Who is “Levi the son of Alphaeus” in Mark 2:14?

By Julie M. Smith 

And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphæus sitting at the receipt of custom, and said unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him.”

When a relationship is mentioned (“son of Alphaeus”), it is normally either because:

  1. The relative (in this case, Alphaeus) was known to Mark’s audience.
  2. Mark wants to distinguish the person from others with the same name. (While there is no other Levi in Mark’s Gospel, there could have been another Levi known to Mark’s audience.)

We do not know which is the case here. Either way, this phrase presents a bit of a puzzle since Levi is not mentioned elsewhere in the NT[1] and since there is no “Levi” on the lists of the Twelve.[2] There are several possibilities for what has happened here:

  1. Mark 3:18 refers to James as the “son of Alphaeus.” So:
    • Levi might be the brother of James (which is a helpful data point, but doesn’t solve the problem).
    • “Levi” might be another name for “James.” (Some manuscripts read “James” instead of “Levi” here, but that is almost certainly a later reading.) It was not uncommon for people to be known by more than one name; we know that Jesus himself renamed a disciple on at least one occasion although, unlike with Simon Peter, there is no story in the text describing a renaming of Levi.
    • It is possible that this might not even be the same “Alphaeus;” there could be no relationship whatsoever between Levi and James.
  2. The reason that Levi is not mentioned on any of the lists of the Twelve is because Levi was not one of the Twelve. This story states that Jesus called Levi to follow him but does not mention a specific calling; it is certainly possible that Jesus called Levi to a different role.[3]
  3. Matthew 9:9-13, which is parallel to this story, has a toll collector named Matthew (although he is not called the son of Alphaeus). Because the name Matthew appears on the apostolic lists and he was also a publican, perhaps Levi was another name for Matthew. (This seems to be how the Gospel of Matthew understands this story, but this does not necessarily mean that Mark understood the situation in the same way.)
  4. The word “Levi” could be a tribal marker (“the Levite”) and not a proper name. The idea of a Levite tax collector would be most ironic, since tax collectors were regarded as particularly unclean while Levites needed to be clean to perform the temple rituals. But most scholars do not accept reading “Levite” here since it would be odd for Jesus to call someone without his name being included in the story.

Regardless, the emphasis here is not on Levi’s identity, but the fact that he was a tax collector.[4]

[1]Save the parallel account in Luke 5:27.

[2]See Mark 3:16-18.

[3]Compare Luke 10:1.

[4]See Ben W. Witherington, The Gospel of Mark:  A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 120.