one but many labors, and thus having borne his testimony went to his appointed place of glory. By reason of jealousy and strife Paul by his example pointed out the prize of patient endurance. After that he had been seven times in bonds, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, had preached in the East and in the West, he won the noble renown which was the reward of his faith, having taught righteousness unto the whole world and having reached the farthest bounds of the West; and when he had borne his testimony before the rulers, so he departed from the world and went unto the holy place, having been found a notable pattern of patient endurance."

The triumvirate of James, Peter, and John appear in Paul (Gal 2:9) and the synoptics (Mark 5:37, 9:2, 13:3, 14:33, parallels). I write in my summary of Eisenman: "Ancient tradition has it that the first Jewish revolt was sparked by the unjust execution of James the Just. In order to disassociate James the Just from his brother Jesus, the Gospels split him into two: on the one hand, the family of Jesus including James think Jesus is mad; on the other hand, James the son of Zebedee is one of the trio of James, Peter, and John as found in the Gospels. Yet the fiction is exposed when we look at the earlier letters of Paul, in which the trio is James the brother of the Lord, Peter, and John - what an odd coincidence, which so many scholars take at face value, that one James the son of Zebedee should have died only to be conveniently replaced by another by the name of James, the brother of Jesus!" A lesser-mentioned threesome is found in the Gospel of Thomas in the form of Simon Peter, Matthew, and Thomas (saying 13).

For the Five, here is the quote from the Talmud. It is from TB Sanhedrin 43a, as given by F. F. Bruce in Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, p. 62. It comes right after the story of hanging Jesus on the Passover Eve for sorcery and leading Israel astray into apostasy, which gives reasonable assurance that Jesus of Nazareth is intended. There follows a list of offenses supposedly committed by these people, with quotes from the Hebrew scriptures that pun on their names; giving names that would create puns may have been the principle behind the selection of names. Nevertheless it is interesting as providing a testimony to a tradition of a group of five. "The rabbis taught: Jesus had five disciples: Mathai, Naqai, Nezer, Buni, and Todah."

Finally, for a group of seventy which would be a separate group from the apostles in any account, see Luke 10:1-17, which is worth noting for the sake of completeness. (The references in Paul to himself, Apollos, James the Lord's brother, the Twelve after the resurrection, "all the apostles" in addition, and those "prominent among the apostles" could be mentioned here as well.)

Does it seem far-fetched that early Christians would number the apostles at some figure other than twelve? Michael Gough points out that a painting from the second or third century from the Catacomb of Callixtus "shows seven figures seated at a crescent-shaped sigma-table on which are two platters of fish; eight baskets filled with bread are in the foreground." (The Origins of Christian Art, p. 45) So there was indeed an ancient tradition about the disciples of Jesus numbering seven.

So it seems that we are narrowing our focus prematurely when asking, "Are the Twelve historical?" We should really be asking, "Are the Two or the Three or the Five or the Seven or the Twelve or the Seventy historical?" At the least, I think that the tradition of the Seven deserves consideration along with the tradition of the Twelve.