What do we know concerning apostolic succession in New Testament times?
October 1975

“What do we know concerning apostolic succession in New Testament times?” Ensign, Oct. 1975, 49–50

What do we know concerning apostolic succession in New Testament times? Was it important to keep the number of apostles at twelve? Where does the apostle Paul fit in?

Leland Gentry, curriculum specialist, Department of Seminaries and Institutes Early in our Savior’s earthly ministry, he chose twelve men to assist him in the work of building his kingdom. These he called and ordained to be his apostles and special witnesses. The Savior approached the task of choosing his Twelve with great care. Prior to making the final decision “he went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.” (Luke 6:12.)

Matthew records:

“Now the names of the twelve apostles are these; The first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother;

“Philip, and Bartholomew; Thomas, and Matthew the publican; James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus:

“Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him.” (Matt. 10:2–4.)

All but Judas were still acting in their apostolic callings at the time of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. (See Acts 1:1–14.)

That it was the Lord’s intention to fill the vacancy created by the apostasy of Judas is clearly indicated by events that followed the Savior’s final departure from the earth. Peter informed the early disciples that it was necessary to ordain one of their number to take the place of Judas, one who could “be a witness with us of his resurrection.” Again the selection was made with care. Two men, both of apostolic stature, were proposed: Joseph (called Barsabas) and Matthias. Then the apostles prayed and said, “Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen.” The decision favored Matthias, “and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.” (See Acts 1:14–26.) The selection of Matthias “set the pattern for the future.” (Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary 2:30.)

Then, as now, the number needed to make a full quorum of apostles was twelve. The same was true when Jesus visited the Nephites and appointed his twelve among them. (See 3 Ne. 12:1.) Nowhere in scripture does it speak of a quorum of five or of ten or of eleven apostles but always of twelve. The number itself appears to have significance. Speaking of this fact, President David O. McKay once said:

“Some have asked whether the number twelve had any significance. Well, it has. …

“It is a fact that that number was chosen, that the group consisted of twelve, that it was so during Christ’s ministry among men. As far as we can find in the Acts of the Apostles it continued to be so. It is very difficult to find out whether every vacancy that occurred was filled, thus continuing the exact number of twelve, but we do know that the first vacancy made by Judas Iscariot was filled before the work was taken up, and we can readily infer that that policy was continued throughout the ministry of the Twelve.” (Ministry and Authority of the Early Apostles, Relief Society Magazine 25:806–7; italics added.)

Apostles then, as now, were to be “special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world.” (D&C 107:23. See also Acts 1:8.) Paul reports that God placed these officers, with others, in the Church “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, and for the edifying of the body of Christ.” These, Paul said, were to remain “till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” (Eph. 4:11–12.) Since none of those conditions was achieved in apostolic times, we may conclude that the need for apostolic succession continued. President Joseph Fielding Smith has written of the original Twelve:

“In their callings as apostles they became special witnesses of the divine mission of Jesus Christ and were his advocates to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. It was the plan of the Lord that this chosen body of witnesses should be perpetuated through all time, holding the keys of divine authority, with power to build up the Church … in all parts of the world. This quorum was continued for a time, and other apostles were ordained when vacancies occurred.” (Answers to Gospel Questions 5:175–76; italics added.)

The question naturally arises, Where does the apostle Paul fit in? Was he a member of the Quorum of the Twelve? Were there other apostles besides Paul and Matthias who were not members of the original quorum? When, where, and by whom were they ordained? These and related questions are difficult to answer, for our records of apostolic times are very sparse.

At least three men besides Matthias are known to have held the apostolic office following the departure of Jesus from earth. These are Paul, Barnabas, and “James the Lord’s brother.” (See Gal. 1:19.) Both Paul and Barnabas are called “apostles” by Luke as early as their first missionary journey. (See Acts 14:14.) “James the Lord’s brother” is known to have played an important role at the famed Jerusalem Council (see Acts 15:13–21) and is named an apostle and a “pillar” in the church by Paul. (See Gal. 1:19; Gal. 2:9.) Although we have no record of the ordination of these brethren to the apostleship nor of their addition to the Quorum of the Twelve, we may assume with safety that they were ordained by Peter and his brethren of the Twelve. The following statement from President Joseph Fielding Smith argues strongly for this fact.

“We are extremely lacking in information in relation to many important details that failed to seep through the ages to our day, and we are left in darkness to know when and where Paul was ordained. But this is not strange when we think of the fragmentary information that has been received.

“If it had not been for the faithful recording by Luke, the chances are that we would have as little about the activities of Paul as we have about Peter and John and the other original members of the council of the apostles. The fact may be correctly surmised that Paul did find time to mingle with his brethren and that through the divine inspiration the apostleship was conferred on him by their action. It is evidently true also that Barnabas likewise was by them ordained; also James, the Lord’s brother, and others if we had the record.” (Answers to Gospel Questions 4:99–100; italics added.)

It is also possible that some men were called as apostles without being a member of the Quorum of Twelve. Instances of this sort are not unknown in our own dispensation. As President McKay once said:

“There are apostles who are not members of the council. I think there were in that day [i.e., in New Testament times], at least they were considered to be apostles. … A man may be an apostle but not one of the Council of the Twelve.” (Relief Society Magazine 25:812.)

Some scholars feel that other faithful brethren of the early Church, men such as Silas, Timothy, Jude, and Apollos, may have served in the apostolic office. We simply do not know. Of these, however, Elder Bruce R. McConkie has written:

“All of the brethren in the Church who knew by personal revelation that Jesus was the Christ, meaning all who had testimonies given by the Holy Ghost of his divine Sonship, were witnesses of the Lord. Such were Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, Nicolas, Ananias, John Mark, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen, Judas Barsabas, Silas, Timotheus, Apollos, Sopater, Aristarchus, Secundus, Gaius, Tychicus, Trophimus, Agabus, Mnason—all of whom are mentioned in Acts and are variously referred to as prophets, teachers, and disciples, but none of whom are called apostles. Only Barnabas, Paul, Matthias, James the Lord’s brother, and the original Twelve are singled out to carry the apostolic appelation.” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary 2:131.)