Introducing and Ranking The Twelve Apostles

[Note:  The following entry is something I wrote up about the Twelve Apostles a few years ago for a personal study of mine.  I hope you are all able to enjoy it.]


The twelve apostles have long held a great degree of interest for Christians, as well they should, as the foremost human leaders set in place after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Besides the account in the Bible, many (probably) spurious accounts have been written about, legends of their travels far and wide to the ends of the earth. Fake gospels have been written using the twelve apostles as supposed inspiration. As the first paper in a series of papers on the twelve apostles (actually, we will look at thirteen, and give some information on a fourteenth person), this paper seeks to detail such matters as the ranking of the twelve apostles, the phenomenon of the replacement apostles, the instruction of the apostles, and the role and authority of the apostles. Furthermore, we will look at the qualifications of the apostles and determine why there have been no genuine apostles since the death of John. First, though, we will look at the apostles in general.

Meaning of Apostle

The word apostle, which we today (thanks to the twelve) consider to be a position of high authority, comes from the Greek word (transliterated, that is apostolos), which means delegate or ambassador, or an official messenger. To some extent, as ambassadors for Christ, we are all apostles in a general sense. However, as a specific title, the official messengers from God were the twelve sent out by Christ. As will be seen later on the paper, the qualifications to be an apostle cannot be met now, and hence there are no more apostles. This, however, does not stop people from claiming the title of apostle. However, like most of the Christian titles (and this is truly ironic), their actual meaning reflects service to man and the supremacy of God, in stark contrast to the arrogant pride of most people who would appropriate the titles to themselves. After all, Paul was an apostle, and he called himself a slave of Christ. Truly we are all the same. It is important, though, before we look at the Twelve Apostles in specific, that they were not trying to appropriate a lordly title to themselves, but were rather given a title by Christ and by the church that reflected their service and mission. And, for the most part, these men lived up to the high expectations of their calling. We can only hope to do the same ourselves in this time, even if we call ourselves nothing more than brethren.

It is important to note, however, that the apostles were special individuals in many ways. First of all, they knew Jesus Christ personally, before His public ministry. Some of them (like John and his brother James) are likely to have been Jesus’ earthly cousins. Others, like Peter and Andrew, were likely friends of the family. Some, like Bartholomew (or Nathanael) were friends with other apostles before they were called (in his case, Philip). Some of the apostles had previously been disciples of John the Baptist, who was himself a member of the priestly class and a cousin of Jesus Christ’s. John himself, from his Gospel, was apparently personally acquainted with members of the high priestly line. The twelve apostles were not entirely obscure people. As Jesus called them personally, he must have been acquainted with them in some way, even if we do not know exactly how in all cases.

Ranking of the Twelve Apostles

Like most human beings (and this author personally), the twelve apostles were (while carnal) heavily focused on political positions, seeking to increase their status among the apostles. Furthermore, the Bible reflects that there were several divisions among the apostles. While, with certain exceptions, exact ranking is impossible, the twelve apostles were clearly ranked in sub-groups. We will discuss the three ranks among the apostles, as well as the inner 3. However, first, before we go into that, we will discuss the political squabbles of the apostles, which is of great value to us today, as we resemble the pre-conversion apostles more often (in issues of politics) than the post-conversion apostles. I say this to our shame, both individually and collectively.

Struggles For Preeminence

The twelve disciples, during their period of learning at the foot of Jesus Christ, were constantly angling for position. While it may be unbelievable that a group of devoted, religious people would waste time they could be learning from God Himself in the flesh arguing about their ranking among the apostles, that is what they did. From this vantage point, it is all too believable. In this section we will look at the ubiquity of the struggles for position between the twelve. Also, we will look at their attempts to use outside individuals to aid their cause. Finally, we will look at what Christ had to say about position within the twelve, and by extension to the rest of us as well.

The struggles for position among the apostles are common in the Gospels. For example, in Matthew 18:1, Mark 9:33-34, and Luke 9:46, the apostles asked Christ who was the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven, expecting Christ to say one of them. First they had disputed the matter among themselves, probably very heatedly. Not learning from that gentle rebuff, the disciples tried again. At the last supper (in Luke 22:24), on the night Jesus was taken for crucifixion, the twelve argued about which of them was the greatest. This must have greatly distressed Jesus Christ, and his reply was a pointed one to us today, as well as to the apostles. The disciples (in Luke 9:49) even forbade others to preach about Christ because it encroached on their territory, which Jesus Christ rebuked them for doing. It is a shame that the twelve were unable to focus on the heavenly and were instead focused on earthly position. It is likewise a shame when that happens to us, since we should know better.

The disciples even occasionally used outside sources to influence Jesus Christ to consider them as greater than the other apostles. One particularly devious attempt is worthy of a close look. Matthew 20:28 shows how John and James the sons of Zebedee used their mother (possibly Jesus’ maternal aunt) to influence Jesus to choose them in positions of high authority, presumably the #1 and #2 spots in the kingdom (his right and left hand). This, quite naturally, infuriated the other disciples, probably because they did not think of the idea first. Of course, when Jesus corrected the apostles he corrected them all.

Jesus’ corrections to the disciples concerning their political rivalry generally took three forms. One form is his telling them who they should model themselves after—humble and teachable little children. That must have been particularly stinging. A second way Jesus dealt with the squabbles about preeminence was to focus on the duties of service that leaders had rather than their prerogatives of office. This is too easily neglected today. Finally, the third way in which Jesus Christ dealt with their political ambitions was to explicitly tell them they were not to act as the world’s rulers acted. This is a point important enough for its own paper (entitled “Christ, Inc.” which is forthcoming), but must be mentioned here because too often religious leaders act very much like worldly ones. Christ gave us a better example to follow than that of ruthless CEO’s or emperors.

Three Groups of Apostles

The apostles themselves were linked in three groups in the various accounts they are listed. In the four listings of the apostles, the same four apostles appear in each of the three groups. This is noteworthy, and though the Bible does not say it explicitly, it appears that this marks a noted ranking within the apostles. It would be interesting to do a statistical analysis to see how often the disciples (other than Judas) from the last ranking are mentioned by name in the Bible. I would suspect that it is not often, but such research could wait until the future (along with many other such interesting musings). Following is a chart that shows the listing of the apostles in their groupings before we briefly discuss each grouping:

Rank of Apostle Matthew 10:2-4 Mark 3:16-19 Luke 6:14-16 Acts 1:13
1 Simon Peter Simon Peter Simon Peter Simon Peter
2 Andrew James Andrew John
3 James John James James
4 John Andrew John Andrew
5 Philip Philip Philip Philip
6 Bartholomew Bartholomew Bartholomew Thomas
7 Thomas Matthew Matthew Bartholomew
8 Matthew Thomas Thomas Matthew
9 James (of Alphaeus) James (of Alphaeus) James (of Alphaeus) James (of Alphaeus)
10 Thaddadeus (Judas of James) Thaddadeus (Judas of James) Simon (the Zealot) Simon (the Zealot)
11 Simon (the Canaanean) Simon (the Cananaaean) Judas of James (Thaddadeus) Judas of James (Thaddadeus)
12 Judas Iscariot Judas Iscariot Judas Iscariot (no one)

The first quartet of apostles consists of Simon Peter, John, James, and Andrew. Here we have two sets of brothers, from families probably very close to Christ’s. Determining the ranking of these disciples is not an unambiguous task. Three of the disciples were part of the select grouping (to be discussed shortly), and hence Simon Peter, John, and James form the undisputed top 3. Judging from a point system, it is clear that Peter was the chief of the twelve. A cursory look at the gospels will demonstrate his leadership ambitions. He is constantly striving to the top of the pack. James appears to be second, due to his prominence in the early church (he is mentioned with Peter as a major leader of the Church in its early times). John, the longest living apostle, appears to be the third ranking apostle, though Jesus seems to have loved him a great deal due to his mild personality (but see Luke 9:51-54 for evidence of his fiery temper). Andrew, a very attentive apostle, ranks fourth, since he was not invited to any of the special events that the other three were. However, he must be considered an important apostle due to his role in bringing the Gospel to others.

The second group of apostles is made up of those apostles who were occasionally vital, but who were not as important as the first grouping. As Philip leads all four lists, he appears to have the fifth rank among apostles, and is often grouped with Bartholomew. Bartholomew (or Nathanael) is second in three lists and third in one, and so therefore he would appear to be sixth among disciples. Thomas appears to have a slight edge over Matthew for the seventh spot, which would make Matthew (barely) the eight apostle. Considering the importance of these apostles, one of whom wrote a Gospel, these were still very important apostles, even if not as notable as the first four.

The third group of apostles, with one dark exception, is rather obscure. As James (of Alphaeus) leads all of the lists, he would appear to be the ninth ranking apostle. Thaddeus (or Judas of James) and Simon (the Zealot), are both second and third on two lists. Since Luke records the same order on both of his lists, we will give the tiebreaker to Thaddaeus for the tenth position, and place Simon (the Zealot) in the eleventh position. There is, however, no dispute as to the twelfth position, which falls to Judas Iscariot. After his betrayal of Jesus and his suicide, he was replaced by Matthias, who will be discussed later as a replacement apostle. Among the apostles of the third rank only Judas is prominent, and he is proof that not all fame is good.

Provisional Ranking of the Apostles:

1. Simon Peter

2. James

3. John

4. Andrew

5. Philip

6. Bartholomew (Nathanael)

7. Thomas

8. Matthew

9. James (of Alphaeus)

10. Thaddaeus (or Judas of James)

11. Simon (the Zealot)

12. Judas Iscariot (and then Matthias)

Special Apostolic Groupings

While it is impossible at this long remove, given the evidence in the Gospels, to determine the cliques within the twelve, there is one special grouping that Jesus Christ recognized as elite within the twelve, and that went with him on special missions. First, we will look at the special treatment of these three disciples (Peter, James, and John) and then we will look at the likely results this treatment had on the rest of the twelve concerning the political rivalries among them.

Peter, James, and John were present at all of the major recorded happenings during Jesus’ ministry. Whenever Jesus needed a smaller group to go along with him some place, it was these three that went. The first time we see these disciples as a trio is when Jesus Christ resurrected Jarius’ daughter (recorded in Matthew 9:18-26, Mark 5:21-43, and Luke 8:40-56). It is unclear why at this early moment in His ministry that only those three were permitted, but it is likely that already they had shown leadership qualities. It is possible that there was a lack of room in Jarius’ house for the entire group to come in, but it is highly revealing that these three were chosen apart from close to the beginning. The next incident where these three apostles are separated from the pack is during the transfirguration (described in Matthew 17:1-13, Mark 9:1-13, Luke 9:27-36, and 2 Peter 1:16-18). Here Peter, James, and John were given a special vision, presumably a prophetic one, showing Elijah and Moses resurrected. Finally, the three were present at the dramatic and disheartening prayer in the Gethsemane when Jesus was taken prisoner by an armed guard (recorded in Matthew 26:36-36, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46, and John 16:1-17:26). Apparently John was less sleepy than the other two because his memory of the prayer was better than those of other witnesses. Therefore, it appears obvious that Jesus marked these three apostles as separate and special even among the twelve. This undoubtedly had major results among the twelve.

Given the intense competition between the twelve for leadership roles and the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, it appears likely that the choosing of Peter, James, and John as special had serious consequences. First, it appears that there were at least three groups among the disciples. There were those who supported Peter, those who supported James and John (probably made up of James and John), and those who, like Judas, rankled under the favoritism. As Judas was the treasurer of the group, it seems likely that he considered himself a person of great ability and had financial acumen (especially since he was chosen as the treasurer over a known, and presumably capable, tax collector, Matthew). Quite possibly his frustrated ambition was a major factor in his betrayal of Jesus Christ, besides his desire for Christ’s kingdom to be set up on earth through miraculous action against the Romans. It also is quite possible that James and John, recognized leaders though marginalized in the twelve, used their mother to gain additional leverage given their unpopularity among the other apostles (see Matthew 20:20-28, Mark 10:35-45). All of this is conjecture, though given the account in the Gospels, at least it is plausible conjecture.

The Replacement Apostles

After the suicide of Judas, the remaining eleven apostles were faced with the need to replace him. Among the other followers of Jesus (presumably among the 500 personal witnesses of his resurrection, the 120 at the first Pentecost, and the seventy who went out preaching the Gospel), two were considered as replacements for Judas. One was Matthias, and the other was Barsabas Justus. Besides their mention in the first chapter of Acts, nothing else is known of them. However, the two must have been disciples from the beginning, given the qualifications of a disciple (to be shown later). Between these two, Matthias was chosen, and so he took the place of Judas Iscariot as an apostle. However, in order for this to occur there must have been people capable of stepping in at a moment’s notice, which would seem to indicate some kind of advanced training for leadership beyond the twelve, at least to the seventy, that the Bible does not record.

Training of the Apostles

The training of the apostles seems to have been a rather intensive, involving at least four different components. Elements of this training were given to others besides the twelve, since obviously some were considered qualified to step into the place of Judas Iscariot. The first element of Jesus’ training was public instruction, what would amount to preaching. Also, there was private instruction, either from parables or in a question and answer format. There must have been some kind of textual study as well, or at least the review of different scriptures from the law and prophets, though the apostles seem somewhat ignorant of the traditions of the rabbis, probably to their credit. They were people of the land, after all. Fourth, there was the ability to learn from seeing the example of Jesus Christ, which is a great gift that we can gain mainly from reading and seeking to follow what the Bible instructs (through His grace and the agency of His Holy Spirit). Finally, there was the opportunity to learn through practice, and through instructing others. We will now look at how the apostles were able to learn from these methods and how others besides the twelve would have learned as well through these means in more limited ways.

The first way the apostles learned was through Christ’s public instruction. Included among this is the Sermon on the Mount, and the slightly different Sermon on the Plain, which may represent two deliveries of the same sort of sermon in two different locations to two different audiences. There also would have been other discourses, such as in the synagogues and to the crowds of people who flocked after Jesus Christ. Much of what was taught in these public discourses would have been relatively obscure, but a great deal of it would have been readily accessible to the crowds that followed Him, understanding that He spoke a message of righteousness and social justice that the elite preachers of the Pharisees and the Saduccees did not. It was the public instruction that drew so many people to follow Christ in the beginning.

The private instruction was given mainly, though not exclusively, to the twelve. It included the parables, and explanation of the parables, given to the apostles, as well as their own private questions to Him. It also included the semi-public questioning by the scribes and Pharisees who sought to entrap Jesus. Finally, such private instruction also included the teaching of those secret disciples of Jesus, like Nicodemas, who came unannounced to learn from Jesus even as they publicly maintained a neutral stance towards Him. Through this private discussion and teaching disciples came to a greater understanding of the Gospel message and had their own personal questions answered. Obviously, personal conversation with Jesus Christ was a treasure to be prized.

While the Bible does not explicitly show Jesus Christ opening up the scriptures (then in scroll form) and reviewing them with the disciples, it seems likely that the disciples had some form of scriptural instruction. This can be demonstrated in part by the various books of the NT. For example, Matthew extensively quotes OT prophecies in his gospel, meaning he probably learned them from Christ Himself. Also, the citations of OT scriptures in Peter’s early sermons, for example, would appear to indicate his learning them from Christ during the His earthly ministry. The Bible tells of Jesus Christ performing exegesis on a passage of Isaiah concerning the jubilee year, showing His knowledge of scripture. It only makes sense for Christ to have passed on that knowledge to the apostles.

The apostles also got to learn from following the personal example of Jesus Christ. The apostles, and some of the other believers, followed Jesus Christ for three and a half years. Some of them probably knew him and watched His example for even longer. Since Christ was a perfect human being (being in the nature of God as well), the apostles had the perfect example to follow, never having to do as Jesus said but did not do. This was another priceless gift that many of us wish we could have. The apostles would have seen Jesus deal with adversity, praise, hunger, exhaustion, stress, and so on. This example would be important in allowing the apostles to show a good example themselves in their lives.

Finally, the apostles learned through teaching. This is an often underrated form of instruction, but is rather important. For example, a recent Norweigian-US study found that firstborns were more intelligent than younger children in part because they learned through instructing their younger siblings [1]. In like manner, the apostles learned through instructing the people, performing low level healings, and so forth. Even before the giving of the Holy Spirit the apostles were well-trained leaders. The seventy, who were also sent out to instruct and explore the depth of true religion in the Holy Land, must also have received some form of leadership training as well as their practice. And the need for deacons as well as the practice of fairly free speaking and (of course) the ability all have to set good examples gave many people the ability to learn from practice, and that is a great way to learn for us all, even today.

Role and Authority of the Apostles

In this section we will look at the role and authority of the apostles. After all, given the ubiquitous role of the apostles in the early church, a look at their role and authority, which was special, is important. After all, the world has passed over 1900 years without an apostle, and no one since the death of John had the right to exercise the authority that the apostles (in particular Peter, Paul, and John) did. This is an important lesson. The authority of the apostles was extensive, and their role important. It is important to note, however, that it was limited and disputed, and disputable. The apostles were not infallible, and they were accountable to others. And if Jesus’ own companions were accountable to the brethren, everyone else was too.

The role of the apostles was to instruct the brethren as well as provide doctrinal stability and an organized body of leadership in the early church. Presumably, as the church spread and grew, apostles went far and wide (some, like Paul and Peter, we have an idea of their travels, Paul better than anyone else) to look after the congregations. Some probably stayed in the area around Jerusalem to provide overall leadership and guidance in the headquarters church. The leadership role of the twelve was soon supplemented by apostles who came from outside of the ranks of the twelve, most notably Paul. It is unclear if there were any other apostles of the Gentiles, though Barnabas seems a possibility (and quite possibly knew Christ personally). Also, in such matters as doctrinal issues, it was necessary even for the apostles to get a majority vote of elders and members (see the forthcoming paper “The Jerusalem Conference”) to pass the change in the requirement for circumcision for Christians, and that was after obvious miracles and a vision to Peter. Apostles (even Paul) did not have the authority to command obedience from believers (see Paul and Philemon and Onesimus, or the congregational disfellowshipment of the incestuous church leader). Furthermore, even where there was only one undisputed apostle (John) power-mad ministers (some things never change) neglected to follow orders and sought to increase their own power to abuse the brethren. Obviously, the power of the apostles was limited, though it was more extensive than any other human authority has the right to be.

As was mentioned before, the authority of the apostles was limited. In the case of Paul it seems that he did not want to go where other apostles were. Hence it appears likely that, except for those apostles who remained in Jerusalem, that there was only one apostle in a given place at a given time. Mainly, the apostles seem to have given themselves over to providing congregational leadership, training of second generation figures (like Timothy or Mark), resolution of problems with ministers, and doctrinal stability. Peter, even though a lead apostle, did not feel he had the authority to buck some of the prejudices of the Jews until he was publicly shamed by Paul. Again, the example of the Jerusalem conference is instructive in showing the limited authority of even the greatest of the apostles. The apostles were certainly the centers of power in the early Church, but it is important to realize that God never intended people to hold a lot of power. After all, as Lord Acton so rightly said, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Qualifications of Apostleship

According to Acts 1, the qualities of the replacement apostles was that they had seen Christ and heard the gospel from the beginning, starting from the baptism of John. Even Paul, who was not trained as an apostle in the same way as the others, was instructed personally by Jesus Christ for three years in the desert. He qualifies as an apostle born out of season only because of that personal contact with Jesus Christ. No one after Paul had that level of credibility concerning apostleship. No one since the first century has a)seen Christ b)been personally instructed by Christ c)can call themselves an apostle or the rightful successor to the authority of an apostle. That’s the plain and simple truth. Sadly, many people have tried to raise themselves up as apostles in the period since the 1st century. The Catholic Church, for example, has a doctrine of apostolic succession, and many organizations of the Church of God would appear to follow that (wrong) example. John was the last apostle, and everyone after him who claims the mantle of apostolicity is only deluded at best, and a charlatan and fraud at worst. Let us all be careful not to claim titles that are not rightfully ours.


As this first paper in a series on the apostles comes to its conclusion, it is important to remember that the apostles were human beings like the rest of us. Unlike the rest of us, they had personal, face-to-face knowledge of God in the flesh, and they probably saw a lot more dramatic miracles than we do. However, we are all brothers in the same faith, and we can use the example of the apostles to inspire us and teach us. They had faults like we do, and we cannot whitewash their actions. And, considering their special role and what they struggled against, they provide hope for us all. They were a mixed bag of people, as later papers will show, each with their own gifts and struggles, and we would do well to find a piece of them in ourselves, and vice versa. God truly calls all sorts of people, and we cannot forget that. Too often physical organizations praise one type of member over another due to political reasons. We cannot afford to act with partiality and make the Christian road more difficult on some than others.


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Introducing and Ranking The Twelve Apostles

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  7. MJ says:

    You mentioned other papers about the 12 apostles, are they available elsewhere on this blog?

  8. Greg says:

    I enjoyed this article immensely – would you point me to where the others are located?

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