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Apostles vs. Disciples

What is the difference between a disciple and an apostle?

James Tissot

Q. What is the difference between a disciple and an apostle?

A. The answer to “apostle” vs. “disciple” is that it depends on which text you are reading. “Apostle” usually refers to people who are sent for some purpose (that is its literal meaning in Greek), often as messengers. In the New Testament Gospels, apostle is usually reserved for the 12 men Jesus chooses to comprise his close circle of followers. Mark 3:14-19 lists the twelve as follows: Simon Peter, James the son Zebedee, John the brother James, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot. Matthew 10:2–4 and Luke 6:12–16 contain similar lists of apostles, while John does not use the word apostle for Jesus’s followers.

Those same twelve apostles are also frequently called the “disciples.” Disciple comes from an educational context and is similar to “student.” So the word apostle defines a person in terms of their purpose or mission, while disciple emphasizes the person’s relationship to the teacher. In the case of the 12 apostles, all of them are disciples. But it doesn’t follow that all disciples are apostles!

The term disciple is used more widely than apostle and is commonly used to describe people outside of “the twelve” (e.g., Mark 2:18 describes John the Baptist’s disciples; see also Luke 6:13, where Jesus chooses the 12 apostles from a larger group of disciples). Some scholars are convinced that women active in the Jesus movement would have been considered disciples, such as Mary and Martha of Bethany.

However, the letters of Paul and the book of Acts both use the term apostle more broadly than the Gospels. Paul is clearly aware of a group known as “the twelve” (1 Cor 15:5), and he does use the word apostle for people such as Peter (Gal 1:19). Yet Paul constantly refers to himself as an apostle (see the beginning of almost every letter), and he also refers to other apostles besides the twelve, such as Andronicus and Junia in Romans 16:7 (see also 1Cor 15:7). Junia is especially noteworthy since this is a woman’s name. This is in keeping with the many other women who figure prominently among Paul’s coworkers. Acts likewise uses apostle for the 12 apostles from the Gospels (see especially Acts 2:12–26) but also for Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:4, Acts 14:14). Thus Paul and Acts use apostle both for “the twelve” but also for other people who are “sent” as messengers of the gospel.

  • Potter-Jonathan

    Jonathan M. Potter is a managing editor at SBL Press, and he also teaches as an adjunct instructor at Emory University. His research and teaching center on early Christian gospels and early Jewish retellings of biblical narratives. He coedited (with Vernon K. Robbins) Jesus and Mary Reimagined in Early Christian Literature (SBL Press, 2015).