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Who was St Jude?

One of the twelve apostles, St Jude is possibly the least well known, though famous for his power of intercession on behalf of those in difficult circumstances. Here Glynn MacNiven-Johnston pieces together his fascinating story.

Who was St Jude?

We can be certain about very little concerning St Jude’s life on earth. Even his name is wrong: he, like Judas Iscariot, was called Judah.

We do know that he was one of Christ’s disciples. Two of the twelve were called Judah (in Greek, Judas) and so they had to have other names to distinguish them from each other. One was called Iscariot because of where he came from (Kerioth), and the other was called Thaddeus or Lebbaeus, which could mean that he had a burly chest or that he was big-hearted. It was only later, when the name Judas had the connotations of betrayal, that Judas Thaddeus became Jude.

From the Gospels we know very little about St Jude. He is named as one of the Twelve, as Jude in Luke and John and as Thaddeus in Matthew and Mark. Luke and the Acts of the Apostles refer to him as ‘James’s Jude’, perhaps referring to James the Less, who may have been his brother – but that too is unsure since James (Jacob) was a common name. Normally we would assume that the James referred to was Jude’s father, and some translations use that form, but it was not uncommon for people to be named in reference to another relative who was well-known. In the lists of the Apostles he comes immediately after ‘James son of Alphaeus’, which some have seen as linking him to that James.

Jude may have been one of the ‘brothers’ of the Lord (James, Joseph, Simon and Jude) mentioned in Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3, where people who have grown up with Jesus wonder how he can be speaking with so much authority. If he is that Jude, it would make him a close relative of Jesus’s (the Aramaic word aha is used to describe brothers, cousins and other relatives); but that may have been a different Jude altogether.

Jude is only recorded as speaking once, in John 14:22. At the Last Supper, Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples for what will happen next. Jesus says, ‘in a little while the world will see me no more but you will see me…’ The Jews believed that when the Messiah came, the whole world would see him, which is why Jude asks, ‘Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us and not to the world?’ People have inferred lots of things about Jude’s character from this, but most importantly it shows us is that he knew Jesus to be the Messiah and he believed Jesus could answer his question. The only other appearance of Jude is at Pentecost. According to the Acts, all the disciples were present at Pentecost, and statues of St Jude usually show him with a flame above his head to indicate this.

Jude’s letter

The New Testament also contains the Letter of St Jude which, from early times, tradition has ascribed to the Apostle Jude. Again, there are those who believe from the style and vocabulary that it is a later work, but other scholars say that if it were later it would contain reference to the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70). The early theologians Origen and Tertullian believed it was Jude the Apostle’s own letter, as did Clement of Alexandria, who wrote a commentary on it.

The author of the letter introduces himself as a ‘servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James’. From Acts and the Letter of St Paul to the Galatians we know that James, the brother (i.e., close relative) of the Lord, was one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem and therefore well-known and respected by the Christian communities. We do not know who this letter was sent to (it could apply to all Christians), but it may have been sent to the same people that the Letter of James was sent to. It is also probable that they were Jewish Christians since Jude alludes to Jewish traditional stories from the Book of Enoch (verses 14-15) and the Assumption of Moses (verse 9). The purpose of the letter is to call the community back to faith in its fullness, to live a moral life and not to follow the false teachers who had infiltrated their community.

Traditional stories about St Jude

Tradition has quite a lot to say about St Jude. The Golden Legend, a medieval collection of lives of the saints by Jacobus de Voragine, says that Simon, James the Less and Jude were all brothers, the sons of Alphaeus and Mary of Cleophas (see Luke 19:25). The Eastern Orthodox tradition even gives Jude’s wife’s name, Maryam (another form of Mary). Eusebius, an early historian, speaks of Jude’s grandsons, James and Zoker. He quotes St Hegesippus, a 2nd century writer, who says that the Emperor Domitian had ordered the execution of all the descendents of King David because he was afraid they would claim his throne.

‘And there still survived of the Lord’s family the grandsons of Jude… These were informed against by some heretics as being of David’s line and brought…before Domitian Caesar, who was as afraid of the advent of Christ as Herod had been. (Matthew 3-4) Domitian asked them if they were descended from David and they admitted it. Then he asked them what property they owned and what funds they had at their disposal. They replied that they had only 9,000 denarii between them…[which was] not available in cash but was the estimated value of the twenty-five acres of land, from which they raised the money to pay their taxes and the wherewithal to support themselves by their own toil.’ Then, Hegesippus says, they showed the emperor ‘as proof of their toil, the hardness of their bodies and the calluses impressed on their hands by incessant labour.’ Domitian then asked about Christ and his Kingdom and ‘they explained that it was not of this world or anywhere on earth but angelic and in heaven and would be established at the end of the world when Christ would come in glory to judge the living and the dead and give every man payment according to his conduct. On hearing this Domitian found no fault with them, but despising them as beneath his notice, let them go free and issued orders terminating the persecution of the church in Jerusalem.’

Jude and Agbar

One of the most well-known stories about St Jude begins in Edessa, the capital of a small kingdom in the area of what is now Urfa in southern Turkey. The king of Edessa, Agbar V ‘The Black’, had contracted leprosy and, having heard of Jesus’s miracles, wrote to ask Jesus to come and heal him. Eusebius quotes the letter as well as Jesus’s alleged reply:

Agbar’s letter sent via his messenger, Ananias:

‘Agbar, Ruler of the city of Edessa, to Jesus the Saviour, the good physician, who has appeared in Jerusalem, Greetings –

I have heard about you and about the cures you perform without medicine or herbs. What I have heard is that you make the blind see again and the lame walk, you cleanse lepers, expel unclean spirits and demons, cure those who have suffered from chronic and painful diseases, and raise the dead. On hearing all this about you, I concluded that one of two things must be true – either you are God and came down from heaven to do these things, or you are God’s son doing them. I am therefore writing to ask you to come to me and cure the illness from which I suffer. I have heard that the Jews are treating you badly and wish to cause you harm – my city is very small, but very noble, adequate for both of us to live in peace.’

Jesus’s reply:

‘Blessed is he who has never seen me and yet believes in me. Long ago it was written that those who see me will not believe in me and that those who have not seen me will believe in me and be saved. As to your request that I visit you, it is better for me to stay here and finish the work I was sent to do. After I have finished, then I will be taken up to him who sent me. Then I will send you one of my disciples to heal your disease and bring salvation to you and your people.’for me to stay here and finish the work I was sent to do. After I have finished, then I will be taken up to him who sent me. Then I will send you one of my disciples to heal your disease and bring salvation to you and your people.’

Eusebius says he read these letters in a Greek translation of the original Aramaic and did not question their authenticity. These days they are dismissed as forgeries, although some people believe these were spoken messages which were written down later. In any case, the letters were cherished relics in Edessa and were widely believed to protect the city – so much so that, when the Persians besieged the city, Christ’s letter was held aloft on the city walls and the Persians were defeated. The letters, forgeries or not, have disappeared in the mists of time but are rumoured to be held in a monastery in Kyrgyzstan.

Portrait of Jesus

King Agbar had also commissioned a portrait of Jesus, but the painter was unable to paint him. Jesus, feeling sorry for the man, pressed a cloth to his face and an image miraculously appeared. This was called the mandylion (a small cloth or handkerchief). One tradition says that this cloth was delivered to Agbar by St Jude, and this is one explanation of the large portrait medallion of Jesus that statues of St Jude are shown wearing. The cloth was venerated in Edessa and then, after AD 945, in Constantinople, in the Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom). During the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the cloth disappeared. There are many claims as to what happened to it next. It could be the cloth in the church of San Bartolomeo degli Armeni in Genoa. It has also been linked to the Sudarium, another cloth kept in Oviedo Cathedral.

Preaching and martyrdom

Various sources say that when the disciples went out to the world, Jude went first to Edessa to fulfil Jesus’s promise to Agbar. Eusebius says Jude stayed there in the Jewish quarter with a man called Tobias. According to The Golden Legend, Jude cured Agbar by wiping his face with Christ’s letter and Agbar was converted, as were many other people in Edessa. Jude stayed in Edessa for five years building up the community before moving on to Armenia. The Armenian church identifies St Jude with their St Addai, and the liturgy of Addai and Mari is still in use today in the Eastern Rite. Jude then brought the gospel to Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and Pontus (the Black Sea coast of Turkey) before he met up with Simon, another of the Twelve and possibly Jude’s brother, in Persia (modern Iran), where they began to evangelise together.

In Persia, again according to The Golden Legend, Simon and Jude had to defeat two sorcerers called Zaroes and Arphaxat, who had been driven out of Egypt by Matthew. There is a story that the two Apostles and the sorcerers were asked to predict the outcome of an impending battle. When the Apostles predicted correctly, the crowd turned against Zaroes and Arphaxat, who were only saved when Jude and Simon pleaded for them to be spared. Far from being grateful, however, the sorcerers continued their persecution of Jude and Simon and, at Suanir, when the Apostles refused to sacrifice to the gods, the sorcerers incited a mob and Jude and Simon were martyred. Jude was clubbed into unconsciousness, then had his head cut off with an axe, which is why he is sometimes represented with a club and sometimes with an axe. Simon was sawn into bits. Suanir is identified by some with Colchis on the Black Sea coast of the Republic of Georgia. (Curiously, Colchis is well known in Greek legend as the shrine of the Golden Fleece.)

Jude and Simon were the only two Apostles to be martyred together. Their bones rest under the altar of St Joseph in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, marked by a small, barely visible plaque; in 1548, Pope Paul III granted a plenary indulgence to anyone who visits their tomb on their joint feast day, 28th October.

There are other legendary tales about St Jude which seem highly implausible to modern readers, but this should not blind us to the reality of St Jude’s mission on earth, or to the real conviction people have had of St Jude’s power as an intercessor. Many later saints have had a devotion to Jude, including St Bernard of Clairvaux, who carried a relic of St Jude and was buried with it.

St Jude, Patron of things despaired of

Perhaps the stories are embroidered, perhaps we know very little about his life on earth, but we can be sure that many people have received help through his intercession.

Legend has it that St Jude was distressed no one prayed to him because, since he shared a name with Judas Iscariot, people thought their prayers would be ‘delivered’ to the wrong Judas, to the one who could not help them! So St Jude, this version of the story says, promised to intercede for all those whose situation was hopeless, impossible. He became the saint of last resort. However only Jude amongst the Twelve has such a devoted following. The others are revered, admired, and even imitated, but do not have St Jude’s astonishing reputation as an intercessor. Perhaps it is more likely that he became the saint of the despairing and desperate because the Letter of St Jude speaks of reassuring the doubtful and pulling out those who need to be saved from the fire (Jude 22-23). Whatever the reason, God seems to have allowed St Jude the power to help even where others have failed.


Devotion to St JudeThis blog is extracted from our book Devotion to St Jude. The booklet includes a helpful selection of devotions to St Jude: prayers for particular needs, litany and novenas. The interesting story of his shrine at Faversham, England is also told.

For prayers and devotions to St Jude, order your copy of Devotion to St Jude today.