SEARCH FOR THE TWLEVE APOSTLES
by William Steuart McBirnire, Ph.D.
THIS DISCIPLE remains a figure of mystery. Not one of the
original Twelve, he was later chosen to take the place of Judas.
Some scholars as David Smith and G.Campbell Morgan have
questioned the manner of his choosing. Because of the silence of
the Scriptures about his later ministry they have concluded the
Eleven were hasty in their election of Matthias. Their reasoning
goes that Paul should have been chosen, and that the disciples
were moving ahead of the leading of the Spirit. We must reject
this idea as unrealistic. Pau's conversion did not occur until a
very long time after the date of Matthias' election, and Paul's
ministry as an Apostle was yet further removed in time. Paul had
to endure years of obscurity in Tarsus after his conversion until
he became a missionary. During this time James the Great had also
been killed by Herod, thus leaving another vacancy among the
Twelve. Paul was never accepted as one of the original Apostles;
nor indeed could he have been since he did not know Christ in the
flesh. The purpose of an Apostle was stated on the occasion of
the election of Matthias by Peter:
"Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time
that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the
baptism of John until that same day that He was taken up from us,
must one be ordained to be a witness with us of His resurrection
... and they prayed, 'Thou Lord who knowest the hearts of all men
show which of these two thou has chosen ... and the lot fell on
Matthias and he was numbered with the eleven Apostles." (Acts
Years later, the Apostle John referred to the New Jerusalem
as having, "twelve foundations, and in them the names of the
twelve Apostles" (Rev.21:14). This clearly affirms the importance
of Matthias, by implication.
Dr.Goodspeed says it was James, the brother of Jesus Christ,
who actually took Judas' place, being named by Paul (in Galatians
1:19; 2:9) as a leader and "pillar" of the church. But this is
suspect on two grounds. First, Goodspeed's identification of
James as an Apostle does not meet the qualifications set forth
(above) by Peter, since James the brother of Jesus was not
converted until after the resurrection, and therefore he could
not have been a witness of His teachings. Second, Dr.Goodspeed's
theories of the identity of the authorship of the book of James
are at variance with most other equally competent commentators,
and therefore it is probable that his identification of Jesus'
brother James as an Apostle in the sense that the Eleven were is
open to question, though this James was also an apostle in the
sense that others were who were not of the Eleven.
WHAT EARLY CHRISTIAN WRITERS HAVE SAID ABOUT MATTHIAS
Clement of Alexandria identifies Matthias with Zaccheus.
This is impossible since Zaccheus was never a disciple of Jesus
in the sense that the other Apostles were. And furthermore,
Zaccheus could not have witnessed as to the teachings of Jesus
"beginning with the baptism of John" (Acts 1:22). Clement writes
that Matthias was remarkable for teaching the necessity of
mortifying the flesh with its irregular passions and desires.
("Lives of the Saints," Rev.Hugo Hoever, pp.84,85).
Eusebius suggests that Matthias had been one of the Seventy
sent out by Jesus (Luke 10:1). This is entirely possible. In this
role Matthias must have had the opportunity to show qualities of
leadership which impressed the Eleven.
"The Traditions of Matthias" is quoted by Clement in A.D.
190-210. Dr.Goodspeed estimates this apocryphal work to have been
written shortly before this period, but fully a century after the
lifetime of Matthias (Goodspeed, "The Twelve"). This would
indicate only a traditional value in this apocryphal story, but
it is interesting to know that it is comparatively early, and
that it at least reveals Matthias to have been important in the
thinking of some early Christians.
Matthias is one of the five Apostles credited by Armenian
tradition with evangelizing Armenia. These five were Thaddaeus,
Bartholomew, Simon the Cananaean, Andrew and Matthias. (ISBE,
Budge, in his "Contendings of the Twelve" records an
apocryphal tradition which tells of Matthias being imprisoned and
blinded by the Ethiopian cannibals (Budge, Con. Ap. II, 183, 184,
287-88). This story claims he was rescued by St.Andrew.
It is interesting to note that there must have been two
countries called "Ethiopia" in Biblical times. The one in Africa
is the one we know today. Local traditions there still affirm
that the Ethiopian Eunuch who was led to Christ and baptized by
Philip was the founder of the church which survives to this day.
Ethiopian churches are Coptic churches which bear an historical
tradition in common with the Copts of Egypt.
The other Ethiopia where St.Matthias is said to have
encountered cannibalism, is not altogether identifiable today;
but it seems to have been one of the provinces of Mesopotamia or
Armenia. Little historic evidence exists that cannibalism was
ever regularly practiced in this Ethiopia though there is no
proof that in isolated instances it might not have indeed
occurred. To this writer's certain knowledge, cannibalism still
exists in many parts of Africa today. There are some indications
that ritualistic cannibalism (eating human flesh for the sake of
some supposed benefit to the eater, i.e., eating the heart of a
captured warrior to gain the victim's bravery) was practiced in
ancient Britain (it is not known very well, but some of the
Indian tribes did dwell in Britain for a time - Keith Hunt) and
among the Mexican and American Indians before the Spanish
Conquest. Even among starving America degenerates cannibalism has
at times been known. Thus we cannot say cannibals did not exist
in this Middle Eastern "Ethiopia."
According to the Martyrdom of St.Matthias, he was sent to
Damascus, and died at Phaleaon which is a city of Judea (Budge,
II 289-94.) Other sources mention Jerusalem as the place of
Matthias' ministry and burial. That tradition is that he was
stoned to death there by the Jews (Encyclopaedia Britannica,
Irenaeus refers to Matthias as being "ordained" in the place
No trace is left of an apocryphal "Gospel According to
Matthias." It was a heretical work referred to by Origen (Hom. on
Luke i) and Eusebius. (Eusebius HE 111 25, 6).
The gnostic Basilides (133 A.D.) and his son Isadlore
claimed to ground their doctrine in the Gospel of Basilides on
the teaching Matthias received directly from Jesus (Hippol.,
7.20) (cf Hennecke, Neutestamentlicke Apokryphen, 167).
According to ancient church tradition as recorded in "Sacred
and Legendary Art" (Anna Jameson, p.263), Matthias suffered
martyrdom at the hands of the Jews either by lance or by the axe.
Roman Catholic tradition concerning the death and burial of
Matthias indicates that he preached and suffered martyrdom in
Judea, but these sources acknowledge that some early writers
indicate that Matthias was martyred at Colchis, and still others
at Sebastopol in A.D.64. They aso indicate that the body of
Matthias was kept in Jerusalemn and later taken to Rome by St.
Helena from which some relies (bones) were afterward transported
to Treves (now Prier] in Germany, ("A Traveller's Guide to Saints
in Europe," Mary Sharp p.153).
Dorman Ncwnnan writing in 1685 acknowledges many of these
traditions as follows:
"In the 51 year of our Lord, he died at a place called
Sebastopol and was buried near the temple of the Sun. The Greeks,
recorded herein by many Antiquaries tell us that he was crucified
and his body was said to have been kept a long time in Jerusalem,
thence transported to Rome by Queen Helena, and there parts are
venerated to this day (i.e.1685) though others with great
eagerness contend that his relics were brought to and are still
preserved in Trier in Germany" ("The Lives and Deaths of the Holy
Apostles," Dorman Newman).
THE PRESENT BURIAL PLACES OF THE RELICS
The visitor to Trier may obtain an extremely well written
local "Guide to the Monuments" (by Eberhard Zahn p.49,51). It
"When in 1127 relics of the Apostle Matthias were found, the
veneration of St.Eucharius was soon transferred to St.Matthias.
Increasing pilgrimages to the tomb of the Apostle demanded a new
building which was begun in 1127 and consecrated in 1148 by Pope
The Matthias-church is still a center of pilgrimage to the tombs
of the first holy bishops, St.Eucharius and St.Valerius, and to
the recently reinstalled sepulchre of the Apostle Matthias under
the intersection of the nave and the transepts. Thus this church
preserves traditions from antique times until our present days."
The reliquary containing the bones of Matthias is a noted
tourist attraction in Trier. When the writer visited this ancient
Roman city, he found that this burial was spoken of in local
museum publications as "the only body of an Apostle to be buried
north of the Alps." In 1966 on the occasion of his first visit to
Trier this writer was shown the relics of Matthias which were
then kept in a golden sarcophagus located in a side chapel
attached to the Monastery church of St.Matthias.
On the occasion of a more recent visit (1971) it was
observed that a new sarcophagus of white and dark gray marble had
been placed in front of the main altar in the larger church
building. The white marble part of the new sarcophagus is carved
into a life-sized image of the Apostle recumbent upon the gray
marble reliquary now containing the bones. Thus, as is also true
in the case of the head of St.Andrew, Apostolic relics have been
moved again in the last ten years! The visitor to Europe can
visit two burial sites for Matthias, both described as authentic
by Roman Catholic authorities. Knowing the penchant of various
relic-seeking religious groups in the Middle Ages for fragmenting
the bodies or relics of Apostles, there need be little doubt that
both Rome and Trier contain parts of the body of Matthias, if in
fact his body was preserved and transported as the records
indicate. Admittedly there is a great deal of room for mistakes
to have been made at several of the important steps of the
transmission of these relics.
Queen Helena, who first moved them, was as eager a believer
as any who have ever lived. She had unlimited power and wealth,
with a faith to match. One can hardly believe that she was as
critical a collector of Apostolic relics, and for that matter
sacred places, as modern scholarship could wish. Her "discovery"
of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, for example, was based upon a
vision she was reputed to have had. One can admire her piety,
determination, and her indefatigable zeal to recover as much as
she could of original first century Apostolic associations. But
it is certain that she was at times mistaken.
A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY
A synthesis of information about Matthias would indicate the
As one of the earliest followers of Jesus, Matthias was
prominent among the Seventy. He had apparently accompanied the
Twelve Apostles on numerous occasions and very possibly may have
been at first a disciples of John the Baptist as were St.John and
St.Andrew. He was certainly elected to take the place of Judas
immediately after the ascension of Jesus. Therefore, he was
present in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost and took a prominent
part in the turbulent and thrilling days of the expansion of
early Christianity. As a Jew he would naturally have gone forth
from Jerusalem to minister to the portion of the far-flung
diaspora of Israel. There were colonies of Jews and other Hebrews
to be found in practically every center of population throughout
the Middle East. There is therefore no difficulty in accepting
the tradition of his apostleship in regions of Armenia, and of
the probability of great peril which befell him in the cities of
Colchis, Sebastopol and elsewhere. It is certainly possible that
he may at one turn have been aided by St.Andrew since Apostles
often went forth in pairs.
One can see him returning to Jerusalem, a battered witness
of dangerous missionary experience. Perhaps upon his return he
found a greater antagonism toward Christianity among the Jews
than when he had left. In any case, the antagonism proved more
dangerous than before and ultimately it was fatal to him. One can
also accept the possibility that later Queen Helena transferred
his remains to Rome, although she was much fonder of
Constantinople than of Rome. In any case, she may have initiated
the preservation and transference of the body of St.Matthias.
There is a systematic tradition of the western movement of
almost all Apostolic relics. Three factors contribute to this:
(1) The collecting zeal of St.Helena and others. (2) The imminent
peril to the Christian churches and the Apostolic relics by the
invading Persians in the fifth and sixth centuries. (3) The
values placed upon relics and the need to safeguard them which
was universally shared by churchmen in the Middle Ages.
These three factors rescued relics which were believed to
have been authentic and transported them to areas which were
considered safer than the original tombs or the secondary burial
places, such as Constantinople itself. One cannot overlook the
fact that the Eastern Roman Empire frequently sought to
strengthen alliances with Rome and the Roman Catholic Church.
Relics of Apostles were considered as extremely valuable
political chessmen, which is one reason they have been so well
preserved unto this day.
In any case, the relics of Matthias seem to have found their
final resting places in both Rome and Trier where they can still
Entered on this Website April 2008