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APOSTLES . The word apostle is known mainly from the Christian religion as a title of a religious leader, especially in early Christianity. The origin of the word, the concept for which it stands, and its specific expressions in various religious traditions are far more complex than is usually assumed. The term itself is derived from the Greek apostolos (Heb., shalia; Lat., apostolus ) and means "messenger," "envoy," either in a secular or a religious sense (messenger of a deity).

The basic concept of the messenger is simple: "Everyone who is sent by someone is an apostle of the one who sent him" (Origen, In Ioannem 32.17). This can refer to the legal and administrative institution of envoys and ambassadors as well as to highly theological expressions of messengers sent by a deity into the world to bring a message of salvation. Concrete expressions of both these concepts are influenced by different cultural and religious presuppositions. Although these presuppositions exercise continuous influence even in different religious traditions, there is room for specialized developments.

"At present the question as to the origin and the idea of the apostolate is one of the most intricate and difficult problems of New Testament scholarship." This statement was first made by Erich Haupt in 1896 and was reiterated by twentieth-century scholars, in spite of numerous studies on the subject. The main causes for the problem are the limited sources, in particular from the earliest stages of the development in primitive Christianity, and the confusion caused by the several expressions of a basic concept found as early as the New Testament itself.

The New Testament sources show an advanced stage, not the beginning, of the development of the concept of apostleship. In fact, the New Testament contains several different and competing expressions of the concept that have begun to merge with one another. This state of affairs is also bound up with the definition of apostleship, which was in dispute as early as the time of Paul.

Apostles as Missionaries

A number of New Testament passages refer to apostles as traveling missionaries. Their title and function is described, for example, in 2 Corinthians 8:23 (cf. Phil. 2:25) as "envoys of the churches." These envoys were elected or appointed by the people they were supposed to represent (cf. 2 Cor. 8:6, 8:1623). This process of appointment does not necessarily exclude divine intervention (cf. Acts 13:13). Apparently, the early Christian mission was carried out to a large extent by these missionary apostles, some of whom may have been women, although the evidence for women is uncertain. The task of these apostles included preaching the gospel and administering the newly founded churches, but no clear job description is found in the New Testament (cf. 1 Cor. 9:5, 12:28; 2 Cor. 11:13; Rom. 16:123; see also Didache 11.311.6).

Jesus' Disciples as Apostles

A more specialized concept of apostle is mentioned in Galatians 1:17, 1:19, and 1 Corinthians 9:5 (cf. 1 Cor. 15:7), where the former disciples of Jesus are called apostles. Apparently this title was given to those disciples who had experienced a vision of the risen Christ (1 Cor. 9:1, 15:38), but the situation is unclear because in the decisive passage, 1 Corinthians 15:37, concepts that were originally different have been merged: 1 Corinthians 15:5 names Cephas and the Twelve, 1 Corinthians 15:7 names James "and all the apostles" as the recipients of the visions, while 1 Corinthians 15:6 speaks of the "five hundred brothers" without calling them disciples of Jesus or apostles. Some New Testament writers, especially Luke, identify the disciples of Jesus (or apostles) with "the Twelve," originally a different leadership institution (Mk. 3:1619, Mt. 10:24, Lk. 6:1416, Acts 1:13, and, differently, 1 Cor. 15:5). The names of the disciples who were counted among the Twelve differ to some extent in the tradition (cf. Acts 6:2; Mk. 14:10 and parallels, 14:43 and parallels; Jn. 6:71, 12:4, 20:24). When Luke, author of Luke and Acts, limits the Twelve to the disciples of the historical Jesus, he in effect denies the title of apostle to Paul (except Acts 14:4 and 14:14, where Paul and Barnabas, from an older source, are called apostles). Luke also refers to the twelve apostles as the leaders of the Jerusalem church (e.g., Acts 4:3537, 5:2, 5:2732), an assignment that conflicts with their role as missionaries. In Acts 1:2122, Luke states what for him, and no doubt for others in early Christianity, are the criteria for apostleship: an apostle is "one of the men who have been our companions during all the time when the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning with the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us, a witness of his resurrection together with us." However, these criteria are a later construction, designed to limit the concept to those who were eyewitnesses (Lk. 1:2) and thus to curtail the increasing confusion about the nature and authority of apostles.

Paul the Apostle

The origin of Paul's apostleship is still as puzzling as it was in early Christianity. If the criteria of Acts 1:2122 are applied, Paul does not qualify as an apostle. In fact, Paul's claim to apostleship was disputed in much of early Christianity (1 Cor. 9:2, 15:910). At the beginning of his Christian career, Paul worked as a missionary apostle with his mentor Barnabas (Acts 9:27, 13:13, 14:4, 14:14; cf. Gal. 1:152:14). However, the title used by Paul in his letters, "called apostle of Christ Jesus" (1 Cor. 1:1), expresses an understanding of his own apostleship different from the understanding of Luke. Despite the evidence provided by Paul, the origin and background of this title are to some extent still a mystery. Since Paul did not qualify under the normal definition, his own title presupposes a critical reinterpretation and redefinition of the entire concept of apostleship. In his earliest letter, 1 Thessalonians, Paul does not use the title. It appears first in the prescript of Galatians (1:1): "Paul, apostle not from men nor through [a] man but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead" (cf. 1 Cor. 1:1, 2 Cor. 1:1, Rom. 1:17). This new title became the standard in the Pauline churches (Col. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; 1 Tm. 1:1, 2:7; 2 Tm. 1:1, 1:11; Ti. 1:1).

By this redefinition Paul in effect claimed to be more than an ordinary missionary apostle; he claimed the same rank and authority as the former disciples of Jesus (cf. Gal. 1:17; 1 Cor. 9:15, 15:110), indeed, a higher authority. His letters testify, however, that he encountered considerable difficulties obtaining recognition that his apostolic authority was legitimate. His claim seems to have initiated bitter controversy about the question of who were the true and who were the false apostles (cf. 2 Cor. 11:13). Paul's apostleship was accepted fully only after his death as a martyr, when Peter and Paul came to be regarded as the great founder figures of early Christian history. Jewish Christianity, however, never recognized Paul as a legitimate apostle.

Paul's claim to be the "apostle of the Gentiles" (Rom. 11:13; cf. Rom. 1:57, 1:1315) implied that he had a unique position in the church. Sent out by the risen Christ, who had appeared to him and appointed him (Gal. 1:1516), he served as Christ's messenger, representative, and imitator on earth in an almost exclusive sense (for the concept of mimetes, or "imitator," see 1 Thessalonians 1:6, 2:14 and 1 Corinthians 4:16, 11:1). His assignment was not only to spread the gospel and found churches; his entire physical and spiritual existence was to become an epiphany of the crucified and resurrected Christ (cf. Gal. 6:17; 2 Cor. 2:145:21, 13:34; Phil. 3:10). Paul's apostolic office had a firm position in the history of salvation as well as in the redemption of the cosmos. At the Last Judgment, he expected to serve as the representative of his churches before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 11:2; cf. 1 Cor. 1:8; 1 Thes. 2:10, 5:23; Phil. 2:15; also Col. 1:22, Eph. 5:27).

Paul's concept of apostleship emerged from intensive struggle in the early church. In this struggle his own theological ideas about apostleship underwent profound changes. This process was also informed by other notions. Geo Widengren has shown that Paul's concept of apostle has its closest parallels, and most probably antecedents, in Syriac Gnosticism. In the study Der Apostel Paulus und die sokratische Tradition, this article's author has shown that Paul was deeply influenced by the Socratic tradition, in which Socrates figured as a messenger sent by the deity. Thus Paul's concept of apostleship is a highly complex and composite creation that reflects the struggles of his own career as well as early Christianity's conflicts about the legitimacy and authority of its leadership.

Lists of Early Christian Apostles

The struggle about the apostolic authority is reflected also in the lists of the apostles, which differ to a considerable degree. Mark 3:1619, Luke 6:1416, and Acts 1:1326 give diverse accounts. The history of the lists of apostles continues in the second century, sometimes reflecting the differing interests of Christian groups. Confusion about who was and was not an apostle is found in other parts of the New Testament as well. Was James, "the brother of the Lord" (Gal. 1:19), an apostle? While Barnabas is called apostle, together with Paul, in Acts 14:4 and 14:14, Paul never calls him by this name (cf. Gal. 2:110, 2:13; 1 Cor. 9:6). Does he want to avoid any reference to an earlier concept of apostleship (cf. Acts 15:3640, Gal. 2:13)? On the other hand, Paul speaks of missionary apostles when the difference between them and him is clear.

Christ as Apostle

Christ is called an apostle only once in the New Testament: "Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession" (Heb. 3:1). This Christological concept is late, but it may have older roots. There is a peculiar situation in the Fourth Gospel, where Christ is never called apostle but functions as a messenger from God (cf., however, John 13:16: "Truly, truly I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is an apostle greater than the one who sent him"). Christ's entire mission is described by the technical term apostello ("send"). He is the Logos and Son of God who was sent by God the Father into this world (Jn. 1:6, 3:17, 3:34, 5:3638, 6:29, 6:57, 10:36, 17:3, 17:8, 17:18, 17:21, 17:23, 20:21; cf. 1 Jn. 4:9, 4:10, 4:14). He in turn sends out his own disciples (Jn. 4:38, 17:18), the Twelve, who are, however, not called apostles (Jn. 6:67, 6:70, 6:71, 20:24). It appears that the title of apostle has been avoided by the Fourth Gospel. Because the similarity between the Johannine Christology and the Pauline concept of apostle is so strong, the answer to the question of why the Fourth Gospel is not interested in the title of apostle may have something to do with the still unexplained relationship between Pauline and Johannine Christianity. The Christological concept of apostle is found later, in the second century, in Justin Martyr (1 Apology 12.9, 63.5) and subsequently in patristic sources.

Mani and Muammad as Apostles

Mani, founder of the third-century movement of Manichaeism, called by his followers "apostle of Jesus Christ," "apostle of light," and "father of all apostles," was believed to be the last of a series of apostles. Mani conceived his apostleship in strongly Pauline terms, but made fuller use of an older prototype. Widengren has shown the roots of this prototype in Syriac Gnosticism. In heterodox Jewish Christianity, the still mysterious figure of Elchasai seems to represent a similar type. It appears that the Manichaeans drew their concept of the apostleship of Mani not only from Paul but also from a broader spectrum of ideas, perhaps the same spectrum that informed Paul when he formulated his concept of apostleship.

Muammad called himself "apostle of God" (rasūl Allāh ). As such, he occupied a unique position between God and the faithful and considered himself the "last messenger of God." According to the Qurʾān Muammad is the bringer of light, illuminating the scriptures for the enlightened (5:18, 9:3233). On the other hand, Muammad can call others by the same title, "apostle of God." Later this function seems to have influenced the figure of the imam.

See Also

Jesus; Mani; Manichaeism; Muammad; Paul the Apostle.


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Agnew, Francis H. "The Origin of the New Testament Apostle-Concept: A Review of Research." Journal of Biblical Literature 105 (1986): 7596.

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Betz, Hans Dieter. Galatians. Philadelphia, 1979.

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Hennecke, Edgar. New Testament Apocrypha. 2 vols. Edited by Wilhelm Schneemelcher. Philadelphia, 19631965. See especially volume 2, pp. 2587, with important surveys of the evidence in the early church.

Klein, Günter. Die Zwölf Apostel. Göttingen, 1961.

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Lüdemann, Gerd. Paulus, der Heidenapostel. 2 vols. Göttingen, 19801983. Volume 1 deals with the chronology of Paul's life, volume 2 with the anti-Pauline opposition. Volume 1 has been translated by F. Stanley Jones as Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles (Philadelphia, 1984).

Rengstorf, Karl Heinrich. "Apostello, apostolos" (1933). In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1964.

Roloff, Jürgen. "Apostel/Apostolat/Apostolizität, I. Neues Testament." In Theologische Realenzyklopädie, vol. 3. Berlin, 1978.

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Schoeps, Hans Joachim. Paul: The Theology of the Apostle in the Light of Jewish Religious History. Philadelphia, 1961.

Schüssler-Fiorenza, Elisabeth. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York, 1983, pp. 160204.

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Widengren, Geo. Religionsphänomenologie. Berlin, 1969. See the index, s.v. Apostel, Ausgesandter.

New Sources

Brock, Ann. Mary Magdalene: The First Apostle; The Struggle for Authenticity. Cambridge, Mass., 2003.

Brown, Peter Robert Lamont. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York, 1988.

Donfried, Karl P. Paul. Thessalonica, and Early Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich., 2002.

Keck, Leonard. Paul and His Letters. Philadelphia, 1988.

King, Karen L. The Gospel of Mary of Magdala. Santa Rosa, Calif., 2003.

Meeks, Wayne. The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul. New Haven, Conn., 2003.

Robinson, James M., and Richard Smith, eds. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. 3d ed., San Francisco, 1988.

Wiarda, Timothy. Peter in the Gospels. Tübingen, 2000.

Hans Dieter Betz (1987)

Revised Bibliography