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  • Writer's picturePetar Fabijanic


Discipleship from Jesus' perspective

In the early days of its existence, Christianity was considered an extension of Judaism, many beliefs, practices and attitudes were copied from Second Temple Judaism. One of the examples is discipleship and sharing faith with new generations.

Faith education has always been important to Jews.

From Abraham, about whom God testified: „…that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice…“ (Genesis 18:19) to Moses, who encourages the faithful to remember and pass on divine regulations to the next generation (Deuteronomy 6:6-8), through the prophet Hosea, who concludes that his people perish because they do not have the knowledge of God, because the priests rejected and forgot God's Law (Hosea 4:6), until Ezra's spiritual renewal - we can trace the development of Jewish thought and rabbinic Judaism of the Old Testament. In parallel with that, the Talmud is recorded, which interprets the Written Word and modernizes it for the believer of his time, all for the purpose of passing on knowledge to future generations.

This concern for the spiritual health of the faithful continues in early Christianity through Paul of Tarsus - a highly educated Christian of Jewish origin who included Jewish teaching principles in his proclamation of the Gospel to the Gentiles. For example: in Ephesus, he discussed with the new converts every day for two whole years, which resulted in "that all the inhabitants of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 19,10).

These types of discussions have always been more interesting to me than classic religious lectures and biblical courses "ex cathedra", but unfortunately I rarely experienced them in church.

I would like to show some specifics of the Jewish way of teaching that Jesus also practiced, to give a brief comparative overview of some of Jesus' principles of teaching his disciples (primarily the twelve) in the rabbinical "style" of that time.

And raise the question:

Why did the Church prefer to embrace different style instead of the Jewish way of teaching?


„A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher.“ Luke 6:40

According to Jesus, the goal of discipleship was to become like the teacher.

"Jesus lived in a deeply religious culture that highly valued knowledge of the Bible. Rabbis were greatly respected and it was an honor to be a student of a famous rabbi. The rabbi was expected not only to have a broad knowledge of the Bible but also to show by example how to live according to the Scriptures. The student's goal was not only to acquire the rabbi's knowledge, but more importantly, to become like him in character. When the student matured, it was expected that he would bring his rabbi's teaching to the community, add his own understanding to that teaching, and raise his students" - writes Lois Tverberg[1]

As the Father has sent Me, I also send you. (John 20:21).

Jesus sent the apostles to preach the message in the same way as he did. He invites them to consider and take up those methods of preaching and teaching that He used.

The first task was to remember the teacher's words because the process of oral transmission was the only form of communication between generations. Another task was to learn the traditions and interpretations of their teachers, as the student was expected to imitate his teacher in this respect as well. Therefore, the student watched how his teacher kept the Sabbath, how he fasted, prayed, how he said the blessing of food and the like. The third task was to imitate the teacher's actions: actions, words, behavior. And, finally, the fourth task was to raise one's own disciples.[2]

Within the Judaism of Jesus' time there were, as evidenced by the Jewish tradition recorded in the Mishnah, three levels of education: Bet Sefer, Bet Talmud and Bet Midrash. Each stage covered a certain age. Bet Sefer (House of the Book) was the initial process of discipleship in which children from the age of five to ten learned to write, read and memorize individual verses from the Torah. From the tenth to the twelfth year, they continued their studies in the so-called Bet Talmud (House of Teaching), and in that period they were taught certain interpretations of the Torah and some other Jewish scriptures. The crown of this level of education was the bar mitzvah (a ceremony by which a boy was considered an adult in the religious sense). The final step in Jewish education was called the Bet Midrash (House of Learning): students would join a rabbi, whose focus was on intensive understanding of the Torah and the application of the oral tradition to everyday life. People expected a teacher not only to interpret the Scriptures for them, but to show them how to follow them. This continued until the student became equal to the teacher. The first two levels included more or less all children, the third level was often reserved for "intelligent" ones.

Most importantly, the main method of teaching and learning was independent thinking, i.e. the art of asking questions and being open to discussion.


Jesus' teaching to the Twelve was very similar to the rabbinical Bet Midrash, with one exception: His disciples came from diverse backgrounds: fishermen, tax collectors, zealots, and Pharisees.

It would be worth asking the question:

By what criteria did Jesus choose his disciples?

According to the Gospel accounts, we can conclude that he was looking for them, and when he found them (those for whom he had the testimony of the Spirit) he invited them to go with him; it refers to Peter, Andrew, James and John, Philip and Nathanael (Mt 4,18-22; 9:9; Mk 1,16-20, 2,13-14, 3,13-19, Lk 5,1 -11; 27-28; Jn 1:35-51). According to Luke, Jesus spent time in prayer on the mountain and only after the prayer, he chose the others, separating them from the other followers, and named the twelve apostles (Lk 6:12-16). These examples tell us that Jesus opened a new paradigm of discipleship that does not rely on family ties, education or finances, but on the sovereign call of God in a person's life.

Jesus "chose the Twelve to be with him, to preach" (Mk 3:14), therefore, these twelve were in Jesus' "closest circle" and stayed with Jesus all the time.

Since we are comparing Jesus' practice of raising disciples with Jewish practice, this line from Mark is important to us, among other things, because it is similar to the way the prophet Elijah called Elisha (1 Kings 19:19-21).

Elijah and Elisha's relationship was the basis for the rabbinic interpretation of discipleship, but it also has many aspects that are similar to the relationship between Jesus and the disciples described in the Gospels:

1.        The student lived with the teacher ("Rabbi...where do you live?" /Jn 1:38/). Nowadays, teachers have their private lives separate from the department where they teach. If we were to look at this question from today's perspective, we might consider it inappropriate, but the Jew of that time knew that the rabbi's pulpit was his home. Jewish historian Shmuel Safrai says that the student "did not understand the full significance of his teacher's teaching in all its nuances except through prolonged closeness with his teacher, through association with his rich and deep mind." There are Jewish sayings that say that if a man's father and rabbi are taken into captivity, the disciple should first take care to redeem the teacher. Peter said to Jesus, "You have the words of eternal life!" (John 6:68).

In the Mishnah, Bava Mecia 2:11 it is written: "Your father brought you into this world, but your rabbi introduced you to the life of the world to come!".

The closeness of student and teacher often resulted in a great similarity between the two, sometimes even in imitating how the teacher walks (I once saw this live when I was in Israel: the students walked behind the teacher at the same pace and manner as him). The apostle Paul calls his followers not only to imitate him, as most translators translate it, but to imitate him (Μιμηταί μου γίνεσθε, καθὼς κἀγὼ Χριστοῦ /1 Cor 11:1/). Watching the daily life of the teacher, the student adopted the life philosophy and values. Speech can say a lot, but the testimony of life speaks much more powerfully.

2.        The student served the teacher like a servant (2 Kr 3:11, Jn 4:8, Lk 22:8). The Babylonian Talmud says: "All the work that a Canaanite slave does for his master, the disciple does for his master, except for untying the sandal, which is a humiliating act typically performed by slaves and would not be appropriate for a disciple" (Ketubot 96a). By learning obedience to his rabbi's instructions, the student learned to be in awe of doing God's will. And putting himself in the position of a servant, he opened himself up to the teacher's corrections so that his behavior and worldview could be honed and refined. The rabbis believed that humility was a necessary condition for learning: "As water flows from high places and gathers at low points, so the word of God abides only in the student who is humble in his knowledge" (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 7a). Jesus also believed: "The disciple is not above the teacher, nor the servant above his master" (Mt 10:24). This relationship did not last forever - when the rabbi concluded that the student was ready, he gave him the authority, laying hands on him, to become a rabbi himself.

3.        The teacher often taught by personal example. Teaching by example means being in a close relationship with the student. There is strength in setting an example because it speaks of a certain maturity in the teacher's life. Jesus' transparent life in front of his disciples was aimed at teaching by example. The same was applied by the apostles who lived before others in the same way, humbly teaching them the way of Christ. Lois Tverberg writes in her book:

The student tried to study the text, not only the Holy Scriptures, but also the rabbi's life, because there he learned how to live according to the Torah. Even more than acquiring the knowledge of his teacher, he wanted to acquire the character of his teacher, his inner understanding of God's law.[3]

4.        Learning in the community of friends. Jesus said that he no longer calls his disciples servants but friends (John 15:12-17). The friendship that Jesus speaks of can be interpreted as brotherhood in faith, as a community of people who share much more than superficial common interests. In John 15:15, Jesus calls his disciples friends or brothers in faith. In modern Hebrew, the word for such a friend is: haver (חָבֵר). In the Mishnah we can read an interesting rabbinical advice: "Find a rabbi and a haver" (Pirke Avot 1:6), in the context of the study of the Scriptures, a haver is someone who is willing to participate in discussions about the Holy Scriptures.

"If you open the door of an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva (school), you might expect to be greeted by complete silence. After all, students need to learn vast amounts of information. If you're expecting a scene where all heads are bowed, and students quietly and intently studying ancient texts, you'd be wrong. Instead what you will be greeted with is a roar of multiple conversations. Pairs of students will stand on podiums facing each other, discussing the details of the text. Students with glasses will hold one hand over an open notebook while the other hand will gesticulate wildly. They come up with possible interpretations of the text together. This gathering of students is called a havruta, and each student studies with a haver in order to master the text." [4]

The rabbis claimed that the divine presence is manifested in such communion, and Jesus said: "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am" (Mt 18:20).

Church discipleship after the destruction of the second Temple

New Testament texts tell us about the gradually increasing opposition of the Jews to Christian following (Acts 14:2; 6:9-13; 17:5; 18:12-17; 19:13). After the destruction of the Second Temple (AD 70), Judaism seems to have retreated into synagogues, isolating itself from everyone, especially from Christians.

According to some hypotheses, the council in Jamnia (around 90 AD) expelled the Jewish Christians from the synagogue. Rejected in this way, the Christians had no national or political basis for their existence and thus became an illegal group until Constantine's Edict of Milan (313 AD). Christians persistently tried to get the Jews to believe in Christ, but the pressure of the synagogues reduced the success of evangelization among the Jews.

The apostle Paul, who went beyond the borders of Judea to the Gentile world, had much greater success. Sometimes Jewish converts to Christianity tried to introduce new converts from paganism to Jewish customs (circumcision, observance of the Sabbath, etc.) so that people were often confused, which resulted in the Jerusalem Council and decisions that deprived converts from paganism of their obligations under the Mosaic Law (Acts 15:1 -31).

Some Jewish Christians did not like this decision because it further separated Jewish Christians from communion with Christians converted from paganism.

In the second century, Christian apologists began to emphasize the differences between Christianity and Judaism, which further distanced Christians from their Jewish roots.

Just as Judaism knew three levels of education in the ancient world, there were certain systems of education that Christianity later began to adopt.

Instead of rabbis, they followed the teachings of philosophers who had no understanding of Jesus' Jewish roots. The lack of Jewish theology was caused by a misunderstanding of Jesus' (Jewish) teachings. In order to clarify "what the writer wanted to say", some Greek philosophical systems (Aristotle, Plato, Stoicism) began to be used.

This took Christianity into a completely different sphere, different from the path that Jesus preached. Christianity became a liturgical performance, a philosophical-religious direction mixed with many Greco-Roman ideas about the world, devoid of Jewish thought and theology. It even happened that students chose their own teachers according to their own preferences, expelling legitimately appointed leaders from the church community.[5]

The separation of Christianity from Judaism did not happen all at once, but gradually. As Christians gradually separated from their Jewish roots, Jesus increasingly became a mystical Jesus with a different identity from the Galilean rabbi. His teaching was retold through Greek culture.

[1] Tverberg, Lois. Listening to the Language of the Bible: Hearing It Through Jesus’ Ears.

[2] Lancaster, D. Thomas. King of the Jews: Resurrecting the Jewish Jesus

[3] Ann Spangler, Lois Tverberg. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith. Zondervan. 2009.

[4] Ann Spangler, Lois Tverberg. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith. Zondervan. 2009.

[5] Clement of Rome writes about this in the Epistle to the Corinthians: "We see that some of you who behaved well have been removed from the office which they honored flawlessly" (XLIV.6).

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