The historical fact that Jesus had disciples is based on the criterion of multiple attestations, since all sources mention it. It is also based on the criterion of discontinuity, since the early Christians did not use the word disciple to define themselves.
Who can be considered a disciple of Jesus? First of all, it is Jesus who takes the initiative and decides who will be his disciple. Then, being a disciple implies physically following Jesus on the roads of Palestine in his preaching mission with all that this implies: the abandonment of one's family, one's work, one's community. In addition to these privations, the disciple must expect the sufferings that will result from the opposition and hostility of others, especially his family.
Have there been any female disciples who conformed to this definition we have just developed? The answer is yes, but the Gospels do not label them as disciples for a number of reasons related to the times.
Finally, it is necessary to mention a group of men and women who can be placed between the crowd of curious people and the small circle of disciples who offered Jesus lodging and shelter and supported him with their possessions as he passed through their region.
- Did the historical Jesus have disciples?
The word disciple (mathētēs) is massively present in the Gospels (78 times in John, 72 times in Matthew, 46 times in Mark and 37 times in Luke) and refers above all to the disciples of Jesus. Apart from the Gospels, the word is only present in the Acts of the Apostles where Luke undoubtedly seeks to create a link between the time of Jesus and that of the Church. Otherwise, the word is totally absent from the rest of the New Testament, especially the Epistles of Paul. How can we interpret this fact? It simply means that the word disciple was not a term that the first or second generation of Christians used to define themselves. Therefore, we cannot suspect that the early Church anachronistically projected the word disciple into Jesus' ministry. To answer the question: did the historical Jesus have disciples, we will use three of our criteria of historicity, i.e., that of discontinuity, that of multiple attestations, and that of coherence.
- First there is a discontinuity with the first generations of Christians, since they did not use the word disciple to define themselves in relation to Jesus. Moreover, this term is totally absent from the LXX (Greek translation of the Old Testament). The Hebrew equivalent is the word talmîd (disciple, student) which is absent from the Old Testament except in 1 Ch 25:8 where it refers to an apprentice musician. The same absence is noted in the non-biblical texts of Qumran and in the Greek version of the pseudepigrapha (apocryphal writings). It is only in Philo of Alexandria (25 BC - 50 AD) that we find it 14 times (a very small number compared to the extent of the work) where it designates the perfect person who is taught directly by God. Finally, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37 - 100 AD) uses the word only 15 times in his voluminous work to designate either someone who learns from another, or a group who follows a philosophical teaching, or the figures of the Old Testament where there is a master-disciple relationship, especially those of Elisha and Elisha. But this way of speaking of Josephus in terms of master-disciple within the setting of the philosophical school betrays the Hellenistic culture of the first century in which he was immersed. In short, if the word disciple is present in the Gospels, it is because it goes back to the historical Jesus and is not the result of a projection into the past of the Christian milieu.
- There is also the criterion of multiple attestations. The word is found in the four Gospels: in Mark where we find the call of the four disciples (Peter, Andrew, John and James), then of Levi, in addition to innumerable mentions throughout his Gospel; in the Q document where the word appears on two clear occasions, Mt 10:24 | Lk 6:40 (A disciple is not above his master) and Mt 12: 2 || Lk 7, 18-19 (John the Baptist sends his disciples to Jesus); and in John who is the one who uses it the most. In addition to the Gospels, we should also mention Flavius Josephus who, in his Biblical Antiquities (18.3.3), writes about Jesus that he attracted many Jews and Greeks to him, and that "those who first cherished him did not cease to do so (after his crucifixion)". Although he does not explicitly use the word disciple, the people he speaks of refer to what the Gospels refer to as discipleship.
- Finally, there is the criterion of consistency. The four gospels, including Q document, mention that John the Baptist had disciples. Jesus, by the very fact of being baptized by John the Baptist, accepted to become his disciple and remained a certain one in the group, practicing baptism in his turn. It is therefore normal to imagine that, in continuing the work of the Baptist, he similarly gathered a group of disciples. Moreover, it is inconceivable to think that a prophet-teacher could have continued his mission for some time without having a group of disciples listening to him and assimilating his word.
- Who Qualified as a Disciple of Jesus
In the first century, there were a number of philosophical and religious figures in the Mediterranean world who gathered around them followers who would continue their tradition from generation to generation. Among the Greeks, we speak of the Platonic, Pythagorean, Aristotelian, Epicurean, or Stoic school. There is a certain resemblance between Jesus and the itinerant cynical philosophers. But the resemblance is even stronger with rabbinism which developed from the 2nd to the 5th century AD where the student of the Torah is constantly with their master. But the resemblance ends there: for Jesus is not only a teacher who teaches, but he is also a prophet and a healer, inviting his disciples to also proclaim the reign of God and to heal. And here, the only comparable figure is Elijah, an itinerant prophet and healer in northern Israel, where three key elements are present: 1) the prophet takes the initiative and makes a peremptory call to Elisha; 2) Elisha must leave his family and possessions; 3) the call means literally and physically following the prophet and putting himself at his service.
- The Initiative of Jesus in Calling
- The characteristic trait of Jesus is that he took the initiative to call someone to discipleship, and this call is peremptory. This historical fact is supported by the criterion of multiple attestations.
- Mark gives three examples: the call of the first four disciples (Mk 1:16-20: "Come after me" addressed to Peter, Andrew, James and John), the call of Levi, a customs collector (Mk 2:14), and the call of the rich man (Mk 10:17-22).
- The same type of call appears in Q document: Mt 8:21-22 || Lk 9:59-60 ("Follow me... Let the dead bury their dead; for your sake go and proclaim the Kingdom of God"). The Q document emphasizes the peremptory nature of the call: this relativization of the duty of piety towards the dead must have seemed shocking to both Jews and Christians.
- Luke's special source contains the same peremptory and authoritative call, Lk 9:61-62: "Whoever has put his hand to the plough and looks back is unfit for the kingdom of God."
- Finally, in John the wording is somewhat different, but the same idea prevails. When Jesus answers "Come and see" to the two disciples who ask him where he lives, or when he says to Philip, "Follow me", he takes the initiative.
Moreover, there is a link between becoming a disciple and belonging to a group. For example, in Mark the word disciple appears only when the "called" are numerous enough, after the call of Levi (Mk 2:15). The same is true of John, who speaks of Jesus' disciples only when Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathanael were already part of the group at the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:2). The same pattern is found in Matthew and Luke. Thus, one can only be called a disciple if one has physically followed Jesus for a certain time and is part of a group.
- The historical fact of the authoritative and peremptory character of Jesus' call is also supported by the criterion of discontinuity from the surrounding environment. Unfortunately, the data on the environment of the first century is very poor. In spite of this admission, it can nevertheless be said that the authoritarian and peremptory aspect of Jesus' call is quite unique for that time. We can refer to two examples, John the Baptist and Josephus.
- We have no evidence that John the Baptist made a direct appeal to people to become disciples. His call was addressed to all Israel to invite repentance. The vast majority of the people who went to be baptized seem to have subsequently returned to their homes. As for the others, they stayed with him for some time and there is no indication that this continued on a permanent basis.
- In his Autobiography, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37 - 100 AD) tells how he took the initiative at the age of 16 to go and live for three years in the desert with a lonely Jewish ascetic and loner, called Bannus. Then, at the age of 19, he returned to Jerusalem and decided to become a disciple of the Pharisees. In this spiritual quest, it is always Josephus himself who takes the initiative.
- Following Jesus Physically and Therefore Leaving One's Home
In Jesus' call there are two dimensions: geographical and temporal.
- Jesus asks to follow him physically, and this means leaving his home, parents, and possessions to follow him in his itinerant preaching through Galilee, Judea, and the surrounding areas. This situation is very different from rabbinism where walking behind one's master has above all a sense of respect.
As there is no limit to geographical space in the life of the disciple, so there is no limit to time: one is a disciple for life. Here again, the disciple of Jesus differs from the Jewish student who remains with his teacher only long enough to complete his Torah study.
- Risking Danger and Hostility
We have multiple attestations that Jesus clearly warned his disciples of the high and even fatal cost involved in following him.
- Saving or Losing One's Life
- Let us first examine Mk 8:35 and its parallels
|Mk 8: 35
||Mt 16: 25
||Lk 9: 24
will save his life
shall lose it
but whosoever shall lose his life
for my sake
and the gospel's,
the same shall save it.
will save his life
shall lose it
and whosoever will lose his life
for my sake
shall find it
will save his life
shall lose it
but whosoever will lose his life
for my sake,
the same shall save it.
- This text is placed strategically after Peter's confession as Jesus gives a series of aphorisms and prophecies about the cost of discipleship and its reward. All of these aphorisms have their own form and tradition and seem to come from a pre-Marcan author. As for our text, it takes the form of an antithetical parallelism and the three evangelists have more or less the same version.
- But when we look closely at Mk 8:35, we notice that the expression "because of the Gospel" is a doublet of "because of me", a typical style of Mark who likes to repeat certain expressions twice to be more precise. Moreover, the word "Gospel" without any qualifier is typical of Mark and reflects his editorial activity. It must therefore be concluded that the expression "because of the Gospel" was not part of the original tradition.
- The expression "because of me" is also an addition of the pre-Marcan author: it breaks the balance of the two parts of the sentence and is absent from the similar words of Jesus in Luke and John. Thus, the original text should have been: "Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; whoever lose his life will save it".
- The context of this sentence is truly Semitic with the ambiguous use of the word life (psychē in Greek, něpaš in Aramaic). The Hebrew or Aramaic word designates the totality of a person's concrete existence in both its physical and psychological dimensions. In short, those who cling to the present life at all costs will lose it in the final judgment, while those who are willing to sacrifice it in order to follow Jesus with all their heart will receive a fuller and more enduring life in the final judgment.
- A different formula exists in Matthew and Luke and probably comes from Q document.
|Lk 17: 33
||Mt 10: 39
|Whosoever shall seek
to save his life
shall lose it
and whosoever shall lose his life
shall preserve it
that finds his life
shall lose it
and he that loses
for my sake
shall find it
- Luke's version (who seeks to preserve his life) strangely resembles the pre-Marcan form of the aphorism (who wants to save his life). Behind the words "seeks" or "wants" there is probably the same Aramaic word: sěbēh (wish, will, desire) or běʽâ (seeks, request); behind the words "preserve" or "save" there is probably the same Aramaic word: šêzib (save, rescue), or hăyâ (to live, to restore to life). And the first part ends the same way: lose it (in Aramaic: ʽabad). In the second part, Mark has the word "will save" and Luke "will preserve". Luke probably wanted to avoid repeating the word "save" for stylistic reasons, so "save" is probably the original word.
- Matthew's sentence is also similar to the original pre-Marcan form (by eliminating "because of me" which we have already stated is an addition), but there are a number of changes in his hand: the attributive participles "he who finds" and "he who loses" which Luke would have taken over, as he likes the participles, if they were part of the original text; the verb "to find" which is a favourite word of Matthew.
- Luke's version is probably closer to the Q document, which must have had this form: whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; whoever loses his life will save it. The point here is not to find the very words of Jesus, but to determine the content of a teaching that may have been known in various forms in Aramaic.
- We finally have an independent variant in Jn 12: 25
The one who loves (philōn) his life loses (apollyei) it, and the one who hates (misōn) his life [in this worlld] will keep (phylaxei) it [unto life everlasting]
- In John these are Jesus' last words to the crowd. A comparison with the synoptics allows us to note only two similar words, life and lose. This should not come as a surprise, for we have already said that John is a tradition independent of the synoptics. Moreover, the form is different, because we no longer have the chiasm (the end of the first part becomes the beginning of the second part, which would have given us: he who loves his life will lose it, he who loses his life will keep it). Finally, we note the addition of typical expressions of John: the couple love/hate, this world, eternal life, keep.
- The Aramaic substratum behind this aphorism must have been like this:
The one who loves his life will lose it, and the one who hates his life will keep it
Thus, there must have been two basic forms of this aphorism circulating in Aramaic: the Marc-Q Document version and the Johannine version. Both versions contain the same message: he who clings selfishly or fearfully to his present life as the ultimate good will lose the ultimate good of true life in the world of God, while the disciple who accepts the voluntary risk of losing his present life will find true life in the world of God. This message needs to be understood in a wider eschatological context: to be a disciple means abandoning one's old life with its bonds, security and expectations in order to welcome a new form of life brought by the Reign of God.
- Denying Oneself and Taking up One's Cross
- A first version of this cost of discipleship can be found in Mk 8:34.
|Mk 8: 34
||Mt 16: 24
||Lk 9: 23
|A) If anyone
wishes to follow after me
B) let him deny himself
B') and take up his cross
A') and follow me
wishes to come after me,
let him deny himself
and take up his cross
and follow me
wishes to come after me,
let him deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me
The structure is that of inclusion (the sentence ends with the words at the beginning) and chiasm (the pattern A-B-B'-A'): the beginning (A) and the end (A') repeat that the goal is to be a disciple, and the middle (B-B') presents two means to achieve it : saying no to one's ego as the ultimate norm and accepting to walk the same path as those criminals who had to walk naked carrying the cross-post of the cross (the vertical post remained permanently in place) and facing people's mockery before being executed. This shocking and provocative way of speaking probably dates back to the historical Jesus and is not a creation of the early Church that was intended as a reference to the cross of Jesus. For there is no reference here to the cross of Jesus. Moreover, in the time of Jesus, Palestine was dotted with crosses that were used by local leaders in addition to the Romans to punish the marginalized: slaves, thieves, rebels.
- In addition to the Marcan version, there is a version of Q document.
Behind the few different words there might have been the same Aramaic word. The big difference between Matthew and Luke is at the end. As Matthew often uses the expression "is not worthy of me" as a connection in his composition, one can think that Luke best reflects the Q document. In any case, we find here the same idea as in Mark (the approach is positive in Mark, negative in Q document). Thus, we can use the criterion of multiple attestations to affirm that the content of this aphorism goes back to the historical Jesus.
|Mt 10: 38
||Lk 14: 27
|Whoever does not take his cross
and follow after me
is not worthy of me
|Whoever does not carry his own cross
and come after me
cannot be my disciple
- Facing Hostility from One's Family
To understand this cost of discipleship, one must remember that in first century Palestine, a person's identity was defined in relation to his or her extended family, which provided the primary safety net typical of a peasant society. Thus, to cut these emotional and economic ties indefinitely was to shamefully desert one's family and work in a society based on honour and shame. What Jesus asks is therefore very difficult for a Jewish peasant.
- However, this is indeed a historical fact if one uses the criterion of multiple attestations.
- We have a first testimony in Mk 10:28-30.
|Mk 10: 28-30
||Mt 19: 27-29
||Lk 18: 28-30
|Peter began to say unto him:
"Behold, we have left all things
and followed you."
And Jesus answered and said: Amen I say to you,
there is no one who has left house
or mother or father
and the sake of the gospel],
who will not receive a hundredfold
now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.
|Then answered Peter
and said unto him,
Behold, we have forsaken all,
and followed you; what shall we have therefore?"
And Jesus said unto them, Amen I say to you,
you who have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
And every one who have forsaken
[for my name's
shall receive an hundredfold,
and shall inherit everlasting life.
|Then Peter said,
Behold, we have left all,
and followed you.
And he said to them, Amen I say to you,
there is no man who have left house,
[for the kingdom of God's
Who shall not receive manifold more
in this present time,
and in the world to come life everlasting.
The passages in [parenthesis] are probably additions from a Christian oral tradition or from the Evangelist.
- We have a second testimony with the Q document
Both Matthew and Luke seem to have reworked their source, but Matthew more so than Luke: he eliminates the vocabulary of hatred that is yet typically Semitic and inserts his favourite expressions such as "to be worthy of me". On the other hand, he has retained the primitive form of double parallelism. As for Luke, he may have taken from Mark the list of the various members of the family. But the idea remains the same: the disciple must prefer Jesus without reservation if the family opposes his commitment as a disciple. We can guess that Jesus' call may have caused fierce divisions within the Palestinian families.
|Mt 10: 37
||Lk 14: 26
|He who loves father or mother more than me
is not worthy of me,
and he who loves son or daughter more than me
is not worthy of me
|If anyone comes to me and does not hate
his father and mother
and [his] wife and children
and brothers and sisters
-yes, even his very life-
he cannot be my disciple.
- Another testimony from Q document points in the same direction
|Mt 10: 34-36
||Lk 12: 51-53
that I am come
to send peace on earth:
I came not to send peace, but a sword.
For I am come to set
a man at variance against his father,
and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
And a man's foes [shall be] they of his own household.
that I am come
to give peace on earth?
I tell you, Nay; but rather division:
For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three.
The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father;
the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
Reconstructing the original tradition is difficult. But this does not change the fundamental statement about the extended family (it was usual for the daughter-in-law to live in the house of her in-laws): Jesus came to loosen the strongest social bonds upon which Palestinian Jewish society was based. This is in keeping with Israel's apocalyptic tradition which saw the loosening of family loyalty as a sign of the tribulation of the last days.
- To support the historical dimension of this request of Jesus, we can use the criterion of coherence: Jesus only evokes his own experience. In the first generation of Christians, the tradition was known about Jesus' own family, which did not believe at all in his mission (Mk 3:20-21).
And he comes home and the crowd gathers again, so that they couldn't even eat bread. And when they heard this, his own came out to take him, for they said, "He is beside himself".
This fact is also supported by the multiple attestations, since it is also found in Jn 7:5: "For not even his brothers believed in him."
- Finally, the criterion of embarrassment can be invoked after what we have just observed in Mark and John. For we observe in Luke and Matthew an effort to mitigate the severe presentation of Jesus' family. For example, in Lk 11:27-28
And it came to pass as he spoke these things, that a woman lifted up her voice in the midst of the crowd and said to him: "Blessed are the womb having borne you and the breasts that you have sucked." But he said, "Blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it."
Of course, this text is a re-evaluation of Mary's figure. However, it is still very surprising when we recall the positive image that Luke paints of her in the stories of childhood, where she appears as the ideal disciple, so to speak. The tradition behind this text was perhaps even harder. Thus, all these statements about Jesus' family must have seemed embarrassing to the early Christians when we know, for example, that one of Jesus' brothers, James, later became one of the pillars of the Church in Jerusalem and died a martyr.
In conclusion of our analysis of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, we can say this:
- It is Jesus who takes the initiative and decides who will be his disciple.
- Talking about following Jesus is not a pious metaphor but is the action of physically following him on the roads of Palestine in his preaching mission with all that this implies: the abandonment of one's family, one's work, one's community.
- In addition to these privations, Jesus warns his disciples about the suffering that will result from the opposition and hostility of others, especially his family.
- These radical demands of Jesus appear unique in the whole Greco-Roman context of the first century concerning the master-disciple relationship.
- While the various religious and philosophical groups living a radical life under the leadership of a charismatic leader maintained a certain separation from outsiders, especially by sharing certain meals together, as we see in the Pharisees, Jesus' group mingled with the others and shared the table with them.
- The Unclear Boundaries of Discipleship: Were the Women Followers of Jesus Disciples?
At the outset, it must be remembered that our question is limited to the situation of the historical Jesus in relation to the female followers who accompanied him during his public ministry between the years 28 and 30. It must also be remembered that the data available to us is extremely thin. Finally, if it is clear that a certain number of women physically accompanied him on the road, why did the evangelists not explicitly label them as disciples?
- Let us therefore examine a number of texts.
Mary Magdalene, in particular, will play a pivotal role, as she will participate both in its embalming and in the discovery of the empty tomb. But what is surprising in Mark's gospel is that the women appear here suddenly, without any preparation.
|Mk 15: 40-41
||Mt 27: 55-56
||Lk 23: 48
||Jn 19: 25
|Now there were also women
looking on from a distance,
among whom were
Mary from Magdala, Mary the mother of James the Younger and Joses,
who, when he [Jesus] was in Galilee, followed him and served him, and many other [women] who had come up with him to Jerusalem [for the feast of Passover]
|Then there were there many women
looking on from a distance, who followed Jesus from Galilee serving him
Mary from Magdala, and Mary, the mother of James and Joses
and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
|And the crowds having come together to that sight, having seen the things having taken place
||Now there stood by the cross of Jesus
and the sister of his mother, Mary, the [wife] of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.
With John, we have multiple attestations of women at crucifixion. In both Mark and John, the women will be present at his crucifixion and at the empty tomb, namely Mary Magdalene.
- Luke (8: 1-3)
He [Jesus] was traveling from one city or village to another, proclaiming and telling the good news of the kingdom of God, and the Twelve [were traveling] with him, and also some women who had been healed of eveil spirits and illnesses, Mary (called the Magdalene), out of whom seven demons had come, Joanna, the wife of Chuza, the steward of Herod, and Susanna, and many other [women], who provided for them [or: served them, ministered to them] out of their own means [or: possessions, money].
The mention of Mary Magdalene supports both the criterion of embarrassment and that of coherence: since we associate with Jesus a woman not to be recommended and we know, moreover, that Jesus performed several exorcisms. Furthermore, we know that Luke tries to present Christianity as a respectable religion that does not threaten Roman authority, and here he presents us with the shocking image of women, some of them married, travelling around Galilee with Jesus, a single man, and twelve other men without chaperones or husbands. So it seems that Luke has preserved a piece of historical data.
- Absence of the word disciple associated with women
Even though multiple attestations support the existence of a group of women who accompanied Jesus in his ministry, supported him with their possessions and served him, remaining at his side at the crucifixion when the male disciples deserted him, the fact remains that the evangelists never labeled them disciples. Why not? Let's not call the evangelists misogynists, for if that were the case they would also have crossed out their presence. Or again, let's not believe that the term disciple was only reserved for the twelve, because a careful analysis shows that such a restriction of the term is unfounded. Instead, let us offer the following explanation.
- The evangelists seem limited by the fact that there is no independent account of the call of particular women to discipleship. Yet such a call must have existed, for it is hard to see how else Jewish women in Palestine could have taken the scandalous initiative of following a single man and male disciples for a time on the roads of Galilee. The various references to Mary Magdalene suggest a specific event. But, for some unknown reason, no narrative has been created around such a call.
- The setting of Palestine in the first century presented a number of constraints. The use of the term disciples to refer to the group created by the itinerant preacher Jesus was a new application of the term itself. In the face of so much newness, it was probably too much to ask to speak also of women disciples. Moreover, the Aramaic word for disciple, talmîd, exists only in the masculine form.
Finally, let us not forget that a reality exists long before we find the words to describe it. Given the conservative nature of the Gospel tradition, it is not surprising that the Greek text lacks the feminine gospel of discipleship, even if it existed. Also, it is not altogether an accident that Luke, the evangelist most interested in women, uses the feminine of disciple, mathetria, in the Acts of the Apostles (9:36) when he speaks of Tabitha, a devoted Christian in the early Church. In his gospel, he probably did not feel authorized to use it since his sources did not have it.
- The Unclear Boundaries of Discipleship: Supporters of Jesus Who Did Not Leave Their Homes
The Gospels mention a number of men who offered Jesus food and lodging when he visited their town or village: Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-1), Lazarus (Jn 12:1-2), the anonymous host of the last supper (Mk 14:13-15), Simon the leper (Mk 14:3). The Gospels also mention a number of women, the best known of whom are Martha and Mary (Lk 10:38-42; Jn 11). Luke and John present these two women as an ideal of the Christian faith that must be imitated. For the fourth evangelist, Jesus loves Martha and Mary very much, as does their brother Lazarus. Thus, between the crowd of curious people and the disciples who followed him physically, there is a group of people who welcomed him into their homes, offering him lodging and cover and money when he visited their region. Not surprisingly, if Jesus healed so many people, it is normal to think that a number of them became followers.
Was the group of Twelve around Jesus an invention of the early Christians?
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