The Greatest Myths About the Apostles

From the actual number to Peter's wife and child, how well do you really know the apostles?

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

After the death of Jesus, his core group of followers went on to spread the good news about the life, death, and resurrection of their leader. Known as the Disciples or the Apostles, this cluster of trusted followers essentially founded Christianity—an astonishing feat, given that most of them were poorly educated fishermen. But even if these unremarkable men were made remarkable through their encounter with Jesus, much of what we think we know about them comes to us from later tradition or efforts to smooth out the historical record. Here are some of the greatest myths about their stories.

1. There were twelve clearly identified Apostles.

In the Gospels the Apostles are collectively known as “the Twelve.” The fact that there were twelve disciples suggests that they are representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel. But even if it is symbolic, that symbolism translates to practical action: after Judas betrays Jesus and commits suicide, Peter persuades the assembly of Jesus followers to elect a new member of the Twelve by drawing lots. It’s important to have twelve.

The problem is that there is some disagreement about the identity of the original Twelve. There’s a consensus among the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke that the group includes Simon, also known as Peter; Andrew, his brother; James (sometimes called James the Elder) and John (the brother of James), the sons of Zebedee; Philip; Bartholomew; Thomas; Levi or Matthew; Judas Iscariot; Simon the Zealot ; and James the Lesser. They disagree about the identity of the final member, Jude. Mark calls the final disciple Thaddeus. Some manuscripts of Matthew also call him Thaddeus while others call him Lebbaeus. Other manuscripts of Matthew call him Judas the Zealot, and Luke calls him Judas, son of James. If we assume that they are all referring to the same person it seems likely that Mark and Matthew are trying to distinguish this Jude from Judas Iscariot.

The Gospel of John is less clear on the identity of the Twelve. Of the nine he names he includes a man name Nathanael. Tradition maintains that Nathanael is Bartholomew, but that’s difficult to state with any certainty.

The situation gets even more complicated when we start looking at all the other people who followed Jesus. In Luke there’s a larger group of seventy (or seventy-two) disciples who are sent out in pairs to prepare the way for Jesus. Luke also mentions a larger group of people, including three women (Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susannah), who are following Jesus. What all of this means is that while there is a numerically significant group of twelve disciples, they weren’t the only ones acting as “disciples,” and we don’t know exactly who they were.

2. They all liked each other.

Jesus may have chosen a central group of Twelve, but after his death there was at least one other who decided to call himself an Apostle. This man, who started life as Saul of Tarsus but is better known as St. Paul, never met Jesus during his ministry. Instead he claims that he received his knowledge about Christianity through direct revelations, or visions, from the risen Christ. Paul’s first interactions with the followers of Jesus took place before his famous Road to Damascus experience. He spent some time, he tells us, persecuting the followers of Jesus. Add to this backstory the fact that Paul was university educated, from Tarsus, and was of higher social status than the others, and the groundwork was laid for a rather strained relationship.

In particular, there was some friction between Peter and Paul over the issue of whether or not they should eat with Gentiles. According to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, Peter regularly ate with Gentiles until delegates came from James (the brother of Jesus) in Jerusalem. At that point Peter decided to withdraw and eat only with Jews, because he was afraid of what Paul calls the “circumcision faction.” Apparently, when Peter was in Antioch, Paul called him a hypocrite, and there’s nothing in Paul’s letters to suggest that they ever patched things up. A much smoother version of events is recorded in Acts of the Apostles, and much later tradition would tell stories of Peter and Paul happily imprisoned together in Rome, but that isn’t how Paul told it. Whether or not they patched things up, they had sharp disagreements.

3. The leadership structure was clear.

For Roman Catholics, Peter is chief among the Apostles. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 16:18-19). This statement forms the basis for papal authority. According to Roman Catholic tradition and the principle of Apostolic Succession, Peter became the Bishop of Rome, and his successors from Linus to Pope Francis all share in Peter’s elevated status in the Church.

For many Protestants, there was a division of labor. They maintain that Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles and Peter was the Apostle to the Jews. There was no supreme authority figure in the early Church and, as a result, there isn’t one today.

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In truth, though, it depends which Gospel you are reading. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Peter is the most important member of Jesus’ inner circle, but he is not alone. The other members are James and John, the sons of Zebedee. Jesus frequently takes these three aside for special instruction and revelation. In fact, it is when he is in the company of this special group that the Transfiguration happens. The Sons of Zebedee are also somewhat ambitious. In a somewhat tragic misunderstanding of Jesus’ language of the Kingdom of God, they ask Jesus if they can sit at his right and left hand when he is in glory. They seem to be imagining that when he overthrows the Romans and becomes king they can be his right-hand men. What actually happens is that they promise Jesus that they will “drink from his cup,” a metaphor for martyrdom.

In the Gospel of John, on the other hand, Peter is much less important: Jesus doesn’t call Peter the rock on which the Church is founded; Peter is described as a former disciple of John the Baptist; and Peter pales in comparison to another figure – the Beloved Disciple. The Beloved Disciple is never identified by name in John, but scholars tend to think that he is either John (the Gospel’s author) or Lazarus, who was raised from the dead. Given that early Christians usually had access to one Gospel, it’s likely that those who heard the Gospel of John thought that the Beloved Disciple was the most important of the Twelve.

All of which is to say that there were a number of candidates vying for the position of “top Apostle” and that, depending on where one lived and which disciple was believed to have founded your community, you would have had a very different take on which of the Apostles was the most important.

4. They were unmarried.

A common misconception about the Apostles is that they were unmarried. It’s easy to understand why people think this: Jesus spends multiple years preaching before his death and the Apostles accompany him everywhere. While parents are sometimes referred to, there are no explicit references to the wives or children of the Apostles. Paul is very clear that he is unmarried and that, ideally, other followers of Jesus would remain unmarried as well.

Peter, though, had a wife. Paul tells us that Peter’s wife accompanied him on missionary journeys (1 Corinthians 9:5). A second-century text called the Acts of Peter further suggests that he had children. It begins with a description of Peter’s beautiful daughter, who was paralyzed on one side.

The fact that Peter was married is sometimes used to argue against clerical celibacy. For much of the early Christian and late antique era, many priests and bishops continued to marry. As David Hunter, chair of Catholic studies at the University of Kentucky, has argued, it was only around the twelfth century that celibacy began to be enforced. It’s because of this, and the married status of some of the disciples, that married priests from different denominations can convert to Catholicism and that the Vatican sometimes hints at the possibility of married priests in the future.