1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Apostle
APOSTLE (ἀπόστολος, one sent forth on a mission, an envoy, as in Is. xviii. 2; Symmachus, ἀποστέλλειν ἀποστόλους; Aquila, πρεσβευτάς), a technical term used in the New Testament and in Christian literature generally for a special envoy of Jesus Christ. How far it had any similar use in Judaism in Christ’s day is uncertain; but in the 4th century A.D., at any rate, it denoted responsible envoys from the central Jewish authority, especially for the collection of religious funds. In its first and simplest Christian form, the idea is present already in Mark iii. 14 f., where from the general circle of his disciples Jesus “made twelve (‘whom he also named apostles,’ Luke vi. 13, but doubtful in Mark), that they should be with him, and that he might from time to time send them forth (ἵνα ἀποστέλλῃ) to preach and to have authority to cast out demons.” Later on (vi. 6 ff.), in connexion with systematic preaching among the villages of Galilee, Jesus begins actually to “send forth” the twelve, two by two; and on their return from this mission (vi. 30) they are for the first time described as “apostles” or missionary envoys. Matthew (x. 1 ff.) blends the calling of the twelve with their actual sending forth, while Luke (vi. 13) makes Jesus himself call them “apostles” (for Luke’s usage cf. xi. 49, “prophets and apostles,” where Matthew, xxiii. 34, has “prophets and wise men and scribes”). But it is doubtful whether Jesus ever used the term for the Twelve, in relation to their temporary missions, any more than for the “seventy others” whom he “sent forth” later (Luke x. 1). Even the Fourth Gospel never so describes them. It simply has “a servant is not greater than his lord, neither an apostle (envoy) greater than he that sent him” (xiii. 16); and applies the idea of “mission” alike to Jesus (cf. Heb. iii. 1, “Jesus, the apostle ... of our profession”) and to his disciples, generally, as represented by the Twelve (xvii. 18, with 3, 6 ff.). But while ideally all Christ’s disciples were “sent” with the Father’s Name in charge, there were different degrees in which this applied in practice; and so we find “apostle” used in several senses, once it emerges as a technical term.
1. In the Apostolic age itself, “apostle” often denotes simply an “envoy,” commissioned by Jesus Christ to be a primary witness and preacher of the Messianic Kingdom. This wide sense was shown by Lightfoot (in his commentary on Galatians, 1865) to exist in the New Testament, e.g. in 1 Cor. xii. 28 f., Eph. iv. ii, Rom. xvi. 7; and his view has since been emphasized by the discovery of the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (see Didachē, The), with its itinerant order of “apostles,” who, together with “prophets” (cf. Eph. ii. 20, iii. 5) and “teachers,” constituted a charismatic and seemingly unordained ministry of the Word, in some part of the Church (in Syria?) during the early sub-apostolic age. Paul is our earliest witness, as just cited; also in 1 Cor. xv. 5 ff., where he seems to quote the language of Palestinian tradition, in saying that Christ “appeared to Cephas; then to the Twelve; then ... to James; then to the apostles one and all (τοῖς ἀποστόλοις πᾶσιν); and last of all ... to me also.” The appearance to “all the Apostles” must refer to the final commission given by the risen Christ to certain assembled disciples (Acts i. 6 ff., cf. Luke xxiv. 33), including not only the Twelve and the Lord’s brethren (i. 13 f.), but also some at least of the Seventy. Of this wider circle of witnesses, taken from among personal disciples during Jesus’s earthly ministry, we get a further glimpse in the election of one from their number to fill Judas’s place among the Twelve (i. 21 ff.), as the primary official witnesses of Messiah and his resurrection. Many of the 120 then present (Acts i. 15), and not only the two set forward for final choice, must have been personal disciples, who by the recent commission had been made “apostles.” Among such we may perhaps name Judas Barsabbas and Silas (Acts xv. 22, cf. i. 23), if not also Barnabas (1 Cor. ix. 6) and Andronicus and Junia (Rom. xvi. 7).
So far, then, we gather that the original Palestinian type of apostleship meant simply (a) personal mission from the risen Christ (cf. I Cor. ix. i), following on (b) some preliminary intercourse with Jesus in his earthly ministry. It was pre-eminence in the latter qualification that gave the Twelve their special status among apostles (Acts i. 26, ii. 14, vi. 2; in Acts generally they are simply “the apostles”). Conversely, it was Paul’s lack in this respect which lay at the root of his difficulties as an apostle.
2. The Twelve.—When Jesus selected an inner circle of disciples for continuous training by personal intercourse, his choice of “twelve” had direct reference to the tribes of Israel (Matt. xix. 28; Luke xxii. 30). This gave them a symbolic or representative character as a closed body (cf. Rev. xxi. 14), marking them off as the primary religious authority (cf. Acts ii. 42, “the apostles’ teaching”) among the “disciples” or “brethren,” when these began to assume the form of a community or church. The relationship which other “apostles” had enjoyed with the Master had been uncertain; they had been his recognized intimates, and that as a body. Naturally, then, they took the lead, collectively—in form at least, though really the initiative lay with one or two of their own number, Peter in particular. The process of practical differentiation from their fellow-apostles was furthered by the concentration of the Twelve, or at least of its most marked representatives, in Jerusalem, for a considerable period (Acts viii. 1, cf. xii. 1 ff.; an early tradition specifies twelve years). Other apostles soon went forth on their mission to “the cities of Israel” (cf. Acts ix. 31), and so exercised but little influence on the central policy of the Church. Hence their shadowy existence in the New Testament, though the actual wording of Matt. x. 5-42, read in the light of the Didachē, may help us to conceive their work in its main features.
3. “Pillar” Apostles.—But in fact differentiation between apostles existed among the Twelve also. There were “pillars,” like Peter and John (and his brother James until his death), who really determined matters of grave moment, as in the conference with Paul in Gal. ii. 9—a conference which laid the basis of the latter’s status as an apostle even in the eyes of Jewish Christians. Such pre-eminence was but the sequel of personal distinctions visible even in the preparatory days of discipleship, and it warns us against viewing the primitive facts touching apostles in the official light of later times.
Consciousness of such personal pre-eminence has left its marks on the lists of the Twelve in the New Testament. Thus (1) Peter, James, John, Andrew, always appear as the first four, though the order varies, Mark representing relative prominence during Christ’s ministry, and Acts actual influence in the Apostolic Church (cf. Luke viii. 51, ix. 28). (2) The others also stand in groups of four, the first name in each being constant, while the order of the rest varies.
The same lesson emerges when we note that one such apostolic “pillar” stood outside the Twelve altogether, viz. James, the Lord’s brother (Gal. ii. 9, cf. i. 19); and further, that “the Lord’s brethren” seem to have ranked above “apostles” generally, being named between them and Peter in 1 Cor. ix. 5. That is, they too were apostles with the addition of a certain personal distinction.
4. Paul, the “Apostle of the Gentiles.”—So far apostles are only of the Palestinian type, taken from among actual hearers of the Messiah and with a mission primarily to Jews—apostles “of the circumcision” (Gal. ii. 7-9). Now, however, emerges a new apostleship, that to the Gentiles; and with the change of mission goes also some change in the type of missionary or apostle. Of this type Paul was the first, and he remained its primary, and in some senses its only, example. Though he could claim, on occasion, to satisfy the old test of having seen the risen Lord (1 Cor. ix. 1, cf. xv. 8), he himself laid stress not on this, but on the revelation within his own soul of Jesus as God’s Son, and of the Gospel latent therein (Gal. i. 16). This was his divine call as “apostle of the Gentiles” (Rom. xi. 13); here lay both his qualification and his credentials, once the fruits of the divine inworking were manifest in the success of his missionary work (Gal. ii. 8 f.; 1 Cor. xi. 1 f.; 2 Cor. in. 2 f., xii. 12). But this new criterion of apostleship was capable of wider application, one dispensing altogether with vision of the risen Lord—which could not even in Paul’s case be proved so fully as in the case of the original apostles—but appealing to the “signs of an apostle” (1 Cor. ix. 2; 2 Cor. xii. 12), the tokens of spiritual gift visible in work done, and particularly in the planting of the Gospel in fresh fields (2 Cor. x. 14-18). It may be in this wide charismatic sense that Paul uses the term in 1 Cor. xii. 28 f., Eph. ii. 20, iii. 5, iv. 11, and especially in Rom. xvi. 7, “men of mark among the apostles” (cf. 2 Cor. xi. 13, “pseudo-apostles” masquerading as “apostles of Christ,” and perhaps 1 Thess. ii, 6, of himself and Silas). That he used it in senses differing with the context is proved by 1 Cor. xv. 9, where he styles himself “the least of apostles,” although in other connexions he claims the very highest rank, co-ordinate even with the Twelve as a body (Gal. ii. 7 ff.), in virtue of his distinctive Gospel.
This point of view was not widely shared even in circles appreciative of his actual work. To most he seemed but a fruitful worker within lines determined by “the twelve apostles of the Lamb” as a body (Rev. xxi. 14). So we read of “the plant (Church) which the twelve apostles of the Beloved shall plant” (Ascension of Isaiah, iv. 3); “those who preached the Gospel to us (especially Gentiles)... unto whom He gave authority over the Gospel, being twelve for a witness to the tribes” (Barn. viii. 3, cf. v. 9); and the going forth of the Twelve, after twelve years, beyond Palestine “into the world,” to give it a chance to hear (Preaching of Peter, in Clem. Alex. Strom. vi. 5.43; 6.48). Later on, however, his own claim told on the Church’s mind, when his epistles were read in church as a collection styled simply “the Apostle.”
As the primary medium of the Gentile Gospel (Gal. i. 16, cf. i. 8, ii. 2) Paul had no peers as an “apostle of the Gentiles” (Rom. xi. 13, cf. XV. 15-20, and see 1 Cor. xv. 8, “last of all to me”), unless it were Barnabas who shares with him the title “apostle” in Acts xiv. 4, 14—possibly with reference to the special “work” on which they had recently been “sent forth by the Spirit” (xiii. 2, 4). Yet such as shared the spiritual gift (charisma) of missionary power in sufficient degree, were in fact apostles of Christ in the Spirit (1 Cor. xii. 28, II). Such a secondary type of apostolate—answering to “apostolic missionaries” of later times (cf. the use of ἱεραπόστολος in this sense by the Orthodox Eastern Church to-day)—would help to account for the apostolic claims of the missionaries censured in Rev. ii. 2, as also for the “apostles” of the second generation implied in the Didachē.
In the sub-apostolic age, however, the class of “missionaries” enjoying a charisma such as was conceived to convey apostolic commission through the Spirit, soon became distinguished from “apostles” (cf. Hennas, Sim. ix. 15.4, “the apostles and teachers of the message of the Son of God,” so 25.2; in 17.1 the apostles are reckoned as twelve), as the title became more and more confined by usage to the original apostles, particularly the Twelve as a body (e.g. Ascension of Isaiah and the Preaching of Peter), or to them and Paul (e.g. in Clement and Ignatius), and as reverence for these latter grew in connexion with their story in the Gospels and in Acts. Thus Eusebius describes as “evangelists” (cf. Philip the Evangelist in Acts xxi. 8, also Eph. iv. 11, 2 Tim. iv. 5) those who “occupied the first rank in the succession to the Apostles” in missionary work (Hist. Eccl. iii. 37, cf. v. 10). Yet the wider sense of “apostle” did not at once die out even in the third and fourth generations. It lingered on as applied to the Seventy—by Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement and Origen—and even to Clement of Rome, by Clem. Alex. (? as a “fellow-worker” of Paul, Phil. iv. 3); while the adjective “apostolic” was applied to men like Polycarp (in his contemporary Acts of Martyrdom) and the Phrygian, Alexander, martyred at Lyons in A.D. 177 (Eus. v. 1), who was “not without share of apostolic charisma.”
The authority attaching to apostles was essentially spiritual in character and in the conditions of its exercise. Anything like autocracy among his followers was alien to Jesus’s own teaching (Matt, xxiii. 6-11). All Christians were “brethren,” and the basis of pre-eminence among them was relative ability for service. But the personal relation of the original Palestinian apostles to Jesus himself as Master gave them a unique fitness as authorized witnesses, from which flowed naturally, by sheer spiritual influence, such special forms of authority as they came gradually to exercise in the early Church. “There is no trace in Scripture of a formal commission of authority for government from Christ Himself” (Hort, Chr. Eccl. p. 84) given to apostles, save as representing the brethren in their collective action. Even the “resolutions” (δόγματα) of the Jerusalem conference were not set forth by the apostles present simply in their own name, nor as ipso facto binding on the conscience of the Antiochene Church. They expressed “a claim to deference rather than a right to be obeyed” (Hort, op. cit. 81-85). Such was the kind of authority attaching to apostles, whether collectively or individually. It was not a fixed notion, but varied in quantity and quality with the growing maturity of converts. This is how Paul, from whom we gather most on the point, conceives the matter. The exercise of his spiritual authority is not absolute, lest he “lord it over their faith”; consent of conscience or of “faith” is ever requisite (2 Cor. i. 24; cf. Rom. xiv. 23). But the principle was elastic in application, and would take more patriarchal forms in Palestine than in the Greek world. The case was essentially the same as on the various mission-fields to-day, where the position of the “missionary” is at first one of great spiritual initiative and authority, limited only by his own sense of the fitness of things, in the light of local usages. So the notion of formal or constitutional authority attaching to the apostolate, in its various senses, is an anachronism for the apostolic age. The tendency, however, was for their authority to be conceived more and more on formal lines, and, particularly after their deaths, as absolute.
The authority attaching to apostles as writers, which led gradually to the formation of a New Testament Canon—“the Apostles” side by side with “the Books” of the Old Testament (so 2 Clement xiv., c. A.D. 120–140)—is a subject by itself (see Bible).
This change of conception helped to further the notion of a certain devolution of apostolic powers to successors constituted by act of ordination. The earliest idea of an apostolical succession meant simply the re-emergence in others of the apostolic spirit of missionary enthusiasm. “The first rank in the succession of the apostles” consisted of men eminent as disciples of theirs, and so fitted to continue their labours (Euseb. iii. 37); and even under Commodus (A.D. 180–193) there were “evangelists of the word” possessed of “inspired zeal to emulate apostles” (v. 10). Such were perhaps the “apostles” of the Didachē. Of the notion of apostolic succession in ministerial grace conferred by ordination, there is little or no trace before Irenaeus. The famous passage in Clement of Rome (xliv. 2) refers simply to the succession of one set of men to another in an office of apostolic institution. The grace that makes Polycarp “an apostolic and prophetic teacher” (Mart. Polyc. 16) is peculiar to him personally. But Irenaeus holds, apparently on a priori grounds, that “elders” who stand in orderly succession to the apostolic founders of the true tradition in the churches, have, “along with the succession of oversight,” also an “assured gift of (insight into) truth” by the Father’s good pleasure (“cum episcopatus successione charisma veritatis certum secundum placitum Patris acceperunt”), in contrast to heretics who wilfully stand outside this approved line of transmission (adv. Haer. iv. 26. 2). So far, indeed, the succession is not limited to the monarchical episcopate as distinct from the presbyteral order to which it belonged (cf. “presbyterii ordo, principalis consessio” in the same context, and see iii. 14. 2), though the bishops of apostolic churches, as capable of being traced individually (iii. 3. 1), are specially appealed to as witnesses (cf. iv. 33. 8, v. 19. 2)—as earlier by Hegesippus (Euseb. iv. 22). Nor is there mention of sacerdotal grace attaching to the succession in apostolic truth. But once the idea of supernatural grace going along with office as such (of which we have already a trace in the Ignatian bishop, though without the notion of actual apostolic succession) arose in connexion with successio ab apostolis, the full development of the doctrine was but a matter of time.
- By analogy, that is; for the wider sense of “apostle” in the Apostolic age need not be identical with a sub-apostolic use of the term (see below, 4 fin.).
- The tendency is already visible in the Lucan writings. An anologous process is seen in the use of “disciple,” applicable in the apostolic age to Christians at large, but in the course of the sub-apostolic age restricted to personal “disciples of the Lord” or to martyrs (Papias in Eus. iii. 39, cf. Ignatius, Ad Eph. i. 2).
- In the Edessene legend of Abgar, in Eus. i. 12, we read that “Judas, who is also Thomas, sent Thaddaeus as apostle—one of the Seventy,” where simply an authoritative envoy of Jesus seems intended. For traces of the wider sense of “apostle” in Gnostic, Marcionite and Montanist circles, see Monnier (as below).
- The above is substantially the view taken by J. B. Lightfoot in his essay on “The Christian Ministry” (Comm. on Philippians, 6th ed., pp. 239, 252 f.), and by T. M. Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry (1902), pp. 224-228, 278 ff. Even C. Gore, The Church and the Ministry (1889), pp. 119 ff., while inferring a sacerdotal element in Irenaeus’s conception of the episcopate, says: “But it is mainly as preserving the catholic traditions that Irenaeus regards the apostolic succession” (p. 120).
- See Lightfoot’s essay for Cyprian’s contribution, as also for that of the Clementines, which fix on the twofold position of James at Jerusalem, as apostle and bishop, as bearing on apostolic succession in the episcopate.