Saturday, 26 April 2014

The Twelve Apostles (Part 10): James of Alphaeus

     The English name James is translated from Iakōbos, which is the Greek form of the Hebrew Ya`aqob or Ya`aqov (“Jacob”), meaning “heel-grabber” or “supplanter” (Gen. 25:26).1 While multiple persons in the New Testament wear this name, the present study concerns James the son of Alphaeus. He is mentioned by name only in the four lists of the apostles and is always listed ninth (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). If he is the same as “James the Less,” he is identified three more times in the biblical record along with his mother Mary and brother Joses/Joseph (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40; 16:1). The qualifier “the Less” [mikros]2 may suggest that he was younger, or of smaller stature, or simply less prominent than Zebedee’s son James.
     While it is possible that James the son of Alphaeus was the brother of Matthew Levi the son of Alphaeus (Mark 2:14; cf. Matt. 9:9; 10:3), this is not certain since the name Alphaeus was fairly common. John Chrysostom (347-407) and Jerome (347-420) suggested that he was the Lord’s brother James, but this is highly unlikely. Not only is there a distinction made between the apostles and the siblings of Jesus (Acts 1:13-14), the Lord’s brothers did not believe in him as the Messiah even after the twelve had been chosen (John 6:67; 7:5).
     Little else is known about Alphaeus’ son James, but he would naturally be included in the narratives of the Gospels and Acts where the apostles are alluded to collectively.3 After about three years of apostolic training, he was among the eyewitnesses of the risen Lord, spending nearly six weeks with Christ prior to observing his ascension into heaven (Acts 1:2-11). He was present with his fellow-apostles on the Day of Pentecost as they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in various languages to a multitude of foreign Jews (2:1-11). He stood alongside Peter as the message of Christ was proclaimed (v. 14), as a result of which around 3,000 souls obeyed the gospel (v. 41).
     James continued teaching new converts and evangelizing the lost, confirming the word he preached with miraculous signs (Acts 2:42-43; 4:33; 5:12-16, 42; 6:4). He was also involved in benevolence work (4:34-37) and conflict management (6:1-7; 15:6). The gospel successfully spread through the evangelistic efforts of James and his co-workers, leading to imprisonments, beatings, and ongoing persecutions (Acts 5:17-41; 8:1, 14; 9:1; 12:1). James eventually left Jerusalem to carry on his ministry elsewhere, taking along his believing wife (1 Cor. 9:5). He faced many more dangers and hardships as he dutifully proclaimed the good news of Jesus to a lost and dying world (1 Cor. 4:9-13).
     Through his devoted apostolic ministry, James played a critical role in laying the spiritual foundation upon which the church of Christ continues to stand (Eph. 2:19–3:5). According to tradition he went on to preach the gospel in Lower Egypt (Ostrakine), where he eventually died as a martyr by crucifixion.
     James the son of Alphaeus does not stand out as a prominent figure in the New Testament. He shared a very common name with others who were much more renowned than he (e.g. Acts 12:2, 17). Although the spotlight never shone on him as an individual, he was just as committed to the Lord’s cause as the other apostles among whom he diligently labored. Let us learn from James that unrecognized faithfulness in God’s service is infinitely more valuable than earthly acclaim.
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 See The 12 Apostles (Part 4): James of Zebedee and The NT Epistle of Jacob. At least five men are mentioned in the New Testament by the name Iakōbos: (1) The Old Testament patriarch Jacob (Matt. 1:2, 8; 22:32; etc.); (2) James, son of Zebedee and Salome and brother of John (Matt. 4:21; 27:56; cf. Mark 27:56); (3) James, son of Alphaeus (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18; etc.); (4) James, father of Judas (Luke 6:16); and (5) James, the Lord’s brother (Matt. 13:55; Gal. 1:19).
     2 Also rendered “minor,” “little,” “lesser,” “younger,” etc. In some traditions James the son of Zebedee is identified as “James the Greater.”
     4 All scripture quotations are from the NKJV.

Related PostsThe 12 Apostles (Part 1)

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Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Twelve Apostles (Part 9): Matthew Levi

     The apostle Matthew is also known as Levi, son of Alpheus (Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27),1 whether Levi is a personal name or a tribal designation.2 The name Matthew (Hebrew Mattityahu, Greek Matthaios) means “Gift of Yahweh.”3 He was a telōnēs (tax collector or revenue officer) from Capernaum in Galilee (Matt. 9:9; 10:3), probably gathering revenue for the tetrarch Herod Antipas.4 “There was never a more unlikely candidate for the office of apostle than Matthew” (W. Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew 1:329).
     The story of Matthew’s call to discipleship is documented in Matt. 9:9-13; Mark 2:13-17; and Luke 5:27-32. He was afforded the opportunity to hear Jesus preaching near the coast of the Sea of Galilee, where the tax office was located. Having accepted the invitation to join the Lord’s band of followers, Matthew hosted a banquet in his house for the Lord (Luke 5:29), perhaps functioning as a going-away celebration for Matthew’s upcoming adventure as an apostle. Other tax gatherers were present along with a group described as hamartōloi (“sinners”).5 The Lord’s justification for associating with these dodgy characters was threefold: (a) like a physician aiding the sick, these were precisely the type of persons he ought to have consorted with; (b) it is God’s desire to extend mercy to those who need it (Hosea 6:6); and (c) Christ’s message of repentance (cf. Matt. 4:17; 11:20-21; 12:41) is exactly what sinful people need to hear (Matt. 9:11-13; Luke 5:32). Thanks to Matthew’s extensive connections and his intermediary role, a number of tax collectors and sinners became penitent followers of Jesus (Mark 2:16).
     Matthew is one of only two apostles to have authored a Gospel,6 and his humble character is indirectly revealed therein. The host who gave the feast for Jesus is not identified by Matthew (9:10), whereas Luke explicitly (5:29) and Mark implicitly (2:15) recognize Matthew [Levi] himself as the host. In the listings of the apostles according to Mark and Luke, “Matthew and Thomas” appear as the fourth pair, whereas the order is reversed in Matthew’s record. And it is only in Matthew’s list that reference is made to “Matthew the tax collector” (10:3), which is intriguing, seeing that tax collectors were particularly despised among the Palestinian Jews of his day (see 5:46, 47; 9:10-11; 11:19; 18:17).7 This would be comparable to Paul’s recollections of his own sordid past (Acts 22:4; 1 Cor. 15:9; 1 Tim. 1:13; etc.), which served to deepen his appreciation of God’s grace while motivating him to continued faithfulness in the service of Christ. Matthew knew firsthand what it was like to be detested, disparaged, and ostracized as an outcast in orthodox Jewish society but still accepted and loved by the Lord anyway.
     Considering his background, Matthew would have been accustomed to writing and reasonably fluent in both Aramaic and Greek. This would explain the “Jewishness” of his Gospel, his proficiency in the Greek language, and his attention to detail.8 In the dispute over paying taxes, Mark (12:15) and Luke (20:24) use the common term dēnarion, whereas Matthew alone (22:19) uses the more precise nomisma (state coin), indicative of a tax gatherer’s experience. A number of financial transactions are depicted in Matthew’s Gospel (17:24-27; 18:23-35; 20:1-16; 26:15; 27:3-10; 28:11-15).
     Beyond his ministry in Judea, there is no definitive record of where else Matthew labored for the Lord or how he died. It is commonly believed that he went on to preach the gospel in other countries and eventually suffered death as a martyr (cf. Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.24.6). William Barclay observes, “He lost a comfortable job, but found a destiny. He lost a good income, but found honour. He lost a comfortable security, but found an adventure the like of which he had never dreamed” (The Gospel of Matthew 1:331).
     As an apostolic representative of God’s Son, surely Matthew was a dubious candidate. But Matthew went on to prove that no one is incapable of meaningful transformation under the influence and guidance of Jesus Christ. Matthew’s disreputable past neither kept him down nor held him back. In fact, the following sentiment from Paul could just as easily have been written by Matthew: “For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle …. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain …” (1 Cor. 15:9-10 NKJV).
     Despite the aberrant lifestyles and seedy reputations of Matthew’s friends and associates, by introducing them to Jesus, Matthew contributed to lives being changed, souls being saved, and the Lord’s flock increasing. Through the Gospel he penned, Matthew has aided generations of readers in getting to know Jesus, coming to adore Jesus, and obeying all things that Jesus has commanded (28:20). Truly Matthew is a “Gift of Yahweh”! If God can love, transform, and effectively work through a loathsome tax collector like Matthew, imagine what he is capable of doing with you and me.
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Since Matthew is called “Levi the son of Alphaeus” in Mark 2:14 (cf. Matt. 9:9; 10:3), it is possible that he was the brother of James the son of Alphaeus (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18), but this is not certain since Alphaeus was a fairly common name. If the connection is valid, Matthew’s mother was Mary and he had another brother named Joses or Joseph (Mark 15:40).
     2 Cf. Neh. 11:15-17. R. T. France comments, “a Levite turned tax-collector might expect to earn the special disdain of his more orthodox fellow-Levites, and so be liable to record with greater emphasis Jesus’ conflicts with ‘orthodoxy’, as much for his own self-defence as for the guidance of other potential converts” (The Gospel According to Matthew [TNTC] 33).
     3 See 2 Kings 24:17; Neh. 11:17, 22; cf. 1 Chron. 9:31; Neh. 8:4; Acts 1:23.
     4 Since Matthew’s tax office was by the sea (Mark 2:13-14), he could have been involved in the taxation of fishermen (and potentially acquainted with Simon, Andrew, James and John), or he may have served as a customs official taxing goods that arrived in Herod Antipas’ territory. Following the death of Herod the Great, Antipas became tetrarch of the combined territories of Galilee and Perea, reigning from 4 BC to AD 39. See Jesus on Divorce & Remarriage: Contextual Insights.
     5 These might have been Jews who were not diligent students and practitioners of the law and traditions (cf. John 7:49).
     6 See Authorship of NT Gospels; also K. L. Moore, A Critical Introduction to the NT 60-63. “It was the Gospel that made Matthew famous, and not the other way around” (J. P. Lewis, The Gospel According to Matthew 1:12).
     7 In the Synoptics those who held the position of ho telōnēs were “not holders (Lat. publican) of the ‘tax-farming’ contracts themselves, but subordinates (Lat. portitores) hired by them; the higher officials were usu[ally] foreigners, but their underlings were taken fr[om] the native population as a rule. The prevailing system of tax collection afforded the collector many opportunities to exercise his greed and unfairness. Hence they were particularly hated and despised as a class . . . . The strict Jew was further offended by the fact that the tax-collector had to maintain continual contact w[ith] Gentiles in the course of his work; this rendered a Jewish tax-collector ceremonially unclean” (BAGD 812).

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Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Twelve Apostles (Part 8): Thomas

     Thomas is mentioned by name twelve times in the New Testament, and most of what we know about him comes from the Gospel of John. The name Thomas, Aramaic T’oma and its Greek equivalent Didumos, means “twin” (John 11:16; 20:24; 21:2). There is no certainty, however, as to whether or not the apostle Thomas actually had a twin, and if he did, whom this might have been. If Thomas had a twin that did not survive, the name could have been given as sort of a living memorial or affectionate reminder. Or perhaps Thomas simply looked like someone else and was lightheartedly called “twin” as a nickname.1 The bottom line is, we simply do not know. In later tradition he is also identified as “Judas Thomas.”2
     Near the end of the Lord’s earthly ministry, it was Thomas who expressed his willingness to die with Jesus (John 11:16). This is intriguing, seeing that the other disciples wrestled with confusion and bewilderment when it came to grasping the reality and significance of Christ’s impending death (Mark 9:10, 32). Simon Peter refused to accept it (Matt. 16:21-22), offered to die “for” (huper = ‘instead of’) Jesus (John 13:37), and even tried to prevent it (John 18:10). Thomas, on the other hand, appears to have been the first of his apostolic colleagues to understand that Jesus must die. In fact, Thomas encourages the others to join him in accompanying the Lord to Jerusalem to perish “with” (meta) the Lord. Thomas is seen here as a man of insight, courage, leadership, and devotion.
     When Jesus promised to prepare a heavenly abode for his followers and to then return for them in the future (John 14:1-4), Thomas replies, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?” (v. 5).3 This candid admission of ignorance accompanied by a request for more information shows Thomas to be transparent and inquisitive. There were occasions when the disciples were hesitant or even fearful about asking the Lord for clarification (Mark 9:9-10, 32), yet Thomas eagerly seeks answers. And thanks to the prompting of Thomas’ question, the response given is one of the most profound statements of Jesus recorded in the Gospel records: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).
     Thomas was absent when the risen Lord made his first appearance to the disciples, and Thomas refused to accept their verbal testimony without empirical proof (John 20:24-25). It is here that Thomas has earned the unenviable reputation as “doubting Thomas” and historically has been labeled as such ever since. However, Thomas had no more doubts than the rest of the apostles prior to their having seen Jesus alive (cf. Mark 16:9-13). Would not fairness demand consistent reference to “doubting Peter,” “doubting James,” “doubting John,” etc.? Thomas simply needed confirmation, and the Lord graciously provided it (John 20:26-27). Faith is not a blind leap in the dark but stands on the sturdy foundation of sufficient evidence that yields conviction and confidence (Heb. 11:1).
     With a solid basis upon which to build his faith, Thomas is the first on record to acknowledge Jesus as “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Note that this affirmation was spoken decades before the apostle John penned comparable words in the opening of his Gospel (John 1:1-3). These two terms, kurios (Lord) and theos (God), are employed in the Greek New Testament to translate the Hebrew YHWH (LORD) and elohim (God) (Matt. 4:7, 10; Mark 12:29-30; Luke 1:68; 10:27; Acts 3:22). Moreover, they are always used together in the New Testament with reference to the Supreme Deity (Acts 2:39; 4:24; 7:37; 1 Pet. 3:15; Rev. 19:1, 6). Jesus accepts and commends Thomas’ confession, and affirms: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
     The disparaging label “doubting Thomas” is unfair and undeserved. There is so much more to him than his short-lived struggle with uncertainty (which, incidentally, he equally shared with all the other apostles!). Thomas was humble and honest. Because of his inquisitive nature, he searched for answers, gained valuable insights, and grasped profound truths long before anyone else did. He was a man of rock-solid faith, wholly devoted to Christ and his mission. According to tradition Thomas traveled east to proclaim the gospel in Parthia and then on to India, where he was killed with a spear and his remains later buried in Edessa.4 Thank God for dedicated servants like faithful Thomas.
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Note that he was called “twin” in both Aramaic and Greek. In the Egyptian Book of Thomas the Contender, Jesus is reported as saying to Thomas, “Now, since it has been said that you are my twin and true companion, examine yourself …” While it is not possible that Jesus had a literal twin (cf. Matt. 1:20-25), it is within the realm of possibility that Jesus and Thomas looked enough alike that others may have made this observation and simply called Thomas “the twin” as a nickname.
     2 Cf. the gnostic Gospel of Thomas from Egypt and the Syrian Acts of Thomas.
     3 All scripture quotations are from the New King James Version.
     4 Origen, quoted by Eusebius in Eccl. Hist. 3.1; Acts of Thomas; Ephraem, Carmina Nisibina 42.1-4; cf. Benedict Vadakkekar, Origin of Christianity in India: a Historiographical Critique (Delhi: Media House, 2007). Thomas reportedly arrived in Muziris of India in the year 52 and converted a number of people. Today there are believers there called Nasranis or “Saint Thomas Christians.”

Related PostsThe 12 Apostles (Part 1)

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Saturday, 5 April 2014

The Twelve Apostles (Part 7): Bartholomew

     The name Bartholomew (Greek Bartholomaios) is from the Aramaic bar-Tôlmai, meaning “son of Tolmai.”1 Bartholomew is mentioned by name in the New Testament only in the four lists of the apostles (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:14; Acts 1:13) and is usually paired with Philip. He is unnamed in the Gospel of John, wherein Philip is associated with Nathanael (1:43-49). Also in John’s record Nathanael is in the company of other apostles (21:2) and among the eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ (21:3-14) but not identified in the Synoptics. Seeing that the name Bartholomew is actually a patronymic or surname that requires a personal name too (like “Simon bar-Jonah”), it stands to reason that the apostle Bartholomew is Nathanael bar-Tolmai.
     Nathanael (Bartholomew?) was informed by Philip that the long-anticipated fulfillment of scripture’s messianic prophecies had at last been realized in “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45). This prompted Nathanael’s notorious remark, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (v. 46). Nathanael’s prejudiced mindset was probably due to the fact that he was from the nearby Galilean town of Cana (John 21:3) and would no doubt have been familiar with what appears to have been Nazareth’s disreputable status at the time. Nazareth was a small, obscure village secluded in the hills of Galilee that was never mentioned in the Old Testament or in the writings of Josephus or in any other extant Jewish sources prior to the 3rd century AD. While population estimates vary, in Jesus’ day the number of residents could have been fewer than 500.2 Nathanael’s pessimistic observation, coupled with the opposition and violence Jesus faced there,3 may also suggest a comparatively wicked environment.
     As far as Nathanael was concerned, Jesus was an unlikely person from an unlikely place. As it turns out, however, Nathanael’s preconceptions were misconceptions. The sensible and practical advice of Philip was simply, “Come and see” (John 1:46b).4 Rather than relying on biased assumptions, Nathanael needed to open his eyes and heart to what the Lord has to offer. Jesus describes Nathanael as “an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit” (John 1:47), comparable to later descriptions of Saul of Tarsus (2 Cor. 11:22; Phil. 3:5-6).
     A basic demonstration of the Lord’s supernatural foresight moved Nathanael to acknowledge Jesus as “the Son of God … the King of Israel” (John 1:49). Yet Nathanael was assured by Christ, “You will see greater things than these” (v. 50b). The implication is that Nathanael would be a loyal disciple of Jesus, accompanying him during his earthly ministry and witnessing many wondrous works. Being from Cana of Galilee, Nathanael was most likely present when the Lord performed his first miraculous sign there (John 2:1-11), and Nathanael would also be afforded opportunities to see amazing things like lepers cleansed, the lame walking, the deaf hearing, the blind seeing, and the dead brought to life (Luke 7:22; etc.).
     According to tradition the apostle Bartholomew traveled as far east as India, leaving behind a copy of Matthew’s Gospel (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 5.10), and also proclaimed Christ in Armenia (with Thaddeus Judas), Mesopotamia, Parthia, Lycaonia, and Ethiopia. He is believed to have died as a martyr in Armenia by being flayed alive and then beheaded or crucified upside down.5
     Most of us wrestle with deep-seated presuppositions that have the potential of blinding us to the truth. Like Nathanael/Bartholomew, we ought to be persons of integrity and heed the simple admonition, “Come and see.” With open minds and hearts, as we give honest consideration to the available evidence, conviction will surely follow. And by stepping out in faith and taking the Lord at his word, our faith will inevitably grow stronger as we experience his providential working in our lives. Like Nathanael/Bartholomew, may we faithfully continue in the service of God even unto death.
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 It has been suggested that the name Tolmai might be linked to the ancient Greek name Ptolemy.
     2 See E. Meyers and J. Strange, Archaeology, the Rabbis, and Early Christianity (Nashville: Abingdon, 1981); cf. “Nazareth” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992).
     3 Cf. Matt. 13:53-58; Mark 6:1-6; Luke 4:16-30. Both the purpose and the experience of Christ on earth (Matt. 9:11-13; Heb. 4:15) would add credence to the prospect of Nazareth having been a somewhat depraved environment.
    4 This was a common rabbinic formula (particularly in the Talmudic writings and the rabbinic commentaries on the Torah known as the book of Zohar), conveying the principle of seeking together for a solution.
     5 In later artistic impressions he is depicted with a flaying knife; in Michelangelo’s Sistine painting of the final judgment, the flayed Bartholomew is holding his own skin.

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