When we think of the apostles, we think there were only twelve, but the ancient church counted more than that, and in fact, some Orthodox authorities have lists of their names.
What were the criteria for being an apostle?
If the ancient church counted more than twelve apostles, they must have had criteria for determining who was an apostle and who was just one of Jesus’ original followers. The criteria are in Acts:
For it is written in the book of Psalms,
“Let his homestead become desolate,
and let there be no one to live in it”;
“Let another take his position of overseer.”
So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.
An apostle was therefore a person who was with Jesus during His whole ministry, whom Jesus chose from one of His original followers, and whom Jesus personally sent out to evangelize the world and establish churches.
How many people qualify as apostles?
There were 83 people who fit the biblical criteria for being apostles and were considered as such by the ancient church:
- The Twelve (Luke 9:1-6)
- The Seventy (Luke 10:1-10)
- Paul (Acts 7:58, 9:1-9)
The original Twelve included Judas, but he betrayed Jesus and when his plan to protect Jesus failed, he committed suicide. After the ascension, the Twelve were only Eleven. So they decided to fill the vacancy.
So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
Acts 1:23-26, NRSV
They did not say they made Matthias an apostle, because only Jesus could do that. Barsabbas and Matthias had to have already been apostles who were candidates for “promotion,” so to speak, to round out the Twelve. It only makes sense to say that only an apostle qualifies to be one of the twelve apostles.
In this passage that an apostle is called an overseer, which is the same word that came down to us as “bishop.” An apostle is therefore a special kind of bishop. Since an apostle had to have been commissioned by Jesus personally, there were no apostles past the first generation. The successors-in-office of the apostles were bishops.
In the ancient church, it took three bishops to elevate a presbyter to the status of bishop, but an apostle had the authority to do it single-handedly. Apostles also had the authority to work miracles at their personal discretion (Acts 3:6). All other Christians have to ask for miracles and they only happen at God’s discretion.
Today, we think of the twelve apostles and we imagine that that’s all there were, but if we look in ancient church history, we find a lot more genuine apostles. The Apostle Mark, for example, was not one of the Twelve, but he was the apostle who founded the church in Egypt. Mark was one of the Seventy.In Luke 10:1-10, Jesus selected seventy additional apostles and sent them out as He had sent out the Twelve. They had the same mission, the same authority, and got the same results as the Twelve.
Saul went by his Hebrew name Saul when he was in Judea, but when he was evangelizing, he used the Greek version of his name, which was Paul. Paul was there from the beginning, trying to get the goods on Jesus, and persecuted Christians until Jesus commissioned him as an apostle on the road to Damascus. Jesus called him to be an apostle, so Paul met the criteria, even though he was, as he said, a late bloomer.
How many apostles were there?
Surprise, surprise! If you thought there were only twelve, you underestimated Jesus. Jesus chose 83 apostles to carry the light of the gospel into the world. Since Judas dropped out, only 82 of them actually showed up for work.