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It seems likely that Jesus picked 12 followers during his lifetime. The gospels don't explain why Jesus picked these particular guys, and they don't agree about how early in the movement's history they became the core group. But nevertheless, the gospels of Mark and John, which are independent witnesses to the historical Jesus, refer frequently to "the Twelve" (Mark 9:35; 10:32; 11:11; John 6:67–71; 20:24). The author of Luke's gospel usually relies on Mark for his information, but one of Luke's names in his list of the Twelve is different, which may mean that the author had a different and independent list.

Here's a list of the disciples who are usually considered "the Twelve," arranged in order of the earliest noted in the gospel of Mark:

  • Peter: He was a fisherman from Capernaum (John says Bethsaida). He's also often called Simon, Simon Peter, or Cephas. (Cephas comes from the Aramaic for "rock," and Peter comes from the Greek equivalent for the same.)
  • Andrew: He was Peter's brother and fishing partner; John's gospel says that Andrew was first a disciple of John the Baptist.
  • James: He was son of Zebedee and a fisherman from Capernaum. He's called "James the Great" in later tradition.
  • John: He was James's brother and partner in the family fishing business. And maybe because they're so brazen, in Mark, Jesus gives the two brothers the name Boanerges, which is a Greek form of the Aramaic "sons of thunder" (Mark 10:35–45).
  • Philip: He was from Bethsaida, another town on the coast of the Sea of Galilee.
  • Bartholomew: This member of the Twelve doesn't get a lot of press. There simply aren't any stories about him apart from the list of the Twelve. Since the ninth century CE, some people have wondered if he's the Nathanael mentioned in John 1:45–51 and 21:2. Why? Because Nathanael is a normal first name and Bartholomew was more likely a surname (the Greek is based on the Aramaic Bar-Talmai, which means "son of Talmai").
  • Matthew: He's called a toll collector in Matthew's gospel. This reference solves the problem in Mark that the toll collector Levi is called (Mark 2:13–17), but never listed among the Twelve (Mark 3:13–19).
  • Thomas: Thomas, or "twin" in Aramaic, is called "doubting Thomas" because he doubted Jesus's resurrection until he could touch Jesus's wounds himself (John 20:24–29). He's also called Didymus Thomas (which is like saying "twin" twice in both Greek and Aramaic).
  • James: This man, who was the son of Alphaeus, was called in later tradition "James the Less" — not to be confused with James the Great or James brother of Jesus (James was obviously a popular name at the time!).
  • Simon: He was called "the Cananean" (which means "zealous" or "jealous" in Aramaic) in Matthew and Mark and "the Zealot" (the Greek equivalent of the same) in Luke.
  • Thaddeus: There's a bit of controversy when it comes to this 11th disciple. In Mark and Matthew, he's called Thaddeus. Luke, on the other hand, calls this man Jude, son of James.
  • Judas Iscariot: He's the one who betrayed Jesus to the authorities (so he's always put last on lists of the Twelve!).

The differences in the various lists suggest that, by the time the gospels were written, the importance of the Twelve had begun to wane. After all, if they or the communities they founded were still potent, their names would be firmly entrenched and well-known to the gospel authors.

The Twelve disciples' importance may have been dwindling because of their deaths, because of changing leadership patterns in the church, or simply because traditions about the lesser-known ones had been lost. Another reason the Twelve as a group may not have loomed so large at the end of the first century CE has to do with their role. The gospels report that their job was to preach to Israel (Matthew 10:5–6) and to judge the 12 tribes of Israel at the end of time (Q 22:30). But by the late first century, when the gospels are composed, the message is no longer being preached just to Israel, and the end of time seems indefinitely delayed.

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