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Getting to know the apostles

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Take away the apostles and it’s unlikely that we would be Christians. Without these faithful and courageous men, we would not know the Good News nor Our Lord Jesus Christ. The original Twelve Apostles plus Paul and Matthias are the foundations of our faith. It was these men who spread the message of Jesus, sharing the story of his resurrection to most of the known world in the first century. Following Pentecost, they had an unwavering commitment to Christ, even willing to suffer and give up their lives for him; in fact, most died as martyrs.

Considering their importance, we know little about several of these men, and what we do know is based largely on tradition or legend. Some things we can surmise about them all are based on Jewish culture; for example, the teacher (Jesus) was always older than the student, so the apostles were likely under the age of 30 and some may have been teenagers. Being young and fishermen, they were probably in good health, which was necessary to follow Jesus all around Galilee. Most were uneducated, except perhaps for Matthew, the tax collector. They were not well traveled, not sophisticated, and lived and worked locally. St Josemaría Escrivá wrote about them: “The apostles were mere fisherman. … They weren’t educated; they weren’t even very bright, if we judge from their reaction to supernatural things. … They were poor; they were ignorant.” Nevertheless, Jesus called them to be his witness to all mankind.

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Name the apostles

At some point in every class for people going through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), the attendees are asked to name the original apostles. Typically, someone responds: “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,” there is a pause, “and Paul.” Many of the students, and other Christians, struggle naming the Twelve and frequently think that the Gospel writers were all apostles.

The apostles are: Peter, Andrew, James the Greater, John, Philip, Bartholomew (Nathanael), Thomas, Matthew (Levi), James the Less, Jude (Thaddeus), Simon and Judas, plus Matthias and Paul, who were not part of the Twelve. The three synoptic Gospel versions, plus the Book of Acts, confirm the selection of the original Twelve. Some of the names vary slightly, but they are the same individuals. According to the Gospel version of Matthew, it was Andrew, Peter, along with James and John, followed by Philip that were the first apostles selected. They were all fishermen; in fact, most of the Twelve were fishermen. They had that special virtue found in every fervent fisherman, the virtue of patience; they threw their lines or nets into the water and waited. This virtue would serve them when Christ called them to be fishers of men. After selecting those first five, Jesus next called Matthew, a tax collector, and then Bartholomew. The Gospel does not make specific mention of Jesus calling each of the other apostles, although they are named as a group in several places.

Jesus gifted the apostles

For three years the apostles lived with Jesus, listened to him, watched him perform miracles; they were being readied for a great mission. Jesus passed on his divine gifts, including forgiveness of sins, of healing, and turning the bread and wine into his body and blood, to the apostles. No ordinary person can give another his God-given talents. A great major league hitter can demonstrate and explain how to hit, but he cannot instill the talents only he possesses into another. A catechist can discuss how to pray, but the sincerity of the prayer must come from the individual offering the prayer. Jesus, however, was divine and even gave the apostles the words necessary to profess his Good News.

At first Jesus restricted the Twelve to teaching his message to Jews only: “Do not go into pagan territory. … Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 10:5-6). Two years later, he issued the Great Commission instructing the apostles to go outside the Jewish nation “and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:19-20).

After issuing the Great Commission and just before he ascended back to the Father, he told them to wait in Jerusalem, for “the promise of the Father, about which you have heard me speak” (Acts 1:4). In sum, they wouldn’t be ready to carry out their mission until they received the Holy Spirit. Their first converts were all Jews; the apostles did not begin to evangelize to non-Jews until some 10 years later. They would have help from others such as Barnabas and Timothy in accomplishing this sacred work.

Jesus passed on his divine gifts, including forgiveness of sins, of healing, and turning the bread and wine into his body and blood, to the apostles.

Imperfect men

These were imperfect men, and their defects surface throughout the Gospels: they sometimes doubted, denied, even betrayed Jesus; they were slow to understand and questioned some of his actions. Judas betrayed him and then went out and hanged himself. Peter denied the Lord three times. All except John abandoned Jesus during his passion. Thomas rejected the story that Christ was alive, and most did not believe the women on Easter morning that he was resurrected. Philip demonstrated a lack of faith questioning how Jesus could feed 5,000 people with a few fish. Only after the Resurrection were the apostles filled with unwavering faith and complete belief in Jesus.

Before Pentecost they had fled in fear; now they willingly praised his name to the ends of the earth even though in doing so they would be despised, beaten and imprisoned. They went most individually from Jerusalem to India through Persia, to Greece, Turkey, North Africa, the Ukraine, Egypt, Syria, throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East. This is not a complete list of countries, but when you add on the efforts of St. Paul, who traveled and evangelized over 10,000 miles, including Europe, the apostles spread Christianity to most of the known world. Except for cities like Jerusalem, Antioch (Syria) and Rome, their work was done in small Christian communities where in many cases they gave up their lives. The Scriptures only tell the deaths of two apostles: St. James the Greater, who was murdered by Herod, and Judas, who hanged himself. From tradition and legends, we find that Peter was crucified upside down in Rome, and nearby on about the same day, Paul was beheaded. Andrew was crucified hanging in the shape of an X, Bartholomew was flayed alive, Matthew was stoned and then beheaded, and Thomas was speared to death. All the apostles experienced martyrdom except for John, who died a normal death.

Soon Christianity was no longer a by-product of Judaism but growing into a universal (catholic) church. The apostles had to perform long and dangerous journeys, deal with many different cultures, and remain cognizant that the Romans and many Jews wanted to persecute them. But mostly wherever they went, they attracted people seeking to learn about the resurrected Christ, about his message of love, about eternal life. These holy men remain models for us.

These were imperfect men, and their defects surface throughout the Gospels: they sometimes doubted, denied, even betrayed Jesus; they were slow to understand and questioned some of his actions.


St. Peter

Peter denied Jesus three times on the night he was arrested, “before the cock crows twice,” just as Jesus predicted (Mk 14:30). Yet even after this grievous rejection our merciful savior forgave Peter and singled him out as the head of the Church on earth. Peter became the prince of the apostles, and through the gifts of the Holy Spirit was the first to spread the Good News to the Jews. Any place in the New Testament where the 12 original disciples are named, Peter is always listed first.

In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus initially met Peter, James and John at the Lake of Gennesaret where they had been fishing all night but with no catch. Jesus suggested the fishermen should lower their nets again. Peter complained because of their earlier experience but eventually agreed. Suddenly they had so many fish they couldn’t bring in the nets. Peter fell to his knees in front of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord for I am a sinful man.” Jesus told him not to be afraid, then said to the three fishermen, “‘from now on you will be catching men’ … they left everything and followed him” (Lk 5:8-11).

Peter demonstrated a lack of faith and even argued with Jesus on occasion. He showed little faith when he attempted to walk on the water toward Jesus; as long as his attention was on his savior, he was OK, but once he took his eyes off Jesus, he began to sink (cf. Mt 14:28-33). Peter argued with Jesus when he said he would be killed by the Jews and again when Jesus wanted to wash his feet. Along with James and John, Peter fell asleep during Christ’s agony in the garden. But for all these human flaws, Jesus saw Peter as the one to lead the Church by becoming the first pope. Peter not only evangelized the Jews but was responsible for the first Gentile conversion: the centurion, Cornelius (cf. Acts 10).

St. Thomas

St. Thomas is remembered as the one who doubted when told that Christ was resurrected and had appeared to the other apostles in the Upper Room. Thomas was not convinced until he placed his hands in Christ’s wounds. His initial unbelief is understandable because Christ had been crucified and sealed in a tomb. According to Pope St. Gregory the Great, it was not an accident that Thomas was absent when Christ appeared to the other apostles: “In a marvelous way God’s mercy arranged that the disbelieving disciple, in touching the wounds of his master’s body, should heal our wounds of disbelief.

The disbelief of Thomas has done more for our faith than the faith of the other disciples. As He touches Christ and is won over to belief, every doubt is cast aside and our faith strengthened. So, the disciple who doubted, then felt Christ’s wounds, becomes a witness to the reality of the resurrection.” Thomas is our witness, his eyes are our eyes and his hands are our hands; accordingly, we have no doubt — Christ lives.

Sts. James and John

The brothers James (the greater) and John, along with Peter, were the only apostles accompanying Jesus at three special events: at the raising of the daughter of Jairus, on Mount Tabor during the miracle of the Transfiguration, and in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before Christ’s passion. Accordingly, the three of them are regarded as among the inner circle, closest to Jesus. James is known as the Greater simply to distinguish him from another apostle named James (the Lesser). James the Greater was the first apostle to shed his blood for Jesus, as he was murdered under the direction of King Herod Agrippa in A.D. 44, an act “pleasing to the Jews” (Acts 12:3). John was the only apostle at the cross when Jesus was crucified; the others had run away. From the cross, Jesus gave his mother (Mary) to John’s care, indicating a unique bond between Jesus and John.

The mother of James and John asked Jesus that her sons sit one on his left and one on his right in his kingdom. Jesus tells her: “You do not know what you are asking.” He explains in the presence of all the apostles that positions of authority come from the Father, from a divine calling not from personal ambition and adds: “whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Mt 20:22, 26-28).

Sts. Philip and Bartholomew

In the city of Galilee, Jesus summoned Philip to be an apostle. Philip in turn sought out Bartholomew (or Nathanael) and told him that the one whom Moses and the prophets wrote about had been found, that his name was Jesus, the Son of Joseph, of Nazareth.

Bartholomew then speaks that line we all know: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46). Despite this rebuff, Philip escorts Bartholomew to Jesus, where Bartholomew is determined to size up Jesus. But there is no sizing up because Bartholomew recognizes him as the true Messiah, saying, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel” (Jn 1:49). This proclamation is not unlike Peter’s confession months later: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). By heavenly intervention both Bartholomew and Peter recognized the divine Jesus.

At least twice Philip is used by Jesus to help the disciples understand the role of Jesus and who he is. At the multiplication of the loaves in John’s Gospel, Philip is worried as to how 5,000 people will be fed: “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little [bit]” (Jn 6:7). Philip watched awestruck as Jesus turned the few fish and bread into enough to feed all the people. Later at the Last Supper, the Lord rebuked Philip when the apostle asked, “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Jesus responds: “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip?” (Jn 14:8-9). All the apostles saw Jesus as their teacher, but some were slow in recognizing him as their savior.

It is also worth noting that Philip the apostle should not be confused with Philip the Evangelist, who successfully carried the message of Jesus to Samaria and baptized the Ethiopian eunuch on the desert route between Jerusalem and Gaza (cf. Acts 8:27-39).

St. Paul

While not among the original 12 apostles, Paul was chosen by Jesus as “a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites” (Acts 9:15). Paul (originally called Saul) was among the most extreme Christian haters of his time. He was an onlooker and supporter at the stoning of St. Stephen, and he excelled at rounding up Christians in Jerusalem and turning them over to Jewish authorities to be persecuted.

At one point, he was going to Damascus to capture additional followers of Christ. On the road between the two cities, he was confronted, blinded and converted by Jesus, who sent him into Damascus to a house on the street called Straight. Here he would regain his sight and be baptized. From that point Paul became the greatest of the evangelizers, the Apostle to the Gentiles. He established at least 14 Christian communities and preached to thousands of individuals while crisscrossing the Middle East and into Europe four different times. His letters to the communities he established fill much of the New Testament.

St. James the Less

James the Less was the influential leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem and a consequential voice at the Council of Jerusalem (A.D. 50) where the apostles decided to expand the teachings of Jesus to the Gentiles. James supported the idea that a Gentile need not first become a Jew before becoming a Christian: “It is my judgement, therefore, that we ought to stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God” (Acts 15:19).

James issued a letter to the Gentiles basically indicating that the Gentiles did not have to adhere to all the Jewish dietary laws or be circumcised before becoming a Christian. The only prerequisite was that those seeking to follow Christ would give up their pagan sacrifices. These actions overcame a major hurdle in converting and baptizing people in every nation, not just Jews. St. James the Less is also regarded as the author of the New Testament book of James.

St. Matthew

Matthew was a tax collector for the occupying Romans in Galilee. The Jews hated the tax collectors, both because they worked for the Romans and often cheated the people. Jesus saw Matthew (Levi) “sitting at the customs post. He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ And he got up and followed him” (Mk 2:14).

In the eyes of the Jews, Matthew was a despicable creature, an outcast no better than a sinner because of his job, but Jesus, in his abundant love and mercy, read Matthew’s heart and called him to be one of his apostles. Matthew gave up everything to become a follower, a believer in Christ. While not a lot is known about Matthew, there is evidence that he went to evangelize in India where he is that country’s patron saint.

Andrew, Simon, Jude and Matthias

The Scriptures provide few details about Andrew, Simon, Jude and Matthias. Yet, they each followed Christ and went out to teach the Good News. Andrew was the first of the apostles selected and the first to call Jesus the Messiah; thus, he was close to Jesus. Simon may have been a member of a Jewish political group called Zealots, who were adamant about their Jewish faith and hated the Romans. Jesus won Simon over, and the apostle channeled his enthusiasm and energy to the message of Christ.

Jude was known as Thaddeus, according to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, and Judas, according to St. Luke. St. John also refers to him as Judas at the Last Supper: “Judas, not the Iscariot, said to him, “Master, [then] what happened that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?'” (Jn 14:22). This is a question likely being considered by some of the other apostles who still saw Jesus as potentially an earthly king, not yet grasping why Jesus had come to earth or what was going to happen to him on the next day. Jesus responds that he will make himself known to those who love him and keep his commandments, “and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (Jn 14:23).

Matthias was picked to replace the betrayer, Judas (Act 1:15-26). While the apostles waited in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, Peter, as their leader, could have picked the replacement, but he left the choice to the apostles. Peter does provide some direction saying that whoever is chosen must have been part of Christ’s followers from his baptism and be a witness to his resurrection. There are two candidates, Barsabbas and Matthias; eventually, Matthias is selected by drawing lots. We never hear of Matthias again in the New Testament.

Judas Iscariot

Like some of the other apostles, we do not know when Judas was selected. He was the treasurer of the group, in charge of the finances, probably efficient in his efforts. Judas was present in Bethany when Mary anointed Jesus with a precious spikenard ointment and complained she was wasting the oil, but he complained “not because he cared for the poor but because he was a thief and held the [apostles] money bag and used to steal contributions” (Jn 12:6). Jesus rebuked Judas for his comments, and it was soon thereafter that Judas connived with the chief priests to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.

At the Last Supper, Jesus knew what Judas was doing, and after washing all the apostles’ feet, including Judas, he revealed that someone would betray him and identified Judas, saying, “What you are going to do, do quickly” (Jn 13:27). Later that same night, Judas, leading a band of soldiers, singled out Jesus as leader of the Christian group. After the arrest of Jesus, Judas tried to give the money back but was rejected by the Jews, and so he “went off and hanged himself” (Mt 27:5).

D. D. Emmons writes from Pennsylvania.

Apostle to the apostles — St. Mary Magdalene
In July 2016, Pope Francis elevated the annual celebration of St. Mary Magdalene from an obligatory memorial to a feast. She is the only woman, except the Blessed Mother, so honored by the Church. The Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship issued the instruction saying: “it is right that the liturgical celebration of this woman should have the same level of festivity given to the apostles in the General Roman Calendar, and that the special mission of this woman be highlighted as an example and model to every woman in the Church.”

Like the apostles, Mary Magdalene demonstrated devotion and commitment to the Lord. She and other women traveled around Galilee with Jesus “provided for them out of their resources” (Lk 8:3). She followed Jesus to Jerusalem, and unlike the apostles, except John, she was with him at the Crucifixion. On that first Easter morning, the Gospel says she was the first person Jesus encountered. Jesus sends her to his brothers [apostles] and Mary tells them, “I have seen the Lord” (Jn 20:18). Thus, she is known as the apostle to the apostles.

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