Pretty much everyone knows that Jesus had 12 original disciples. All three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) provide a list of the original 12. John’s gospel offers no list, but still refers to many of the disciples by name. The lists of the 12 are highly consistent within the gospels. However, there is one apparent contradiction that some critics like to highlight.
The Apparent Contradiction and Its Solution
The lists in Matthew (10:2-4) and Mark (3:16-19) each include a disciple named Thaddeus. In Luke (6:13-16), no Thaddeus is listed. A disciple named Judas, son of James is listed instead. The book of Acts (1:13) also omits Thaddeus and includes this person, Judas son of James. What’s going on, here? Are Matthew and Mark providing contradictory information to Luke and Acts? Well, we can’t know for sure, but many scholars have come to the conclusion that Thaddeus and Judas son of James are the same person.
It was not uncommon for Palestinian Jews during the time of Jesus to have two names, with one often being Semitic and the other being Greek.1 Other members of the original 12 went by more than one name, such as Simon (Peter) and, most likely, Matthew (Levi). It seems likely that Thaddeus and Judas son of James are two names for the same person. Sean McDowell adds:
Furthermore, Judas son of James needed to be distinguished in some way from Judas Iscariot. He is referred somewhat awkwardly as “Judas, not Iscariot” in John 14:22, yet it seems unlikely this was his usual designation.2
Given the information above, it appears that there is no contradiction at all.
Bonus Problem and Solution: Nathanael
In John 1: 45-52, we learn of a disciple named Nathanael. Yet, no Nathanael is listed in any of the synoptic gospels’ disciple lists. Who is this person?
Most likely, Nathanael is the same person as Bartholomew, who is included in all of the synoptic lists. It seems reasonable to assume that Nathanael and Bartholomew are one because Bartholomew is not actually a first name. Instead, it’s a family (or last) name. The name “Bartholomew” comes from the Hebrew “son of Talmai.”3 Nathanael, however, is a first name. So most likely, the disciple’s full name was Nathanael Bartholomew, or “Nathanael, son of Talmai.”
McDowell provides additional reasons to support that hypothesis:
Second, Bartholomew immediately follows Philip in the three Gospel lists, and Philip is the one in the Gospel of John who brought Nathanael to Jesus (John 1:45). Third, Nathanael never appears by name in the Synoptic Gospels, and equally Bartholomew never appears by name in the Gospel of John. It seems reasonable to conclude that Bartholomew and Nathanael are the same person.4
Critics who latch onto the lists of the disciples and use them as evidence of contradiction are barking up the wrong tree. Given that people often used more than one name in that place and time, we have very compelling reasons to conclude that the differences or “contradictions” are simply related to that fact. These are the types of differences one would expect to find in independent accounts.
- Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 2006, p. 100.
- Sean McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles: Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus, Ashgate, Burlington, VT & Surrey, England, 2015, p. 27.