When Did Jesus Call the First Apostles?
Sometime ago a gentleman wrote our offices asking how to resolve the question skeptics occasionally raise concerning when Jesus called the first apostles. Allegedly, John’s version of the calling (1:35-42) contradicts the synoptists’ accounts (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-11). According to John, two disciples (one of which was Andrew—1:40) were following John the Baptizer. Then, after hearing Jesus, “the Lamb of God,” they followed Him “and remained with him that day” (1:39). Andrew also brought his brother Peter to meet Jesus at this time (1:40-42). Matthew, Mark, and Luke indicate, however, that Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James, and John while they were out fishing on the Sea of Galilee. Are these contradictory accounts of Christ’s calling of the apostles, or is there some rational explanation for their differences?
The reason for the disparities in these stories is not because they are contradictory (as Paul Carson alleged in his 1995 article, “New Testament Contradictions”), but because John is describing a totally separate incident from the one the synoptists describe. John places Andrew, Peter, and the unnamed disciple (who very likely was John himself; see McGarvey, n.d., p. 109) in Judea (cf. John 1:19,28), whereas the synoptists describe an event that took place in Galilee (Matthew 4:18; Mark 1:16; Luke 5:1). What’s more, the call for Peter, Andrew, James, and John to become “fishers of men” (i.e., apostles) in the synoptics is absent in John 1. As Luther noted: “John’s theme is not the calling of the apostles into office; it is there congenial association with Christ” (as quoted in Morris, 1995, p. 136). In John, “[t]he disciples of John [the Baptizer—EL] recognize the Messiah and spontaneously attach themselves to him” (Morris, p. 136). In the synoptics, the disciples clearly were called to begin a life of service as apostles (Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17; Luke 5:10). At least two other differences in these accounts are evident: (1) In John 1, Andrew is with an unnamed disciple, not Peter (whom he later finds and informs that he had “found” the Messiah), whereas in the synoptics, Peter and Andrew are called together; (2) James and John are called together in the synoptics, whereas in John 1, James is nowhere mentioned, while John is likely the unnamed disciple (John 1:37).
The skeptic’s charge that John contradicts Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ calling of the apostles is unwarranted. John actually referred to a different circumstance altogether. John records Peter and Andrew’s first meeting with the Christ. The synoptists, however, testify of a later meeting, when Jesus called them at the Sea of Galilee to become “fishers of men.” Once again, the problem is not with the Bible writers, but with the Bible critic.
Carson, Paul (1995), “New Testament Contradictions,” The Secular Web, [On-line], URL: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/paul_carlson/nt_contradictions.html.
McGarvey, J.W. (no date), The Fourfold Gospel (Cincinnati, OH: Standard).
Morris, Leon (1995), The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), revised edition.