"And when it was day, he called unto him his disciples: and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles" (Luke 6:13).
The term apostle has a unique significance among Christians. Almost all Christian churches believe that, of the Savior's many disciples and followers, there were only twelve men who were specifically called by this grand title. These chosen men were to be special eyewitnesses of Christ's Divinity to all the world. Because of their unique status, it is further believe that when they had all died, it ended the era of having apostles in the church.
To members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we believe that this group of men was always to remain numbered at twelve. By this we mean, when one died, another person was called to fill his vacancy, thereby insuring that at any given time there were always twelve men who held this exalted position.
Among all Christian denominations we stand alone in this view.
But what does the Bible say on this matter? In specifics, not much. It neither conclusively confirms, nor definitely denies the continuity of the number of apostles. However, by inference there is quite a bit of information about this subject.
First of all, let us look at who these original twelve men were. All the gospels, except John, list their names. All three gospels name Simon Peter, his brother Andrew, James and his brother John, who were the sons of Zebedee, nicknamed "the sons of thunder", Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James, the son of Alphaeus and Judas Iscariot.
The gospels of Matthew and Mark further name Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus and Simon the Canaanite as being part of the twelve men known as apostles (Matthew 10:3,4, Mark 3:18). However Luke names "Simon called Zelotes, And Judas the brother of James." (Luke 6:15,16). It may be safe to say that Simon the Canaanite and Simon called Zelotes is one and the same person. However, Luke substitutes the name Judas, the brother of James, for the name of Thaddaeus, and later confirms this in Acts 1:13.
We don't know anything about Thaddaeus from the Biblical writings. He is mentioned only two times, and each one is in connection with the above list of apostles. However, the gospel of John does mention another apostle named Judas who is not Iscariot (John 14:22).
There are some scholars who believe that Judas, the brother of James and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus are actually the same person. However, that is only speculation and is not provable by any evidence found in the Bible. The main reason for this assumption is based on the belief that there cannot be any contradictions among the gospel writers. If that is a correct assumption, then these two differing names must somehow belong to the same person, even if there is no evidence to support such a conclusion. But if that assumption is wrong, then Thaddaeus and Judas, the brother of James must be two different people. If that is so, who are they?
The epistle of Jude was written by Judas, the brother of James (Jude 1:1). Furthermore, it is also a fact that the ancient church leaders only included in the cannon of the New Testament those letters which had been written by an apostle (with the exception of Mark and Luke). That means Jude had to be an apostle in order for his epistle to be included in our present-day Bible. It would therefore seem that Judas, rather than Thaddaeus was one of the original apostles.
But which James was he the brother of? The name James was a fairly common one, so we don't really know for certain which "James" it was, but, from the gospels we know that Mary, the mother of Jesus, had four other sons, and at least one daughter. The names of her sons are James, Joses, Simon and Judas (Matthew 13:15, Mark 6:3). Her daughter's name was Salome (Mark 15:40). Clearly we see that this Judas had an older brother named James, and, indeed, most Biblical scholars agree this is who the apostle Jude was.
However, Judas Iscariot fell from grace and from his apostleship, leaving only eleven special eyewitnesses to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15). Shortly after Jesus had ascended into heaven, His disciples were gathered together in one place and "Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples, and said, (the number of names together were about an hundred and twenty,) Men and brethren, this scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake before concerning Judas, which was guide to them that took Jesus. For he was numbered with us, and had obtained part of this ministry... For it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishoprick let another take... Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection. And they appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen, that he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place. And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles. (Acts 1:15-26, italics added).
If there were only to be twelve men ever called to be apostles, why then did Peter think it so important that there must be someone else called to take the place of Judas so that the number of living men holding that most honored position remained at twelve? The Bible doesn't say.
From secular history we learn that shortly thereafter James, the brother of the Lord (who was also known as James, the Just) was made the first Bishop of the church in Jerusalem by Peter, John, and James, the brother of John (Ecclesiastical History of the Church, by Eusebius, book two, chapter 1. Also Clement, third bishop of Rome, in the sixth book of his Hypotyposes). Although we know that this James was a very virtuous man, he was not part of the original twleve apostles when he was ordained as a bishop.
Yet, Paul wrote, "Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother" (Galatians 1:18,19). The clear implication is that, by this time, James, the Lord's brother, was not only a bishop but was also now an apostle! Read how other prominent translations render this verse: The New American Standard Bible says: "But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord's brother." The Paraphrased New Testament reads: "And the only other apostle I met at that time was James, our Lord's brother."
Carefully notice that Paul does not say that the only apostle he met was Peter even though he also saw James. He specifically states that besides Peter, the only other apostle whom he met was James, the Lord's brother. There is no other conclusion we can come to than James was also an apostle at that time. But when, how and why did he receive this glorious distinction? The Bible doesn't say, but Biblical scholars agree that the epistle of James was written by the brother of the Lord shortly before his death. And as stated earlier, only the writings of apostles were included in the New Testament.
And what about Paul? It is clear that he too was an apostle. But how did he become one? Most Christian scholars claim that he was honored with this title simply by virtue of his vision on the way to Damascus. Yet, such an assumption is not supported by anything found in the Bible. Then when, how and why did he become an apostle?
Although the Bible doesn't specifically answer these questions, there are clues found in the scriptures as well as in secular history.
After his conversion, Paul went first to Arabia where he spent some time in seclusion before going back to Damascus. Three years later, he went to Jerusalem to see Peter (Galatians 1:17,18). After that he went to Tarsus, his home town (Acts 9:30), and while there he preached in the surrounding areas of Syria and Cilicia (Galatians 1:21-24) until he finally settled in the city of Antioch where he continued preaching and assisted in the collection of food from the saints.
In the thirteenth chapter of Acts we read: "Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away" (verse1-3).
Paul had been a Christian for approximately ten years when he and Barnabas were called to serve as missionaries. Notice that Acts 13:1 specifically refers to five people in Antioch as being "prophets and teachers." Saul, (Paul) is the last one mentioned. The obvious implication is that he had no more authority than the rest of them. There can be no doubt that he was not yet an apostle at this time.
This point is further strengthened by the fact that he didn't take it upon himself to embark upon this missionary journey. Rather, he was set apart by the laying on of hands by his fellow prophets and teachers. This strongly indicates that he was not in any position of apostolic authority at this time. Instead, he was serving at a lower level of church authority. As he went forth on his first mission, he did so as an evangelist, not an apostle.
Yet he himself states that he had been ordained as an apostle (1 Timothy 2:7). The question is: When, where and why did this ordination take place?
The general consensus among Christian scholars is that first and second Thessalonians were written near the end of Paul's second missionary journey, while all the rest of his letters or epistles were written during his third missionary journey or while he was in prison at Rome near the end of his life. Of the thirteen letters he wrote, all but four of them start by clearly stating that he is an apostle. Two of the four letters that are missing this declaration are first and second Thessalonians. At the beginning of each of these letters he refers to himself only as "a servant" rather than as an apostle.
The other two letters where he does not mention his apostolic position is Phillipians and Philemon. Both of these were written while he was in prison at Rome so we know that he indeed was an apostle at their writing. The epistle to Philemon was a personal letter to a friend so it is natural that he wouldn't have stated his authority.
The church at Phillipi was the earliest one that Paul had established and they were among his most loyal supporters. Even though they were poor, they sent one of their own with money and a letter of concern about his illness while he was in prison at Rome. Paul was deeply touched by their love for him and sent this letter back to express his great appreciation and affection for them. It is understandable, under those conditions, why he felt no need to declare his apostolic position at the beginning of his letter.
However, such was not the case with the church in Thessalonia. Although they were faithful, there were several areas of critical doctrine which Paul had to address. The question is: Why didn't Paul affirm his authority as an apostle when he declared his message to them if he was already one at that time, especially since he did so in all his other letters? The answer seems obvious. At the time he wrote to the Thessalonians, he was still only an evangelist.
The Biblical record shows that Paul returned to Jerusalem at the end of his second missionary journey to attend a Jewish feast and afterward went to the town of Antioch where "he spent some time there" (Acts 21-23). How long he stayed in Antioch the record doesn't say, but eventually he started out on his third missionary journey somewhere around 54 A.D. The first epistle he wrote after that was to the Corinthians somewhere near the end of 55 A.D. to the spring of 56 A.D. And it is in that letter he first declares himself to be an apostle.
Since we know that Paul was ordained to the position of an apostle, the evidence seems to suggest that his ordination occurred some time after the end of his second missionary journey but before his third mission started. We also know that some of the other apostles lived or frequently met in Jerusalem which further suggests that his ordination took place at the time he went to that city to observe the Jewish feast holiday. If that is the case, then Paul had been a Christian for approximately twenty years before he became an ordained apostle.
But the question still remains: Why was he ordained to this celebrated position only after he had been a Christian for approximately twenty years? The Bible doesn't say.
We also know that besides apostles, "the Lord appointed other seventy also, and sent them two and two before his face into every city and place, whither he himself would come" (Luke 10:1). These seventy men are also referred to as evangelists. Their duty to preach the gospel was similar to that of an apostle, but their authority or position of importance within the church was significantly less.
In Book One of Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius wrote, "there exists no catalogue of the seventy disciples [whom Christ appointed]. Barnabas, indeed, is said to have been one of them... They say that Sosthenes also, who wrote to the Corinthians with Paul, was one of them.... Clement in the fifth book of his Hypotyposes...also says that Cephas was one of the seventy disciples, a man who bore the same name as the apostle Peter, and the one concerning whom Paul says, 'When Cephas came to Antioch I withstood him to his face.' Matthias, also, who was numbered with the apostles in the place of Judas, and the one who was honored by being made a candidate with him, are like-wise said to have been deemed worthy of the same calling with the seventy. They say that Thaddeus also was one of them" (Chapter 12).
Later, in the same book, Eusebius states, "For after his [Christ's] resurrection from the dead and his ascent into heaven, Thomas, one of the twelve apostles, under divine impulse sent Thaddeus, who was also numbered among the seventy disciples of Christ, to Edessa, as a preacher and evangelist of the teaching of Christ" (chapter 13). Yet, in this same chapter Eusebius refers to Thaddeus as "an apostle, one of the Seventy."
Was Thaddeus ordained to the apostleship of the twelve or was he merely a quasi-apostle while serving as a member of the Seventies? The record doesn't clearly answer this question. Yet we know that Matthias, who took the place of Judas Iscariot, was originally a member of the Seventies. It is therefore quite possible that Thaddeus was likewise chosen from this group of men to be part of the twelve, thereby making him "an apostle, [who was, at one time,] one of the Seventy."
As we have seen earlier, both Matthew and Mark state that one of the apostles chosen by the Savior was "Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus." Is this the same Thaddeus that Eusebius is referring to? If so, it may explain why Luke's list of apostles doesn't match the other two. But even if it isn't, we see that there is yet another person who was referred to by the title of apostle.
The only reason a person would be ordained as part of the twelve, is because of a vacancy left by the death of an existing apostle. Did any other apostles pass away not long after Judas Iscariot? In the twelfth chapter of Acts we read, "Now 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" (12:1,2). That makes one less apostle to be numbered among the twelve.
We also know through secular history that James, the Just, the brother of Jesus was also murdered. Eusebius tells us, "After the martyrdom of James... it is said that those of the apostles and disciples of the Lord that were still living came together from all directions with those that were related to the Lord according to the flesh (for the majority of them also were still alive) to take counsel as to who was worthy to succeed James" (Book three, chapter 11).
That makes at least two openings in the quorum of the Twelve Apostles that we know of which occurred after the ordination of Matthias.
Besides the original twelve, the Bible further tells us there were four other people who were referred to as apostles - Matthias, Paul, James the Just, and Thaddeus. The question we must ask ourselves is: If they weren't chosen to fill a vacancy to bring the number of apostles to twelve, then why were they given this title? What was the reason or justification for adding four more apostles to the list? And a second related question is: why did the church stop this practice?
The answers to such inquiries may never be conclusively determined one way or the other, but it is clear that sufficient evidence exists to indicate there was a succession among the apostles to keep their number at twelve.
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