APOSTLE (Gr. "messenger"), in early Christian usage, term applied to the disciples of
whom he had sent out to preach his message, and occasionally also applied to other missionaries of the early period. Outside the New Testament the noun ἁπόστολος was not common in Greek, though the verb ἁποστέλλω was. The term is equivalent to the Hebrew shali'aḥ and some scholars have suggested that the early Christian apostolate was indebted to Jewish precedent (e.g., the custom of sending messengers not singly but in pairs). The alleged similarity between John 20:21 ("As my father has sent me, so I send you") and the rabbinic rule (Ber. 5:5) "A person's messenger is as himself" is more apparent than real. The word "apostle" occurs 79 times in the New Testament. While in a few instances its meaning was an actual messenger, it mainly denoted a person of eminent position and capacity. But even in this latter sense, the precise import was not everywhere the same, and some of the ambiguities have led to scholarly differences of opinion. One of these difficulties was due to the fact that occasionally the term apostle was identical with that of disciple (equivalent to the Hebrew talmid). In Christian tradition, the immediate followers of Jesus number 12, most probably a symbolic number signifying the 12 tribes of Israel. The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and John called these immediate followers disciples, but Mark and Matthew often called them apostles, though without any clear differentiation. In Luke, however, there is a clear distinction, attributing to Jesus countless disciples, of whom 12 were designated apostles. Luke, moreover, contains an account (10:1–17), absent from the other Gospels, that Jesus sent out 70 followers to heal the sick and proclaim the kingdom of God; some explained the number 70 as symbolic of the "nations of the world," as in rabbinic sources. Luke, who thus clearly distinguished among disciples, apostles, and the 70, also emphasized the number 12, by his account of the death of Judas. Mark and John were silent about Judas' death; Matthew 27:5 related that he committed suicide by hanging. According to Luke, who wrote both his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, Judas died only after the crucifixion through falling head-long and splitting (Acts 1:17–18). In order to replace Judas and make up again the number 12, two out of the countless disciples were nominated and one of these was elected (Acts 1:23–26).
While many New Testament scholars consider the account in Acts as a somewhat tendentious and idealized portrait of the early Church rather than as an exact historical record, it is generally agreed that apostleship in the strict sense implied a special type of authority. This authority derived from the fact that the apostle was a witness to the life and resurrection of Jesus, and in the case of Paul (who did not know Jesus personally) from the inner experience of a direct calling.
The original association of "The Twelve" with the tribes of Israel, is held by some scholars to have had an eschatological significance (cf. Matt. 19:28: "When the son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon 12 thrones, judging the 12 tribes of Israel," and Rev. 21:12) which seems to be related to the eschatological symbolism of the Qumran sect. But this eschatological dimension is no longer prominent in Acts which was more concerned with describing the early Church as guided, both in its inner affairs and in its outward expansion, by "apostles." The office of apostle did not endure and the term was confined in Christian writings to the early period. No dignitaries of a later period were called apostles.
The Apostolic Age
The period immediately after Jesus was commonly referred to as the Apostolic Age. During that period the question of the admission of Gentiles to the Church (which still was a Jewish sect) and of the binding character of the Law came to a head. For male Gentiles accepting the Christian message, it was especially the problem of circumcision which required an authoritative ruling. To settle the disputes that had arisen on this subject the "apostles and elders" came together in Jerusalem in what is known as the "Apostolic Council." The account of the meeting which discussed the question of the Jewish mitzvah is found in Acts 15, where Peter appears as the advocate of the admission of Gentiles. In Galatians, however, Paul represents himself as the advocate of the Gentiles, who is opposed by Cephas – Peter. James, the brother of Jesus, presided over the meeting and also announced its decision, which is known as the Apostolic Decree. The Decree by implication abrogated the mitzvot and enacted instead four prohibitions: food offered to idols, blood, things strangled, and fornication. This list of prohibitions is reminiscent of the rabbinic "seven Noachian laws," but scholarly opinion is divided regarding the nature and significance of this similarity. Some New Testament scholars (see James Moffat, Introduction to the Literature of the New Testament (19183), 307) completely rejected the historicity of the Council and of the Decree. Such a conclusion, if justified, increases the obscurity about the widening breach between Judaism and early Christianity. The traditional Christian conception of priesthood assumes "apostolic succession," an unbroken continuity in the chain of ordination going back to the apostles and through them ultimately to Jesus. (The basic conception was similar to that underlying the juridical and non-sacerdotal Jewish semikhah.) Catholic scholars generally affirm the factual historicity of apostolic succession, but Protestants, except some Anglicans, do not.
Gavin, in: Anglican Theological Review, 9 (1927), 250–9; T.W. Manson, Church's Ministry (1948); IDB, 1 (1962), S.V. Apostle and Disciple; G. Kittel (ed.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 1 (1964), 406–46; Vogelstein, in: HUCA, 2 (1925), 99–123; Flusser, in: C.J. Bleeker (ed.), Initiation (1965).