12 Disciples of Jesus: Alleged Contradictions Debunked

12 Disciples of Jesus: Alleged Contradictions Debunked December 11, 2018

This is a favorite argument of atheists and skeptics, who relish opportunities to show how the Bible is so “obviously” contradictory and how Christians are such gullible fools for not seeing that this is the case: supposedly so clearly and often. But, as usual, the truth of the matter is not nearly as simple as the atheist would love it to be. Bible scholars have studied the question (as all matters in Bible interpretation) inside and out, up and down, every which way. It’s not a “slam dunk” that the lists of disciples are contradictory.

My worthy debate opponent (former Christian) “DagoodS” (words in blue) is the latest in this venerable atheist tradition of Bible-bashing. He has a grand old time playing with the names and poking fun at Christians, in his article, Contrary to Popular Opinion. First, he (give him some credit for cleverness) works out an ingenious way to dismiss whatever the Christian says in reply (no doubt, he will utilize it for this very response).

Basically, he wants to have his cake and eat it, too. If we resolve an alleged contradiction, he says it doesn’t matter, because it is just playing games. If there is no contradiction, it doesn’t matter, either, because (now I talk about very common atheist background assumptions) there are so many others in the Bible, anyway (so they assume before proving them) that it is inconsequential. Who cares, after all, if someone patches one hole in a bucket that has 1000 holes in it?

It’s like Freudian psychology: if you tell the Freudian psychologist (who has a prior suspicion) that you’re not nuts, or that your life wasn’t doomed by a rough potty-training at age two, he’ll say that this is part of the malady: denial and self-delusion. If you agree that you are, then he is happy that he can make lots of money having 35 hour-long sessions where you lay on a couch and do most of the talking and prove to his satisfaction that you are nuts.

It also reminds me of the Salem Witch Trials: someone was accused of witchcraft. They could either confess and be executed, or they could deny it, in which case they would be put through ordeals where if they didn’t die, they were obviously guilty, and if they did, they weren’t. It was either guilt or death, and the first led to the second. Likewise, for DagoodS — always quick to spot biblical “errors” –, if you deny them, you’re deluded and a typical gullible, reason-challenged Christian; but if you accept them, then of course you’re sharp and intellectually honest, like he and his atheist comrades.

How convenient, huh? In simply disagreeing with our atheist overlords, we prove by that very act that we have a serious intellectual deficiency. It seems that about half of them are fully prepared to diagnose us as mentally-ill simply by virtue of being a Christian, before they even begin to discuss anything with us. How charitable and magnanimous of them . . .

I’ve noted this myself in my various discussions with him about his imaginary, dreamt-up Bible contradictions. I’ll resolve them (I think, quite satisfactorily) or show that he hasn’t proven that a contradiction is beyond any doubt (which is enough to spare a man from being found guilty at a trial), and he’ll simply ignore my replies or engage in obfuscation, and move on to present another set of alleged biblical whoppers. It’s always the same with this sort of atheist (or Muslim apologist, or liberal Christian, who play the same games): resolve one “problem” they come up with and they’re more than happy to dismiss your answer and regurgitate 1001 more tired, long-since-answered “objections” and “difficulties.” He writes, inexplicably:

A common defense to the claim of contradictions within the Bible is to provide a possible resolution. As long as it is logically feasible, it is felt that this is a defeater for a claim that a contradiction exists. However, the method itself is flawed, and must be abandoned.

Really? Let’s see how this works: a claim of contradiction is made and the Christian shows that, in fact, it is not a logical contradiction (i.e., he provides a successful “defeater”). But somehow this is a flawed method. Huh??!! What am I missing? It’s either a contradiction or not. If indeed it is, it is simple enough to show. DagoodS asks:

[I]f there WAS a contradiction within the Bible – how would you know? 

It’s too embarrassing to everyone’s intelligence to have to demonstrate what a formal contradiction is. Readers who know what a true contradiction entails don’t need to be shown presently. Those who don’t (including, remarkably enough, our esteemed atheist friend) won’t get anything out of such an exercise (or, perhaps, this entire paper), anyway. Either way, it’s a waste of time. On the other hand, if there is no contradiction, then there is no “biblical problem” to be dealt with. It is shown to be a non-issue.

Oftentimes, what we find in atheist “exegesis” is selectively presented information, or else sheer ignorance of various factors (cross-referencing, language issues, illogical thinking brought on by skeptical bias, the rush to show an error when there is none, exaggeration of the difficulty, repeating and parroting of timeworn atheist fables and legends and old wives’ tales about Christian error without examining the reasoning and/or facts oneself, or reading counter-replies, etc.).

In one forum, where this discussion of “names of disciples / how many disciples?” took place [link now defunct], the mistakes of the skeptic provide a classic example of what I describe above. “kwinters” makes elementary errors (and it’s always fun to highlight the skeptic’s ignorance, seeing that his goal was to prove how ignorant Christians are). He cites one Paul Tobin, thusly:

The apologists had tried to reconcile these discrepancies. First they claimed that Bartholomew is actually bar Talmai (son of Talmai) and that his name is Nathanael. . . . we do not know if Bartholomew is Bar Talmai, . . .

Now, this is a very simple matter of language, as “Symantix” had to embarrassingly note:

[T]he author you quoted who questions the nature and meaning of Bartholomew is uninformed. The very nature of the Greek name Bartholomaios (transliteration), means a man who is the son of Tholomaios, or Tolomaios, since we probably have a consonantal ellipsis present. This terminology wasn’t used as loosely back then as it is today; a man today might have a last name of “Hendrickson”, and that doesn’t mean that he’s the son of Hendrick (whether he is even descended from someone by that name is questionable these days). But back then that’s exactly what it meant. And that’s precisely what this name means.

If that weren’t bad enough, kwinters decides to get himself into deeper waters:

I’ve provided the contradictions in the Gospels.

You’ve asserted they used multiple names without providing any evidence at all that this is even possible. You have the burden to prove your explanation is valid, not merely plausible.

If, as you say “the writers of the gospels save Luke, referred to some of the apostles by different names” show me where in the Gospels they refer to the same person using different names. You have provided no evidence to support that they did this.

. . . I could go through the other lists, but I have already seen there’s no example of what you propose. There are just contradictions.

And the Christians (who did a great job) replied:

Symantix: Many Jews had three names, one given at birth, one given on the eighth day of their life, and another given them under Roman citizenship . . . It is not unreasonable to assume that all of the apostles had two or more names; this was very common in that day. It’s even common in this day and age. I myself have two names aside from my last name. Many people call me by one name, and many people call me by the other.

chadn737: I gladly take this challenge.

Under the Roman empire it was very common practice for a person to possess several names. Surnames, as we possess today where not common practice, so other methods of distinguishing people were needed.

For example the Bible clearly states that two of the disciples where named Simon, but one was called Peter by Jesus and the other was named Simon the Canane. The name Canane is what is called a cognomen or personal nickname used to distinguish one person of the same name from another. Cognomen where commonly associated with some aspect of the person, such as occupation, physical characteristics, etc. Eventually these Cognomen evolved into family names. The Greeks (from which the biblical translations would come from) used a similar system of by-names or naming a person according to some attribute. Most people in ancient times therefore had an average of three names: a given name, a family or inherited name like “son of”, and a cognomen or by-name that was attributed to some characteristic of that person.

There are two people listed by the name of Judas. It would be necessary to distinguish one from the other, especially after Judas Iscariot’s betrayal. Thadaeus, which translated from Greek means “breast”, has been used by the Greeks in reference to people of large size. And it is likely used to describe Judas in such a manner.

kwinters persists:

Fine, but we’re talking about Jews, not Romans.

chadn737 replied:

In case you were unaware, the Jews where a part of the Roman empire and Roman culture ruled the day. The practices that descibed where not limited to the Romans, but to all in the empire, being used by the Greeks, Arabs, Egyptians, and yes even the Jews.

My explanation does make sense. You mistake cognomens and by-names as simple nicknames, they are not. They where an essential defining characteristic of the ancient world, as essential as your middle and last name is to you. Centuries later it was these cognomens and by-names that evolved into the family names we have today.

This ignorance of the ancient Hebrew practice of multiple names leads DagoodS to convoluted “solutions” equally as bad, if not worse, than what Christians supposedly come up with. Look at how he explains Matthew / Levi, for example:

Mark then introduces us to, “Levi, son of Alphaeus.” A tax collector. (Mark 2:14-15) . . . Levi the tax collector was also qualified as “son of Alphaeus.” Jesus has a penchant for changing names – the simplest resolution is that he must have changed Levi’s name to “James” bringing us back to the correct 12. Problem solved.

Or is it?

See, Matthew also has a tax collector. Who invited Jesus to eat at the tax collector’s house. Only Matthew doesn’t name this taxman “Levi” but rather calls him “Matthew.” (Matthew 9:9) Apparently in Mark’s list of Mark 3:16-19, the author of Matthew chose the name “Matthew” as being the one Jesus changed “Levi” to. 

In order to avoid confusion, Matthew leaves off “son of Alphaes” when referring to Matthew. Humorously, in case we were so thick to miss the connection, when listing the disciples in Matthew 10:2-4, the author calls him “Matthew the tax collector,” just to make sure we knew which one was the one referred to as “Levi” in Mark . . . It would appear that “Levi” could be anybody’s name!

All this nonsense, involving Jesus as one Who allegedly arbitrarily changes people’s names (including changing Levi to James), rather than to simply grasp the historical, indisputable fact that the Jews could be referred to by more than one name. In warring against overly-complicated solutions, DagoodS falls into that which he belittles: he starts inventing implausible scenarios and assumes with no evidence that they make more sense than far more straightforward and plausible Christian solutions. One can’t fail to appreciate the high comedy and irony of it all.

It’s really not that complicated. In our culture today, we do the same thing with names. I could be called “Dave” or “[Mr.] Armstrong.” That’s two different names for the same person. I could also have a common nickname. Anti-Catholic apologists, for example, have taken to habitually calling me “DA”. My father, Graham’s nickname is “Army.” So he could be called by three different names, interchangeably (not to mention, a full name also, which would be a fourth option).

To bring it back to our topic, then, we can, fairly easily and uncontroversially, determine by deductive logic that Matthew and Levi are the same person:

1) Matthew is described as a “tax-collector” (Mt 10:3) and being “at the tax-office” (Mt 9:9).

2) In the parallel accounts of Mark and Luke this tax-collector called from his office is referred to as Levi.

3) Jesus attends dinner with many tax-collectors and sinners (Mt 9:10; Mk 2:15).

4) Luke 5:29 adds that “Levi made him a great feast in his own house.”‘

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to connect the dots. It is only the uninformed denial that Jews could have more than one name that would see any difficulty in this. There could be four accounts of something my father did. One might call him Graham, one might call him “Army” (we see Jesus giving a nickname or “surname” to James and John: “Boanerges, that is, sons of thunder” – Mark 3:17; cf. Lk 9:54), another “Mr. Armstrong”, and a fourth, “that Armstrong guy from Detroit and originally from Canada, who worked at Ford Motor Company” (since in the Bible people can be identified both from where they come from and by what they do). A fifth choice is “Graham Armstrong.”

[note, by contrast, the completely implausible “theory” of the nickname, Boanerges, from the atheist Frank R. Zindler [link now defunct]:

The characters James and John, however, may have astrological meaning. The name Zebedee resembles the Old Babylonian Zalbatanu, the equivalent of Jupiter “the Thunderer,” making it only reasonable that James and John would be the sons of thunder.

Right; and they claim that we are the ones who invent implausible, fanciful fictions? Later, he goes on to claim that the twelve disciples are highly related to the twelve signs of the Zodiac.]

That is five different, completely acceptable, identifiable names for the same person. Yet if anything of the sort happens in the Bible, the atheist is quick to shout “contradiction.” It’s utterly asinine! Thus, the Christian who takes the biblical accounts seriously and doesn’t set out to mock and destroy them, shows himself far more reasonable and sensible than the atheist who plays games such as this, with the goal of belittling and ridiculing the Bible and Christians alike. The only one who winds up looking silly (i.e., if someone takes the time of showing how shallow and fallacious their reasoning is) is the atheist or otherwise skeptical person.

Can our friend come up with anything more earth-shakingly compelling than this? He tries playing around with the different lists, and at length concludes:

It would seem we must smash “Levi” back to “Matthew” and “Thaddeus” back to “Judas” and we have a match.

A “match,” huh? Whaddya know! Matthew / Levi has been sufficiently explained, I think, for most fair-minded, reasonable people without an ax to grind against the Bible.

Let’s look at the second example (Thaddeus / Judas). It was seen above that a second Jude would have likely been called some sort of surname to distinguish him from Judas Iscariot (since the Gospels were written after the betrayal of Judas). Jude or Judas was a very common name as it was, and so we would expect (even without the betrayal) a second name for purposes of identification (or simply because there were two with the same first name in one small group).

That seems fairly likely; therefore, this second Judas may have been called by a surname.

When the lists of disciples are compared, Thaddeus (Mt 10:3; Mk 3:18) corresponds, by a process of elimination, to the second Jude (Lk 6:16; Jn 14:22; Acts 1:13; possibly – not necessarily – the same person mentioned in Mt 13:55; Mk 6:3). This isn’t an absolute proof (as the atheist almost invariably demands, and usually most unreasonably or with a double standard) of the equation of the two, but it is not implausible at all, given the prevalence of multiple names in ancient Hebrew culture.

Another factor (not brought up by DagoodS) was that a variant reading of Thaddeus in Matthew 10:3 is Lebbaeus (KJV: “Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddeus”). Frank R. Zindler of the American Atheists has a field day plumbing the treasures here:

Even though both Matthew and Luke are known to have copied the narrative framework of Mark’s gospel, it is interesting to note that their lists of disciples (or apostles) do not match Mark’s exactly. The simple Thaddaeus of Mark is Lebbaeus in Matthew. Attempts at harmonizing this discrepancy resulted in later manuscripts of Matthew listing Lebbaeus-Thaddaeus – a change that was transported back to later manuscripts of Mark as well. I believe that harmonizing needs such as this arise most commonly when legend or fiction is involved. This opinion is reinforced by the fact that both Lebbaeus and Thaddaeus are missing in Luke, who instead has a mysterious Judas the brother of James. And of course Lebbaeus, Thaddaeus, Judas the brother of James, and James all four are missing in the gospel of John!

Wow! How can we ignorant Christians ever recover from that??!! The KJV manuscripts are considered as outdated by the vast majority of biblical scholars today, but we see, in any event, that the two are equated in the variant text (the KJV reading), and the KJV uses Thaddeus in the parallel list Mark 3:18. The similarity in both is made more plain when it is understood that Thaddeus is derived from the Aramaic tadda, or breast, while Lebbaeus comes from the Hebrew leb, or heart. (Aramaic being the language actually spoken in first-century Palestine, and a development of Hebrew). Much ado about nothing . . .

As another note in passing, other skeptics have tried to make hay of the “contradiction” of Simon the Cananaean of Matthew 10:4 and Mark 3:18, compared with Simon who was called the Zealot of Luke 3:15. But Cananaean (from the Greek Kananaios, in turn from Hebrew quannai or Aramaic quanan) is simply the equivalent term for zealot (Gk., Zelotes). Note: this is a different word than Canaanite (Kananites) which is derived from the Hebrew Kena’an.

That seems to clear up the so-called “contradictions” thus far. Unless the atheist can “prove” that more than one name couldn’t have been used for one person, then he really hasn’t conclusively proved contradiction or discrepancy in the lists of disciples. But wait! DagoodS wouldn’t be worth his salt as an atheist and biblical skeptic if he didn’t bring up Nathanael from the book of John:

Good old Gospel of John throws a wrench in the works. . . . who is Nathanael? (John 1:49, 21:1) Here is a disciple that does not correlate with anyone in any other Gospel! You could plug his name in with anybody – may I recommend Bartholomew? His name is apparently open for some “double-naming.”

Yes; thanks for the solution! Why would anyone equate Nathanael (Jn 1:45-49; 21:2) with Bartholomew? What connection do the two have? Is this more Christian special pleading and sophistry and using any desperate explanation, no matter how week, to shore up biblical inspiration and accuracy, or does it actually make any sense, from a reasoned perspective? Well, let’s see, shall we?

We’ve already seen above how Bartholomew is a surname, meaning “son of Tolmai” (cf. Bar-Jesus: Acts 13:6). It’s a patronymic (meaning, literally “name of the father”). Of this there can be little question; it’s the nature of the linguistics. That already explains a lot, because it could simply be the surname of Nathanael (the latter being a first name). In fact, we see Jesus doing this exact thing in referring to Peter, whose original name was Simon; he was given a new name or nickname by Jesus: Peter, or Rock):

Matthew 16:17 Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah!

For (no doubt) the atheists and biblical skeptics who have a hard time comprehending the Bible, God made sure to have Jesus say this in “English” elsewhere:

John 1:42 “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter).

This is delightful, because it shows all the different languages in play and how names were used. John is the Greek form of the Hebrew Jona or Jonah (remember, the Gospel manuscripts are in Greek; some believe Matthew was originally in Hebrew or Aramaic; but in any event, specifically directed towards Jews; hence his use of bar). Cephas is the Aramaic equivalent of rockPeter is the Greek word. The author, writing in Greek, translates Cephas for the Greek reader. The fact, therefore, of Bartholomew being a surname, is abundantly clear.

But how does one tie it together with Nathanael? Again, it is simple deduction and comparison of texts (something the atheist — for some inexplicable reason — seems to have great difficulty doing, while they are great at surmising Hebrew-Babylonian or Jewish-astrological affinities all over the place).

Bartholomew is always listed after Philip (Mt 10:3; Mk 3:18; Luke 6:14) or shortly thereafter (Acts 1:13; Thomas in-between), many biblical scholars believe that he is the same as Nathanael, because the latter is said to have been led to Jesus by Philip (Jn 1:45-51; cf. 2:12). Also, mutual exclusivity lends itself to the conclusion that the same person is being talked about: Nathanael is never mentioned in the synoptic Gospels and Bartholomew isn’t mentioned in the Gospel of John. If they both appeared in one list, then obviously one could not argue that the two names may be referring to one person. Most of the other disciples have two names as well.

The argument from affinity in lists of disciples is not at all frivolous or altogether weak, as it might first appear (especially to the skeptic). There is strong internal evidence that these lists were specifically ordered to show certain things. For example, Judas Iscariot is invariably listed last: cf. Mt 10:4, Mk 3:19; Lk 6:16.; whereas Simon Peter (considered the leader of the disciples by most scholars) is always mentioned first (Matthew even uses the word “first”).

Peter, James, and John are presented as a sort of “inner circle” among the twelve disciples, and Peter is again always listed first when these three are mentioned: Mt 17:1; 26:37,40; Mk 5:37; 14:37. Half the time John is mentioned, Peter is also. Let’s look at the lists of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and see if other patterns can be detected:

Matthew 10:2-4 (“twelve”: 10:1-2):

Simon, who is called Peter [1]
Andrew his brother [2]
James the son of Zebedee [3]
John his [James’] brother [4]
Philip [5]
Bartholomew [6]
Thomas [7]
Matthew the tax collector [8]
James the Son of Alphaeus [9]
Thaddeus [10]
Simon the Cananaean [11]
Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him [12].

Mark 3:16-19 (“twelve”: 3:14):

Simon, whom he surnamed Peter [1]
James the son of Zebedee [2]
John the brother of James [3]
Andrew [4]
Philip [5]
Bartholomew [6]
Matthew [7]
Thomas [8]
James the son of Alphaeus [9]
Thaddaeus [10]
Simon the Cananaean [11]
Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him [12]

Luke 6:14-16 (“twelve”: 6:13):

Simon, whom he named Peter [1]
Andrew his brother [2]
James [3]
John [4]
Philip [5]
Bartholomew [6]
Matthew [7]
Thomas [8]
James the son of Alphaeus [9]
Simon who was called the Zealot [10]
Judas the son of James [11]
Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor [12]

Patterns (A = Matthew / B = Mark / C = Luke):

1) Peter first: ABC
2) Judas Iscariot last: ABC
3) Simon and Andrew (brothers) listed next to each other: AC

4) James and John (brothers) together: ABC
5) Philip and Bartholomew together: ABC
6) Philip and Bartholomew listed 5th and 6th: ABC
7) James and John listed 3rd and 4th : AC, and 2nd and 3rd: B
8) Matthew and Thomas together: ABC
9) Matthew and Thomas listed 7th and 8th: BC; order reversed (Thomas, Matthew): A
10) James listed 9th: ABC
11) James and Thaddeus listed together, 9th and 10th: AB
12) Assuming for the sake of argument that the second Judas = Thaddeus, then this person and Simon the Zealot or Cananaean appear together 10th and 11th: ABC
13) Again, making the same assumption, James, Simon, and Judas/Thaddeus appear 9th through 11th: ABC
14) The conjunction of Andrew-James-John-Philip-Bartholomew occurs in the 2nd-6th position: ABC (identical order in AC)

Repetitious patterns like these make it more plausible (or at least possible) that Nathanael = Bartholomew, since both are presented as being associated with Philip, the names are used with mutual exclusivity in the synoptic Gospels and John, and since Bartholomew is indisputably a surname, and every surname has a first name to go with it. The atheist may scoff and smirk at this attempted explanation but what can we say? There is no knock-down argument against it, and it makes perfect sense of the data, as a proposed explanation. In any event, no definitive contradiction in these lists has been proven.

DagoodS has some more fun in his conclusion:

Using the method of “any possible explanation” we have two readily available resolutions:

1) Either individuals had different names, and one author called them by one name, another author by their other name, 

Bingo! Even the unplugged clock is right twice a day . . .


2) Different individuals were part of the Twelve, and depending on the moment, a different set was listed. (Remember, apparently members of the Twelve were replaceable Acts 1:26). 

Either answer removes any contradiction, correct? 

Assume, for a moment, there really was a contradiction. That the author of the Gospel of John was completely incorrect that Nathanael was ever a disciple. By using this method, 1900 years later, we obtain the result: “No contradiction.”

Assume, for a moment, there was not a contradiction. That the author of the Gospel of John utilized Bartholomew’s middle name of “Nathanael.” By using this method, 1900 years later, we obtain the result: “No contradiction.”

Can you see how the method, with or without an actual contradiction, provides the exact same test results? That is why this system is ineffective for determination of a contradiction and must be abandoned.

Hardly. What is wrongheaded here is the speculation about a “contradiction” when one hasn’t been established. One can only determine whether an actual contradiction exists by looking at the data we do have, not speculating. The fact remains that there is not enough information on this matter to establish an indisputable contradiction. Nor is there unequivocal proof that there is not (strictly on logical grounds). It’s true that the Nathanael — Bartholomew matter could theoretically be a contradiction, and John was simply incorrect (or right, and the synoptic writers were all wrong).

In Bible interpretation, however (as opposed to skeptical Bible butchery) the goal is to try to approach the Bible fairly, giving the benefit of the doubt that there exists some explanation, where a “difficulty” (real or imagined) arises. In this instance, it has been shown that there are at least plausible, reasonable connections between Nathanael and Bartholomew. For the Christian and the Bible student (if they are different), this is enough to maintain that it is a reasonable supposition to equate the two. For the skeptic, it lacks absolute proof, so they immediately conclude that it is either a contradiction, or else it raises enough doubt on the veracity of the Gospel writers that we can be cynical of other of their presented facts.

One’s conclusions, then, often depend largely upon their suppositions coming into any particular controversial question. The four Gospel writers agree that there were twelve disciples. And so the fair-minded interpreter will try (accepting that unanimous agreement) to interpret the lists of disciples in a way that fits into this more certain knowledge. I have presented one particular solution to the questions raised. Readers may judge it for themselves.


(originally 12-9-06)

Photo credit: The Exhortation to the Apostles, by James Tissot (1836-1902) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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