Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

Under this title it may be sufficient to supply brief and essential information,

I. on the name "Apostle";
II. on its various meanings;
III. on the origin of the Apostolate;
IV. on the office of the Apostles and the conditions required in them;
V. on the authority and the prerogatives of the Apostles;
VI. on the relation of the Apostolate to the office of bishop;
VII. on the origin of the feasts of the Apostles.

The reader will find at the end of this article various titles of other articles which contain supplementary information on subjects connected with the Apostles.

I. THE NAME

The word "Apostle", from the Greek apostello "to send forth", "to dispatch", has etymologically a very general sense. Apostolos (Apostle) means one who is sent forth, dispatched--in other words, who is entrusted with a mission, rather, a foreign mission. It has, however, a stronger sense than the word messenger , and means as much as a delegate . In the classical writers the word is not frequent. In the Greek version of the Old Testament it occurs once, in 1 Kings 14:6 (cf. 1 Kings 12:24 ). In the New Testament, on the contrary. it occurs, according to Bruder's Concordance, about eighty times, and denotes often not all the disciples of the Lord, but some of them specially called. It is obvious that our Lord, who spoke an Aramaic dialect, gave to some of his disciples an Aramaic title, the Greek equivalent of which was "Apostle". It seems to us that there is no reasonable doubt about the Aramaic word being seliah , by which also the later Jews, and probably already the Jews before Christ, denoted "those who were despatched from the mother city by the rulers of the race on any foreign mission, especially such as were charged with collecting the tribute paid to the temple service" (Lightfoot, "Galatians", London, 1896, p. 93). The word apostle would be an exact rendering of the root of the word seliah ,= apostello .

II. VARIOUS MEANINGS

It is at once evident that in a Christian sense, everyone who had received a mission from God, or Christ, to man could be called "Apostle". In fact, however, it was reserved to those of the disciples who received this title from Christ. At the same time, like other honourable titles, it was occasionally applied to those who in some way realized the fundamental idea of the name. The word also has various meanings.

  • The name Apostle denotes principally one of the twelve disciples who, on a solemn occasion, were called by Christ to a special mission. In the Gospels, however, those disciples are often designated by the expressions of mathetai (the disciples ) or dodeka (the Twelve) and, after the treason and death of Judas, even of hendeka (the Eleven). In the Synoptics the name Apostle occurs but seldom with this meaning; only once in Matthew and Mark. But in other books of the New Testament, chiefly in the Epistles of St. Paul and in the Acts, this use of the word is current. Saul of Tarsus, being miraculously converted, and called to preach the Gospel to the heathens, claimed with much insistency this title and its rights.
  • In the Epistle to the Hebrews (iii, 1) the name is applied even to Christ, in the original meaning of a delegate sent from God to preach revealed truth to the world.
  • The word Apostle has also in the New Testament a larger meaning, and denotes some inferior disciples who, under the direction of the Apostles, preached the Gospel, or contributed to its diffusion; thus Barnabas ( Acts 14:4, 14 ), probably Andronicus and Junias ( Romans 16:7 ), Epaphroditus (Phil., ii, 25), two unknown Christians who were delegated for the collection in Corinth ( 2 Corinthians 7:23 ). We know not why the honourable name of Apostle is not given to such illustrious missionaries as Timothy, Titus, and others who would equally merit it.
There are some passages in which the extension of the word Apostle is doubtful, as Luke, xi, 49; John, xiii, 16; II Cor., 13; I Thes., ii, 7; Ephes., iii, 5; Jude, 17, and perhaps the well-known expression "Apostles and Prophets ". Even in an ironical meaning the word occurs ( 2 Corinthians 11:5 ; 12:11 ) to denote pseudo-apostles. There is but little to add on the use of the word in the old Christian literature. The first and third meanings are the only ones which occur frequently, and even in the oldest literature the larger meaning is seldom found.

III. ORIGIN OF THE APOSTOLATE

The Gospels point out how, from the beginning of his ministry, Jesus called to him some Jews, and by a very diligent instruction and formation made them his disciples. After some time, in the Galilean ministry, he selected twelve whom, as Mark (iii, 14) and Luke (vi, 13) say, "he also named Apostles." The origin of the Apostolate Iies therefore in a special vocation, a formal appointment of the Lord to a determined office, with connected authority and duties. The appointment of the twelve Apostles is given by the three Synoptic Gospels ( Mark 3:13-19 ; Matthew 10:1-4 ; Luke 6:12-16 ) nearly in the same words, so that the three narratives are literally dependent. Only on the immediately connected events is there some difference between them. It seems almost needless to outline and disprove rationalistic views on this topic. The holders of these views, at least some of them, contend that our Lord never appointed twelve Apostles, never thought of establishing disciples to help him in his ministry, and eventually to carry on his work. These opinions are only deductions from the rationalistic principles on the credibility of the Gospels, Christ's doctrine on the Kingdom of Heaven, and the eschatology of the Gospels. Here it may be sufficient to observe

  • that the very clear testimony of the three synoptic Gospels constitutes a strong historical argument, representing, as it does, a very old and widely spread tradition that cannot be erroneous ;
  • that the universally acknowledged authority of the Apostles, even in the most heated controversies, and from the first years after Christ's death (for instance in the Jewish controversies), as we read in the oldest Epistles of St. Paul and in the Acts, cannot be explained, or even be understood, unless we recognize some appointment of the Twelve by Jesus.

IV. OFFICE AND CONDITIONS OF THE APOSTOLATE

Two of the synoptic Gospels add to their account of the appointment of the Twelve brief statements on their office: Mark, iii, 14,15, "He appointed twelve to be with him and to send them to herald, and to have power to heal the illnesses and to cast out demons "; Matthew, x, 1, "He gave them power over unclean spirits so as to expel them, and to heal every disease and every illness". Luke where he relates the appointment of the Twelve, adds nothing on their office. Afterwards ( Mark 6:7-13 ; Matthew 10:5-15 ; Luke 9:1-5 ). Jesus sends the Twelve to preach the kingdom and to heal, and gives them very definite instructions. From all this it results that the Apostles are to be with Jesus and to aid Him by proclaiming the kingdom and by healing. However, this was not the whole extent of their office, and it is not difficult to understand that Jesus did not indicate to His Apostles the whole extent of their mission, while as yet they had such imperfect ideas of His own person and mission, and of the Messianic kingdom. The nature of the Apostolic mission is made still clearer by the sayings of Christ after His Resurrection. Here such passages as Matthew, xxviii, 19, 20; Luke, xxiv, 46-49; Acts, i, 8, 21-22 are fundamental. In the first of these texts we read, "Go ye therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you". The texts of Luke point to the same office of preaching and testifying (cf. Mark 16:16 ). The Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles written by the Apostles exhibit them in the constant exercise of this office. Everywhere the Apostle governs the disciples, preaches the doctrines of Jesus as an authentic witness, and administers the sacred rites. In order to fill such an office, it seems necessary to have been instructed by Jesus, to have seen the risen Lord. And these are, clearly, the conditions required by the Apostles in the candidate for the place of Judas Iscariot . "Of the men, therefore, who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John unto the day He was received up from us, of these must one become a witness with us of His Resurrection " ( Acts 1:21-22 ). This narrative, which seems to come from an Aramaic Palestinian source like many other details given in the earlier chapter of Acts, was ancient and cannot be set aside. It is further strengthened by an objection made to St.Paul: because he was called in an extraordinary way to the Apostolate, he was obliged often to vindicate his Apostolic authority and proclaim that he had seen the Lord ( 1 Corinthians 9:1 ). Instruction and appointment by Jesus were, therefore, the regular conditions for the Apostolate. By way of exception. an extraordinary vocation, as in the case of Paul, or a choice by the Apostolic College, as in the case of Matthias, could suffice. Such an extraordinarily called or elected Apostle could preach Christ's doctrine and the Resurrection of the Lord as an authoritative witness.

V. AUTHORITY AND PREROGATIVES OF THE APOSTLES

The authority of the Apostles proceeds from the office imposed upon them by Our Lord and is based on the very explicit sayings of Christ Himself. He will be with them all days to the end of ages ( Matthew 28:20 ), give a sanction to their preaching ( Mark 16:16 ), send them the "promise of the Father", "virtue from above" ( Luke 24:49 ). The Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of the New Testament show us the exercise of this authority. The Apostle makes laws ( Acts 15:29 ; 1 Corinthians 7:12 sq. ), teaches ( Acts 2:37 and following ), claims for his teaching that it should be received as the word of God ( 1 Thessalonians 2:13 ), punishes ( Acts 5:1-11 ; 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 ), administers the sacred rites ( Acts 6:1 sq. ; 16:33 ; 20:11 ), provides successors ( 2 Timothy 1:6 ; Acts 14:22 ). In the modern theological terms the Apostle, besides the power of order , has a general power of jurisdiction and magisterium (teaching) . The former embraces the power of making laws judging on religious matters, and enforcing obligations by means of suitable penalties. The latter includes the power of setting forth with authority Christ's doctrine. It is necessary to add here that an Apostle could receive new revealed truths in order to propose them to the Church. This, however, is something wholly personal to the Apostles. (See REVELATION; INSPIRATION.)

Catholic theologians rightly speak in their treatises of some personal prerogatives of the Apostles; a brief account of them may not be superfluous.

  • A first prerogative, not clearly inferred from the texts of the New Testament nor demonstrated by solid reasons, is their confirmation in grace. Most modern theologians admit that the Apostles received so abundant an infusion of grace that they could avoid every mortal fault and every fully deliberate venial sin.
  • Another personal prerogative is the universality of their jurisdiction. The words of the Gospel on Apostolic office are very general; for the most part, the Apostles preached and travelled as if they were not bound by territorial limits, as we read in the Acts and the Epistles. This did not hinder the Apostles from taking practical measures to properly organize the preaching of the Gospel in the various countries they visited.
  • Among these prerogatives is reckoned personal infallibility, of course in matters of faith and morals, and only when they taught and imposed some doctrine as obligatory. In other matters they could err, as Peter, in the question of practical intercourse with the converted heathens ; they might also accept certain current opinions, as Paul seems to have done with regard to the time of the Parousia, or Second Coming of the Lord. (See JESUS CHRIST.) It is not easy to find a stringent scripturistic demonstration for this prerogative, but reasonable arguments suggest it, e.g. the impossibility for all his hearers to verify and try the doctrine preached to them by an Apostle.
  • It is a more disputed question whether an Apostle writing on religious matters would have, merely by his Apostolic office, the prerogatives of an inspired author. This was asserted by the Catholic theologian, Dr. Paul Schanz of Tübingen (Apologie des Christenthums, II) and by some others, e.g. Joüon in "Etudes religieuses" (1904). Catholic theologians almost unanimously deny it, e.g. Father Pesch (De Inspiratione Sacrae Scripturae, 1906, pp. 611-634). (See INSPIRATION; NEW TESTAMENT.)

VI. APOSTOLATE AND EPISCOPATE

Since the authority with which the Lord endowed the Apostles was given them for the entire Church it is natural that this authority should endure after their death, in other words, pass to successors established by the Apostles. In the oldest Christian documents concerning the primitive Churches we find ministers established, some of them, at least, by the usual rite of the imposition of hands. They bear various names: priests ( presbyteroi , Acts 11:30 ; 14:22 ; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23 ; 16:4 ; 20:17 ; 21:18 ; 1 Timothy 5:17, 19 ; Titus 1:5 ); bishops ( episkopoi , Acts 20:28 ; Philippians 1:1 ; 1 Timothy 3:2 ; Titus 1:7 ); presidents ( proistamenoi , 1 Thessalonians 5:12 , Romans 12 , etc.); heads ( hegoumenoi , Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24 , etc.); shepherds ( poimenes , Ephesians 4:11 ); teachers ( didaskaloi , Acts 13:1 ; 1 Corinthians 12:28 sq. etc.); prophets ( prophetai , Acts 13:1 ; 15:32 ; 1 Corinthians 12:28-29 , etc.), and some others. Besides them, there are Apostolic delegates, such as Timothy and Titus. The most frequent terms are priests and bishops ; they were destined to become the technical names for the "authorities" of the Christian community. All other names are less important; the deacons are out of the question, being of an inferior order. It seems clear that amid so great a variety of terms for ecclesiastical authorities in Apostolic times several must have expressed only transitory functions. From the beginning of the second century in Asia Minor, and somewhat later elsewhere, we find only three titles: bishops, priests, and deacons ; the last changed with inferior duties. The authority of the bishop is different from the authority of priests, as is evident on every page of the letters of the martyr Ignatius of Antioch . The bishop --and there is but one in each town--governs his church, appoints priests who have a subordinate rank to him, and are, as it were, his counsellors, presides over the Eucharistic assemblies, teaches his people, etc. He has, therefore, a general power of governing and teaching, quite the same as the modern Catholic bishop ; this power is substantially identical with the general authority of the Apostles, without, however, the personal prerogatives ascribed to the latter. St. Ignatius of Antioch declares that this ministry holds legitimately its authority from God through Christ (Letter to the Philadelphians, i). Clement of Rome , in his Letter; to the Church of Corinth (about 96), defends with energy the legitimacy of the ministry of bishops and, priests, and proclaims that the Apostles established successors to govern the churches (xlii-xliv). We may conclude with confidence that, about the end of the second century, the ministers of the churches were everywhere regarded as legitimate successors of the Apostles; this common persuasion is of primary importance.

Another and more difficult question arises as to the Acts and in the Epistles, the various above mentioned names, chiefly the presbyteroi and the episkopoi (priests and bishops ).

  • Some authors (and this is the traditional view) contend that the episkopoi of Apostolic times have the same dignity as the bishops of later times, and that the episkopoi of the apostolic writings are the same as the priests of the second century. This opinion, however, must give way before the evident identity of bishop and priest in Acts, xx, 17 and 28, Titus, i, 5-7, Clement of Rome to the Church of Corinth, xliv.
  • Another view recognizing this synonymous character estimates that these officers whom we shall call bishops -- priests had never the supreme direction of the churches in Apostolic times; this power, it is maintained, was exercised by the Apostles, the Prophets who travelled from one church to another, and by certain Apostolic delegates like Timothy. These alone were the real predecessors of the bishops of the second century; the bishop priests were the same as our modern priests, and had not the plenitude of the priesthood. This opinion is fully discussed and proposed with much learning by A. Michiels (L'origine de l'épiscopat, Louvain, 1900).
  • Mgr. Batiffol (Rev. bibl., 1895, and Etudes d'hist. et de théol. positive, I, Paris, 1903) expresses the following opinion: In the primitive churches there were (1) some preparatory functions, as the dignity of Apostles and Prophets ; (2) some presbyteroi had no liturgical function, but only an honourable title; (3) the episkopoi , several in each community, had a liturgical function with the office to preach; (4) when the Apostles disappeared, the bishopric was divided: one of the bishops became sovereign bishop, while the others were subordinated to him: these were the later priests. This secondary priesthood is a diminished participation of the one and sole primitive priesthood ; there is, therefore, no strict difference of order between the bishop and the priest.
Whatever may be the solution of this difficut question (see BISHOP, PRIEST), it remains certain that in the second century the general Apostolic authority belonged, by a succession universally acknowledged as legitimate, to the bishops of the Christian churches. (See APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION.) The bishops have, therefore, a general power of order, jurisdiction, and magisterium , but not the personal prerogatives of the Apostles.

VII. THE FEASTS OF THE APOSTLES

The memorable words of Hebrews, xiii, 7: "Remember your presidents who preached to you the word of God ", have always echoed in the Christian heart. The primitive churches had a profound veneration for their deceased Apostles ( Clement of Rome, Ep. ad Corinth. v); its first expression was doubtless the devotional reading of the Apostolic writings, the following of their orders and counsels, and the imitation of their virtues. It may, however, be reasonably supposed that some devotion began at the tombs of the Apostles as early as the time of their death or martyrdom ; the ancient documents are silent on this matter. Feasts of the Apostles do not appear as early as we might expect. Though the anniversaries of some martyrs were celebrated even in the second century, as for instance the anniversary of the martyrdom of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (d. 154-156), the Apostles had at this time no such commemoration; the day of their death was unknown. It is only from the fourth century that we meet with feasts of the Apostles. In the Eastern Church the feast of Saint James the Less and Saint John was celebrated on the 27th of December, and on the next day the feast of Saints Peter and Paul (according to St. Gregory of Nyssa and a Syriac menology ). These commemorations were arbitrarily fixed. In the Western Church the feast of Saint John alone remained on the same day as in the Eastern Church. The commemoration of the martyrdom of Saint Peter and Saint Paul was celebrated 29 June; originally, however, it was the commemoration of the translation their relics (Duchesne, Christian Worship , p. 277). From the sixth century the feast of Saint Andrew was celebrated on the 30th day of November. We know but little of the feasts of the other Apostles and of the secondary feasts of the great Apostles. In the Eastern Churches all these feasts were observed at the beginning of the ninth century. For additional details see Duchesne, "Christian Worship" (London, 1903), pp. 277-283, and B. Zimmerman in Cabrol and Leclercq's Dict. d'archéol. et de lit. chret. I, 2631-35. (See also APOSTOLICITY, APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION, APOCRYPHA.)


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Jeremiah 2:1-3, 7-8, 12-13
1 The word of Yahweh came to me, saying,2 ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 36:6-7, 8-9, 10-11
6 your saving justice is like towering mountains, ... Read More

Gospel, Matthew 13:10-17
10 Then the disciples went up to him and asked, 'Why ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for July 24th, 2014 Image

St. John Boste
July 24: One of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. He was born at ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter