In Christian theology and ecclesiology, the apostles (Greek: lit. ‘one who is sent away’), particularly the Twelve Apostles (also called the Twelve Disciples), were the primary historical disciples of Jesus, the central figure in Christianity. During the life and ministry of Jesus in the 1st century AD, the apostles were his closest followers and became the primary teachers of the gospel message of Jesus. The word disciple is sometimes used interchangeably with apostle; for instance, the Gospel of John makes no distinction between the two terms. In modern usage, prominent missionaries are often called apostles, a practice which stems from the Latin equivalent of apostle, i.e. missio, the source of the English word missionary. For example, Saint Patrick (AD 373–463) was the “Apostle of Ireland”, and Saint Boniface (680–755) was the “Apostle to the Germans”.
While Christian tradition often refers to the apostles as being 12 in number, different gospel writers give different names for the same individual, and apostles mentioned in one gospel are not mentioned in others. The commissioning of the Twelve Apostles during the ministry of Jesus is recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. After his resurrection, Jesus sent 11 of them (minus Judas Iscariot, who by then had died) by the Great Commission to spread his teachings to all nations. This event is commonly called the Dispersion of the Apostles. There is also an Eastern Christian tradition derived from the Gospel of Luke of there having been as many as 70 apostles during the time of Jesus’ ministry. Prominent figures in early Christianity, notably Paul, were often called apostles, even though their ministry or mission came after the life of Jesus.
The period of early Christianity during the lifetimes of the apostles is called the Apostolic Age. During the 1st century AD, the apostles established churches throughout the territories of the Roman Empire and, according to tradition, through the Middle East, Africa, and India.
Although not one of the apostles commissioned during the life of Jesus, Paul, a Jew named Saul of Tarsus, claimed a special commission from the resurrected Jesus and is considered “the apostle of the Gentiles”,[Romans 11:13] for his missions to spread the gospel message after his conversion. In his writings, the epistles to Christian churches throughout the Levant, Paul did not restrict the term “apostle” to the Twelve, and often refers to his mentor Barnabas as an apostle. The restricted usage appears in the Revelation to John.
By the 2nd century AD, association with the apostles was esteemed as an evidence of authority. Churches which are believed to have been founded by one of the apostles are known as apostolic sees. Paul’s epistles were accepted as scripture, and two of the four canonical gospels were associated with apostles, as were other New Testament works. Various Christian texts, such as the Didache and the Apostolic Constitutions, were attributed to the apostles. Bishops traced their lines of succession back to individual apostles, who were said to have dispersed from Jerusalem and established churches across great territories. Christian bishops have traditionally claimed authority deriving, by apostolic succession, from the Twelve. Early Church Fathers who came to be associated with apostles, such as Pope Clement I with St. Peter, are referred to as the Apostolic Fathers. The Apostles’ Creed, popular in the West, was said to have been composed by the apostles themselves.