Can you name all the disciples of Jesus?

Everyone knows Jesus had 12 disciples.

But very people can name them all from memory.

Can you do it without looking them up? Try it and see.

Every time I try this exercise, something very mysterious happens.

I come up with more than 12 names.

If I scour every corner of my brain, I come up with 21 different names for the disciples of Jesus.

What’s going on here?

Work with me, and see if you agree.

21 Names of the Disciples of Jesus

The first four names of disciples are pretty easy—Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Most everyone who’s read the Bible knows these.

And just about everybody remembers Judas Iscariot. He’s a little hard to forget.

If you think for a few minutes, you’ll probably come up with names like Thomas, Matthew, Bartholomew, and Philip.

But maybe you’ll also remember Levi the son of Alphaeus.

And maybe Nathanael.

Maybe even Simon Barjona.

Aren’t those names of disciples too?

Yes, they are. That’s 12 names of disciples already.

But there’s more. A bunch more.

Here are some you might come up with if you really work hard: Simon the Zealot, Simon the Cananean, James the son of Alphaeus, Judas the son of James, Thaddaeus, and Lebbaeus. Recognize those names?

All of them are named in modern English translations of the Bible as disciples of Jesus. Members of the Twelve.

And wasn’t there a guy mentioned once as “Judas, not Iscariot?” That’s kind of a weird way to talk about somebody.

And wasn’t the name Didymus also thrown around a few times?

And isn’t somebody named Cephas?

Yes and yes and yes.

This is pretty strange. Count the names above. We’re up to 21 different names for various disciples of Jesus! Did we make a mistake?

Were There Really 21 Disciples of Jesus?

How did that happen? Some of these must be the same people under different names, right?

Biblical scholars have worked on this question for centuries, and they don’t have perfect agreement. But most everyone agrees that some of these gentlemen had more than one name.

Let’s see if we can untangle things.

You’ll find lists of the 12 disciples of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Mark and Luke, and also a list of 11 of them in the book of Acts.

The gospel of John doesn’t make a list of 12 disciples. This gospel only mentions 7 disciples by name, scattered through the story, and also 2 unnamed “sons of Zebedee.”

The lists of 12 generally divide up neatly into groups of 4.

Let’s look at those and see what we can learn.

The First 4 Disciples

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts all pick out 4 of the 12 disciples to mention first. They aren’t named in exactly the same order in each list, but these 4 always come before any of the others. Here they are:

  • Simon, (whom Jesus nicknamed Peter).
  • Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter.
  • James, the son of Zebedee.
  • John, the son of Zebedee and brother of James.

What We Know About Simon Peter

What’s the deal with Simon having two names?

“Simon” is the English spelling of the Aramaic name “Shimon.” This was the most common name for men in Judea during the first century, and it’s still a common name in Israel today.

“Cephas” is the English spelling of an Aramaic nickname, “Kepha”, which means “Rock.” Jesus gave Shimon this nickname when they met. But the New Testament was written in Greek, so usually “Cephas” was translated to Greek …

“Peter” is the English spelling of the Greek name “Petros” which was used to translate the Aramaic name “Cephas.”

“Barjona” is just the English spelling of the Aramaic “bar Yonah”, which means “son of Yonah.” Simon Peter’s father was named Yonah.

What We Know About Andrew

“Andrew” is the English spelling of a Greek name “Andreas.” We don’t know if he had an Aramaic name. In the Greek New Testament, he’s always called “Andreas.”

Simon and Andrew were fisherman and came from the fishing village of Bethsaida (according to the gospel of John), but they appear to have lived in Capernaum, another fishing village about 3 miles from Bethsaida. There’s no explanation for why they are said to have lived in two different villages. Possibly, they moved from Bethsaida to Capernaum at some point.

What We Know About James and John

James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, were also fisherman, and they came from Capernaum. Jesus nicknamed the two of them “the sons of thunder.” Both were part of the inner circle of Jesus, along with Simon Peter. Tradition says that John was the youngest of the 12 disciples of Jesus. He might have been as young as thirteen years old when he met Jesus!

Four Fishermen, not Twelve

These four primary disciples were all fishermen living in Capernaum. And Capernaum was the village Jesus chose as his headquarters. Could it be that Jesus chose Capernaum because that’s where his first disciples came from? It’s not clear.

People often assume that all 12 disciples were fishermen. We don’t actually know that. We only know for sure that Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen.

The Second Group of Four Disciples

All the lists of disciples name a second group of four men next.

  • Philip
  • Bartholomew
  • Thomas
  • Matthew

We know a bit less about these four.

What We Know About Philip

Philip came from Bethsaida, and he’s usually mentioned with Andrew. So it’s plausible he was also a fisherman, but we can’t be sure. “Philip” is a Greek name and we never hear that he has an Aramaic name. He and Andrew are the only two disciples whose birth names are Greek, and both are said to come from Bethsaida, which was a village with both Jews and Greeks. There’s a story in the gospel of John of some Greeks who wanted to meet Jesus—they came to Philip first, who took them to Andrew, who took them to Jesus. So Philip may well have spoken both Aramaic and Greek.

What We Know About Bartholomew

“Bartholomew” is the English spelling of the Aramaic name “Bar Tolmai,” which just means “son of Tolmai.” The gospels usually name him in the same breath with Philip, so it seems likely they were friends. But Bartholomew is not named at all in the gospel of John. In John, there’s a disciple named Nathanael who is close friends with Philip. Many people over the centuries have suggested that Nathanael is the same person as Bartholomew. This is possible. Then his full name would be “Nathanael son of Tolmai.” We don’t know if that’s how it played, but it might be. Nathanael is said to come from Cana, a small village about 15 or 20 miles from the Sea of Galilee. So he may not have been a fisherman. We don’t have any clear idea what he did for a living.

What We Know About Thomas

“Thomas” is the English spelling of the Aramaic name “Toma” which means “twin.” Thomas was sometimes called “Didymus,” which is a Greek name which also means “twin.” Thomas has a reputation as a doubter. But there’s a story in the gospel of John in which Thomas is the bravest of the disciples, so let’s not judge him too harshly. We don’t know what Thomas did for a living. There’s a legend that he was a builder or a carpenter of some sort. If he lived in Capernaum or Bethsaida, then he might actually have been a boat-maker. But that’s just a guess.

What We Know About Matthew

Matthew is named as a tax-collector in three of the gospels. There’s a story in the gospel of Matthew about Jesus calling him out of his tax-booth to be a disciple. The same story in the gospels of Mark and Luke tell about Jesus calling a man named Levi the son of Alphaeus. Were Levi and Matthew the same man? Traditionally, most people have believed he was. Some modern Biblical scholars have disputed this. We can’t know for sure. It’s a guess. But we can be sure Matthew was not a fisherman. He was a tax-collector, and quite possibly literate, which was rare at the time. He may have been the only disciple who could read or write. Again, we don’t know.

The Last Group of Four Disciples

All the main lists of disciples name a final group of four, but there’s quite a bit of variation in the names. One traditional way to list them is this way:

  • Simon the Zealot (also called Simon the Cananean)
  • “James of Alphaeus”
  • “Judas of James”, also called Thaddaeus or Lebbaeus surnamed Thaddaeus
  • Judas Iscariot (or Judas son of Simon)

Why all the differences in the names? And who were these people?

What We Know About Simon the Zealot

“Cananean” is just an English spelling of a Greek spelling of an Aramaic word, “kanai,” which means “zealot.” So this Simon was zealous for Torah. It’s a reasonable guess that he was in fact a Pharisee. Most of the people in the first century who were called “zealots” were Pharisees.

What We Know About “James of Alphaeus”

“James of Alphaeus” is usually translated into English as “James the son of Alphaeus.” The Greek doesn’t explicitly have the word “son”, but English translators usually supply it. Some scholars believe James was the cousin or half-brother of Jesus, because Jesus had an uncle or possibly step-father with the Aramaic name Halfai, and Jesus also had a brother/half-brother/cousin named James. And “Halfai” could be transliterated into Greek as “Alphaeus” or “Klopas.” We don’t know enough about “James of Alphaeus” to say whether he was really related to Jesus. But it’s possible. For more about James the brother of Jesus, see my blog post James, the Brother of Jesus, Part I. Also, my post Where Was James at the Crucifixion?

What We Know About “Judas of James”

“Judas of James” is usually translated as “Judas the brother of James”. I can’t find any clear reason for this. Everywhere else, “of” would be translated as “son of”. Is this Judas really the son of some James? If so, which James? And it’s more complicated, because this man is called “Judas of James” in only the lists in Luke/Acts. Mark doesn’t mention “Judas of James,” but in the same spot in his list, there’s a man named Thaddaeus. In the same spot in Matthew’s list, there’s a man named “Lebbaeus surnamed Thaddaeus”. We don’t know for sure that these are all referring to the same person, but it seems plausible. One thing we know for sure about “Judas of James” is that he is definitely not Judas Iscariot. Because all the lists also mention Judas Iscariot as a separate person. And the gospel of John talks about a man named “Judas, not Iscariot.” It’s a very strong bet John is referring to our man “Judas of James.”

What We Know About Judas Iscariot

Judas Iscariot is the name of the famous traitor who betrayed Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all call him by this name. We don’t know for sure what “Iscariot” means, but a traditional guess is that it comes from the Hebrew words “Ish Keriot” which would mean “man of Keriot.” The gospel of John tells us he was the son of a man named Simon Iscariot. But we don’t know anything about this Simon.

Lots of Questions Remain

So we’ve found 21 different names used for the 12 disciples of Jesus.

We don’t know as much about any of them as we’d like.

Where did they come from?

What did they do for a living?

Were any of them relatives of Jesus?

What happened to them later in life?

We can answer a few of these questions for a few of these men. But it’s a mysterious group.

What we do know is that Jesus saw something in each of them that he liked. If you believe that Jesus was  a good judge of character, you can reasonably guess that these men were each special in some way. Even if we don’t know exactly what made them special.

Over the 14 years that I’ve been slowly working out the story world for my novel series Crown of Thorns, I’ve had a lot of fun thinking of possible ways that each one might be special.

Below is a photo of a chapel at a Catholic retreat center at Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The boat at the front of the chapel is the altar, and when you’re sitting in the pews, the boat looks like it’s floating on the water. Around the aisles on both sides you’ll see images of all the 12 disciples of Jesus. These are based on traditional church icons that go back many centuries.

Chapel at Magdala on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The chapel features images of the 12 disciples of Jesus.

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