Let’s begin by stating the obvious. There were more than 12 followers of Jesus when the 12 were called. It’s actually written in Luke 6:12, where it says Jesus spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose 12 of them for special training. There could have been 50-100 disciples from the area around Capernaum following this unusual miracle-working Jewish rabbi at that stage. We don’t know.
So why did he choose these particular 12 men? Actually, he didn’t. Jesus was essentially receiving instructions from his father through the night as to who of his many followers had the right gifting and character to see his mission expand as per the heavenly planning. Jesus was fully human so had to pray and then listen, like the rest of us. This was therefore the Father’s choice not that of Jesus alone (John 5:19). But I digress.
The occupations of the men give us a clue to their character. Their character gives us a clue as to why they were chosen. The title of this blog gives you a hint.
Four of the men, Peter, Andrew, James and John, were fishermen. This meant they were private owners of boats working with extended family (Matthew 4:18-22). This was clearly a business venture. They were not employees.
Thomas, Nathaniel (probably the guy named Bartholomew in Matthew’s list of disciples) and Philip could have also been fishermen. There is a first clue in John 21:1-3. In this passage Peter, Thomas, Nathaniel, James, John and two other un-named disciples all decided to go fishing together. This suggests that they could also have been fishermen. However, we don’t know for sure.
The second clue is that Philip was from Bethsaida (John 1:44), also the hometown of Peter and Andrew. We are not told anything about his occupation. The only clue is his village. Excavations have shown that Bethsaida was a just a small fishing village right at the top of Lake Galilee. Philips’s occupation would therefore have been as a manual worker of some sort, most likely a fisherman.
Judas, son of Simon Iscariot (John 6:71), was a probably a locksmith by trade as he was the keeper of the money chest (John 12:6). The word Iscariot is probably not his last name but derives either from the place where he was from (Kerioth, just south of Hebron), or from the Hebrew word for lock.
Matthew (also called Levi in Mark 2:14) was a traitorous tax collector and therefore probably the wealthiest businessman in Capernaum. He had lots of seedy friends (Matthew 9:10) and, once he changed life direction, could have easily started funding Jesus’ ministry. But we don’t know.
Next is James/Jacob the son of Alphaeus, James/Jacob is also referred to as James the younger (Mark 15:40). He could have been Matthew’s cousin as Matthew’s father had the same name (Mark 2:14). They are never referred to as brothers in the New Testament so my guess is that they were cousins. He therefore would have also been very familiar with the business practices of Matthew.
Next is Thaddaeus. Thaddeus is also called Lebbaeus or Judas, son of James. We know little of this man or his occupation. His three different names don’t help! At a stretch he could be the son of James (the elder) and therefore the grandson of Zebedee. If so then he was a very young man, probably a teenager, and an apprentice fisherman in the family business. But we will never know.
That leaves Simon who was called both the Canaanite (Matthew 10: 4) and the zealot (Luke 6:15). This implies he was either a very passionate person or a previous member of a band of radical Jewish patriots who plotted against Roman rule. My guess is that it was the latter, but we will never know for sure. What we do know is that he was a very passionate person and therefore would have been an excellent choice for furthering the Good News.
So, there’s the list and my best guess at their occupations. The fact that most worked with their hands and were self-employed suggests they were both hard workers and risk takers. They were not the comfort seeking type. They were used to the ups and downs of a subsistence life far from the centre of Jewish power and refined culture. They had little to lose. This was an ideal skill set for the daunting task ahead of them.
We see the same pattern in the vast and rapidly growing mass movements of people around the world who are now coming to Jesus in developing countries. It’s the rejected, the strugglers, those that live on the fringe, the risk takers and the passionate who become modern apostles and leaders of thousands and millions of new believers. When these movements take off in the Western world, as I believe they will this century, we will see the same pattern. The new leaders will not come from the existing church, but from the as-yet unsaved fringes of society.