Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Apostle
from The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization

The word apostle, from the Greek apostellō, has etymologically a very general sense of meaning. It can refer to anyone who is sent forth, dispatched and entrusted with a purpose. It can also be interpreted more restrictively as delegate, particularly in the New Testament, that is, one who is sent with a specific mission to proclaim the Gospel message and who represents the duplicate voice of Jesus, the sender.

Terminology and Origin

The Greek noun apostolos (“apostle”) was originally an adjective. The word is found infrequently in Greek literature, simply referring to the bearer of a message in a general sense (Herodotus, The Histories, 1.21; Plato, Epistulae, 7.346a). The noun is derived from the cognate verb apostellein (“to send forth”). Although the noun apostolos is all but absent in the LXX (Septuagint) (used only once in 1 Kings 14:6), the form of the verb apostellein occurs over 700 times, most frequently to render the Hebrew word šalah! (e.g. Isa. 6:8: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?'”). The word šalah! denotes the idea of being sent with a commission, either by a human agent or by God. The noun “apostle” was originally used in an impersonal way to describe freighter and transport ships. Later it was used in reference to a dispatched fleet on a military expedition (Lysias, Oratio, 19, 21; Demosthenes, Oratio, 18, 107). In this manner it was eventually applied generally to a group of men sent out for a specific purpose; for example, to a band of colonists and their settlement. The meaning was predominantly understood in a passive sense and connoted the quality of being sent, without any suggestion of initiative on the part of the “apostle.” In certain cases, the term referred to individuals who are dispatched for a specific purpose, which can be expressed by words such as “ambassador” or “delegate” (Herodotus, The Histories, 5.38). It is these isolated cases of the use of the noun and the connotation of the verb apostellein meaning “sending someone or something with a particular task” that furnishes the meaning of the noun apostolos in the New Testament.

In the New Testament the term “apostle” occurs about 80 times and can refer generally to a commissioned messenger with full authority (John 13:16 “servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them”) or more restrictively to a human or divine messenger, sent by God or Christ with a specific message, usually the message of the Gospel. It can refer to the twelve disciples of Jesus and their special duty to proclaim the Gospel message. For example in Mark 3:14-15, it is said that Jesus “appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message and to have authority to cast out demons.” Here the twelve disciples are appointed as “apostles” who were commissioned to proclaim Jesus' identical message of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15). Furthermore, they were commanded to express the arrival of the Kingdom tangibly by casting out demons in the same manner as Jesus (cf. Mark 1:22-27). This idea is affirmed in Acts 1:21-22, according to which an apostle must be “one of the men who have accompanied us [twelve disciples] 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.” The noun “apostle” can be applied to the first Christian missionaries who did not originally belong to the group of disciples. For example, Paul and Barnabas are called “apostles” in Acts 14:4, 14 and joined the community of believers only after the death of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 15:7-9, Paul claims for himself the full authority of “apostle,” being called to this role by the risen Christ (1 Cor. 9:1). A wider group of apostles includes James, the Lord's brother (1 Cor. 15:7) and fellow workers of Paul, Junias and Andronicus (Rom. 16:7). In the Petrine tradition the function of an apostle is said to form a continuum with the prophets in the past. In 2 Peter 3:2 (cf. Jude 17, where apostles are said to make predictions in the last days), it reads, “you should remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour spoken through you apostles.”

The term “apostle” occurs infrequently outside the New Testament and this stands in distinct contrast to the frequency of its use within the New Testament. Various theories have been formulated to account for the origin of the Christian use of the term “apostle” in the New Testament. Traditionally, scholars have attempted to trace the concept back to the historical Jesus and use both Mark 3:14 and Luke 6:13 to prove this. We read that Jesus chose twelve disciples “whom he also named apostles.” But there are various problems associated with this theory. Jesus most likely did not use the Greek term apostolos but rather either the Aramaic šelîh!a or the Hebrew equivalent šalîah!. In Rabbinic tradition this Hebrew term refers to “someone who has been authorized to carry out a certain function on behalf of another with the full authority.” However, the use of this meaning cannot be found earlier than the 2nd century ce. Also, the phrase “whom he also named apostles” in Mark 3:14 may be due to a scribal gloss since it is not attested widely in more reliable ancient manuscripts of Mark. This leaves Luke 6:13 as the only testimony to the naming of the twelve as apostles by Jesus. But Luke's text may be based upon a weakly attested variant of Mark's Gospel. This means that it is difficult to claim that the use of the word apostolos in Mark 3:14 and Luke 6:13, based upon the Aramaic or Hebrew concept, can be sufficiently traced back to Jesus or that Jesus understood it in the same sense as in the Rabbinic tradition.

Of the 80 times in which the noun “apostle” is found in the New Testament as a whole, 68 are found in Luke-Acts and Pauline literature. One explanation given for this uneven distribution is that the idea of the Christian apostolate originated, not in the time of Jesus' mission but in the early period of the church's post-Easter mission. Since the Pauline letters were written before the Gospels, then the emergence of the idea of apostleship must be traced back to these. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, it is generally accepted in biblical scholarship that Paul communicates an early piece of oral tradition (“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received”) that was in circulation in the Mediterranean world prior to Paul writing this letter in 54-55 ce. The content of this “good news” (“gospel,” 1 Cor. 15:1) included the ideas that “Christ died for our sins,” “he was buried,” “he was raised on the third day.” Most importantly, Paul lists those to whom the resurrected Jesus appeared: Cephas, the twelve, five hundred brothers, James, the “apostles,” and to Paul, who groups himself with the apostles (1 Cor. 15:7-9). It is significant that this early mention of the Gospel proclamation is specifically associated with the apostolate and particularly Paul's credibility as a legitimate apostle, commissioned by the resurrected Jesus himself. This is one of the earliest affirmations of the concept of apostleship in the New Testament that arose from within the church's own missionary experience. It was associated with a tradition originating in the early period of the Christian mission and then found literary expression in the Pauline letters. The evangelists who wrote the four Gospels then used this when they wrote their accounts of Jesus' calling and commissioning his disciples as apostles.

It can also be shown on critical grounds that Jesus understood the Old Testament concept of šalah!/apostellein (verb form, e.g. Isa. 6:8 — see above) and that he “sent” his disciples on a specific commission as Yahweh commissioned those in the Jewish Scriptures. This would indicate that the Christian apostolate could be traced back to Jesus himself (see Kruse 2004). Jesus himself understood his role as being sent by God with a specific mission: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24; see also Luke 4:18: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives”). Matthew retains the phrase “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” despite the embarrassment it would have caused in the early Christian movement, which already had a significant number of Gentile adherents (cf. Acts 10:1-48; 11:20-24). This supports the idea that the saying was derived from the actual words of Jesus. Isaiah 61:1 is cited in Luke 4:18 to demonstrate that Jesus' role corresponds to the commission of the Spirit-anointed preacher of Isaiah. Allusion is made to Isaiah 61:1 in other early sayings of Jesus (Luke 6:20/Matt. 5:3-6; Matt. 11:2-6; Luke 7:18-23). This indicates that in all probability these are early traditions represented in Luke and Matthew which go back to Jesus himself and which claim that Jesus understood his specific role as one who was especially commissioned by God.

Map 7 The twelve apostles in tradition

In similar manner Jesus entrusts his disciples with a specific task. In Luke 22:35-36 Jesus says to his disciples, “When I sent (apostellein) you out without purse or bag or sandals did you lack anything? … and the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.” There was a strong tendency to soften a statement such as this because at the time in which the Gospel of Luke was written (shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ce (at the end of the Jewish-Roman war)), the church would most likely want to disassociate Jesus from the Zealots, which was a Jewish revolutionary party formed about 67-68 ce under Eleazar and was instrumental in starting the Jewish-Roman war. It is highly unlikely that this saying would be allowed to remain on the lips of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke if Jesus had not been the one who actually said it.

In summary, the concept of “apostle,” referring to a “commissioned messenger with full authority” can be traced back to the early post-Easter Christian community, where the risen Jesus commissions specific people with the task of proclaiming the Gospel message. Also, the idea of “being sent forth with a commission from God” is derived from the Old Testament and forms the basis of the New Testament definition of “apostle.” This is the sense in which Jesus understood his role as being sent forth from God and in which Jesus commissions his own disciples. What remains is to define the specific duties of an apostle in greater detail.

The Duties of an Apostle
The Twelve Disciples as Apostles

In the Gospels, there are references to the twelve disciples functioning as apostles (Mark 3:14; 6:30; Matt. 10:2; Luke 6:13; 9:10; noun “apostle” is a synonym for the twelve disciples in Luke 17:5; 22:14; 24:10). Even though in Mark 3:13-14 the phrase “whom he also named apostles” is not widely attested in ancient manuscripts of Mark, the concept of “sending” (apostellein) is explicit: “And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and so that he might send them to preach.” First, it is clear that the disciples' call to the apostolate and their commissioning originates in the call of Jesus. Membership in the apostolate is not a matter of choice on the part of the apostle. Jesus took the initiative to call the twelve apostles to follow him (Matt. 4:18-22; 9:9; Mark 1:16-20; 2:14; Luke 5:1-11, 27-28; John 6:70; 13:18; 15:16, 19). Second, Jesus calls them “to be with him.” This included sharing the same experiences in life as Jesus such as travelling with him, sharing accommodation with him, experiencing acceptance and rejection with Jesus, and learning the various details of the message of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus proclaimed. Third, Jesus also called them “to preach,” that is, to proclaim the idea that God was beginning to establish his rule and its presence was to be demonstrated by healings and exorcisms (Mark 6:7-13; Matt. 10:7-8). In the Acts of the Apostles, there are over two dozen references made to the association of the twelve disciples as apostles. They had a collective function as witnesses of the earthly Jesus, particularly his resurrection (Acts 1:8, 22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39-41; 13:31). In the episode of the replacement of Judas by Matthias in Acts 1:21-26, it spells out the qualifications and duties of those who are part of the restrictive group of twelve apostles. This person must have participated in the activities of the earthly Jesus beginning with the baptism of John up until Jesus' ascension, giving special witness to the resurrection.

Paul as Apostle to the Gentiles

In comparison with the usage of “apostle” in the Gospels, Paul employs the term in a distinctive manner and gave the apostolate a completely new interpretation. In the prescript of his earlier letter (1 Thess. 1:1; cf. Phil. 1:1; 2:25; Philem. 1) and even at the council at Jerusalem (Gal. 2:8), he did not call himself an apostle. However afterwards, possibly as a result of Paul's conflict with Peter in Antioch (Gal. 2:11-14) (see Betz 1992), Paul's self-description as apostle becomes standard (1 Cor. 2:7; 2 Cor. 1:1; Rom. 1:1; Col. 1:1). He attempted to rank himself alongside Cephas and twelve disciples (1 Cor. 15:3-10), even though he did not meet the criterion of knowing the earthly Jesus from the time of John's baptism up until the time of Jesus' ascension. He rejected this idea as a valid criterion for the apostolate (2 Cor. 5:16). This, no doubt, met with some resistance, especially in the churches not founded by Paul, causing various debates about the qualifications and duties of apostleship. Paul met the other criteria of the apostolate. He too, was called by Jesus: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:1; cf. Rom. 1:1) and saw himself as a personal representative of Christ, which implied that he was a duplicate voice of the crucified and resurrected Christ on earth (Gal. 6:14, 17; 2 Cor. 12:7-10; 13:3-4). He had a vision of the risen Lord (Gal. 1:16; 1 Cor. 9:1-5; 15:1-10) and could lay claim to be a witness of the resurrected Christ, analogous to experience of the twelve apostles. Paul's specific duty was to be an “apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13; cf. 1:5-7, 13-15). He engaged in missionary campaigns in which he preached the Gospel message “from Jerusalem as far as Illyricum” (Rom. 15:19) and worked harder at establishing churches than anyone else (1 Cor. 15:10). The authentication of his apostolate was the accompanying “signs and wonders and mighty works” contrary to the so-called “super-apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5; 12:11-12). At the second coming of Jesus, Paul expected to present the Gentile churches as blameless and pure to Christ (1 Cor. 1:8; 2 Cor. 1:14; cf. 11:2).

Jesus as Apostle

The term “apostle” is applied to Jesus only once in the New Testament (“Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession,” Heb. 3:1). However, this is an application of older traditions in the Gospels in which Jesus exhibits a consciousness of having been sent by God (see explanation above; Matt. 15:24; Luke 4:18, 43). In particular, the Gospel of John attributes about 39 statements to Jesus to the effect that he was considered sent (apostellein) by God in a special sense as Son of God (e.g. John 5:36, 38). In turn, Jesus sends out his disciples to carry on his message (John 17:18; 20:21). Jesus' mission as apostle is seen as a fulfillment of Isaiah 61:1-2 as stated in Luke 4:16-21 (“He [Yawheh] has sent me …” Luke 4:18). He had the specific role as God's anointed messenger who would usher in the long-awaited Kingdom of God (cf. Mark 1:14-15; Matt. 4:17). This included the proclamation of the Gospel message (i.e. that God was now establishing his kingdom), forgiveness of sins, relief for those who were suffering from disease and demonic oppression, and a restored relationship between God and his people.

SEE ALSO: Evangelism; Gospels; Missionary Call; Poor, Christianity and the

References and Suggested Readings
  • Agnew, F. (1976). On the origin of the term “apostolos.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 38, 49-53.
  • Agnew, F. (1986). The origin of the NT apostle-concept: A review of research. Journal of Biblical Literature, 105, 75-96.
  • Barrett, C. K. (1970). The signs of an apostle. Epworth London.
  • Betz, H. D. (1992). Apostle. In Freedman, D. N. (ed.), The Anchor Bible dictionary, vol. I. Doubleday New York, pp. 309-311.
  • Brown, S. (1984). Apostleship in the New Testa-ment as an historical and theological problem. New Testament Studies, 30, 474-480.
  • Giles, K. (1985). Apostles before and after Paul. Churchman, 99, 241-256.
  • Krik, J. A. (1975). Apostleship since Rengstorf: Towards a synthesis. New Testament Studies, 21, 249-264.
  • Kruse, C. G. (2004). Apostle. In Reid, D. G. (ed.), The IVP dictionary of the New Testament. InterVarsity Downers Grove, IL, pp. 79-95.
  • Matthews, C. R. (2003). Apostle. In Gowan, D. E. (ed.), The Westminster theological wordbook of the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press Louisville, KY, pp. 18-20.
  • Rengstorf, K. H. (1964). Apostolos. In Kittel, G. (ed.), Theological dictionary of the New Testa-ment, vol. I. Eerdmans Grand Rapids, MI, pp. 407-447.
  • Schmithals, W. (1969). The office of apostle in the early church. Abingdon Nashville, TN.
  • Schnackenburg, R. (1970). Apostles before and during Paul's time. In W. W. Gasque; R. P. Martin (eds.), Apostolic history and the Gospels. Eerdmans Grand Rapids, MI, pp. 287-303.
  • John A. Bertone
    Wiley ©2012

    Related Articles


    Full text Article Apostles
    Book of Bible Quotations

    And when he had called unto him his twelve disciples, he gave them power against unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all...

    Full text Article Apostles
    The Macmillan Encyclopedia

    In the New Testament, the 12 men chosen by Jesus as his disciples who, after his death, were to spread his teaching throughout the Roman...

    Full text Article Apostle
    Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology

    Derived from a Greek word meaning ‘sent’, apostle is used in the NT to refer to a class of Christian missionaries with prominent leadership roles...

    See more from Credo