Names were fluid among early Christians. Paul and Saul, Peter and Cephas, Matthew and Levi, Joseph and Barnabas, James and Stephen…a tangled web indeed!
Why should such a phenomenon happen? There are various quasi-apologetics that attempt to solve this puzzle, including the Jews-often-had-Greek-names explanation.
From my perspective, much of this name confusion is explained by a couple impulses among Jewish Christians:
- As the religion evolved, prominent characters in the original stories were replaced with newer ones, who reflected the day’s leaders.
- Straw man characters were created, and filled with attributes of former leaders, now fallen from grace. Simon Magus is one example of this.
I believe the Apostle Jude, who was also called Thaddeus and Judas, is a key piece in this puzzle. This Jude, who shows up in the Gospels and Acts, also went by Thaddeus; this name would have been interpreted as Theudas by later outsiders, including Josephus.
Recall the story of Theudas: a messianic leader in the early to mid 40s, who had numerous followers. He took his disciples to the Jordan River and performed various water rituals, including parting the river. His religious movement must have irritated Roman procurator Cuspius Fadus, because Fadus sent soldiers to behead Theudas, break up the cult, and bring his head back to Jerusalem.
Sounds familiar, yes? This is strikingly similar to the story of John the Baptist. Throw in some legend and dramatic license, and the literary conversion from Theudas to John the Baptist is self-evident. Recall that Clement of Alexandria tells us that Theudas and the Apostle Paul had a student-teacher relationship (Stromateis 7.17), and what it looks like is that the stories of Theudas and Paul were altered to render a Gospel story which featured composite characters who resembled secular figures plucked from the annals.
Thaddeus’s rearranged name looks remarkably like Theudas. Indeed, I believe the two are the same person. There were evolving traditions surrounding Jude and Thaddeus. In Mark 3:18 and Matthew 10:3, Jude is omitted, and replaced with Thaddeus. Yet, Jude is referred to as an apostle in the Gospels of Luke (Lk 6:16), John (Jn 14:22), and Acts (Acts 1:13). It is easy to understand why later scribes might have done this, especially considering how sullied the name Judas (the long form of Jude) became.
Tradition holds that Thaddeus came from Edessa, which is 250 miles East of Tarsus, in modern Turkey (Syria at the time). In the Epistle of Jude, Judas-Thaddeus called himself the brother of James, and in some cases, specifically the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jude was the brother of Jesus! Jude held such a revered position in the early church that he got his own book in the New Testament.
The most (in)famous Judas in Christianity is Judas Iscariot, whose last name seems an anagram of the Sicarii, those religious fanatics who roamed Judea in the 1st century with curved blades, ready to kill or circumcise anyone who lacked reverence to the holy texts. Judas is the last disciple selected in Mark, which is interesting in light of Mark 9:35, which has Jesus telling his disciples that the last shall be first.
In Simon vs. Judas, I pointed out an intriguing alternative tradition: for the Basilideans, and later Muslims, Simon of Cyrene inherited the Spirit from Jesus (or was simply crucified in place of Jesus) prior to crucifixion. Yet in the Islamic text, the Gospel of Barnabas, Judas is crucified in place of Jesus, so that Jesus can perform final cleanup tasks prior to departing earth (or at least Judea!).
This difference might be chalked up to frivolous license taken by later scribes; my speculation is that these were separate traditions which referred to and revered separate people; the most revered one would be the one who played the key role to help the Gospel Jesus trick the rulers (Mark 3:22-26) of the Earth to divide on themselves, and thus open a pathway (John 14:6) for believers to get out of the lower realms and to the Pleroma (or at least something better than the current Sphere).
The fact that Judas-Thaddeus is identified as an early follower of John the Baptist is relevant here, as such an explicit link may indicate that John and Judas share the same root person. Another alternative is that Theudas/Thaddeus were followers of John the Baptist, and met a similar fate.
Jude and Paul
Consider a passage from the Epistle of Jude:
For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you…Though you already know all this, I want to remind you that the Lord at one time delivered his people out of Egypt, but later destroyed those who did not believe.
Jude shares a similar political sentiment as Paul that some have injected themselves into Christian communities and corrupted them, such as Galatians 2:4
This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves
The difference between Paul and Jude comes because the two seem diametrically opposed in their theological concerns (various parts of Galatians paint a picture of Paul as an adversary to Jude’s concerns, and vice versa).
Jude even uses a Greek term, skotous, which refers to darkness, and which is almost exclusively reserved for the Pauline letters; I think it is clear Jude is writing with Paul in mind. This term is used in the context of “wandering stars” and “wild waves of the sea” in Jude 1:13, which would seem to refer to Marcionite communities, as Marcion (Paul’s most zealous student) was presumed to be a mariner.
It is interesting that Jude invokes Egypt in his description of those infiltrators, especially considering that Acts of the Apostles 21:38 specifically equates Paul to the Egyptian whom Josephus described in Wars and Antiquities. The fact that Josephus conveys that the Egyptian stirred up the masses and then escaped from Judea is fascinating here, as both the Simon of Cyrene and Judas traditions have those characters assisting Jesus in escaping the cross. Likewise, interesting traditions about both of these characters rang prominent in Egypt, specifically with the Sethians and Basilideans, both groups explicitly linked to Egypt.
It seems that altered histories, either conveyed by original apostles or lifted straight out of Josephus and other accounts, were reworked to cast the revered leader du jour in the best light possible, and often as a method to sanitize and synthesize a variety of Judean leaders, who lived decades or centuries earlier, and whose theologies were out of fashion by the time later writers were crafting the Gospels.