In a previous blog post, I talked about what it was like to go On the Road With Jesus.
Jesus took a lot of road trips. He seems to have gone often to the major feasts in Jerusalem (Passover in the spring, Pentecost in early summer, Tabernacles in the fall). It was a long trip to go from his home region of Galilee down to Jerusalem. Each trip must have taken several weeks.
But he also took a lot of local trips inside Galilee.
What was Galilee like?
Galilee Was Small
Galilee was a pretty small region in the time of Jesus. It was roughly circular in shape, and the diameter was just a bit over 30 miles. (In modern Israel, the region known as Galilee covers a bit more land area, but it’s still quite small.)
You could walk from any point in first-century Galilee to any other point in two days. No problem.
Jesus’s hometown was Nazareth, a medium-sized village in the southern part of Galilee. He seems to have made his headquarters in Capernaum, a largish village in the eastern part of Galilee.
And what do I mean by “medium-sized” and “largish?”
You might be surprised.
I’d estimate Nazareth had a population of about 200 to 400 people.
I’d estimate Capernaum had a population of about 1500 to 2000 people.
Those numbers seem awfully small. Where do we get those numbers?
How to Estimate the Population of Ancient Towns
Archaeologists estimate the size of ancient towns and village by looking at two factors:
- The area the town covers.
- Whether the town was walled or unwalled.
Here’s a reference book, in case you’re interested. It’s a fairly geeky book, but I’m a geek and I enjoyed it immensely. Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus, by Jonathan L. Reed.
Reed’s book says that ancient walled towns had 100 to 150 people per acre, and unwalled towns had about 40 to 60 people per acre. (Why were walled towns denser? Because if a town had walls, everyone wanted to live inside the walls. But once the walls were built, they couldn’t easily be moved, so as time went on, people crowded into them more and more, building multi-story houses until the town had as many people as it could hold.)
So to estimate the population of an ancient town, you have to do enough excavations to determine if it had walls and how much area the town covered.
Big Cities and Small Villages
According to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, there were 204 villages in Galilee. (Josephus was the general in charge of the defense of Galilee during the Jewish Revolt of A.D. 66-70, so he spent a lot of time there.)
Josephus claims that these villages all had at least 15,000 inhabitants. Assuming all these villages were the same size, first-century Galilee would have had a population of at least 3 million people,.
But that’s very naive on two counts.
- For one thing, we know that the two largest cities in Galilee at the time of Jesus were Tsipori and Tiberias. Each had a population of only about 10,000 people, based on their areas. So all the other towns and villages in Galilee had to be smaller. Historians believe that, like most ancient writers, Josephus wildly inflated his population estimates.
- For another thing, if you look around in your own state or country, you’ll see that cities, towns, and villages have wildly different sizes, from enormously large down to very, very small. It never happens that all the towns have the same size, not even approximately. Large cities are 100 times or even 1000 times larger than small towns.
How To Estimate the Population of Galilee
Still, we can estimate the population of Galilee with reasonable accuracy.
We know that the population of cities and towns roughly follows the famous “80/20 rule.” This rule says that 20% of the cities have approximately 80% of the population. This is what mathematicians call a “power-law distribution.” The math is a little complicated, and I won’t go into it here.
But I wrote a small program on my computer to estimate the populations of all the villages in Galilee using a power-law distribution based on the 80/20 rule. I only needed two numbers:
- The population of the largest city, which is about 10,000.
- The number of cities, towns, and villages, which is about 204.
Using these two numbers, I ran my program and had it print out the theoretical populations of every village, from the largest to the smallest. Please note that this is theoretical. Reality never fits a theory exactly, and nobody expects it to.
The actual numbers would have been a bit different from my calculations, but not enormously different. Usually, the biggest discrepancy between theory and reality comes in the #2 spot. In our case, we know that the #2 city in Galilee was actually just about the same size as the #1 city. So as you’ll see below, the theory is off by about 80% for the #2 city. But we expect the theory to be closer to reality for all the other spots in the calculation.
What we want in this kind of calculation is to get the general trend. Let’s look at a selection of the numbers I calculated.
The Population of Galilee at the Time of Jesus
- The #1 city had a population of about 10,000.
- The #2 city had a population of about 5,504.
- The #3 town had a population of about 3,882.
- The #4 town had a population of about 3,030.
- The #5 town had a population of about 2,500.
- The #6 town had a population of about 2,137.
- The #7 town had a population of about 1,871.
- The #8 town had a population of about 1,668.
- The #9 town had a population of about 1,507.
- The #10 town had a population of about 1,376.
- The #20 town had a population of about 757.
- The #30 town had a population of about 534.
- The #40 village had a population of about 417.
- The #50 village had a population of about 344.
- The #60 village had a population of about 294.
- The #70 village had a population of about 257.
- The #80 village had a population of about 229.
- The #90 village had a population of about 207.
- The #100 village had a population of about 189.
- The #125 village had a population of about 156.
- The #150 village had a population of about 134.
- The #175 village had a population of about 117.
- The #200 village had a population of about 104.
- The #204 village had a population of about 102.
Adding up the numbers for all the cities, towns, and villages gives us an approximate population of Galilee of about 84,000 people.
A Sanity Check on the Numbers
Is that reasonable? In this kind of rough calculation, I’d like to know if the number is good within a factor of 2 or so.
We can do a reality check quite easily. Jonathan Reed’s book says that it took about 2 acres of arable land to feed one person, using the farming methods available in the first-century.
So to feed 84,000 people, Galilee would have needed about 168,000 acres of arable land, which amounts to 262 square miles. Galilee at that time covered about 750 square miles. Some parts of Galilee are very hilly and rocky, so only a fraction of the land is arable. It’s reasonable to think there were at least 262 square miles of arable land.
So it looks like Galilee had enough land to feed 80,000-plus people, but it would have been stretching things to try to feed 200,000. And feeding 3 million would have been wildly out of the question.
This is a good sanity check on our calculations. Our estimate of 84,000 people is the right order of magnitude.
On the Road With Jesus
We can do one final calculation. If Jesus spent about 120 days per year on the road, talking to people in Galilee, could he have met them all?
The answer is yes, in principle. In 3 years, he’d have a total of 360 days to meet people. By interacting with 233 people per day, he could theoretically meet every single Galilean in that time. And 233 is the size of a typical village.
Jesus could spend one day in each of the small and normal-sized villages. Then he’d need to spend considerably longer in the larger towns and cities, but there weren’t many of those.
It’s entirely possible he did exactly that.
Nazareth Was Typical, Capernaum Was Good-Sized
I calculate that if Nazareth had a population of around 200 to 400, then it ranked somewhere between #42 and #94 in the list of all the towns and villages in Galilee. It was a typical-sized village, not enormous, not tiny.
And I calculate that if Capernaum had a population of around 1500 to 2000, then it was somewhere between #6 and #9 on the list. It was larger than most towns, but not as large as the very biggest.
So the story the gospels tells us makes very good sense geographically.
Jesus came from a typical hometown, Nazareth. Not the smallest. Not the largest. Most people in Galilee came from a village much like his.
But Jesus made his headquarters in a somewhat larger town, Capernaum. Not the very biggest he could have chosen, but certainly a prominent town. It’s reasonable to choose a prominent town for your headquarters. Why did Jesus choose Capernaum? Because several of his disciples lived there—Peter, Andrew, James, and John at least. And probably also Thomas and Matthew. Possibly others.
And in the three years Jesus spent traveling around Galilee, he could have interacted with every single person who lived there.
You sometimes hear it said that Jesus was a country boy from a tiny village in Galilee.
That is true, sort of, but it’s a bit misleading.
Yes, Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a small village covering maybe 10 acres. At that time, Nazareth had a population of somewhere around 200, give or take. It might possibly have had as many as 400 souls. A small village, typical in first-century Galilee.
But Nazareth was also only about 3 miles away from the big city of Tsipori. When Jesus was a boy, Tsipori was the capital city of Galilee. (When Jesus was in his twenties, the capital was moved to Tiberias, a city on the Sea of Galilee.)
All of this means that Jesus lived only about an hour’s walk away from the big city.
But is there any reason to think Jesus ever took that walk? Yes, there is …
A Builder, Not a Farmer
It’s useful to remember that Jesus was probably a builder. The word used in Greek is “tekton,” which means a craftsman in wood, metal, or stone. In English Bibles, this word is usually translated as “carpenter.” But “tekton” is broader than a carpenter, and it’s a word often used for builders.
By the way, we know Jesus was a tekton from only a single text in the New Testament, Mark 6:3. The parallel text in Matthew identifies his father as a tekton.
It’s likely that most of the villagers in Nazareth were farmers, working their small plots of land around the village. Jesus wasn’t a farmer, because he had no choice. His father wasn’t a farmer, and if you don’t inherit land, you can’t farm it.
If Jesus was a builder, what did he build? It’s a reasonable guess that he built or helped build houses in his own village. But there was a limited amount of that sort of work. Nazareth probably had two or three dozen family houses. That’s not a lot for a builder to do.
But Tsipori, on the other hand, had an enormous amount of work available. The reason is simple.
According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Tsipori was attacked and destroyed in the years shortly after King Herod the Great died. Jesus would have been a very young boy at this time.
Soon after that, Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, was given rulership over Galilee. Antipas rebuilt Tsipori and he made it the capital of Galilee for about twenty years.
Rebuilding a city takes workers, and Herod Antipas hired a lot of builders.
So it’s possible that one of the builders he hired was Joseph, a tekton from Nazareth. Nobody can prove this, but it’s at least possible.
Can we say more than merely possible? Yes, we can.
Too Much of a Good Thing
It’s very, very likely that Joseph trained Jesus and his four brothers in the craft of the tekton. (The texts in Mark and Matthew that I linked to above name his four brothers as James, Joses, Simon, and Judas.) For more thoughts on these brothers, see my post The Mysterious Brothers of Jesus.
Assuming this one family in Nazareth had 6 healthy men, all working as tektons, they probably represented somewhere between 5% and 10% of all the able-bodied men in the village. It’s a reasonable guess that this family had too much of a good thing—there probably wasn’t enough work for them all in Nazareth.
And that’s why I think it quite likely that some members of the family found work in Tsipori. When there was no work to do in Nazareth, it would just make sense to walk on over to Tsipori and hire yourself out for the day. There was plenty of work in Tsipori, and a good craftsman could get hired on the spot.
Jesus and his family had a very good reason to do that.
An Advantage for Jesus
Working as a day-laborer was not a high-prestige job. But it gave Jesus one huge advantage over his fellow villagers, most of whom were farmers. A subsistence farmer is tied to his land. He can’t simply take off for weeks at a time, leaving his land and his animals unmanaged.
But a day-laborer can. In one day, a day-laborer could earn one dinar, enough to feed 12 people for a day. A family of six hard-working men, all working as day-laborers, could earn 6 dinars a day. But they’d only need 1 dinar per day for food for the entire family.
What did they do with the rest? They saved it. And when it came time for one of the major feasts, they could simply walk away from the village for several weeks. No crops to worry about. No animals. No worries.
Being day-laborers gave Jesus and his family the freedom to travel. And we know they used it. The four gospels make it clear that Jesus and his family went to Jerusalem often for the major feasts—Passover in the spring, Tabernacles in the fall, and possibly also Pentecost in early summer. Each of these feasts took weeks to go to, when you account for travel time. (It took at least 4 or 5 days to walk from Nazareth to Jerusalem, each way.)
Jesus and his family apparently had that time, because we know they took that trip often. Which meant they must have had the money to make the trip.
And where did they get that money? It’s just a fact that there’s a lot more money in a city than in a village.
I think they got the money working in Tsipori. I think Jesus knew this city well.
What Was Tsipori Like?
Tsipori at the time of Jesus was a thriving city with about 10,000 people. Herod Antipas lived there and ruled Galilee.
Tsipori is built on a hill, and there was a fortress at the top of the hill. (Jesus once observed that “a city built on a hill cannot be hid,” and he might well have been thinking of Tsipori when he said it.)
Tsipori had a very large system of cisterns for holding water. The city covered somewhere between 100 and 150 acres, and it was probably a walled city, or at least parts of it were walled.
I’ve visited Tsipori a couple of times. Nobody lives on the site now. It’s a major archaeological park, and it’s been very extensively excavated. If you go to Israel, I highly recommend a stop at Tsipori. It’ll give you a great sense of what the city was like in the first century. My wife and I went to Tsipori again this past summer.
Here is a picture I took of the main city street of Tsipori with the citadel in the background:
Here is a picture of the main cross street in Tsipori looking south:
And here’s a picture of some of the houses in Tsipori, with Nazareth in the background. (Nazareth today is a largish city with a population of about 80,000 people.)
This summer when I walked through the streets of Tsipori, I looked around and asked myself which of these houses Jesus and his family might have helped build. It’s a question I can’t answer. But I think it’s reasonable to believe that he worked on some of them.
Ever wondered what it was like to be there on the day Jesus came to the Jordan River to be baptized by John?
There are a lot of questions I’d like answered:
- When and where exactly did this happen?
- What did the place look like?
- What was it like to get baptized by John?
Where Did John Baptize?
The four gospels all say that Jesus met John at the Jordan River.
Mark’s account is earliest and says that John was “in the wilderness” and also “at the Jordan River.”
Matthew’s account was written a bit later and is very similar, with more details.
Luke’s account was written a bit after Matthew’s, and includes the interesting detail that John appeared in “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,” which puts it somewhere around the year A.D. 28 or 29.
All three of these gospels say that John baptized Jesus.
The gospel of John doesn’t actually say Jesus was baptized. It does say that John was baptizing in the wilderness “on the other side of the Jordan,” and it tells how Jesus met six of his disciples there—Peter and Andrew, Philip and Nathaniel, and two others who aren’t named.
That’s all the biblical data we have on where the baptism happened.
As usual, when data is lacking, there are plenty of traditions to fill in the gaps.
The Traditional Baptism Site
There’s a traditional site at the Jordan River, just a few miles north of the Dead Sea, where John is said to have baptized Jesus.
The Jordan River is part of the border between the modern State of Israel and the modern Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
If you visit on the Israeli side of the river, you’ll see tourists there getting baptized.
If you visit on the Jordanian side, you’ll be shown a fairly large site that extends from the river eastward for several hundred yards. Inside that zone is an ancient monastery complex and a modern chapel. The site has been declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
But Is It The Real Baptism Site?
We don’t have strong evidence that the sites on either the Israeli or Jordanian sides are the exact location where John was baptizing.
The monastery on the Jordanian side dates from a few hundred years after the time of Jesus.
The sixth-century Madaba map is a mosaic that seems to put the baptism site on the Israeli side.
But neither of these are dated very close to the time of Jesus.
So I wouldn’t say that we can locate the baptism site on a map with any real precision. For one thing, the Jordan River, like all rivers, tends to shift its banks over the centuries. For another, the real site could easily be a few miles north or south of the traditional site.
What we can say is that the traditional baptism site gives us a reasonable idea of what the actual site looked like, wherever that might be.
Pictures of the Traditional Baptism Site
My wife and I visited the traditional baptism site on the Jordanian side this past July.
If you’ve always pictured the Jordan River as a broad, raging torrent, you’re in for a surprise. In modern times, most of the water from the river gets diverted for agriculture, so the river is narrow and shallow. At the traditional baptism site, it’s about twenty feet across, and the water looks to be about waist-deep.
Our guide told us that when his father was young, the river was never less than fifteen to twenty meters across. That’s still not very wide, but it’s a lot bigger than the river you see today.
Here’s a photo of the river as I saw it:
The traditional site is more than 1000 feet below sea level, which makes it very hot. On the day we visited, it was over 100 degrees. The sun burned down on us out of a clear blue sky. We saw some date palms, some acacia trees, and a lot of tamarisk trees, which have very spiny leaves that don’t lose much moisture in the blazing sun. Here’s a closeup picture of a small tamarisk tree:
And here’s a picture of some small palm trees near a modern chapel:
Imagine the Day John Baptized Jesus
Imagine you’re there on the day Jesus comes to John to be baptized.
During the heat of the day, you rest with your friends in the thin shade of a tamarisk tree. Hundreds of people have come from Judea and Galilee to listen to the prophet John.
Later in the afternoon, John comes out and gives his message, warning Israel to repent or be consumed in the coming judgment. He’s wearing a rough tunic woven from camel hair and a belt made from the skin of some wild animal, and he looks exactly the way you’ve always imagined the prophet Elijah, in days of old.
You repent. Then you walk down into the river to do a traditional Jewish purification ceremony.
Since you’re in public, you keep your tunic on until you’re in water up to your neck. Modesty is important to you, and the last thing you’d want to do is expose your nakedness. But the law requires you to be completely naked for the purification ceremony.
Fortunately, the Jordan River is murky and greenish-brown. Once you’re far enough into the water, you pull your tunic up over your head. Now you’re naked, so you’ve met the requirements of the law. But nobody can see anything except your face, because the water is so murky.
You plunge below the surface of the water, immersing yourself completely, including the tunic you’re holding in your hand.
Once you’ve immersed, you’re now ritually clean, and so is your tunic. You pull your wet tunic back down over your head and cover your body. Your tunic is clumsy and hard to handle, so it takes a long time, but you finally get it back on.
You slog back to the bank and clamber up out of the river.
In the evening, you eat a meal of celebration with your friends. You spread out your cloaks on the pale sand and recline under the stars. You eat traveler’s food—bread and cheese and dried figs and almonds. You wash it down with beer or wine from a skin.
Somebody sings a song.
Your friend recites the poem of the creation of the world.
You stand and tell the story of how Joshua led your people across the river more than a thousand years ago and conquered Jericho. You look across the river and see the lights of Jericho in the distance. You can’t help feeling that this is the most exciting time to be alive. The kingdom of God is breaking in!
A young Galilean reclining a few feet away smiles at you. He stands and tells a story you’re not familiar with. It’s not taken from the sacred writings. But it’s the best story you’ve ever heard.
When things settle down for the night, you roll up in your cloak and lie back in the sand and stare up at the stars and wonder what’s going to happen next …
If you go to Israel, you’ll be shown all kinds of sites where Jesus allegedly walked.
The site where his mother is said to have seen the angel Gabriel.
The site where he is said to have been born.
The site where he’s said to have been baptized.
Two sites where he’s said to have fed the 5,000.
Two sites where he was arrested.
The site where he was tried.
A couple of sites where he was buried.
Many of these have churches to mark the “exact location.”
There’s a church on the site where he’s said to have ascended to heaven, complete with a footprint he is said to have left in the rock.
After a while, you start wondering what’s real. Because it’s not likely that people were following Jesus around, pounding signposts into the ground to mark the spot.
Is there any place we can know for sure Jesus stood?
We know that Jesus lived in Galilee and went to the synagogue every Shabbat. So if we could find an authentic first-century synagogue in Galilee, it would be a good bet Jesus was there.
What About the Synagogue at Capernaum?
Jesus had his headquarters in Capernaum, a village near the north end of the Sea of Galilee.
My wife and I worked on an archaeological dig in Jerusalem for a couple of weeks this summer. When that was done, we went up to Galilee for a few days. We stopped by Capernaum, one of our favorite spots in Galilee.
There’s a beautiful synagogue at Capernaum that most tourists visit. Here’s a picture I took:
It’s big and beautiful. Did Jesus stand here?
Unfortunately, this synagogue was probably built in the fourth century. So Jesus never set foot in this building. The synagogue was built on the site of an earlier synagogue, and Jesus certainly taught in that one. But not in the one shown in the photo.
The problem is that there just aren’t that many synagogues in Israel that date to the first century. Until recently, only six were known.
But in 2009, a new one was discovered in Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene. A Catholic organization wanted to build a retreat center there on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. As soon as they broke ground for the new building, they began making sensational finds, including a synagogue. They called in the authorities and launched an archaeological dig.
They found a coin dating to the year AD 29, which proved that this synagogue dates to the first century.
Did Jesus Visit the Synagogue at Magdala?
The obvious question to ask is whether Jesus ever visited this synagogue at Magdala.
And the answer seems very clear to me. Yes, he did.
Magdala is only about six miles from Capernaum. There was a road running south along the Sea of Galilee, connecting Capernaum to Magdala. You could walk between the two towns in a couple of hours.
It’s true that none of the four gospels ever mention Jesus visiting Magdala.
But that’s not surprising. The four gospels mention by name only a very few towns or villages that Jesus visited in Galilee. Nazareth. Cana. Capernaum. Chorazin. Nain. That’s most of them.
But there were more than 200 villages in Galilee, and the gospels say that Jesus walked all through Galilee.
It’s likely that he visited every single village and town in Galilee. To see how that was possible, see my blog post On The Road With Jesus.
And Magdala was one of the larger towns, probably ranking in the top five.
So yes, Jesus visited Magdala. His close friend, Mary Magdalene lived there. She was likely a wealthy woman, because the gospels say she helped support Jesus and his friends.
And the gospels are also clear that Jesus was a rabbi, a Torah teacher.
Without a doubt, he’d have been asked to speak in any synagogue he chose to visit on Shabbat.
The Strange Magdala Stone
But we can say more. The archaeologists found a strange stone in the synagogue at Magdala. Nothing like it has been found anywhere in Israel.
The stone is inscribed with beautiful artwork on all four sides and also on top.
The art shows a menorah and what appears to be symbols representing the Temple in Jerusalem.
These may well be the earliest images of the Temple that we have.
The stone may have been used to hold the Torah scroll during the reading on Shabbat.
If so, then Jesus would have stood in front of it when teaching in the synagogue.
Even if it wasn’t used to hold the Torah scroll, Jesus must have admired the art on it when he visited. It’s just too beautiful to ignore.
My wife and I worked on the Magdala dig for about a week back in 2015. We went back to visit this summer to see what progress they’ve made on the site.
Here is a picture I took of the synagogue at Magdala. Near the center, there’s a replica of the Magdala stone showing where it was found:
Here are some pictures I took of the on-site replica of the Magdala stone. In the first, you can see the menorah. The second appears to show a representation of the Temple in Jerusalem.
If You Get a Chance to Visit Magdala, Do It!
If you visit Israel on a tour, the odds are high that your guide will take you to Capernaum. This has been a traditional tourist stop for years. Many tours now also include Magdala, because it’s close to Capernaum and just as exciting.
I personally like Magdala more, because you can get closer to the archaeological finds. And because you can see a synagogue where you know with high confidence that Jesus actually visited.
Work is ongoing at Magdala, and I expect they’ll continue to uncover more of the past over the next few years.
You can read all about the archaeological park at Magdala here.
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.
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.