Dear Sisters and Brothers,
We all know what it is like to be confused by names. Sometimes, we are confused by uncommon names and sometimes by too-common names. My first name, Richard, was a very common name in my generation. It was not unusual to have three or more Richards in a single high school class. Even if I went by a nickname, everything included the first initial of my last name to keep the teachers from getting confused. So, I was always “Richard N.” or “Ricky N.” or something similar.
I sometimes get confused in remembering names because I have known dozens of people named James, John, Robert, Thomas, Michael, Mary, Susan, Barbara, and Anna. I have even known multiple people who had the same first and last names (like James Johnson and Mary Williams).
So, it is not surprising that we can be confused by names among the small circle around Jesus. In the four gospels there are multiple people with the names James, Judas, and Mary. If you include the book of Acts, you will even find other people named Jesus (which was a form of the name “Joshua”). It also is a little confusing because we can’t always tell when a name is a given name, a nickname, or a descriptive word. “Thomas” for instance, was just their word for “twin” and we don’t know if that was the disciple’s given name or not.
So, with that in mind, we look at the calling of the twelve “Apostles”
Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”), Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
So, Jesus called twelve men to be “apostles” (which means “ones who are sent out into the world”). This is the first time Simon is called Peter and we learn that Jesus has given a nickname to brothers James and John. James son of Alphaeus may be another name for Levi son of Alphaeus, but some people thinking that Levi is the Matthew named here. Some people even think that Levi was not one of the twelve disciples, even though Jesus called him in the same way as the four fishermen. We also have Simon the zealot who has the same first name as Simon Peter.
It is a little confusing. And some of these apostles are not mentioned again in the whole book of Mark.
Let’s take a sidestep for a moment and consider the humor of the nicknames of the three central disciples. The three apostles that made up Jesus’ “inner circle” were three of the four fishermen: Simon Peter, James, and John. Most people read the Bible without any expectation of humor, but it is there if you open your eyes to it.
Through most of history nicknames are often humorous and affectionate. Even though descriptive nicknames aren’t as common these days, I’ve known older people with nicknames like “Lefty,” “Speed,” “Hap,” “Sticks” and “Bunny.” In my family history there are similar nicknames like “Babe,” “Slim,” and “Buster.” When I was young, I was one of those people that folks tried calling different things: At different times before I was 25, different friends called me “Kermit, Father, or Doc.” None of them stuck.
We tend to think of Peter as Simon Peter’s given name. But it is just their word for “rock.” So, Peter is being compared to a rock. He is “Rocky.” From what we see of his behavior, he is smart but a little slow in catching on. He is dependable and unpredictable. He also has a tendency to speak without thinking and without filters. He is sincere in what he gets right and in what he gets wrong. He is like a rock in good ways and bad ways. He is a bit of a lovable oaf who is sometimes childlike. So, the nickname, Rock or Rocky fits him pretty well.
The nickname “sons of thunder” matches up with the unbridled enthusiasm of James and John. They are two young men, who travel with Jesus (with the aid of the mother who comes along with them). They are ambitious and eager. They can remind you of the sentence “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” As in “look out, here come the sons of thunder;” noisy, energetic, and little overwhelming. Again, it seems like a nickname that is both funny and affectionate.
And why do we have an apostle called the twin? Thomas could have had a twin brother or sister, but it is a nickname you could get if you repeated what other people said. Some people have even suggested that he was called twin because he looked a lot like Jesus or one of the other disciples.
Simon the Zealot does not appear to have a nickname so much as a word to describe him. Zealots were Jewish nationalists that hated the Roman Empire and worked to frustrate their rule. The Zealots hoped that someday the Jews of Palestine would rise up and drive the invaders out of the country. They considered themselves as “freedom fighters” or “resistance,” but they would never come close to driving out the Romans.
So, Jesus sent out these twelve. The number twelve is reminiscent of the twelve sons of Jacob and the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus sent them out to preach and free people from demons. Even at this early stage, Jesus entrusts part of ministry into his followers’ hands. They are sent out for a while at first, but are back with Jesus in chapter four of Mark.
Question To Ponder: Are you okay with the thought that Jesus could have a sense of humor, or do you tend to see him as very formal and proper?