What do their names mean? Why do the lists of the twelve in the New Testament have a slight variation? Can it be resolved?
Here are the lists in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and the Book of Acts.
1. Simon (who is called Peter)
2. His brother Andrew
3. James son of Zebedee
4. His brother John
8. Matthew the tax collector
9. James son of Alphaeus,
11. Simon the Zealot
12. Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him
1. Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter)
2. James son of Zebedee
3. His brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means Sons of Thunder);
9. James son of Alphaeus
11. Simon the Zealot
12. Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him
1. Simon (whom he named Peter)
2. His brother Andrew
9. James son of Alphaeus
10. Simon who was called the Zealot
11. Judas son of James
12. Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
9. James son of Alphaeus
10. Simon the Zealot
11. Judas son of James.
[Missing: Judas Iscariot, who had hanged himself]
Those lists have these interesting commonalities.
Apostles 1-4: Peter always heads the group, and the entire list, indicating his leadership. Andrew appears in this set. He was Peter’s brother.
Apostles 5-8: Philip always heads these men in all the lists;
Apostles 9-12: James son of Alphaeus always heads these men in the four lists.
Each man leading the three groups of four is always the same in the four lists, while the names within the three groups can vary.
Judas Iscariot always comes last in the three lists that include him.
What is happening with the common name heading the three groups of four? As noted, leadership positions. Philip comes from Bethsaida, as Peter and his brother Andrew did too. Further, the same names appearing in the same first place in the list may mean nothing more complicated than just a memory device for accuracy, when the lists were circulated (orally) throughout the Christian communities. But if someone today wants to make much of it in terms of discipleship and relationships, then he or she might be able to, like a leader of three other men, forming their own inner circles, of sorts.
Note that in Acts, John comes second, since he is more prominent in Acts than Peter’s brother Andrew.
The only seeming difficulty, noted in bold font, in the four lists is Thaddaeus and Judas son of James. Are they the same person or different? This puzzle is easily answered at no. 10, below.
1. Simon Peter
Taken from the biblical patriarch (Gen. 29:33), Simeon was the most popular name in Israel and environs. It means “hearing” or possibly “little hyena.” In Greek, it is Simon, which means “flat nosed.” However, given the biblical connection and first-century Israel, it means “hearing.”
He always comes first in the four lists because he was the most prominent. Many verses throughout the four Gospels and Acts support his leading role.
So how did he acquire his nickname? Jesus gave it to him, here:
15 “But what about you?” he [Jesus] asked. “Who do you say I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (Matt 16:15-17)
Peter is the anglicized version of the Greek word Petros or “rock.” In Aramaic “rock” is Kepha’. Evidently, the Aramaic nickname was known even among the Christian communities in the larger Greek world (1 Cor. 1:12, 3:22, 9:5), or at least in the Corinthian community.
Also, he must have been known by his patronymic (father’s name) because Jesus called him “Simon bar Jonah.” Bar is the Aramaic word for the Hebrew ben or son. However, John 1:42 calls him the “son of John.” Resolution? The Greek at Matt. 16:7 is bariōna, which probably comes from the Aramaic Bar Yȏḥana, or son of John.
One additional tidbit: Since Simon was the most popular name, he had to be distinguished from the other disciple Simon the Zealot. The nickname served that purpose as well.
So what was Simon’s full name in an (awkward) anglicized version? Simon Peter (Rock) Johnson: Rock Johnson. You may reject it as overly familiar, but it is not inaccurate.
2. James (Jacob), son of Zebedee
James is the very, very anglicized version of Ya’aqov or Jacob. It comes from the biblical patriarch Jacob (Gen 25:23-26). This Hebrew word is built on the word for “heel,” meaning “he grasps the heel” or “he cheats, supplants (Gen. 25:26). James’s father was named Zebedee (a Greek version of the Hebrew for “gift”).
Jacob was the eleventh most common name in Israel and environs. And so the writers of the Gospels were motivated to distinguish him from the other apostle named James / Jacob (see no. 9), so they identified him by his patronymic (father’s name).
His brother John (see him, next) and he were nicknamed Boanerges or “sons of thunder.” The source of the nickname may be reflected in Luke 9:51-56, in which James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven on Samaritans who did not receive the Messiah and his apostles. Jesus rebuked the two brothers.
3. John, son of Zebedee
In Hebrew his name is Yěhȏḥānān or Jonathan or the Aramaic form Yōḥana’ or John (cf. female name Joanna). Jonathan means “YHWH gave” or “grace.”
He was probably the Beloved Disciple who was close to Jesus (John 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 21:20). If so, then he was undergoing a transformation from “thunderous” to “beloved.”
John was the fifth most popular name known in Israel and environs. It was convenient to call him by his patronymic because various men with the name John may have been circulating in the Christian community, when the Gospels were written, such as John the Elder and John Mark. Even John the Baptist was famous long after his death (Acts 1:5, 10:37, 11:16, 13:24-35, 18:25).
Peter, James, and John formed the inner circle of Jesus.
He was Peter’s brother, so we know his family name was “son of John” or the (awkward, but accurate) modernized “Johnson.” The name Andrew in the larger Jewish culture appears only 3 times in the surviving inscriptions and other evidence. It is the anglicized version of the Greek Andreas, meaning “courageous” or “manly.” But where is his Semitic name? He probably bore a very common one, so he became known only by his Greek name, when the Gospels and Acts were written.
This name is Greek, meaning “he who likes horses.” Does that mean he really liked horses? Probably not, but one cannot know for sure. (A man named Philip today may hate horses!) But where is his Semitic name? As noted with Andrew (no. 4), it was probably a very common one, so he was known exclusively by his Greek name, when the Gospels and Acts were written.
His name comes from the biblical name Talmai (2 Sam 3:3; 13:37; 1 Chron. 3:2). Talmai means “plowman.” Bartholomew is divided thus: bar (Aramaic for “son”) and Talmai. His name is a patronymic (son of father). In Aramaic, he would have been known as Bar-Talmai. In Israel and its environs, Talmai is fiftieth in popularity, with 7 occurrences, so there was no motive to give him a second name or nickname.
However, he enjoys the added bonus of the Greek name Ptolemaios (Ptolemy), popular because of its connection to the royalty of the Hellenistic rulers. So his name has both a Hebrew and Greek “feel” to it.
Biblical parallels: Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46), Barabbas (Matt 27:16, etc.), Bar-Jonah (Matt 16:7), Bar-Jesus (Acts 13:6), Barnabas (Acts 4:36, etc.), Barsabbas (Acts 1:23, 15:22).
Sometimes nicknames were substituted for the birth name. Thomas comes from the Aramaic word for twin, tě’ȏmā’. The Greek is didymos (see John 11:16, 20:24, 21:2).
So who was his twin? Unknown. He may not have been part of the Jesus movement, or if he joined later, he would not have been as famous as his apostolic brother. In any case, Thomas probably got the nickname growing up, long before the movement got started. The name stuck.
If this is his nickname, what was his birth name? One possibility is that his real name is the Aramaic Tȏmah, which means “simplicity,” “garlic,” or “fringe.” But since John explains his nickname as twin (11:16, 20:24, and 21:2), this option is not likely.
A better possibility is found in Eastern Syriac Christian tradition: Judas. The Curetonian Syriac version of John 14:22 calls him “Judas Thomas.” The apocryphal Acts of Thomas calls him “Judas who is called Thomas” and the Gnostic gospel Acts of Thomas calls him “Didymus Judas Thomas.” The latter two “gospels” may have preserved a tradition accurately.
Since Judas (Yehudah) is the fourth most popular name in Israel and environs, and other apostles bore the same name, the early Christian community used his nickname “the twin” or “Thomas” to distinguish him from the others. An additional motive is to distinguish him from the traitor, Judas.
His name means “gift of YHWH or God.” His name is derived ultimately from Mattathias (Hebrew / Aramaic Mattiya’ or Mattiyah). In the list his name is unique, so there was no problem in identifying him. However, in Acts 1:26, Matthias was chosen to replace Judas Iscariot. So now it was important to distinguish the two. Matthew comes from Mattaios, Mattai, which occurs 7 times in the evidence, so it was rare. Matthias comes from Matthias or Mathias and occurs 32 times in the evidence, so it was common. But there was a slight variation when people heard the names pronounced.
His name is connected to Levi, son of Alphaeus, in three parallel passages about a tax collector (Matt 9:9, Mark 2:14, and Luke 5:27). Levi means a “joining” (Gen. 29:34)
9. James, son of Alphaeus
Jacob or James was probably a brother or related somehow to Levi, son of Alphaeus. The only evidence for this possible relation is the rarity of the name Alphaeus, a Greek form of the Hebrew name Halfai.
Further, he may be the James who is identified as mikros or “small” (Mark 15:40). Some translate it as “the Younger” or “Junior” or “the Less.” But it probably just means the “short” (Zacchaeus the tax collector was short, mikros, in Luke 19:3). But James the apostle and James the short are not positively identified as the same.
For the meaning of his name, see no. 2, above. But since people liked nicknames back then, it has to be “shorty,” (if he is James in Mark 15:40), which may not be kind by today’s standard, but it is accurate.
10. Judas – Thaddaeus, son of James (Jacob)
Judas comes from the biblical patriarch Judah (Gen. 29:35), meaning “Praise YHWH.” Thaddaeus ultimately traces back to the Greek names Theodosius, Theodotus or Theodorus. It has been turned into the Semitic shortened version Taddai, which in another small twist becomes the Greek version Thaddaios (the –os suffix indicates nominative masculine singular, corresponding to Latin –us).
At that time, Theodosius, Theodotus, or Theodorus were all popular names with Jews because built into the names is “God” (the-), which corresponds to Hebrew El or YHWH. (Names carrying God in them are called theophoric.) All three of those Greek names mean “gift of God.” However, in Hebrew or Aramaic, it can mean “beast.” The Greek name is better (!).
The Greek – Semitic names fit the first-century Israelite culture. Jews often bore both Semitic and Greek names, because Greek culture was dominant and considered more sophisticated, and certain Jews wanted to fit in. Thaddaeus is thirty-ninth in popularity, so his name combines a very popular one (Judas), with a less common one (Thaddaeus).
Other examples: Joseph (or Jesus) / Justus; Reuben / Rufus; Jesus / Jason; Saul / Paul.
But why the twists and turns? As these names move from one language to the other, the lettering and pronunciations do not remain exact. And shortened names like Taddai come from ease of pronunciation or to distinguish a man from his father or uncle or grandfather.
But why would Judas – Thaddaeus want to be called by his Greek name? To distinguish himself from Judas the traitor. An alternative way to distinguish himself is by his patronymic “Judas son of James” or the Semitic “Jacob.”
So in the early Christian community this Judas was known either as Thaddaeus (Taddai) or Judas son of James: Yehudah bar Ya’aqov (Jude / Judas Jacobson, in an awkward, but accurate modernized version).
This explanation may seem complicated and stretching things just to harmonize what cannot be harmonized, but it is not. In addition to fitting into the wider culture in which people had double names, Greek and Semitic, the early Christian community had to distinguish Judas from Judas Iscariot (and Thomas’s birth name was probably Judas). After all, as noted, Judas was the fourth most common name.
And so in the third Gospel and Acts, Luke distinguishes him from Judas Iscariot by using his patronymic Judas son of James. Matthew and Mark distinguish him by using his Greek – Semitic name Thaddaeus.
12. Simon the zealot
The “zealot” comes from a Greek transliteration kananaios of the Aramaic word qan’ānā’. A political party called the Zealots did not emerge until after the outbreak of the Jewish revolt in 66 A.D., so where did Simon acquire his nickname? It comes from a broader meaning of “zealous for the law” (see Acts 21:20; 22:3, 19). He probably got the name before he was called to join the Jesus movement. Sometimes “zealots for the law” used violence against their fellow Jews for any flagrant violation of the law. Did Simon? Unknown, but in my opinion, it would be just like Jesus to call someone with a possibly violent past to be his disciple.
For the meaning of his name, see no. 1, above.
12. Judas Iscariot
Despite all the speculation about the meaning of Iscariot, the best explanation for the name is that it means ’sh qeriyyȏt, “man of Kerioth” in Hebrew. It is his place of origin or dwelling. It is either a town called Kerioth, which is the plural of qiryāh (city), or Jerusalem.
John 6:71, 13:2, 26 refer to him as Judas son of Simon Iscariot, and the only plausible explanation is that his family comes from that location. Passing along a place name from father to son can only make sense if they had moved from there. (If they still lived there, why mention it?)
In parallel cases, many ossuaries (burial bone containers) refer to the place names before the deceased settled elsewhere.
Biblical examples (not in ossuaries): Jesus of Nazareth; Jesus the Galilean (Matt. 26:69); Mary Magdalene (of Magdala); Simon the Cyrenian (of Cyrene); Joseph of Arimathea; Joseph of Cyprus (nicknamed Barnabas) (Acts 4:36); and Nathaniel of Cana (John 21:2).
So most likely Judas came from a place or town called Kerioth: “Judas, the man from Kerioth” or “Judas Iscariot.”
For the meaning of his name Judas, see no. 10.
These names are really just plain practical. First-century Jews followed the practice of other Jews in the centuries before them. They adopted nicknames and Greek names. They also needed to distinguish the most common names (Simon or Jacob or Judas) by using second ones (Peter, Zealot, Iscariot) or patronymics (son of -). Or maybe using patronymics was a way to honor one’s father.
As for the lists in the Table, Richard Bauckham concludes: “The lists show, not carelessness about the precise membership of the Twelve, but quite the opposite: great care to preserve precisely the way they were known in their own milieu during the ministry of Jesus and in the early church” (p. 108).
- The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
- Archaeology and the Synoptic Gospels
- Archaeology and John’s Gospel
- Did Jesus Even Exist?
- The Gospel Traditions
- Reliable Gospel Transmissions
- What is the Q ‘Gospel’?
- Did Some Disciples Take Notes During Jesus’ Ministry?
- Authoritative Testimony in Matthew’s Gospel
- Eyewitness Testimony in Mark’s Gospel
- Eyewitness Testimony in Luke’s Gospel
- Eyewitness Testimony in John’s Gospel
- Are There Contradictions in the Gospels?
- Similarities among John’s Gospel and the Synoptic Gospels
- The Historical Reliability of the Gospels: Conclusion
- New Testament Manuscripts: Preliminary Questions and Answers
- Basic Facts on Producing New Testament Manuscripts
- Discovering and Classifying New Testament Manuscripts
- The Manuscripts Tell the Story: The New Testament Is Reliable
- Church Fathers and Matthew’s Gospel
- Church Fathers and Mark’s Gospel
- Church Fathers and Luke’s Gospel
- Church Fathers and John’s Gospel
Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Eerdman’s 2006). He is the foremost biblical name expert.
Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, gen. eds. Chad Brand, Charles Drapes, Archie England (Holman 2003).