Education in or modern world has become a highly technical discipline. In the ancient world education was more like an apprenticeship which involved a personal encounter with someone who was a master of a skill or unique kind of knowledge. To be a disciple in the ancient world meant something rather different from being merely a student.
In our modern world, the effectiveness of a teacher might be measured by the retention of knowledge that was transferred to the student. We might give students five things to learn, and then test them to see if they learned them.
Applied to the faith, we might assume that discipleship is a type of effective teaching. Someone might derive the sterile and false assumption that merely giving people knowledge will change the hearts of their students and bring about their conversion. We might cartoon this method as “an educate them to save them” model.
We need to be perfectly clear that poorly catechized people can make all kinds of decisions about their faith that can lead to their spiritual harm. The question is ‘How do we move people along in their faith?’ People need to move through stages and experience conversion, before advancing to a more rigorous understanding of their faith.
Modern educational research makes it clear that more effective educational methods involve dialogue, modeling and personal encounter with the student as an individual. Modern educational research has demonstrated that rote learning and merely lecturing to people is one of the least effective methods of education. Students must be encouraged to make sense of new knowledge by integrating it into their prior understandings. Collaborative processes and personal encounter allow us to be challenged by new understandings. In fact, one of the most effect methods of learning is to ourselves teach others.
Missionary Discipleship is Centered on one-on-one Interactions
Discipleship as opposed to typical direct instruction classroom education is focused on the person, not on the curriculum and content. This is not to say that content is unimportant, but the method is very specific. Consider the ancient model of discipleship.[i]
Today, we would not normally describe an apprentice plumber or journeyman carpenter as a disciple. Yet the idea of an apprenticeship might be the closest equivalent to the word disciple in the New Testament. When the Gospel writers us the word disciple to describe certain groups of followers, what was the common understanding of this word in their world?
Among the ancient Greek philosophers, disciples learned by imitating the teacher’s entire way of life and not just by remembering the spoken words of the teacher.[ii] This is completely different from our modern lecture based model of classroom instruction. The first century philosopher Seneca appeals to the “living voice and intimacy of common life” of the disciple-teacher relationship of many different philosophers:
Cleanthes could not have been the express image of Zeno, if he had merely heard his lectures; he also shared in his life, saw into his hidden purposes, and watched him to see whether he lived according to his own rules. Plato, Aristotle, and the whole throng of sages who were destined to go each his different way, derived more benefit from the character than from the words of Socrates.[iii]
Although there was considerable tension between the influence of Greek culture and Jewish way of life, it appears that the educational methods of the Greeks were taken over and adapted by rabbinic schools. Clearly the rabbinic model of discipleship builds on the Old Testament examples of relationships such as Moses to Joshua, Eli to Samuel, and especially Elisha’s call to “follow” Elijah (1 Kgs. 19:19-20) but it also adapts many features common to the Greco-Roman tradition of philosophers and teachers of rhetoric.
Jewish Religious Education
Jews began with basic skills in reading. The spoken language of Palestine was primarily Aramaic but likely also included Greek. Scroll by scroll, various often competing translations of the Sacred Scriptures existed in both languages. The ancient Hebrew language was still being used in the synagogue to read the original scrolls of the Old Testament. Some Jews may also have used the Hebrew language as a spoken language (Acts 21:40; 22:2).[iv] Experts in the original text of Scripture would be considered scribes and experts in the law. One could presume that, for educated Jews, educated children were taught to read the Torah from the original Hebrew text (Phil. 3:5). In the ancient world, great emphasis was placed on memorization, especially because of the dearth of printed materials and their expense. It is likely that educated Jewish children memorized Proverbs, the Psalms, and most of the first five books of Moses.
A second phase of Jewish religious education began when someone became a disciple of a rabbi or teacher. The disciple was required to expand his knowledge of scripture by studying under an older rabbi, not only to learn from this rabbi’s teaching but also to observe the most intimate details of his master’s life (Acts 22:3). The disciple was expected to demonstrate shimmush, “attending upon and coming under the influence of” the teacher.[v] This is because he was required to imitate the halachah (the walk of the rabbi). The walk of the rabbi was a moral concept, which demonstrated the application of the Law to life.
Swedish biblical scholar, Birger Gerhardsson observed that the pedagogical technique of the rabbis involved modeling and imitation. He notes “there is no distinct boundary between these deliberate pedagogical measures and the teacher’s way of life as a whole.”[vi] The pupil had “to absorb all the traditional wisdom with ‘eyes, ears and ever member’ by seeking the company of a Rabbi, by serving him, following him, and imitating him and not only by listening to him.”[vii]
Some stories from the Babylonian Talmud (a vast collection of Jewish laws and traditions containing teachings from thousands of rabbis) show that this type of imitation was taken to extremes. In one tradition, the famous Rabbi Akiba followed his teacher Rabbi Joshua to the toilet to learn how he did it—not standing but sitting, not east and west but north and south. He told his fellow student, “I learned it was proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right.” When challenged by his shocked fellow student, Rabbi Akiba replied, “It was a matter of Torah and I required to learn” (Berakoth 62a).[viii]
The idea they were attempting to drive home in this colorful example is that with uncompromising attention to detail, the walk of a godly man was to be imitated.
The Discipleship of Jesus
The broad background of the term disciple, in both the Greek and Jewish backgrounds, is taken for granted. Jesus’ call to certain men to “follow him,” would have been understood by the first century reader as the call of a rabbi or teacher to form his company of disciples.
In this normal pattern, Jesus himself would be expected to have been the disciple of an older rabbi. It is interesting to note the portrayal of Jesus in John’s Gospel in this regard.[ix] Jesus identifies the one he is following directly as the God the Father. In John chapter five, Jesus notes …a son cannot do anything on his own, but only what he sees his father doing” (Jn. 5:19). Several verses later he notes, “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives life, so also does the Son give life to whomever he wishes” (Jn. 5:21; author emphasis).
Again Jesus notes, “For just as the Father has life in himself, so also he gave to his Son the possession of life in himself” (Jn. 5:26; author emphasis). One can see a repeating pattern—Just as the Father does/says . . . so the Son does/says—by which Jesus reveals that He is intentionally imitating His Father. Later in John’s Gospel the pattern is extended:
As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love… This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. (Jn. 15:9, 12-14)
The earlier pattern has been expanded to, “As the Father does/says . . . So now you disciples must do/say.”
Jesus takes his disciples into his intimate company and even for the first time calls them “friends” (Jn. 15:14). He expects them to become faithful imitators of His own mission and ministry (Jn. 20:21-23).
How did the early Christians understand this mission? Writing to the Church at Corinth Paul notes, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold fast to the traditions, just as I handed them on to you” (1 Cor. 11:1-2). When Paul desires to further disciple the believers in Corinth in the early traditions of the Church he writes,
Therefore, I urge you, be imitators of me. For this reason I am sending you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord; he will remind you of my ways in Christ [Jesus], just as I teach them everywhere in every church. (1 Cor. 4:16-17)
Paul can say I want you to imitate Jesus by imitating me—so I am sending you Timothy. Because of the notion of discipleship, one can imitate Paul by imitating Timothy. Based on Paul’s previous intimate discipleship, Timothy is a perfect living embodiment of Paul. Secondly it is not enough to merely write to the Corinthians, the teaching must be demonstrated through a living disciple. Paul’s tradition and discipleship language parallels a rabbinic pedagogy with a new Christ-centered and Spirit inspired Gospel content. Paul writes to the Philippians, “Join with others in being imitators of me, brothers, and observe those who thus conduct themselves according to the model you have in us” (Phil. 3:17). The word translated “conduct themselves” (NABRE) is literally (Gr. peripateō) “walk” according to the pattern we gave you.[x] This is the same idea as the halachah or moral walk of the rabbi.
Being a “disciple of Jesus” means being a faithful imitator of the life Jesus “walked” in his own imitation of the Father. This imitation tradition is passed down through a series of disciples. Paul writes to Timothy, “And what you heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will have the ability to teach others as well” (2 Tim. 2:2).
As we can see from this short study of ancient discipleship, the focus is always on personal relationship and witness. There are no anonymous students filling lecture halls. In this process the follower or disciple is intentionally equipped to become a leader who in turn leads others in a never-ending process. The goal isn’t to achieve a letter grade or certificate of achievement, but to become an effective disciple.
[i] Scott McKellar, “Taking on the ‘Smell of the Sheep:’ The Rabbinic Understanding of Discipleship,” The Sower #35.2.
[ii] Charles H. Talbert and Perry L. Stepp, “Succession in Mediterranean Antiquity, Part I: The Lukan Milieu” Society of Biblical Literature 1998 Seminar Papers: 148-168 and Ibid., “Succession in Mediterranean Antiquity, Part 2: Luke-Acts” Society of Biblical Literature 1998 Seminar Papers: 169-179. Reprinted in Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke-Acts in its Mediterranean Milieu, Supplements to Novum Testamentum, v. 107 (Boston: Brill, 2003), p. 19-56.
[iii] Seneca, Epistles 1-65, Trans. Richard M Gummere, Loeb Classical Library 75, Epist. 6.5-6.6, p. 27-28.
[iv] Bruce D. Chilton, A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible, p. 38-39, John P. Meir, A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p. 255.
[v] Michael Griffiths, The Example of Jesus, p. 24.
[vi] Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript, p. 185-187
[vii] Ibid., p. 183.
[ix] Michael Griffiths, The Example of Jesus, p. 41.
[x] Compare 1 Thessalonians 2:14, 2 Thessalonians 3:7, 9.