Definition: Apostle
A messenger or person sent on an errand. In Christianity, a person sent into the world to preach about Jesus Christ.

Who were the apostles?

Within only 20 years of the death of Jesus Christ, his followers had spread the Christian religion as far as Rome. Followers of his teachings were first called "Christians" at Antioch around 43 AD. {1}

Christians had also begun to write narratives of Jesus' life and the work of the apostles, as well as letters on matters of belief and practice. Together these writings constitute the Christian scriptures, called the "New Testament." As evidenced by its name, the New Testament is regarded as a successor to, although not a replacement of, the Hebrew scriptures (the "Old Testament").

Our knowledge of the activities of the earliest Christians comes from the New Testament Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.

The latter book begins with Jesus' ascension into heaven, whose parting words are, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." {2}


These words were fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (a Jewish festival also known as the Feast of Weeks). The apostles were assembled together when suddenly they heard a great wind and saw what looked like tongues of fire come to rest over each of their heads. They each began to speak in languages other than their own, and a crowd soon gathered around the spectacle. Some heard the Galileans speaking in their own language, and were amazed. But others laughed and said, "They have had too much wine." {3}

Peter and James

Peter then stood up and preached his first recorded sermon to the crowd. From this first instance it becomes apparent that whereas Jesus' central message was the kingdom of God, the message of the apostles was the resurrection of Jesus. Peter declared, "God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact." {4}

The Apostle Peter is a prominent figure in the early church. Despite his moments of weakness during Jesus' life, Jesus gave him the "keys of the kingdom" and the responsibility to care for the flock. {5} (Based on these passages and his historical association with Rome, Catholic Christians regard Peter as the first pope.) In Acts, he makes several public speeches, healed many people in the name of Jesus, and receives an important vision from God. As the leader of the church in Jerusalem and the author of an epistle bearing his name, James the brother of Jesus also plays a prominent role. {6}


However, the Apostle Paul is easily the central figure of the apostolic era. His influence lies not in a leadership role like Peter and James, but in his extensive missionary and pastoral work. His letters to new churches, some of which date to the 50s AD, are the earliest Christian writings we have and they constitute over half of the New Testament. Yet Paul did not know Jesus personally. He was a devoted Jewish teacher who persecuted Christians, until he received a blinding vision of the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. {7} From that moment to his martyrdom, the Apostle Paul was a devoted Christian missionary and teacher.

Paul's influence is so great that some scholars have attributed the founding of "Christianity" as we know it to Paul, not Jesus. In any case, Paul was certainly responsible for systematizing Christian teachings and spreading Christianity over a significant part of the Roman Empire. He undertook at least five missionary journeys, establishing small congregations of believers in numerous cities along the way.

First to the Jew, Then to the Gentile

Jesus does not seem to have set out to found a new religion, but simply reinterpret an ancient one. "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." {8} The relationship of Christianity to its parent faith, Judaism, was the first issue faced by the early church.

Christianity was initially regarded not as a new religion but as a sect of Judaism, even by Christians themselves. In Acts 5, this perspective is clear in the apostles' message that Jesus was resurrected so that "he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel." But before long, Christianity distinguished itself in a significant way: it accepted non-Jews ("Gentiles") as religious equals.

In Acts 10, God revealed in a vision to Peter his will that salvation be available to Gentiles. Peter was at first shocked and amazed, but he went on to become one of the most fervent advocates of the equality of Jew and Gentile under the new faith. After his vision he remarked, "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right." {9}

Paul was also instrumental in this important step. Although Jew by birth and training, he became the self-described "apostle to the Gentiles." It was he who penned the oft-quoted Christian principle that "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." {10}

The First Council

The relationship of Christianity to its parent faith was the topic of what is sometimes considered the first ecumenical council, the Council of Jerusalem (circa 50 AD). The council was prompted by Jewish Christians in Antioch who were teaching that Gentile Christians must be circumcised and follow the law of Moses. Paul and Barnabas, who opposed this idea, traveled to Jerusalem to confer with the apostles and elders on the matter, and the proceedings of the council were recorded in Acts 15.

After much discussion, Peter spoke to the council, reminding them of his vision and testifying that God had confirmed this vision by "giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us." He concluded with what would become a fundamental Christian doctrine: "We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are." Paul and Barnabas supported this by describing the signs and wonders that had accompanied their work among the Gentiles.

Finally, James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, decided that "we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God." He added, however, that they should be told to abstain from sexual immorality and blood (both of which were associated with pagan rituals). An official letter to this effect was sent to the Gentile Christians in Antioch.

Women in the Early Church

In contrast to the patriarchal society into which it was born, the new faith of Christianity offered many opportunities to women. According to the Gospels, Jesus treated woman with respect and as equals {11}, and women were among his disciples. {12} Mary, mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene are prominent throughout the Gospels. At Jesus' execution, several women remained faithful when the male disciples had apparently scattered. {13} Women were the first to witness his resurrection, a fact of great significance in a society in which the testimony of a woman was worth half that of a man's in a court of law. {14}

After the resurrection, women filled a variety of important roles in the church, including prophet, teacher and missionary. One notable figure is Priscilla, who worked alongside Paul {15} and instructed Apollos {16}.

The Fates of the Apostles

The remainder of Acts details the missionary work of Paul and other disciples, characterized by a great number of conversions and miracles, but also opposition, arrests, near-martyrdoms, and a shipwreck. It ends with Paul preaching "the kingdom of God and the Lord Jesus Christ" from a house in Rome guarded by a soldier.

After the events recorded in Acts, early Christian writings have most of the apostles meeting martyrdom, but not before they had preached the Gospel in far off places:

These twelve disciples went forth throughout the known parts of the world and continued to show His greatness with all modesty and uprightness. - Aristides, (c. 125) {17} From Jerusalem there went out twelve men into the world. These men were uneducated and of no ability in speaking. But by the power of God, they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach the word of God to everyone. Justin Martyr, (c. 160) {18} According to Clement of Alexandria, Peter and Philip were married and had children, and Paul probably did, too. Their wives traveled with the apostles "not as wives, but as sisters, in order to minister to housewives" {19}. Clement also reports that Peter's wife was martyred before him, and the apostle encouraged her as she was led to her death {20}.

Peter and Paul founded the church in Rome {21} and were martyred there under Nero {22}. Peter was crucified {23} and his relics are believed to be housed beneath St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. Paul was executed by beheading (the merciful method a privilege of Roman citizenship) around the year 68 AD {24}. Paul's relics are said to be located in St. Paul's Basilica, five miles from that of St. Peter.

John is traditionally thought to have been exiled to the island of Patmos, where he wrote the apocalyptic Book of Revelation. This is stated in Revelation itself (1:9) and confirmed by Clement of Alexandria {25} and Tertullian, who adds that John was thrust into boiling oil in Rome without being hurt before he was sent into exile {26}. Irenaeus, writing earlier (c. 180), speaks only of John's career with the church in Ephesus, where he "remained among them permanently until the time of Trajan" {27}. Polycrates reports that John was a martyr and was buried at Ephesus {28}. Clement of Alexandria explains that John returned to Ephesus from Patmos upon "the tyrant's death" {29} and a century later Victorinus elaborates that Domitian had condemned John to Patmos to work the mines, but when the Caesar died, John was released and returned to Ephesus, where he wrote his Gospel {30}.

The conclusion of the lives of the other apostles are largely unknown. One source reports that Andrew was present with John in Ephesus {31}. Clement of Alexandria reports that James became the bishop of Jerusalem {32}. One tradition, recently popularized in the novel The Da Vinci Code, has Mary Magdalene living the remainder of her life in southern France.


    - Ac 11:26.

    • Ac 1:8.
    • Ac 2:1-13.
    • Ac 2:32.
    • Keys: Mt 16:15-19. Flock: Jn 21:15-19.
    • Ac 12:17; 15; 21:18; Gal 2:9, 12; Jas 1.
    • Ac 9:1-19.
    • Mt 5:17.
    • Ac 10:34.
    • Gal 3:28.
    • Mt 9:22, 15:21-28, 26:6-13; Mk 5:34; Lk 7:50, 8:36-50, 10:38-42, 13:10-13; Jn 4:4-27, 8:1-11.
    • Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, "and many others" supported Jesus' ministry out of their own means (Lk 8:1-3); Martha opened her home to Jesus and Mary sat at his feet listening (Lk 10:38-42).
    • Mt 28:1-10; Mk 16:1-8; Lk 24:1-10; Jn 20:1-18.
    • Ac 18; Ro 16:3; 1 Co 16:19; 2 Ti 4:19.
    • Ac 18:24-28.
    • ANF 9.265.
    • ANF 1.175.
    • ANF 2.390, 391 (c. 195).
    • ANF 2.541 (c. 195).
    • Irenaes, ANF 1.415 (c. 180); Lactantius, ANF 7.123 (c. 304-13), 7.301-02 (c. 320).
    • Lactantius, ANF 7.302 (c. 320).
    • Tertullian, ANF 3.648 (c. 213); Peter of Alexandria, ANF 6.273 (c. 310); Lactantius, ANF 7.301-02 (c. 320). See also "St. Peter: Activity and Death in Rome and Burial-Place,"Catholic Encyclopedia (1911).
    • Tertullian, ANF 3.648 (c. 213); Peter of Alexandria, ANF 6.273 (c. 310).
    • ANF 2.603 (c. 195).
    • ANF 3.260 (c. 197).
    • ANF 1.414, 416.
    • ANF 8.773 (c. 190).
    • ANF 2.603 (c. 195).
    • ANF 7.353,354 (c. 280). On the later life and death of John, see also "St John the Evangelist," Catholic Encyclopedia (1910).
    • Muratorian Fragment (c. 200), ANF 5.603.
    • Eusebius, ANF 2.579, citing Clement.

Article Info

Title Apostle
Last UpdatedJanuary 29, 2021
URL religionfacts.com/apostle
Short URLrlft.co/1368
MLA Citation “Apostle.” ReligionFacts.com. 29 Jan. 2021. Web. Accessed 24 Jul. 2021. <religionfacts.com/apostle>