The Claim: The Gospels disagree on the identity of the disciples.
Although all the gospels agree that Jesus was accompanied by twelve close disciples, they don’t agree on who they all were.
Dawkins, Richard. Outgrowing God (pp. 28-29). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Let us examine this claim.
What does the Bible say the names of the disciples were?
The names of the twelve disciples who followed Jesus throughout the Gospels are listed in four different places:
1 And when he had called unto him his twelve disciples, he gave them power against unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease.
2 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;
3 Philip, and Bartholomew; Thomas, and Matthew the publican; James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus;
4 Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him.
16 And Simon he surnamed Peter;
17 And James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder:
18 And Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Canaanite,
19 And Judas Iscariot, which also betrayed him: and they went into an house.
13 And when it was day, he called unto him his disciples: and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles;
14 Simon, (whom he also named Peter,) and Andrew his brother, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew,
15 Matthew and Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon called Zelotes,
16 And Judas the brother of James, and Judas Iscariot, which also was the traitor.
13 And when they were come in, they went up into an upper room, where abode both Peter, and James, and John, and Andrew, Philip, and Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon Zelotes, and Judas the brother of James.
The list in Acts is short one name because of the death of Judas.
So the agreed-upon names of the disciples are Simon (called Peter), James (son of Zebedee), John (the brother of James), Andrew, Philip, Thomas, James (son of Alphaeus), Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot.
Which names are inconsistent?
There is a general consensus that Thaddaeus (in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark) is the same person as Judas, the son of James (in the Gospel of Luke and Acts). This would have been a convenient way of disambiguating him from Judas Iscariot.
This explanation is given further credence by the fact that the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, which were written by eyewitnesses who would have been present while the disambiguation was necessary, record Judas as Thaddeus.
The Gospel of Luke was not written by an eye witness and would most likely have known Thaddaeus only as Judas, since the other Judas had died. This can also explain the instance in Acts, as Acts was also written by Luke.
You might wonder why James’s name was not changed. However, one James was often referred to as a Son of Thunder which may have been used to distinguish between the two.
Matthew is called Levi in Mark 2:14 and Luke 5:27. This is not necessarily an unusual thing. Matthew worked for the Romans as a tax collector. Matthew is a Greek name, and Levi is a Hebrew name. It is not uncommon for people, when dealing with people who speak a different language, to choose another name in the native language of those with whom they are in frequent contact. It is likely that he was Matthew to his Roman friends and employers and Levi to his Hebrew friends and family.
I have a friend who is from Korea. Her name is very difficult to pronounce for English speakers, so she has everyone call her Christy. No one would doubt this is the same person even though she goes by two different names.
Finally, we have Bartholomew introduced as Nathaniel in the Gospel of John. There are two explanations for this. One is that Bartholomew is possibly Nathaniel’s last name. It has the characteristic “bar” meaning “son of” at the beginning, suggesting that it could be a surname. Another theory is that Nathaniel was not one of the twelve disciples who followed Jesus throughout the Gospels, which makes sense because it is the name of one of the many other disciples of Jesus. We only find Nathaniel in the Gospel of John, which has no formal list of disciples. Bartholomew and Nathaniel could simply be two different people, only one of which, Bartholomew, was a disciple.
What other explanation could there be?
If none of the explanations above are convincing, take into account that naming at the time was not necessarily straightforward. For example, we have three different names given for one person in Acts 1:23.
And they appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias.
Acts 1:23 KJV
If I said, “I went to lunch with Joseph and Barsabas had a turkey club, and Justus picked up the bill,” you would be justified in assuming that these were three different people. However, if you knew who I was talking about, you wouldn’t necessarily be confused. You would know I was only talking about one person.
A similar situation can be encountered by people in the American military who are typically called by their last names. I have a friend in the Navy named Emile Hawkins, Jr. He shares this name with his father. His non-military friends call him EJ, his dad calls him Emile, and his military cohorts call him Hawkins, another case of three different names for the same person. If you were to ask me, one of his military friends, and his dad about an interaction we all shared, you might assume we were talking about three different people if you didn’t know any better. He would be “Emile called EJ, whose surname was Hawkins,” using three interchangeable names for one person.
To say that the Gospels do not agree on the names of the disciples is to discount naming conventions of the time, disambiguation, the language and culture of the region, and simple explanations of people being called by different names in different contexts. In contradistinction to Dawkins’s claim, this by no means undermines the reliability of the Bible.