Disciples and Apostles in the New Testament by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.
Basic Definitions and Biblical Overview
Disciple = "learner, pupil, student" (Gk. mathetes,
from the verb manthanein, "to learn")
Jesus is not the only "teacher" to have "disciples" in the New Testament;
there are also "disciples of John [the Baptist]" (Mark 2:18; Matt 9:14; Luke 5:33; 7:18; John 1:35; 4:1) and "disciples of the Pharisees"
(Mark 2:18; 6:29; Luke 5:33) and "disciples of Moses" (John 9:28).
In the ancient world, students/disciples usually sought out a teacher
(cf. Luke 9:57-62);
but Jesus usually reverses the dynamic, "calling" people
to become his disciples (Mark 1:16-20; 2:14-17; 3:13; etc.).
Jesus did not establish a "school" in a particular location, but
was an itinerant (wandering) preacher/teacher;
thus, his disciples literally had to "follow" him around
(Mark 8:34; 10:21; Luke 9:57-62; John 1:43).
The word "disciples" is used 233 times in the Gospels for Jesus' followers,
but one should not assume that it refers only to "the twelve";
the phrase "twelve disciples" occurs only three times
(Matt 10:1; 11:1; 20:17), and "disciples" often refers to this
but other people are also called "disciples" of Jesus
(Matt 8:19-22; Luke 6:13, 17, 20; 19:37; John 4:1; 6:66; 8:31; 9:28; Acts 6:1-7;
Apostle = "missionary, messenger, emissary" (Gk. apostolos,
from the verb apo-stellein, "to send out")
Many people assume (falsely!) that the words "apostle"
and "disciple" have the same meaning in the New Testament.
However, one first has to be trained as a "disciple" (learning from the teacher), before one can be sent out as an "apostle" (representing the teacher).
Moreover, not all "disciples" (students) are necessarily sent out on a particular preaching mission (thereby functioning as "apostles").
The phrase "twelve apostles" occurs surprisingly rarely in the
From among his many "disciples," Jesus chooses "twelve, whom he also named apostles" (only Mark 3:14 and Luke 6:13);
but the exact expression "twelve apostles" occurs only twice in the NT (Matt 10:2; Rev 21:14).
A few other passages refer to these men simply as "the Twelve" (see below) without
calling them "apostles";
Matthew sometimes also refers to them as the "twelve disciples" (Matt 10:1; 11:1; 20:17).
In the NT Epistles, Peter identifies himself as "an apostle of Jesus
Christ" (1 Pet 1:1; cf. 2 Pet 1:1).
the Letter of Jude once refers to "the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ" (v. 17), but without specifying who is meant.
In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus chooses twelve men "to be with him, and
to be sent out to proclaim the message..." (Mark 3:14),
but he does not actually send them out on a mission until later, after he
has taught them further (Mark 6:7-13).
The Fourth Gospel never calls any of Jesus' followers "apostles,"
but consistently refers to them only as "disciples";
John does not contain a list of the twelve, nor even mention all their names individually (see below for more details on John).
Elsewhere in the NT, other people are also called "apostles,"
aside from the twelve men familiar to us from the Synoptics:
Matthias - selected to replace Judas Iscariot
Barnabas - a missionary "sent out"
by the Jerusalem apostles (Acts 11:22, 30; 12:25), later by the Church of Antioch
(Acts 13:1-15:39); Luke and Paul explicitly call him an "apostle" (Acts
14:14; 1 Cor 9:1-6).
Paul - often calls himself an "apostle"
of Jesus, esp. in beginning his letters (Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:1;
Eph 1:1; etc), or when stressing his equal status with the other apostles (Rom
11:13; 1 Cor 9:1-5; 15:7-10; 2 Cor 12:12; Gal 1:17-19).
Apollos - never individually called an "apostle,"
but clearly included when Paul refers to "us apostles" (1 Cor 4:9; cf.
Silas & Timothy - again, not called "apostles"
individually, but included when Paul says, "we... as apostles of Christ"
(1 Thess 2:7)
Andronicus and Junia - a married couple (or brother
& sister?), "relatives" of Paul, who are "prominent among the
apostles" (Rom 16:7)
Mary Magdalene - sent by the risen Jesus to proclaim a message to the disciples (John 20:17-18; although the Greek word apostolos is not used here, Pope John Paul II called her "the apostle to the apostles")
Jesus! - referred to in the Letter to the Hebrews
as "the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful
to the one who appointed him" (Heb 3:1b-2a)
False apostles - warned against, but not identified more specifically (2 Cor 11:13; Rev 2:2)
Disciples of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels and the Book of Acts
Simon (Peter) & Andrew; James & John = two pairs of brothers,
fishermen whom Jesus calls by the Sea of Galilee (Mark 1:16-20;
Matt 4:18-22; cf. Luke 5:1-11)
In Mark 1 and Matt 4, this story is the first time Jesus encounters
these men, but they immediately drop everything to follow him;
In Luke 5, the focus is on Simon Peter; Andrew is not mentioned
at all (only in 6:14); James and John only briefly at the end (5:10);
In Luke, Jesus calls these men only after they
had seen some of his healings (4:38-39) and heard some of his teachings (5:1-3).
Levi = a tax collector called by Jesus (Mark 2:13-17;
Luke 5:27-32); possibly the same person called "Matthew"
Peter, James & John = the three disciples closest to Jesus in the
Synoptics (Mark 5:37; 9:2; 14:33).
Mary Magdalene and other Women = although never directly called "disciples,"
several women "follow" Jesus, learn from him, support his group, are present
at his burial, witness the empty tomb, and are among the early post-resurrection
believers (Mark 15:40-41, 47; 16:1-8; Matt 28:1-10; Luke 8:1-3;
10:38-42; Acts 1:14; 12:12-15).
Minor Characters = characters who "follow" Jesus and/or serve
as important models of "faith", even if they are not explicitly called "disciples"
(e.g., Jairus and the Hemorrhaging Woman in Mark 5:22-43; Blind
Bartimaeus in Mark 10:48-52; etc.)
The Twelve = the core group of disciples/apostles in the Synoptics, whose
names are listed in only four passages (Mark 3:16-19; Matt 10:2-4;
Luke 6:14-16; and Acts 1:13; but never in John). Note some curious details:
some of the names differ in these lists (Thaddeus = Judas, son
of James? Simon the Cananaean = Simon the Zealot? and Matthew = Levi of Mk 2:14?);
one can subdivide each list into three groups of four apostles, with Peter
always named first and Judas Iscariot always last;
the order within the three subgroups also differs (Andrew
2nd or 4th? James before or after John? Thomas 6th, 7th, or 8th? Who is 10th &
the change from Luke 6:14 to Acts 1:13 subtly reflects the increasing prominence of John in the early church (often appearing with Peter), in contrast to the decreasing roles of James (John's brother) and Andrew (Peter's brother).
The names of the twelve apostles are these:
He appointed twelve (whom he also named
apostles) that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach and
to have authority to drive out demons:
When day came, he called his disciples to
himself, and from them he chose Twelve, whom he also named apostles:
When they entered the city they went to
the upper room where they were staying,
first, Simon called Peter,
and his brother Andrew; James, the son of Zebedee,
and his brother John;
Simon, whom he named Peter;
James, son of Zebedee,
and John the brother of James, whom he named Boanerges, that is, sons of
Simon, whom he named Peter,
and his brother Andrew, James, John,
and Bartholomew, Thomas
and Matthew the tax collector;
Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas,
Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas,
and Thomas, Bartholomew
James, the son of Alphaeus,
and Thaddeus; Simon the Cananaean,
and Judas Iscariot who betrayed him.
James the son of Alphaeus; Thaddeus, Simon the Cananaean,
and Judas Iscariot who betrayed him.
James the son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called a Zealot,
and Judas the son of James,
and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot,
and Judas son of James.
[Later, to replace Judas the betrayer:
"the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was counted with the eleven apostles"
Disciples of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel
The First Five Disciples
ANDREW - one of two disciples of John [the Baptist] sent to follow Jesus
[Anonymous] - a second disciple of John, who accompanies Andrew but
is not named (cf. 1:35, 40)
SIMON PETER - brought to Jesus by his brother Andrew (1:41-42)
PHILIP - likely an acquaintance of Andrew and Peter; called directly by Jesus (1:43-44)
NATHANAEL - told about Jesus by his friend Philip (1:45-51)
Other Johannine Texts that mention these Five Disciples
1:44 - Narrator mentions Bethsaida as "the city of Andrew and Peter"
6:5-9 (before Jesus feeds 5000) - "When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, 'Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?' /.../ Philip answered him, 'Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.' / One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, 'There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?' "
12:21-22 (some Greeks in Jerusalem) - "They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, 'Sir, we wish to see Jesus.' / Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus."
13:6-10 (at the Last Supper) - "He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, 'Lord, are you going to wash my feet?' / Jesus answered, 'You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.' / Peter said to him, 'You will never wash my feet.' Jesus answered, 'Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.' / Simon Peter said to him, 'Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!' / Jesus said to him, 'One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean...' "
13:24 (at the Last Supper) - "Simon Peter therefore motioned to him [the beloved disciple] to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking."
13:36-38 (at the Last Supper: Peter's Denial foretold) - "Simon Peter said to him, 'Lord, where are you going?' Jesus answered, 'Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.' / Peter said to him, 'Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.' / Jesus answered, 'Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times."
14:8-10a (Last Supper Discourse) - "Philip said to him, 'Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.' / Jesus said to him, 'Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? / Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?"
18:10-11 (at Jesus' arrest in the garden) - "Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave's name was Malchus./ Jesus said to Peter, "Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?"
18:15-27 - Simon Peter three times denies knowing Jesus
20:2-10 - After Mary Magdalene tells Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple that Jesus' tomb is empty, they run to the tomb
21:1-14 - The Risen Jesus appears to several disciples at the Sea of Tiberias: "Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples."
21:15-22 - The Risen Jesus converses with Simon Peter, first about Peter's own relationship with Jesus, and then about the Beloved Disciple.
As a group, "the Twelve" are mentioned only in 6:67-71 and 20:24.
But John's Gospel does not list the names of all twelve apostles (seven
are mentioned in 21:2, but not all named here).
In fact, the noun "apostle" is not used as a title anywhere in John (only once
in 13:16, referring to "messengers" in general).
"The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved" = the most important disciple in the
He appears only at the Last Supper, at the Crucifixion, and in the resurrection appearance stories
(13:23-26; 19:26-27; 20:2-10; 21:7a, 20-23).
He is said to be the authority behind this Gospel, and is even credited with
writing it, or at least most of it (21:24-25).
He is often more briefly called "the Beloved Disciple" today,
although this exact phrase is never used in John's Gospel.
Other Individual Disciples
The Man Born Blind - given new sight by Jesus; later called a "disciple" of Jesus by the authorities (9:1-41, esp. v. 28).
Martha, Mary, and Lazarus of Bethany - three siblings whom Jesus is said to love; the sisters tell Jesus that their brother is ill, but soon Lazarus dies (11:1-45); Jesus converses with Martha (11:20-27) and Mary (11:28-37), and then raises Lazarus from the dead (11:38-45); Mary later anoints the feet of Jesus with perfumed ointment (12:1-8).
Thomas Didymus/Twin - encourages his fellow disciples to go to Jerusalem with Jesus, "that we may die with him" (11:16); during the Last Supper, he asks Jesus: "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" (14:5); he refuses to believe the other disciples' report that Jesus is alive, until he can see the risen Jesus for himself (20:24-25); later, when he does see the risen Jesus, he proclaims, "My Lord and my God!" (20:26-28); mentioned among the disciples to whom Jesus again appears in the Epilogue (21:2).
Judas Iscariot - the disciple of Jesus who betrays him to the authorities, as foretold early in the Gospel (6:70-71); he challenges the wasteful use of expensive oil when Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus' feet, for which he is reprimanded by Jesus (12:4-8); his betrayal of Jesus is again foretold during the Last Supper (13:2, 21-30); brings the soldiers and police who arrest Jesus (18:2-5); in contrast to Matthew & Acts, however, John's Gospel does not report the death of Judas.
Another Judas - asks Jesus during the Last Supper, "Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?" (14:22)
Mary of Magdala - first named, only briefly, among those standing at the foot of the cross (19:25); goes to Jesus' tomb early on Sunday morning and finds the tomb empty (20:1-2); some angels and the risen Jesus then also appear to her, and Jesus commissions her with a message to announce to the other disciples (20:11-18).
Jesus' mother - never named in the Fourth Gospel; appears only at the Wedding at Cana (2:1-11), going with Jesus to Capernaum (2:12), and standing at the foot of the cross as Jesus is dying (19:25-27); mentioned obliquely in only one other brief reference (6:42).
Other women - mentioned only at the foot of the cross: "his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas" (19:25; scholars debate whether this double-phrase refers to one and the same person or to two different people).
Joseph of Arimathea - called a "secret" disciple, due to "his fear of the Jews"; Joseph and Nicodemus bury the body of Jesus (19:38-42).
Sons of Zebedee - never named individually in the Fourth Gospel; mentioned only once, in the Epilogue (21:2).
Some of Jesus' Expectations of His Disciples in John:
8:31b-32 - "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; / and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."
13:12b-15 - "Do you knowwhat I have done to you? / You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. / So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. / For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you."
13:34-35 - "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. / By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
15:7-8 - "If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. / My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples."
15:12-17 - "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another."
Discipleship in Other New Testament Writings
Discipleship in the Undisputed Letters of Paul
Discipleship in the Pastoral Letters (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus)
Discipleship in Hebrews
Discipleship in the Catholic Epistles
Discipleship in the Book of Revelation
(more info coming some day)
Types of Discipleship or Church Vocations since the New Testament Era
Christian Churches today use many different titles for leaders
and ministers who have various levels of authority and roles of responsibility in the community. One
basic distinction is between the clergy and the laity; important subcategories include religious men and women, ecclesial lay ministers, and Christian married couples/parents. Yet one should not forget that allChristians have a common "vocation," since are "called" by God to live out their baptismal promises in lives of service to both the Church and the world.
Clergy or "clerics" = ministers who are "ordained"
to lead and serve the Christian community, usually on a full-time, life-long basis.
Categories and titles for the clergy in the Catholic Church include Deacons, Priests, Chaplains, Pastors, Monsignors, Auxiliary Bishops, Bishops, Archbishops, Cardinals, and the Pope:
a "Bishop" is the primary leader of a local "Diocese" (geographical territory) of the church;
is the head of a larger "Archdiocese," usually centered in a country's
a "Cardinal" is an honorary position (usually a bishop, or a priest or layperson) with
the added responsibility of electing the Pope;
the "Pope" is technically the "Bishop of Rome," but also has leadership responsibilities for the universal Church.
Titles for leaders in other Christian Churches may include Deacon, Elder, Brother, Sister, Reverend, Pastor, Priest, Bishop, Archbishop, President, Patriarch, etc., although which titles are used by which Churches varies greatly.
Religious or "consecrated persons" = members of religious orders, societies, congregations, or other communities
within the Church.
Some religious men and women are "hermits" who live almost completely alone, but most are members of various types of religious communities:
some communities are "monastic" (monks or nuns living in monasteries
or cloisters somewhat separated from the secular world);
other groups are "mendicant"
(friars and preachers who often travel, live simply, beg for their living, and
serve the poor);
still others are more "apostolic" (sisters or priests
living in religious convents or communities more involved in serving
some newer ecclesial communities are hard to classify, since they may include a mixture of priests and lay people, married couples and singles, full members living in community and associate members living separately, or even a mixture of Catholics and Protestants.
Religious men and women normally profess "vows" or the "evangelical counsels" of poverty, chastity, and obedience:
religious women are either called nuns (in cloistered orders) or sisters (in apostolic congregations);
religious men are usually called monks (in
monastic orders) or brothers (in apostolic communities);
some religious men are ordained as priests (hence "clergy"), but most religious sisters and brothers are not ordained; these religious are technically members of the "laity," although they are popularly considered a third group between the clergy and the laity.
Laity or "lay people" = non-ordained Christians, most of whom live and work primarily in the "secular" world, although many also serve actively in the Church on a volunteer and/or professional basis (full-time or part-time):
Ecclesial Lay Ministers are lay men and women who are called by God and offer their lives in dedicated service as ministers of the Church. Although they are technically not "ordained," more and more lay ministers today serve professionally as parish administrators,
pastoral associates, religious education directors, catechists, sacristans, music
directors, cantors, organists, hospital or prison chaplains, school & college campus ministers, parochial school
administrators and teachers, etc., in addition to all the secretaries, cooks, janitors,
gardeners, and other service employees of parishes and dioceses.
There are also many Part-time Volunteers in the Church, especially those serving in liturgical ministries (lectors, altar servers, eucharistic ministers, greeters, ushers, choir members, musicians, etc.), but also including social service, sacramental, and educational ministries (catechists, baptismal sponsors, confirmation sponsors, homebound visitors, bereavement teams, volunteers collecting and/or distributing food or clothing to the poor, etc.).
Christian Married Couples also live out an important "vocation," since God calls married people to share their love (ultimately God's love) with each other, with their children, and beyond in service to the wider church and world; Christian Parenthood includes the responsibilities of bringing Christ alive in one's children, thus building up the Church for the future; the family is sometimes even referred to as a "Domestic Church."
Baptism is not just a sacrament of initiation, through which a person becomes a member of the Church, but is the foundational "vocation" that "calls" all Christians to live out their faith in whatever career, family, community, and/or lifestyle they choose or find themselves in.