From among his many disciples, Jesus chose twelve men to carry on his work in a more definitive way. These men came to be called ‘apostles’, though probably not during Jesus’s life, but after his death and resurrection.
The number ‘twelve’ related to the original Twelve Tribes of Israel and was a powerful Jewish symbol. If Jesus meant to establish a ‘new Israel’, then ‘the Twelve’ were seen as the founding fathers of the new community as much as the twelve sons of Jacob were for the old Israel.
The choice of the Twelve is narrated in all four Gospels and the book of Acts. The names are listed in three clusters of four, and always in the same way.
The first group is that of Peter, Andrew, James and John, two pairs of brothers, most probably fishermen by occupation from around the Sea of Galilea. All four figure prominently in various passages of the Gospel, and Peter is always referred to as the head of the apostles.
The second cluster is of Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew and Thomas. These four find only brief mention in the Gospels, and there is disagreement on whether Bartholomew and Nathanael are one and the same. By contrast, most scholars accept that Matthew and Levi (the other name which appears) are the same person.
The third group is the most uncertain. There are two Judases here, one the traitor, and the other a cousin of Jesus; another James, and another Simon. Judas Iscariot is the only one not from Galilea. Barely 50 years after the death of Jesus, the popular memory of those whom he had chosen was fading, and this accounts for the duplicate names.
The role of the apostle was primarily that of a witness. As such, they were significant witnesses not only to Jesus’s resurrection, but to his earlier ministry. The Twelve functioned together as a ‘college’ in making decisions in the early Church. As the original Jerusalem community accepted its mission to spread to other parts of the Empire – Paul took the lead here – the title ‘apostle’ was given to others as well: Paul, Barnabas, Timothy , Silas and even Junias, a woman. In this, the word ‘apostle’ linked with an older Jewish term – sheluhim, an ambassador, a spokesman.
Apostles then are not only witnesses, but spokespersons for Jesus, and for God who sent him.