Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Word 'Disciple' in the Bible

I just discovered this bit of information, and thought it worthy of sharing. The Greek word μαθητής (mathetes, disciple, student) appears 261x in the Bible, but only in the NT (i.e., never in the LXX). Furthermore, it appears only in the Gospels and Acts. Here are the numbers.

Matthew: 72x, mostly speaking of the Twelve. Additionally, John the Baptist has disciples (11:2; 14:12), and the Pharisees do too (22:16), and Jesus speaks of a 'disciple' generally (10:24-25), and there do seem to be disciples of Jesus besides the Twelve (cf. 8:21). But it would be interesting to see if Matthew uses the word mathetes to describe followers of Jesus other than the Twelve after it is clear in Matthew's narrative that Jesus has specially commissioned the Twelve as his disciples (which apparently in Matthew happens in 10:2-4, where Matthew names the disciples). On a quick perusal, I did not find any instances.

Mark: 46x. Same issues as above. Interesting that the last appearance of mathetes is 16:7 (i.e., it does not appear in the longer ending of Mark). I'm not making an argument, just an observation. Of course, it doesn't appear in Mark's first chapter, either.

Luke: 37x. Weird that Luke, the longest Gospel, has fewer instances of mathetes than Mark, which Luke almost certainly knew (assuming Marcan priority, with the vast majority of scholars). Does this mean that Luke edited out the word mathetes from his Gospel? Does he have a word that he prefers to mathetes for naming the followers of Jesus? I'll try to think about those issues the next time I read through Luke. I'm not an NT scholar, so very probably if work has been done on this, it would have escaped my notice.

After typing the above, I looked through some of the verses in Luke, with some interesting initial results. Luke does use mathetes in reference to disciples of Jesus other than the Twelve--19:37: at the Triumphal Entry, "the whole crowd of the disciples" were rejoicing. Matthew (21:8-9) has only "crowd", and Mark (11:8) has "many" (πολλοί). Also, at 6:17, immediately after naming the Twelve, Luke tells us that a "large crowd of his disciples" were gathered to hear him. 

Luke is also the Gospel that uses the word ἀπόστολος (apostolos) most frequently, though still not very often: Matthew uses it once (10:2), Mark once (6:30; but see the variant at 3:14), John once (13:16, but not in reference to the Twelve--just a general reference to 'one sent'), and Luke uses it six times (6:13; 9:10; 11:49; 17:5; 22:14; 24:10), at least five times in reference to the Twelve (maybe not 11:49). This of course does not count the many appearances of the word in Acts (28x), some of which do not refer to the Twelve (14:4, 14, in reference to Paul and Barnabas).

Back to mathetes:

John: 78x. I'm not interested right now in looking through these to see if they are always about the Twelve or are more general. A project for later.

Acts: 28x. I believe (from a quick perusal) that it is never used in reference to the Twelve in Acts. Instead, the Twelve are termed 'apostles', and mathetes is used in reference to general believers. See, for instance, ch. 6 (vv. 1, 2, 7), the first chapter where the term appears.

And that's it for the NT. Again, the word 'disciple' never appears in Paul's letters, or anyone else's letters. Christians are called 'saints' or 'believers' or 'brothers' (these terms are also used in Acts), but they are not called 'disciples' (or 'Christians', for the most part).


Anonymous said...

I realize that this post is a year late, but I just came across the topic during a current study. So, the Gospels use the word disciple over 250 times. Add a couple more for the Book of Acts but there is really just naming the disciples themselves. Rather immaterial to the study. Then, the remainder of the Bible does not use the term again. Since the majority of the NT is composed of the letters of Paul-and since he was indeed the Apostle of the Gentiles - I would like to focus on that. Could it be that the focus of discipleship had changed from the time Jesus commanded his followers to give up all they had and immediately follow Him wherever He went? Paul teaches the mystery of the Body of Christ...no one else teaches that. He focus his attention on teaching how important it is for us to work together as a unit not particularly focusing on individual discipleship, but focusing on how important the individual is to the Body! How the Body cannot work well without it's "toe" or "finger". Paul's focus goes from the type of discipleship described by Jesus in the Gospels to a meshing of individuals to work most effectively as a unit. We - as the Body of Christ are encouraged to go out and represent Christ to the world-to be His hands and feet. Represent Jesus to the World. Paul's mentoring of Timothy is an example of mentorship - and encouragement and teaching and admonition to go deeper and remain more grounded - as Timothy was being encouraged to do as he took over responsibilities as the leader of that Body where he was. Paul was NOT taking an unbeliever or a person ignorant of the Truth and turning them to Jesus as the Savior. (discipleship) He was encouraging him in his upcoming ministry - (mentoring). Could THIS be the reason that Paul does not use the term disciple? It is after all a very Jewish word -talmidim- one Paul would be very familiar with. Both the term and the concept behind it. A follower of a particular rabbi or teacher. Before his conversion,Paul himself was a talmidim of Gamaliel. He knew the meaning behind the word and the Apostle to the Gentiles, the one to whom the Mystery Revelation was reveled, the one of whom Peter says"our brother Paul speaks of things HARD to understand" - he choose not to use it. Why? I submit because he came to a different understanding in his teaching of the Body of Christ and how THAT was to be the new normal for working together to bring the lost to become a follower of the GOD/man named Jesus.

Ed Gallagher said...


Thanks for your interest. I have more recently posted something else on this topic that might interest you: http://sanctushieronymus.blogspot.com/search/label/Disciple. It surveys the thoughts of Paul Trebilco who published a book in which he examined the use of the term 'disciple' in the NT.

The view you put forward here is not all that different from what Trebilco says. Well, at least you both are tending in the same direction: Paul had a different concept of 'discipleship' such that this term would not apply to the believers in his churches.