The apostles should be twelve of the most famous people in history. We're told they were hand picked by Jesus to witness his wondrous deeds, learn his sublime teachings, and take the good news of his kingdom to the ends of the earth.
Which makes it all the more surprising that we know next to nothing about them. We can't even be sure of their names: the gospels list a collection of more than twenty names for the so-called twelve disciples – with Bartholomew sometimes showing up as Nathanael, Matthew as Levi and Jude as Thaddeus, Lebbaeus, or Daddaeus!
It should be apparent that if the twelve were actual historical figures, with such an important role in the foundation and growth of the Church, it would be impossible to have such wild confusion over the basic question of who they really were.
But what do we know about any of them?
"Twelve Good Men and True"?
The fact is that for seven of the twelve, our only early source, the Gospels, say nothing about them at all. They are just names on a list.
Isn't it a tad odd that such worthies, infused with the Holy Spirit and given powers to heal the sick and cast out demons, wrote nothing, or had nothing written for them or about them? Isn't it odd that men chosen to be eye-witnesses to the mighty deeds of Jesus, wrote no eye-witness statements, left no sermons, no memoirs, no letters, no teachings, no pithy words of encouragement?
All that we have about "the twelve" are conflicting legends and fantastic stories from a much later date, tall stories about where they went, what they did and most especially how they died. Their deaths, it seems, have been recorded in loving and lurid detail. And it is the graphic deaths of the disciples that solves the riddle. We've all heard the apologetic claim: "Would they have died for a lie? Therefore the story of Jesus must be true."
But we all know how useful to a cause is a dead martyr, even if he's a fiction. In the case of Jesus, the twelve are a fiction, a necessary entourage for a sun god, passing through the twelve constellations of the zodiac. Just like other saviour gods, Jesus had to have his retinue.
The truth is, the twelve disciples are a grubby and sordid invention.
Where DID they get their ideas from?
Joshua also chose Twelve
"The LORD spoke to Joshua, saying: 'Take for yourselves twelve men from the people, one man from every tribe' ... Then Joshua called the twelve men whom he had appointed from the children of Israel, one man from every tribe." – Joshua 4.1-4.
The names 'Jesus' and 'Joshua' both derive from the Hebrew Yehoshua – an heroic name ('Yahweh saves') given to the supposed leader of the Israelites in their conquest of Canaan.
The parallels don't end there. Matthew's Jesus promises his groupies that they will "sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." – Matthew 19.28.
Martyrs to the Cause: Those "Suffering
the disciples have suffered and died for a fabricated saviour?"
One of the
reeds of straw holding up the shabby edifice of Christendom is
the alleged suffering and cruel fate of his original apostles,
the twelve disciples chosen by the Lord himself. By their heroic,
cheek-turning sacrifice, these worthies earned their martyr's
crown and joined their Lord in Heaven. In so-doing, they inspired
generations of noble Christians, who ultimately taught the blood-thirsty
Romans the Christian values of compassion and brotherly love.
Well, that's the myth.
and human suffering have ever been integral to the history of
the Church the fanatics of Christ have rarely been the victimized
innocents. Rather it has been the Christians who have bathed
their faith in the blood of others.
There is NO
corroborating evidence for the existence of the twelve Apostles and
absolutely NO evidence for the colourful variety of martyrs'
deaths they supposedly experienced. The Bible itself actually
the death of only two apostles, a James who was put
to death by Herod Agrippa (see James for
a discussion of this tricky character) and the nasty Judas
Iscariot (see below), who gets several deaths because he's the
tradition alone, dreamed up by the early churches
in their bid for legitimacy and authority, provided the uplifting
fables of heroics and martyrdom. The plethora of conflicting
claims and alternative deaths stand eloquent testimony to wholesale
fabrication of the non-existent godman's non-existent companions.
Fabricated Deaths of the Apostles
Peter (aka Simon, Cephas).
by Nero?" No, not really. This legend was dreamed
up by the mid-2nd century pope Anicetus (156-166)
when he became locked in a conflict with the venerable Polycarp
of Smyrna. Polycarp had tried to win the argument
(over the dating of Easter) by insisting that he
spoke with the authority of the apostle John.
In response, Anicetus staked a claim to Peter, and Peter,
"Prince of the Apostles", trumps John.
century texts known as the "Clementines" had
made Peter the "first Bishop of Rome" and 3rd
century invention gave him a 25-year pontificate – which
made it a tad tricky for him to have died at the hands
of Nero but, hey, this is "tradition."
Church Father Origen dreamed up a colourful
flourish: Peter, feeling himself unworthy to be crucified
the same way as his Lord, chose option 'B' – crucifixion
James, son of Zebedee (James the Greater?)
about that time Herod the king stretched forth his
hands to vex certain of the church. And he killed
James the brother of John with the sword."
legend adds the truly extraordinary nonsense that
officer guarding James converted on the spot and elected
to be beheaded beside him! Even later fabrication has James traipsing
around northern Spain before he dashes
back to Judaea for martyrdom.
John, son of Zebedee.
guy has to be kept alive long enough to take care of
Mary, lead the church in Ephesus, write the Book of
Revelation and write his own gospel. He even
survives being boiled in oil and is given a natural
Actually, John bar Zebedee disappears from the yarn in Acts at the same time his brother James is more dramatically removed from the story. The last reference to John is also verse 12.2. From Acts 12.12 onward we are dealing with another John "whose surname was Mark" – a lightweight character who nonetheless is credited with authorship of the first gospel.
The impending demotion of the thunder brothers is actually prefigured in Mark's gospel (and is embellished in Matthew, where Mrs Zebedee does the talking). The boys ask for front seats in the hereafter. JC is having none of it:
"And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come unto him, saying, Master, we would that thou shouldest do for us whatsoever we shall desire. And he said unto them, What would ye that I should do for you? They said unto him, Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory.
"Jesus said unto them ... to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared. And when the ten heard it, they began to be much displeased with James and John." – Mark 10:35-41.
Thus while the earthly career of Jesus features prominently brothers James and John, "the sons of thunder" (Mark 3.7), the story of the early church features a new James, "the brother of Jesus", and a new John, a sidekick to Paul and Barnabas (see below). We know little about either, although the death of James bar Damneus (Josephus, Antiquities 20.9) provides a basis for the colourful martyrdom of brother James beloved of Christian apologists.
Andrew, brother of Peter.
invention gives Andrew a wonderful career covering
everywhere from Scythia to Greece, from Asia Minor to Thrace. This
guy, it seems, took option 'C' on the crucifixion
menu: on an x-shaped cross. Apparently this allowed him
continue preaching for 2 days.
places this guy in Phrygia, Carthage and Asia Minor.
The fairy tale has a proconsul crucifying him for converting
his wife. Perhaps the love feast got a bit out of hand.
Somewhat confusingly, there are actually two Philips. The original apostle disappears from the tale after witnessing Jesus rise to Heaven from the Mount of Olives. Philip and the rest of the gang return to the upper room in Acts 1.13. But in Acts 6.5 a second Philip is chosen as one of the seven given responsibility for feeding widows
What a traveller – India,
Persia, Armenia, Ethiopia and southern Arabia! Miraculously
he managed to get himself crucified (flayed alive
and beheaded!) in both India and Armenia. Pretty impressive
stuff. Even when dead his bits got about: a church in Rome
claimed most of his corpse but 11th century Canterbury did
a roaring trade with his arm! His emblem is the flaying knife.
Matthew (Levi son of Alphaeus)
guy has to be kept alive long enough to write his
gospel – at
least 20 years after the supposed death of Christ.
Credited with 15 years in Jerusalem, then missions
to Persia and
Ethiopia and, of course, martyrdom in both places. According
to Medieval iconography he worn spectacles, the better
to count his tax money.
If Matthew, aka Levi, is a son of Alphaeus (Mark 2.14) then presumably he is also the brother of James son of Alphaeus (Mark 3.18)? And yet we are told the lesser James is a son of Mary, sister of the Blessed Virgin and wife of Cleophas (John 19.25). In which case, the evangelist Matthew is a cousin of Jesus himself! However, Acts 1.13 tells us that the lesser James has a brother called Judas (aka Jude) whereas Mark (15.40) and Matthew's "own gospel" (27.56) both say that James has a brother named Joses. So we now have a regular band of brothers: James, Joses, Judas – plus Matthew/Levi ... which comes mightily close to the supposed four brothers of Jesus himself!
"Is not this the carpenter's son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas?"
– Matthew 13.55.
Thomas Didymus (the Twin) aka Judas Thomas or Jude Thomas
grand traveller, seen everywhere from Parthia to Kerala in
4th century invention, appropriately enough, gives
this 'twin' two martyrdoms, one in Persia and one in
India. He even gets a burial in Syria to boot! Yet another resting
place, Mylapore, was claimed by the Portuguese in 16th
century. Most famous for his "doubt", Thomas inspired
of pious flimflam: the Acts of Thomas (he built
a palace for an Indian king, would you believe), the Apocalypse
of Thomas, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Infant
Gospel of Thomas.
Now, have you still got any
James son of Alphaeus (James the Less – or is James the Just?)
myth-makers really go to town for this guy. Thrown
down over 100 feet from the pinnacle of the Temple
and Pharisees", he actually survived only to be
stoned, have his brains dashed out with a fuller’s
club and have his body "sawn
asunder" – all this at the age of 90!
Of course, if we don't conflate James the Less with James the brother of Jesus (an identification made by Jerome and later Catholics) all this mayhem belongs with the righteous James and the fate of the lesser James is unknown.
Perhaps it's the being sawn in half which causes the confusion?
Jude/Thaddeus /Lebbaeus /Daddaeus
a serious clubbing or crucifixion for this mixed up guy in
the city of Edessa or Persia. Apparently his fan-club suffered
because his name sounded too much like Judas.
Jude the apostle is often conflated with Jude the brother of Jesus and also with Jude the writer of the epistle of Jude (pay attention, there will be a test). Yet Jude (the letter writer) identifies himself as the brother of James and as a servant of Jesus, not his brother (Jude 1.1). He also speaks of the apostles in the past tense, not as if he was one of them (verse 17), so he cannot be identified as one of "the twelve" either.
Simon the Canaanite/ the Zealot.
came late for this guy. When it did, it was a beauty – crucifixion
in Persia and also crucifixion thousands of miles
away in Britain. He also managed to preach in Africa.
an act to follow.
sends this guy to Syria, Cappadocia, the shores of
the Caspian and the "City of Cannibals" (Acts
of Andrew and Matthias).
Death by burning. Also death in Jerusalem by
stoning – and
beheading. Really just makes up the numbers, sometimes
merging with Matthew and sometimes swapped out
to let Paul into "the twelve."
Judas, son (or is that brother?) of James.
yet. Feeling inspired?
Levi, son of Alphæus.
Refer to his alter ego Matthew.
neither Clement of Alexandria (?153-215),
of Alexandria (182-251) seem to have noticed, Eusebius
of Caesarea (c.263-339) relays the news that the apostle
Mark had been "first bishop" of Alexandria and had
suffered martyrdom in the "eighth year of Nero." This
would have been 61 AD – rendering the apostle dead before
the death of Peter whose memoirs Mark supposedly wrote up as
the Gospel of Mark. "Dragged to death", or
maybe not. His bones – well, someone's bones – turned
up in 9th century Venice.
on an olive tree." Or, "lived to the age of 84 and died
unmarried." Body parts claimed by both Padua and Constantinople.
by Nero." No, not really, but legend tells us he shared
the same fate as Peter, even dying on the same day. Pious romances
scribbled between the 2nd and 4th centuries – Acts
of Paul, the Apocalypse of Paul, the Martyrdom
of Paul and
the Acts of Paul and Thecla – provide all the fabulous
nonsense you could ever wish for.
deaths – a biblical motif for making
sure the bad guys get it REALLY bad
very different deaths for King Saul.
1 Samuel (31:4)
says that Saul "Took a sword, and
fell upon it".
2 Samuel (1:2-10)
says Saul, at his own request, was slain
by an Amalekite.
in 2 Samuel (21:12) we read that
Saul was killed by the Philistines on
then in 1 Chronicles (10:13-14)
we learn that Saul was slain by God!
Ah, this nasty looking character looks
like a Judas
multiple deaths of Judas Iscariot
the Jewish authorities, with their own agents, really had
wanted to arrest a Jesus, supposedly a guru drawing vast
crowds, they certainly would not have
needed to hire an inside informer to identify the charismatic
leader. Nor is it creditable that 'big money' would have
for (of all things) a kiss of
the doomed messiah (Mark 14.44). The theological
symbolism is as apparent as the history is bogus.
The mythic "Judas" was
a Gentile/Hellenistic creation of the early 2nd
century, an eponymous focus for the anti-Judaism and
anti-Semitism of the early Church. "Iscariot" appears
to have been taken from the name of a rebel group called Sicarii,
Jewish assassins who used sicae (small daggers),
who were largely exterminated shortly before the first
writing his epistles about 115, made no mention of a Judas
Iscariot, but then, nor did he mention any 'disciples'
(Paul and Peter are called 'apostles', that is, missionaries – like
a theologically necessary betrayal by 'a
Jew/the Jews' the divine saviour passes, body and
soul, into the possession of the Gentiles.
disposal of Judas, the hapless traitor of the Lord – how
could he help it, he had been entered by Satan?! (Luke
– the Christian scribblers get quite carried away. Papias in
the 130s got the ball rolling.
the Fall Guy
Early 2nd century:
walked about in this world a sad
example of impiety; for
his body having swollen to such an
extent that he could not pass where
a chariot could pass easily, he was
crushed by the chariot, so that his
bowels gushed out."
of the Oracles of the Lord" Book
2 fairytales which made the
biblical final edition:
he cast down the pieces of silver in
the temple, and departed, and went and
this man purchased a field with the reward
of iniquity; and falling headlong, he
burst asunder in the midst, and all his
bowels gushed out."
4th century embellishment:
was a terrible, walking example of
ungodliness in this world
... For his eyelids, they say, were
so swollen that he could not see the
light at all, and his eyes could not
be seen ... when he relieved himself
there passed through it pus and worms
from every part of his body, much to
much agony and punishment, they say,
he finally died in his own
place, and because of the stench
the area is deserted and uninhabitable
even now; in fact, to this day no
can pass that place unless they hold
their nose, so great was the discharge
from his body and so far did it spread
over the ground."
Papias,"Exposition of the
Oracles of the Lord" as
quoted in Apollinaris of Laodicea,
Christian priest and storyteller.
The 12 become the 7 – sort of
In Acts of the Apostles the eleven disciples, ordered by the risen Jesus to wait in Jerusalem for power from the Holy Spirit, drew lots to replace the hapless Judas Iscariot. They chose Matthias over Barsabas Justus and thus restored the magic circle. The wording used by Acts is curious: " one must be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection." At this stage "twelve" still has a divine or mystical importance.
But after a Peter-led interlude (sermonizing at Pentecost, first miracles, arrest and re-arrest, etc.) "the Twelve" have outlived their usefulness. The cover story is that the apostles do not wish to "serve tables" (no kidding, Acts 6.2) or minister to "Grecian widows" – they want to get on with prayer and ministry. They direct that seven men, full of the Holy Ghost, be appointed to the more mundane business of welfare.
What undermines the "authenticity" of this story is that from this point on the original (Jewish) disciples, now free to minister, almost disappear from the story. Instead, it is the "Hellenist" new guys, supposedly appointed for welfare work, who steal the limelight.
Primacy goes to Stephen, who gives one big speech and becomes the first martyr, followed by Philip (not to be confused with the disciple of the same name) who works wonders in Samaria in competition with Simon Magus. Philip also converts the treasurer of Ethiopia and even "vanishes" from Gaza to reappear twenty five miles away in Azotus (Ashdod), courtesy of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8.39)! He obviously did not spend much time waiting on tables. Twenty-odd years later Philip is in Caesarea, where, as the father of four virgin soothsayers, he hosts the apostle Paul.
The other Hellenists – Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas – are never mentioned again. Like most of the named apostles, they merely make up the number. By this stage Acts has become wholly preoccupied with a yarn about the adventures of Paul. As for the original witnesses chosen by Jesus – "fishers of men" divinely ordained to take the good news "to the uttermost ends of the earth" – they have faded into oblivion.
of the Shadows
After the "deaths" of
the Apostles, even Church
historians offer no great
missionary figures (they make a weak attempt with Ignatius).
The gap of more than two centuries is filled with an anonymous
of the shadows.
the void was filled with "suffering Christians" – a
fallacy, invented by a triumphant Church for its own greater
glory, elaborated at length by the feverish minds of medieval
churchmen and perpetuated in our own time by the studios of Hollywood.
would concoct a fanciful story in which the blood of
the martyrs became the seed of the church; they would
tell of a continuous progress, first in secret then openly, by
which brave, pious, humble, and noble followers of Christ, faced
up both raging lions and sadistic emperors. By their submission
to suffering with a divinely inspired countenance, these pioneers
of Christianity apparently won first the respect
and then the heart of a dark and cruel pagan world.
Who Persecuted Whom?
centuries, a handful of Christian "martyrs" can be cited from
a few locations.
Their number, far from substantiating any general or sustained
persecution of the
early Christians, is no more than we would expect of
a fraternity that, by the time of Constantine's coup, amounted
to some tens of thousands and was drawn disproportionately
from criminal and marginal classes. The general
persecution of Christians occurred
only when the Christian Empire turned its ferocity upon the
Empire had lasted more than a thousand years and persecuted Christians
for fewer than twelve of them. The 'Christian Empire' also lasted
more than a thousand years and persecuted non-Christians through
all of them.
The Good Bible – in all its Goodly Versions
Thomas Sheehan, The First Coming (Crucible, 1986)
David Farmer, Oxford Dictionary of Saints (OUP,1997)
Bruce Metzger, Michael Coogan (Eds) The Oxford Companion to the Bible (OUP,
Edward Gibbon, The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire (1799)
Michael Walsh, Roots of Christianity (Grafton, 1986)
Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version (Penguin, 1991)
Helen Ellerbe, The Dark Side of Christian History (Morningstar & Lark,
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Copyright © 2005
by Kenneth Humphreys.
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