Who and what were the 12 disciples? The gospels are rather vague and confusing, given that this was evidently supposed to be an important group. Part of the problem is that many Jews shared the same few names: about three-quarters of the population in 1st century Judea had either one of six male names Yehudah (rendered "Jude" or "Judas"), Shimon ("Simon"), Ya'aqov ("Jacob" or "James"), Yochanan ("John"), Yoseph ("Joseph"), Yeshua' ("Jesus" or "Joshua") or one of only two female names Maryam ("Mary" or "Miriam") or Shelomith ("Salome"). They would be distinguished by family-names or patronymics, or by nicknames or alternate Greek names. It is difficult to sort out who is the same as who, but this is how I see it:
The number 12 has been considered sacred in many cultures (consider the 12 Olympian gods in Greece), doubtless originally because it is the best integer approximation to the number of lunar months in a solar year, as in the 12 signs into which the Mideasterners and (independently?) the Chinese divided the Zodiac (for purposes of naming the months by the position of the sun). The "12 disciples" are often thought of as reminiscent of the "12 tribes" of Israel, but certainly their expected role was not to procreate whole new nations. Probably the best analogy is to the 12 thesmothetae of Athens.
Athens was ruled by "archons", three of them elected: the basileos ("king", who had ritual roles in opening their festivals, but no political power) who could only be chosen from the royal family; the polemarch ("commander-in-chief" of the armed forces) who could only be chosen from the strategoi (general officers); and the eponymos ("name-giver", since years were named and numbered by his "reign") who could be any citizen (usually the incumbent was re-elected; if not, he was banished). Then there were 12 lesser archons, the thesmothetes chosen yearly by casting lots: the eponymos would assign them "Cabinet portfolios" (if he didn't like one of them, he didn't have to give him an important job). Why 12? It was a convenient, and resonant, number for a moderate-sized panel; 12 is the number on our juries (chosen randomly again) similarly because that has just become the standard number for such a group. The council of 12 disciples was an administrative body for the nascent church: I am impatient with Catholics who think the whole structure of the Church goes back to the very beginning (I met one Catholic who insisted Peter's successor Linus was elected by a "college of cardinals" chosen by Peter, who doubtless gave them all red hats), but equally impatient with those who think Jesus didn't intend to start an "organized religion" at all. Judas Iscariot was the treasurer (and it is insinuated that he embezzled), in charge of a fairly sizable stream of donations, and outflows for charity and travel expenses. Simon Peter was a kind of prime minister. In one episode, the wife of Zebedee, mother of John and James (typically, we are not told her name) asks Jesus to give her sons the highest-ranking posts once he has taken over the world, and Jesus rebuffs her. My cynical take is that the reason for including this in the gospels (whether it is a true story or not; impossible to tell and not very relevant) is to emphasize to second- or third-generation Christians that John, however venerable, was not #1 and therefore, that successors of Peter outrank successors of John.
"Matthew" (Matthaios from Aramaic Matthat which is another fairly common name) is in my view the same person as Mathias, who was "elected" (by casting lots) to replace Judas Iscariot after his treason and suicide. My reasons for thinking they are the same will appear as we go on. The reason for editing the "gospel of Matthew" to make its author one of the original 12, rather than a late "second choice", would be to boost the authority of the book. The reason for identifying him with Levi the tax collector (an identification I think impossible: it would be common for a Jew to have one Semitic given name and also a Greek name, but not to have two Semitic given names) would be that Matthew was still remembered as having been the "chief financial officer" of the early church. Iscariot had to be replaced, because the group needed a treasurer; but afterwards there was no continuing effort to keep the membership at 12.
There were three among the original 12 named Yehudah distinguished as "Judas Iscariot" (ish-keriot is "man of the villages" but thought to be a code-word for Latin sicarius "dagger-man; assassin", a derogatory name for the Zealot sect), "Jude of James" (this would mean "son of" James, not "brother of" as many interpreters have wanted to make it; the word "son" would be omitted and understood in such a context, but not "brother"), and "Thomas Didymus" (Aramaic thoma and Greek didymos both mean "twin", sometimes more specifically the younger-by-minutes of a pair of twins). The given name underlying the nickname "Thomas" is not in the canonical texts, but the Gnostic texts all call him "Judas Thomas"; most of these are quite unreliable (some say or imply that he was the twin of Jesus, which I do not take seriously) but "Acts of Thomas" has good data (and some very dubious stories; but places and rulers in India are given correctly, spelling garbled no worse than usual) which would have been hard for a late forger in the Roman Empire to come by. So I accept Yehudah as his given name.
There were two named Shimon, one give the nickname "Rock" (Aramaic Kepha or Greek Petros "Peter") and the other usually called Zelotes, but in the gospel of John called Simon Iscariot and the father of Judas Iscariot. The Zealot sect followed a different family that also claimed to be the rightful heirs to the Davidite kingship: many are cynical about the Davidite claims, thinking "Oh, nobody knew anymore, and anybody could have called themselves descendants of David", but I don't think that's true, in such a genealogically-conscious society. Few of the pseudo-Messianic "people who claimed to be somebody" of that time actually said they were heirs of David; I don't believe anybody could have gotten away with that, unless his father (and his father before him, and so on) were already known as Davidite heirs. The first of the Zealot line that we hear of is Hezekiah, who was hunted down and killed by Herod years before Herod became king, when he was governor of Galilee under his father Antipater (whose only title was "collector of the tribute" for the Romans). Indicted for murder, Herod appeared before the Sanhedrin with a large armed guard; the Sanhedrin, seeing they could not actually arrest Herod, resolved never to indict any Jews on capital crimes until they could operate without foreign intimidation. This is referred to in the gospels: when Pilate asks Caiaphas and Annas why they are bothering him with an internal Jewish dispute, they say "We have no law to put a man to death". Hezekiah's son Judas of Galilee revolted during the census of 6-7 AD (when Judea was reduced from tributary kingdom to ordinary province; gospel of Luke says Jesus was born then). Judas and his son Simon were crucified, and his home-town of Tzippuri levelled, the whole populace killed or sold into slavery, and rebuilt as the wholly Greek town of Sepphoris (very close to Nazareth).
Some of his family escaped, however: in the late 40's grandchildren of Judas were crucified as a warning to Zealot troublemakers; and in the 70's the resisters at Masada had an heir, Yeshua' of Ginnosaur (another Galilean town not far from Nazareth). Now, Jesus had brothers Judas and Simon, probably born a little after Judas of Galilee and his son Simon were crucified; and Yeshua' of Ginnosaur was born apparently a little after the crucifixion of Jesus (Yeshua'). Those names were hyper-common, yet it is possible the two families did name children after each other's recent dead; it suggests that despite their rival claims, these two families were on mutually respectful terms. My speculation is that the two claims to be "rightful" heir are analogous to a modern split among the Romanovs, who have two claimant to be the "true" tsar now. The senior heir (by primogeniture principals) is disparaged by some Romanov loyalists as the product of an "unequal marriage" (an insufficiently noble wife). Zerubbabel, the Davidite who led the Jews back to Jerusalem, left children back in Babylon, whose descendants were the "exilarchs" (sometimes-important Jewish leaders of the Middle Ages); Chronicles traces them down to a senior heir Hattush, who moved from Babylon to Jerusalem about the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Chronicles says nothing about Zerubbabel remarrying in Palestine and having another family, but it would be expected: prophet Haggai dangerously pushed Zerubbabel to assume the title "king" (so he would need heirs); Zechariah is dark about what happened then, but apparently he was assassinated (to keep the peace with Persia) and the prophets told to shut up. I think Joseph and Jesus were from Zerubbabel's Palestinian family, junior in primogeniture terms to the "Zealot" line from Hattush, but regarding them as the result of an "unequal marriage" (assuming Zerubbabel's first wife was Babylonian, not Jewish).
There were two disciples named Ya'aqov, "James son of Zebedee" (brother of John), and "James son of Alphaeus" (father of one of the Judes) who is called by the nickname Mikron "little", generally rendered "James the Less" (if it is about relative rank within the 12), sometimes thought to mean "the Younger" (but he had a grown son), but maybe it simply means "the Short". Alphaeus (a sacred river in Greece, which vanishes into the underground for part of its course, like the Sarasvati in ancient India) is thought to be the Greek name of someone named Chlopha in Aramaic. There were three women who watched the crucifixion to the end: Mary mother of Jesus, "her sister Mary the wife of Clophas", and Mary Magdalene. Then perhaps three women went into the tomb to do as much embalming as they could before sundown: Joanna is not always listed (perhaps the same as the rich patroness Joanna, wife of a "steward" in the household of Herod Antipas), but there is Mary Magdalene and "Mary the mother of James". Then perhaps three women went back a couple days later to finish up, and found the tomb empty: Salome is not always listed (perhaps the same as a sister of Jesus by that name; certainly not the strip-teasing head-demanding stepdaughter of Antipas!), but there is Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary". This is aggravating, but it is a conventional and sensible interpretation that, although the mother was spared the embalming duties, the "other" Mary and Mary "wife of Clophas" and Mary "mother of James" are all the same person. "Sister" of Mary the mother of Jesus means, we hope, "sister-in-law" (would parents really give two daughters the same name, without any distinguishing nicknames?) so that Alphaeus/Clopha is the uncle of Jesus, and James the Little is his cousin. Catholics want him to be the same person as "James the brother of Jesus" nicknamed Tzaddik "the Righteous" so that the Virgin Mary never had more children, making "brother" mean "cousin"; an alternate excuse is that James the Righteous was a half-brother from a previous marriage of Joseph. Neither of these work: James the Righteous by all accounts was lifelong celibate and had no children, unlike James the Little; and he was the next in line after Jesus, not an older son of Joseph who would then be senior; besides, the gospels say the brothers of Jesus were not believing in his mission and "asked whether he was out of his mind" at a time when the 12 disciples had already been chosen. No, James the Righteous was the heir, not one of the "Cabinet ministers" in the "administration".
There was one with the common name Yochanan "John son of Zebedee", and four with less-common names. Thaddeus, according to "Doctrine of 'Addai", had the Aramaic name 'Addai. The orthodox don't like that book (his reported "Doctrine" is rather heretical), but the story it tells has some historical confirmations: Thaddeus converted king Abgar of Osroene (a tributary to the Parthian Empire, in northern Mesopotamia) and made himself High Priest, and then Regent when the old king passed; Abgar the younger, when he came of age, resented the role of Thaddeus, killed him, and reconverted to paganism. The orthodox view is that the Semitic name of Thaddeus was "Jude" and that he was the same person as "Jude of James": the lists of 12 which include Jude of James omit Thaddeus, and vice versa; but I explain this as arising from the need to find room for Matthew/Mathias, and differing decisions about which forgettable disciple to push out. Many manuscripts also have that Thaddeus was "called Lebbaeus" with a number of scribal variants: perhaps a nickname Libbai "my heart"? There is certainly some confusion here, and I will not pretend to be certain I have straightened it out correctly. "Bartholemew" would seem to be Aramaic bar-Tolmai "son of Ptolemy"; the Ptolemies were the Greek dynasty in Egypt, and "Ptolemy" became a common name even among the lower classes in Egypt, if not so much elsewhere. It is puzzling that he would only be called by the patronymic, without his given name (perhaps he was a descendant of an illegitimate branch of the Ptolemies, and proud of it?) but Nathanael in the gospel of John might be that given name: he was supposed to be one of the very first disciples, so it would be unusual for him not to be in the 12. Simon Peter's brother "Andrew" is only called by the Greek name Andros "the man" which sounds a little odd; but a century later there was a Jewish rebel in Cyrenaica (after Hadrian destroyed Judea, many Jews elsewhere rose up) called "Andros" whose Hebrew name was Adam, and that makes sense. For "Phillip" there is not a clue what name besides Philippos "horse-lover" (name of Alexander the Great's father, and a Herodian king of the Greek-speaking Decapolis) he might have had, but surely he had a Semitic name; maybe it was Yeshua' and it is omitted to avoid confusion? The other "finalist" besides Matthew/Mathias for Iscariot's replacement was "Jesus called Justus" (interestingly, Justus is Latin rather than Greek) who is subsequently called Justus bar-Sabbas, by the nickname and patronymic to avoid the confusing given name, whereas his brother Joseph is called by his given name.
The disciples were supposed to travel in pairs for safety and companionship. There were two pairs of brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew, and James and John the sons of Zebedee, or perhaps three, if Thomas was the younger twin and Thaddeus his older-by-minutes brother, although they might have been just unrelated friends (I would like to construe "Lebbaeus" as a word for the older of a pair of twins, but cannot find any such etymology). There were two father-and-son pairs, Simon and Judas Iscariot, and James the Little and Jude. Phillip and Bartholemew were the other pair, not related but very close friends by all accounts (strengthening the identification of Bartholemew with Nathanael, a friend of Phillip's from before they became disciples). Curiously, in the Middle Ages this was given a homoerotic spin: in the same-sex wedding-liturgies (among the Greek and Celtic churches, but never the Roman!) collected by Boswell, the couples are urged to imitate David and Jonathan, Phillip and Bartholemew, and Sergius and Bacchus. The last two were a pair of lovers in the Roman army, Bacchus a Christian but Sergius a pagan until, when Bacchus was about to be martyred, Sergius insisted on declaring himself a Christian so that he could be martyred too and join Bacchus for eternity. The Greek church has since become quite as homophobic as the Roman, but in medieval times this was an acceptable martyrology story, and Sergei remains a common name among the Russians (many of whom would be horrified to be told of its origin). But although it might suit my propagandistic purposes to believe that Jesus sanctioned a same-sex couple among his disciples, I cannot take it seriously. In Acts, Phillip has been married for a long time, with several daughters who could all prophesy, Luke assures us.
A digression on Acts: the second half of the book is called by scholars the "We Document" from its unself-conscious habit of shifting between "we" whenever Luke the physician is present and "they" whenever he is absent. The "We" book appears to be well-preserved 1st-century material (there are variant texts of Acts with extra material, as much as 40% longer, but the canonical text has been faithfully pruned of such accretions) and genuinely by Luke the physician. The first half of Acts I call the "Bridge Document" and believe to have arisen in two stages. Some sections are notoriously out of chronological order: the executions of Theudas, purported successor to John the Baptist, and then some Zealot followers of the line of Judas of Galilee, date to the late 40's but are mentioned early in Acts, well before Herod Agrippa and the Great Famine of the mid-40's; Ananias is introduced when he shelters the blinded Paul, but his death is described much earlier (if this was a different Ananias, there should have been some introduction about who he was). If the chapters are rearranged in chronological order, I discern a chiasma structure, an ancient narrative framework in which events in the beginning of the story receive symbolic echoes in reverse order at the end of the story. This would indicate that the whole thing was written at one time, which I date to the reign of Trajan (the centurion converted by Peter is said to be of the Italica regiment, as if we should care what unit he was from; but the colony of Italica in Spain was the home-town of emperor Trajan, who expresses a don't-ask-don't-tell semi-tolerance of Christians, as long as they don't make trouble, in correspondence with Pliny); and that it was composed to fit precisely where we find it, as a "bridge" to span from the Resurrection to the beginning of the We Document. But then it was edited, to the injury of its chronology and structure (the second imprisonment of Peter was supposed to be a late symbolic echo of the first one; it is clumsy as well as historically inaccurate to put them one right after the other), at some time when the sequence of historical events had faded from memory.
In the We Document, Phillip is introduced (the first time he appears in that document; of course the Bridge Document which had already talked about Phillip a lot was not present when the We Document was written) as one of "the seven". The author of the Bridge Document is puzzled by this and invents a new list of "seven" who supposedly liaise between the Jewish and Greek Christians, at a time when Greek Christians did not yet exist, and they all have Greek names only. This gives rise to some questioning in the orthodox literature about whether the Phillip in "the seven" was or was not the same person as the Phillip in "the twelve". I think this was all just a misunderstanding: by "the seven" Luke simply meant the surviving members of "the twelve". By that time, evidently, six of the twelve were gone, with Matthew/Mathias the only replacement. We know that Judas Iscariot was dead, and Simon the Zealot reportedly went off to Egypt after what happened to his son (maybe he had died of natural causes, being from the older generation, or maybe he had cut off all contact with the Christians); James son of Zebedee had been executed by Herod Agrippa, and while Acts does not mention it, Thaddeus had been executed by Abgar the younger by this time. The other two who seem to have disappeared are James the Little and his son Jude the Obscure (who has become the patron saint of Lost Causes, on the theory that he must have a lot of untapped Divine Grace at his disposal, as the most neglected of the 12). My guess is that they just died, perhaps during the Great Famine of the 40's, during which few groups of Jews would have failed to take some casualties. There is a very late story in which they were martyred in lower Mesopotamia, but it was never widely circulated and has little credibility.
The shrine of Campostella in Spain has a very old skeleton, from someone who was burned alive, kept in a deep-underground crypt and purporting to be James the Little, identified at Campostella with James the Righteous (brother of Jesus). Oddly, when this shrine started advertising itself as a holy pilgrimage site (it was enormously popular in medieval times), the monks did not exhibit the skeleton and were coy about whether they had it; rather than any story about how St. James (Santiago or San Diego in Spanish) had gotten there, the story was that the abbot had seen St. James in a vision of a field of stars (hence Campostella) telling him that anyone who visited this holy place would be blessed (multiple miraculous healings of course followed). But a crusader brought back from the Mideast the purported skeleton of St. James, embarrassing the monks who had to admit that they already had a skeleton. The knight hadn't meant to make trouble: his understanding had been that the vision of Campostella revealed where St. James wanted to be buried, not where he already was. No matter: the new skeleton was a victim of beheading, and therefore must be James the Greater (son of Zebedee, beheaded by Herod Agrippa), while the old one was James the Little (it had not previously been clear which St. James they were claiming), so now Campostella was doubly blessed. A popular theory, which I incline to believe, is that the original skeleton was actually that of Priscillian, a highly-revered Spanish monk of the 4th century who became the first Christian burned for heresy, not by order of the Church but by a usurping emperor Magnus Maximus (from Britain, also ruled Gaul and Spain for a while) who did not like his preaching of communism (Maximus was battling the Bagaudae, a proto-Marxist movement who thought the rich should be forcibly dispossessed of their wealth). This would explain why the remains were so deeply concealed.
The "seven" were paired differently than the "twelve" had been: Phillip and Bartholemew were inseparable, but Peter was now paired with John, staying put in Jerusalem with James the Righteous as the central administration, and Andrew was now with Matthew, while Thomas was the odd man out, travelling alone (tsk, tsk) to India where he came to a bad end. The community Thomas founded in India was mostly out of touch with other Christians, though briefly reported as being in communion with the heretical Nestorian church of the East in medieval times. By the time the Portuguese re-discovered them, they were rather thoroughly Hinduized, seeing Jesus as one more avatar of the God they did not hesitate to address as Rama. The Jesuits burned thousands of them as heretics, and burned as many of their books as they could get; Portugal only held the small enclave of Goa, but neighboring rulers learned that they could curry favor by turning over people or books from this sect. Some modern Christians in India now claim to be descended from the Thomas Christians, describing them as Protestants of the sola scriptura type; this is obviously fictional, and I for one would dearly love to see what the "gospel of Thomas" actually looked like in India.
According to "Acts of John" (though all non-canonical "Acts" of this apostle or that need to be taken with a grain of salt), John accompanied Peter to Rome, but then went back (smart move!) and lived deep into his eighties, dying peaceably in Ephesus. We have three accounts of what happened to Andrew. "Acts of Andrew and Matthew" has those two going to Ethiopia (following up on Phillip's contact with an official there, specially mentioned in the canonical Acts because it was so successful, the church becoming a state religion in Ethiopia long before it did in Rome) and then into darkest Africa, where they were boiled alive and eaten by cannibals. "Acts of Andrew and Mathias" (the names "Matthew" and "Mathias" treated as interchangeable) has them going instead to Scythia and then into the wildest steppes of central Asia, where they were boiled alive and eaten by cannibals. These appear to be the same story, despite the confusion about which way they went. But later, the story was that Andrew went alone (tsk, tsk) to Byzantium where he was crucified, asking as a last favor that he be nailed to an X-shaped cross because he did not deserve to have his death be exactly like that of Jesus. This is supposed to explain the flag of Byzantium, which actually arose because it was the merger of four smaller villages (later called the Red, Blue, Green, and White quarters of Constantinople from the colors of their teams in the Hippodrome, symbolic of Fire, Water, Earth, and Air). Scotland had the same flag, again because it arose as a fourfold merger (of Dalriad, Pictavia, Strathclyde, and Lothian), but re-explained as invoking Andrew as their patron saint. This story, however, is purest propaganda: the bishops of Byzantium had been minor back-woods prelates, but were now the Patriarchs of Constantinople, and needed an apostolic founder to compete with the Patriarchs of Rome, successors to Peter.
The oldest story about Phillip is that he died of a broken heart at Hierapolis in Asia Minor, having heard of the death of Bartholemew and praying to be re-united with him. Subsequent generations decided that it would be a better story if he was martyred. But how did Bartholemew die? He was the most martyred of all disciples, killed a dozen different ways in a dozen different places if you believe the stories. Eisenman found a surprising solution: Josephus mentions a bar-Tolmai as a respected general among the Jewish rebels, who died valiantly fighting the Romans. This is the only other known occurrence of someone going by that patronymic. It is plain why the Christians would want to forget about any connection between them and the Zealot rebels, but why wouldn't some of them have fought on that side? The commander of Yeshua' of Ginnosaur's forces at Masada was Eleazar bar-Ya'ir "Lazarus son of Jairus" and, although Eisenman's view that these are the "Lazarus" and "Jairus" of the gospels is not a popular one, I am inclined to accept it.
It would help to explain the four very different versions of the story in the canonical gospels. In John we get the famous scene of Jesus miraculously raising Lazarus from the dead. In Luke, however, Lazarus is the name of a character in a parable about the afterlife, in which resurrection only comes up as a hypothetical; no other character is named in any other parable. In Mark, there is an erasure "And they came to Jericho... And as they were leaving Jericho" which we can now fill in. Morton Smith discovered a letter from Clement of Alexandria (the Patriarchs of Alexandria were successors of Mark) responding to an inquiry about a version of the gospel of Mark among the Carpocratians (Carpocrates taught communism and sex-magic; we should probably think of "typical cult with exploitative guru" more than of "hippie-dippie free-love commune"), in which Lazarus is sealed in a tomb, dressed in a white robe, by Jesus, who comes back days later to bring him out and give him secret teachings-- and then take his robe off and lie with him "skin to skin". Clement says the original Mark did have that Lazarus story, except for the "skin to skin" part which he angrily denies, and says that this is why the passage is omitted from the public text, "for not all things are for all ears". Smith was accused of forging "Secret Mark", but this appears impossible, and arose because Smith was cantankerous and made a lot of enemies; he was gay, and wanted the "skin to skin" verse also to be genuine, despite Clement's denial. I cannot take that seriously: why wouldn't Clement have just denied the whole thing if he was going to lie? Similarly, if Smith had forged this, why the extra complication of having Clement accept one part and deny another? The Ockham's Razor explanation is that Clement is being straightforward about what Mark's version of the Lazarus story was and was not; the parable in Luke would be a slightly garbled version of the teachings Jesus gave him before the tomb ritual (the garbling is that “Eleazar” in the parable was surely not the name of the poor beggar, rather, that of the spoiled rich boy who repents too late). In Matthew there is no Lazarus, just Jairus "the head of the synagogue", whose daughter Jesus raises from the dead. That sister of Eleazar is surely Mary Magdalene; elsewhere Jesus cures her by "casting seven devils out" (i.e., curing a severe mental illness) or redeeming her from a life of prostitution (surely not out of economic necessity, if her daddy was that rich). These are different ways of saying the same thing: her "insanity" was an unacceptable sexual libertinism; she was as good as dead in her brother's eyes until Jesus changed her, perhaps with the same ritual of burying the old Mary and raising up a new one, which her brother then also wanted to undergo. There is more here than meets the eye.