Who are the twelve apostles of Jesus as described in the Gospels of the New Testament? Much of our information about the disciples is scant and derived from various legends and traditions that have developed in the ensuing centuries after their deaths. However, attempting to unearth the true account of the disciples is like trying to witness the poetic recitations of Homer. Much of what we know about the disciples comes down to us through a rich tradition of mythology, and a culture of mythology, despite bearing all the trappings of embellishment and falsehood, is nevertheless an account of the human condition which bears much fruit for those willing to inquire.
Simon “who is called Peter” was born somewhere around AD 30 and died perhaps between 62 and 64. Peter was a fisherman along with his brother Andrew and the sons of Zebedee (James and John). He is described by name in various ways in the Gospels, and also in Acts. Tradition holds that he was martyred under the Emperor Nero of Rome by being crucified upside-down around the time of the Great Fire, a hideous event which Nero blamed on Christians. However, this account of Peter’s death may be apocryphal as Acts (written by Luke, a follower of Paul) contains an allusion to the origination of Peter’s death story, and Luke likely had no first-hand account of Peter’s death. Peter’s name was pronounced something like “see-moan” and was later called ‘cephas’ in reference to his second name given him, which in Aramaic means something like “stone or rock,” and Jesus dubbed him “petros” upon whom he intended to build his rock. We often see Peter standing forth, brandishing a pair of keys as the inheritor of Jesus’s political successorship.
Andrew (Peter’s brother) – tradition holds that Andrew was the “first called” among the disciples. He was a fisherman with Simon Peter and the sons of Zebedee (James and John). Andrew’s name means “brave” and “valorous” in Greek. There is no Aramaic or Hebrew name given for Andrew. He and Simon Peter are the sons of “Jonah” or “John.” Tradition holds that Andrew was crucified in Achaea, perhaps on an X-shaped crucifix (hence “St. Andrew’s Cross”). There once was a text called the Acts of Andrew that was circulated, today a badly damaged fragment survives, though it was likely scribed hundreds of years after Andrew’s death. Like Simon Peter, many relics with proclaimed links to Andrew are scattered all over Europe, and his cross is often associated with Scotland.
James (son of Zebedee) – or “Iacomus” is the patron saint of Spain (such as Santiago de compostela in Galicia, Spain –the great European pilgrimage through the Pyrenees). According to Acts, King Herod had James put to death by the sword, the first apostle to be martyred.
John (James’s brother) – or “Yohannon” is sometimes referenced as the mysterious “beloved disciple.” Tradition holds that he outlived the other apostles and was the only disciple to die a natural death. John is believed to have lived over 50 years after the death of his brother James.
Philip – was generally associated with the Greek and Syriac churches. He was present in the Gospels for several pivotal moments. There was a non-canonical text called the Acts of Philip that was available to early Christian readers, as well. Philip the Apostle was often confused with the Philip the Evangelist.
Bartholomew – also sometimes called Nathanael, he is introduced to the apostles by Philip. Tradition holds that he was martyred by being skinned alive and then beheaded. He is rumored to have been a missionary in the far east in India. He is believed to have been martyred in Armenia.
Thomas – or “Doubting Thomas” in the Gospel of John. His name means something akin to “twin.” There was an apocryphal Gospel of Thomas found among the Nag Hammadi library, as well as a Syrian Acts of Thomas text. According to certain accounts of Thomas, he was sent to India and was eventually killed being thrust through with the lances at the ordering of an Indian king.
Matthew “the publican” – or “Levi,” the tax-collector. Although his Gospel was written anonymously, sometime around the 2nd century, a superscription was later added to copies attributing the gospel to Mattheus. He likely spoke both Greek and Aramaic. He was somewhat despised by the people of Judea for his work with Imperial Rome collecting taxes.
James (son of Alphaeus) – is sometimes associated with James the Just, brother of Jesus. He may also have been Matthew’s brother. Tradition holds that he was killed in Egypt while preaching the Gospel. Little is known about “James the Lesser.”
Thaddeus (sometimes called “Judas the Zealot” but who is not Judas Iscariot) – or “Jude.” Little information is available regarding Thaddeus. He is rumored to have been martyred via the axe.
Simon (the Canaanite) – very little is available regarding Simon. He has sometimes been confused with Simon Peter and is sometimes distinguished as “Simon the Zealot.”
Judas Iscariot – the Iscariot addition to Judas’s name may refer to his coming from the village of Kerioth. He is the infamous betrayer of Jesus who was the first to die among the apostles. He died by suicide (hanging). His death is sometimes associated with the “field of blood” –in one of the Gospels he returns the silver pieces and the Pharisees purchase the field, in another Judas falls over the field that he purchased with his silver and his entrails burst forth from him in apparent accidental death.