What’s In a Name? The Names of the Disciples

Trivial Yet Enlightening

About a year ago I came across an interesting fact about the names of the disciples. Later, while reading Lydia McGrew's book Hidden in Plain View, I came across a couple more. So, I decided to put them all together in one post.

What I like about this information is that it is both trivial - it really isn't important to becoming a better person or Christian - and yet enlightening if you have any doubts about the truthfulness of the Gospels. I find it exciting to learn about little details in scripture that are powerful indicators of the truth of God's Word.

All three of these details are found in the names of the disciples.

The Pairs of Names

This one I came across in the book Hidden in Plain View. In Matthew 10:2-4 the disciples are listed in pairs. Why?

In Mark 6:7 we learn that Jesus sent out the disciples in pairs. It is very possible that this pairing of the disciples is why Matthew wrote them down in this way. Now this is by no way a slam-dunk fact, but it does seem to fit together in an unexpected and satisfactory way. Wouldn't it be natural, for Matthew, one of the disciples, to remember the names in these pairs?

The Pairs of Names

Pairing is a common tool used when teaching and so it would not be unusual for Jesus to have paired the disciples up multiple times as part of their training. Also the time spent together would very likely have caused the paired disciples to become closer. If the disciples tended to hang out in pairs then it would have been very natural for Matthew to remember them that way.

Certainly, it is possible that the pairing was just used by the author as an easy way to remember the names, but this explanation "fits" so much better. OK. I admit this one is a bit of a stretch, but certainly a good possible explanation for the pairs. The next detail is a little stronger, though, and the last, I think, is very powerful.

Thaddaeus or Judas?

This one is interesting because it is often used as a criticism of the Gospels. Both this and the next fact I found in an article by Erik Manning. Why does Luke's lists of the disciples have a different name than Matthew's Mark's list? Matthew and Mark list a person named "Thaddaeus" and Luke replaces this name with "Judas the son of James".

How could the gospel writers be so confused as to not even get the names of the disciples correct?

But wait ... what if Judas and Thaddaeus are the same person? You may be thinking that this is just grasping at straws in order to avoid the obvious problem, but actually there are some very good reasons to think this is true.

First, "Judas" was a very common name in Israel at the time of the disciples. This is an important point that we will return to in the next section. But for now, notice that the name was common enough that it needed an extra identifier - "the son of James". So, it is certainly possible that Judas had a nickname, especially since we know in the disciples there was a second Judas, with the identifier "Iscariot".

Second, why assume the authors are in error? It seems odd for the author of Luke, which is almost universally thought to have been written after Matthew and Mark, to have made such an amateurish error. This is even stranger when we recognize that almost all scholars agree Luke used sections from Matthew and Mark when writing his book. Are we to assume Luke was too dumb to notice that he had the wrong name in his list? Wouldn't it make more sense if it was just another name for the same person?

Third, who would want to be called "Judas" after the betrayal of Christ? As Erik Manning mentions in his article, who names their baby "Adolf"? Even to this day it is rare to meet a "Judas" or an "Adolf". Especially among Christians it would have made total sense to go by a different name after the betrayal. So it is more than reasonable to assume that two of the Gospels use his nickname and Luke, the historian, refers to his real name.

So, rather than being a problem, the use of two names for "Judas" seems rather to be expected or, at the very least, easy to explain.

The Nicknames

Did you know there is a good reason why some of the disciples have nicknames and special identifiers?

Richard Bauckham researched names found in documents from Israel at the time of Christ and came up with a list of the most common names. If we take the names of the disciples and list them in order of their popularity ranking we find something interesting.

SimonThe Zealot1
JudasSon of James/Thaddaeus4
JohnSon of Zebedee5
MatthewThe Tax Collector9
JamesSon of Zebedee11
JamesSon of Alphaeus11

The Nicknames

Notice anything interesting? All of the popular names have identifiers!

When I was in college I went on a missions trip to Venezuela and they gave us all Spanish language names. The problem is that we had two people named "Jerry" in our team. The one was tall and the other was me (5'8"-ish). So we ended up with the names Geraldo for the tall Jerry and I was nicknamed Geraldito ("little Jerry"). A name I really hated 🙁

The point, besides my fragile ego, is that we often use nicknames or some type of identifier to distinguish between two people with the same name. "What difference does it make?" you may ask. This list is very strong support for the historical authenticity of the Gospels for at least two reasons:

  1. Most of the names are popular names from Israel at the time of Christ. It would be almost impossible for someone not living in the time and place of the Gospels to come up with names that were historically accurate.
  2. The identifiers are used only with names that are popular. So, not only did the writers use historically accurate names, but they also added identifiers to any name that might easily be confused with someone else.

What's in a name? A lot!

The names of the disciples have given us three reasons to trust the Gospel accounts as accurate and true.

  1. The pairing of the disciples names in Matthew fits perfectly with Jesus' pairing of the disciples in Mark. An undesigned coincidence that hints to the truthfulness of both accounts.
  2. The use of a nickname, "Thaddaeus", for Judas, the son of James, makes sense since there were two men named "Judas" in the disciples. Plus it would be reasonable to expect someone with the name "Judas" to use a different name after the betrayal.
  3. The disciples who have identifiers after their names fits perfectly with a list of the most commonly used names in Jerusalem at the time of Christ.

The gospels are not jumbled manuscripts, of confused memories, written down long after the facts. They are accurate and true memoirs of eyewitnesses and their associates.

By Dr. Jerry Wyrick, President, Worship Arts Conservatory

Posted in General Worship and tagged .