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.


Unknown said...

Great article, thank you very much for sharing. To the previous comments, I definitely appreciate and understand your perspective through your sharing it. However, Paul did not usher in anything new, He merely thought the same things Christ thought. Making someone into a disciples of Christ, that concept hasn’t changed. Mentoring someone into leadership as Paul did with Timothy (who was already a disciple) is totally different from making a disciple. Paul was passing on his wisdom and knowledge to Timothy, as we are all called to do. The bottom line is this: Are we disciples of Paul or of Jesus Christ?

Your Brother In Christ - Kerwin

Bob said...

This is a very "late" comment, but I was brought to your page via searching he term "disciple" as used in the NT and early church. I am completing my doctorate degree which focuses on "Making Disciples." It is my humblest opinion that this is a lost core value in our churches today, that should be returned to. It seems to me we can debate about all the recorded morphing of the term that has occurred as the church grew in the first and second centuries, but perhaps,the bottom line of most importance is that which is found in Matthew's gospel, our only account of Jesus last instructions (command) and commissioning of his then 11 (minus one) disciples. Matthew records (28:18ff)Jesus last words as a command with authority(not a suggestion). To go, and as you are going, "make disciples" of all nations baptizing them..." He didn't say go make "Christians" a later term that eventually stuck, nor "make the church" which was more directly his doing, but it was to make disciples. "How" would be the real question, as it's not listed with instruction in any one place in Scripture. The "how" involves the methodology that Jesus demonstrated and used in their own training. Do what I have taught you...that was the model for best practice, and it wasn't limited to just that time and culture. He as their Rabbi showed them in three years how to do it. They were taught the principles, practiced it, and in debriefing talked about how it went, and how it might go better next time. To be a disciple of a rabbi meant that at some point you would strive to be a rabbi yourself and teach what your rabbi had taught you. But Jesus told them, you are not to go out as rabbis, but always and only,forever as disciples of mine, duplicating more disciples, and the process should unfold all over this world. But something went very wrong, somewhere along the way we stopped making disciples and concerned ourselves more with "making churches." One author made a strong, but I believe, important statement as well as observation: set out to make (build) the church and you will rarely get disciples, but set out to make disciples and you will always get the church. We have put the cart before the horse, if you will, or even worse, we have lost the horse all together! We don't know how to make disciples today. Perhaps the exodus from our churches of various age groups, but especially the younger generations, has something to do with our not having made disciples of them. The leadership had better wake up, pay attention and discover a way to make disciples again, as Jesus did, before it becomes too late. Too late would mean we loose generation after generation of potential disciples of today's and tomorrow's church! Jesus showed us how its done, what are we waiting for...he promised us he would help us and be with us until the end of the age to accomplish such a task.

Heavenly Pursuers Campaign said...

Thank God that your post has been used to get on top search. We can see the value a disciple throughout the entire bible...I don't why the so called modern church wants to seem more clear than the rest as if what is written is not correct and they seem to be more correct. For me mentorship and discipleship is the same, it's just that mentorship is mainly for the mature and discipleship begins with children

Bob said...

Thank you for the response! I have just wrapped up my doctorate work on the thesis, "Ecclesiology and Discipleship: Rediscovering an Effective Communal Approach." The communal approach would be a model (if you will) of how Jesus went about developing his own disciples and sending them (and us) out to multiply the process in the world. One key take away I found concerned something that has always bothered me in ministry, and that is "how" do you go about "making" disciples. And herein lies the problem. The English translation of the Greek is misleading. The word "disciple" in the Greek text was usually used in the form of a noun, meaning one who was a "learner" which usually involved learning under a mentor or master. We get the concept of "apprenticing" oneself under a master. A disciple was an "apprentice" under Jesus' leadership and teaching. In the "great commission" Matthew's Jesus gives a command; "Go, and as you are going, make disciples." Problem is in our English translations, the word that was used by many modern versions was "make" but there is no word for "make" in this Greek word for "disciple." The eye-opener is that Jesus' use of "disciple" in Matthew 28:19 is a VERB! Literally meaning, "learn you" which doesn't sound correct in English. The King James version actually comes closest,"teach" all nations; go, and as your going, "learn people". It may sound hair-splitting and trivial, but as a verb, we are to be going about "learning." And what do we "learn" them, why to do all the things Jesus had been showing and commanding his disciples to do! It takes the quess-work out of how do you go about "making" disciples. And truth be told, it was all done in community, whether two, twelve, or larger. Funny how a little noun or verb can "make" such a difference! lol. Thanks for letting me get on my "soap box" for a bit.

Anonymous said...

Wish there was a "like button" for your post Bob! That is exactly the truth. Discipleship never ended though it may have become diluted over the centuries. Jesus' purpose was indisputably for multiplication until the end of the age, and was always as simple as, "take My yoke upon you and learn from Me..." be a learner, adherent, a scholar of The Christ. Learn and teach as you put into practice all that you learn of Him. That is why suddenly there can be a student who rises up "unusually full of the Holy Spirit," like Steven, even though He was not named as one of the 12, because there is no respect of persons or discrimination with God, the invitation to become a scholar of Christ is open to everyone. The better a learner you are, the better a teacher you are. The better a follower you are, the better a leader you become. There is no dividing the seed of Christ into lesser pieces. It is the WHOLE new nature, or it is a divided seed which cannot continue to reproduce after its own kind. Awesome blog and awesome responses.

AkelaRene said...

Thank you so much for the information you found, we will dig it all up and make a study of it for our team. We are learning to be a disciple and make disciples that make disciples...
We are working with a team that teaches this globally now and it is so exciting to dig deeper.
Thank you again, AkelaRene

Bob said...

Thank you for getting back! The more we learn and can share with each other, the better we will be at "learning others" to be, act, grow into the full stature of God's Son, and demonstrate God's love, the better we will be at sharing with others. And I might add for anyone's consideration, we need not wait for a person to come to Christ and receive him as their Lord and King, before discipling them! Remember, the text says, "as your going (out or living your life), be "learn others." We can begin discipling others who are "in the process of becoming" a Christ follower or just in the curious stage. And all of us, whether well along and mature in the faith or a newbie in Jesus, we will "always" remain Jesus disciples/apprentices, until the day we cross over into eternity with Him! Lord help us to be about the business of, "learning others" and don't let us stop continually learning ourselves!

Paul said...

Hi Ed. read both articles on disciple. Good research
looking for info on discipleship Jesus style. Looks most of modern Christian are not discipled
Jesus told to teach what He commanded to eleven(Mt.28:20). I collect books on discipleship, they are on Mt.28:19, cannot find books on 28:20. Who knows all Jesus commanded to eleven?
Maybe you will do research.
As Jesus told to disciples, if they want to be His disciples, they have to deny self(Mt.16:24)
Not many believers deny own opinions, or even read "great commission", just first phrase.
Have you heard about "direct" commands of Jesus and Father? not answers to Pharisees.
Hope you have interest in subject.

Unknown said...

What an exciting and awesome study. It makes perfect sense to renew your mind daily. We are to constantly learn, share, and grow striving to have the same mind as Jesus.