corner graphic

Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Apostle

Resource Toolbox
Additional Links

The term ‘Apostle’ (Gr. ἀπόστολος) is more definite than ‘messenger’ (Gr. ἄγγελος) in that the apostle has a special mission, and is the commissioner of the person who sends him. This distinction holds good both in classical and in biblical Greek. There is no good reason for doubting that the title ‘apostle’ was given to the Twelve by Christ Himself [Luke 6:13 = Mark 3:14, where ‘whom he also named apostles’ is strongly attested). That the title was used in the first instance simply in reference to the temporary mission of the Twelve to prepare for Christ’s own preaching is a conjecture which receives some support from the fact that, in the Apostolic Church. Barnabas and Paul are first called ‘apostles’ (Acts 14:4; Acts 14:14) when they are acting as envoys of the Church in Antioch in St. Paul’s first missionary journey. On this hypothesis, the temporary apostleship, though not identical with the permanent office, was typical of it and preparatory to it (Hort, The Christian Ecclesia, 1897, p. 28f.).

There is fundamental agreement between the work of the apostles during Christ’s ministry and their work after the Ascension: their functions undergo no radical change. But the changes are considerable. Christ chose them in the first instance (Mark 3:14) ‘that they might be with him,’ to be educated and trained, ‘and that he might send them forth to preach’ and do works of mercy Instruction is the main thing, and ‘disciples’ is the usual designation; mission work is secondary and temporary. After the Ascension their mission work becomes primary and permanent. Apostle-ship is now the main thing; in Acts ‘apostles’ is the dominant appellation, and in the Epistles ‘disciples’ are not mentioned. Instead of being led and guided, the Twelve now become leaders and guides or rather, instead of having a visible Guide, they now have an invisible one-instead of Jeans, ‘the Spirit of Jesus’ (Acts 16:7), who helps them to lead others. The guidance of the Spirit is the dominant idea in the Apostolic Church. Nevertheless, the other way of stating the change is true; they have become teachers rather than disciples. But the purpose is the same; their mission is unchanged. With enlarged experience, with powers greatly augmented at Pentecost, and with an enormously extended sphere of work, they have to make known the Kingdom of God. Cf. article Disciple.

This extension of sphere is one of the special marks of the transfigured apostleship. It is no longer restricted to ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel,’ but is to embrace ‘all the nations’ throughout ‘all the world.’ The tentative mission to the inhabitants of Palestine at a peculiar crisis has become one which has no limitations of either space or time (Matthew 28:19, Luke 24:47, Acts 1:8). But this universality of sphere was not the only or the most important characteristic of the new mission. The chief mark was the duty of bearing witness. The Twelve seem to have been selected originally because of their fitness for bearing witness. They were not specially qualified for grasping or expounding theological doctrines; nor were such qualifications greatly needed, for the doctrines which the Master taught them were few and simple. Yet they had difficulty in apprehending some of these, and sometimes surprised their Master by their inability to understand (Mark 7:16; Mark 8:17; Mark 9:32). But because of their simplicity they were very credible witnesses of what they had heard and seen. They had been men of homely circumstances, and their unique experiences as the disciples of Christ made a deep impression upon them, especially with regard to the hopeless sense of loss when He was put to death, and to the amazing recovery of joy when their own senses convinced them that He had risen again. They were thus well qualified to convince others. They evidently had not the wit to invent an elaborate story, or to retain it when it had been elaborated, and therefore what they stated with such confidence was likely to be true. They were chosen to keep alive and extend the knowledge of events that were of the utmost importance to mankind-the knowledge that Jesus Christ had died on the cross, and had risen from the grave. That He had died and been buried was undisputed and indisputable; and all of them could testify that they had repeatedly seen Him alive after His burial. This was the primary function of an apostle-to bear witness of Christ’s Resurrection (Acts 1:22; Acts 4:2; Acts 4:33), and the influence of the testimony was enormous. The apostles did not argue; they simply stated what they knew. Everyone who heard them felt that they were men who had an intense belief in the truth of what they stated. There is no trace in either Acts or the Epistles of hesitation or doubt as to the certainty of their knowledge; they knew that their witness was true (John 21:24, 1 John 1:1-3). And the confidence with which they delivered their testimony was communicated to those who heard it all the more effectually because, without any sign of collusion or conspiracy, they all told the same story. They differed in age, temperament, and ability, but they did not differ when they spoke of what they had seen and heard. Nay, this still held good when one whom they had at first regarded with fear and suspicion (Acts 9:26) was added to their company. Greatly as Saul of Tarsus differed from the Twelve in some things, he was entirely at one with them respecting fundamental facts. He, like them, had seen and heard the risen Christ (1 Corinthians 9:1; 1 Corinthians 15:8; 1 Corinthians 15:11; Latham, pastor Pastorum, 1890, pp. 228-230).

It was probably owing to St. Paul’s persistent claim to be an apostle, equal in rank with the Twelve (Galatians 1:1, 1 Corinthians 9:1), that it became customary from very early times to restrict the appellation of ‘apostle’ to the Twelve and the Apostle of the Gentiles; but there is no such restriction in the NT. It is certainly given to Barnabas, but perhaps primarily as being an envoy from the Church of Antioch (Acts 13:1-2; Acts 14:4; Acts 14:14), rather than as having a direct mission from Christ. St. Paul seems to speak of him as a colleague, recognized by Peter and John as equal to himself in the mission to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:9), and as one who, like himself, used the apostolic privilege of working for nothing, although he had a right to maintenance (1 Corinthians 9:6). We need not doubt that Barnabas continued to be called an apostle in a general sense after the mission from Antioch was over.

Perhaps the simplest and most natural way of understanding Galatians 1:19 is that James, the Lord’s brother, had the title of ‘apostle’ in the wider sense. It may be regarded as certain that this James was not one of the Twelve. But 1 Corinthians 15:7 ought not to be quoted as implying either that there was a company of apostles larger than the Twelve or that James was a member of this larger company. ‘Next he appeared to James; then to the whole body of the apostles.’ There is no emphasis on ‘all,’ implying an antithesis between ‘to one, then to all.’ Such an antithesis, as well as the idea that James was in some sense an apostle, is foreign to the context. The ‘all’ probably looks back to ‘the twelve’ in 1 Corinthians 15:10, which is an official and not a numerical designation, for only ten were there, Thomas and Judas being absent. ‘Then to all the apostles’ probably means that on that occasion the apostolic company was complete (for Thomas was present) rather than that some were there who were called apostles although they were not of the original Twelve. It is highly probable that James, the Lord’s brother, was such a person, but 1 Corinthians 15:7 ought not to be quoted as evidence of this. It is after the murder of James the son of Zebedee that James the Lord’s brother comes on the scene. He may have taken the place of his namesake in the number of the Twelve.

That Silvanus and Timothy were regarded as apostles in the wider sense is not improbable. In both 1 and 2 Thess. they are associated with St. Paul in the address, and in both letters the first person plural is used with a regularity which is not found in any other group of the Pauline Epistles: ‘our gospel,’ i.e. ‘the gospel which we apostles preach,’ is specially remarkable (1 Thessalonians 1:5, 2 Thessalonians 2:14). Still more remarkable is the casual addition, ‘when we might have been burdensome as apostles of Christ’ (1 Thessalonians 2:6).

Romans 16:7 probably means that Andronicus and Junias were distinguished as apostles; but there are two elements of doubt: ἐπίσημοι ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις might mean ‘well known to the apostles,’ but it more probably means that among the apostles they were illustrious persons; and Ἰουνίαν may be masc. or fem., Junias or Junia, If Junia is right, the probability that Andronicus and Junia (? man and wife) were distinguished members of the apostolic body is lessened. But Chrysostom does not shrink from the thought that a woman may be an apostle. He says that to be an apostle at all is a great thing, and therefore to be illustrious amongst such persons is very high praise; and ‘how great is the devotion of this woman, that she should be even counted worthy of the appellation of apostle!’ (Sanday-Headlam, ad loc.).

The fact that there were people who claimed, without any right, the title of ‘apostle’ (2 Corinthians 11:13, Revelation 2:2) amounts to proof that in the Apostolic Church there were ‘apostles’ outside the Twelve with the addition of St. Paul. It is incredible that there were people who claimed to belong to a body so well known us the Twelve, or any who tried to personate St. Paul; and ‘it would be unprofitable to waste words on the strange theory that St. Paul is meant by these false apostles’ (Hort, Judaistic Christianity, 1894, p. 163). Very soon, though not in the NT, the title of ‘apostle’ was given to the Seventy. It is not likely that Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias were the only persons among the 120 gathered together after the Ascension (Acts 1:15) who had the apostolic qualification of having seen the Lord; probably most of them had been His personal disciples. All of those who took to missionary work would be likely to be styled ‘apostles’; and it is not impossible that the ‘false apostles’ who opposed St. Paul had this qualification, and therefore claimed to have a better right to the title than he had.

The cumulative effect of the facts and probabilities stated above is very strong-so strong that we are justified in affirming that in the NT there are persons other than the Twelve and St. Paul who were called apostles, and in conjecturing that they were rather numerous. All who seemed to be called by Christ or the Spirit to do missionary work would be thought worthy of the title, especially such as had been in personal contact with the Master. When it is said that this reasonable affirmation, based entirely upon Scripture, is confirmed by the account in the Didache of an order of wandering preachers who were called ‘apostles,’ we must be careful not to exaggerate the amount of confirmation. There is no proof, and there is not a very high degree of probability, that the ‘apostles’ of the Didache are the same kind of ministers as those who are called ‘apostles’ in the NT, although not of the number of the Twelve. We must not infer that they are the lineal descendants, officially, of workers such as Silvanus, Andronicus, and Junias. But the fact that in the sub-Apostolic Age there were itinerant ministers called ‘apostles’ does give confirmation to the assertion that in the NT there were, outside the apostolic body, ministers who were known as ‘apostles.’ Chief among these were Paul, Barnabas, and James, of whom Paul certainly, and the other two probably, were regarded by most Christians as equal to the Twelve. Like the Twelve, Paul and Barnabas had no local ties: they retained a general authority over the churches which they founded, but they did not take up their abode in them as permanent rulers. They trained the churches to govern themselves. The Twelve are to be twelve Patriarchs of the larger Israel, twelve repetitions of Christ (Harnack, Expansion of Christianity, Eng. translation , 1904-5, i. 72), and at first they were the whole ministry of the infant Church. The first act of the infant Church was to restore the typical number twelve by the election of Matthias; and it is worthy of note, as indicating both the undeveloped condition of the ministry and also the germs of future developments, that in Acts all three terms, ‘diaconate’ (Acts 1:17; Acts 1:25), ‘bishopric’ (Acts 1:20), and ‘apostleship’ (Acts 1:25), are used in connexion with the election of Matthias. There is no good ground for the conjecture that the choice of Matthias did not receive subsequent sanction, that he was set aside, and that St. Paul was Divinely appointed to take his place. It is true that he subsequently falls into the background and is lost from sight; but so do most of the Twelve.

The absence from Christ’s teaching of any statement respecting the priesthood of the Twelve, or respecting the transmission of the powers of the Twelve to others, is remarkable. As the primary function of the Twelve was to be witnesses of what Christ had taught and done, especially in rising from the dead, no transmission of so exceptional an office was possible. Even with regard to the high authority which all apostles possessed, it is not clear that it was a jurisdiction which was to be passed on from generation to generation. Belief in the speedy return of Christ would prevent any such intention. The apostles wore commissioned to found a living Church, with power to supply itself with ministers and to organize them.

Literature.-In addition to the works already cited, see J. B. Lightfoot, Galatians, ed. 1892, pp. 92-101; E. Haupt, Zum Verständnis des Apostolats im NT, Halle, 1896; H. Monnier, La Notion de l’apostolat, Paris, 1903; P. Batiffol, L’Église naissante3, do. 1909, pp. 46-68; also article ‘Apostle,’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) , Dict. of Christ and the Gospels , Encyclopaedia Biblica , and Encyclopaedia Britannica 11.

Alfred Plummer.


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Apostle'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/a/apostle.html. 1906-1918.

Search for…
Enter query in the box:
 or 
Choose a letter to browse:
A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M 
N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  Y  Z 

 
Prev Entry
Apostasy
Next Entry
Apostles
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology