Where Did Discipleship Come From?
By Ed Vasicek
[For more info, see my first book, The Midrash Key]
Some people believe that Jesus invented the concept of discipleship. This is certainly a false assumption. Discipleship was an embedded ethic within Judaism for centuries before Jesus was born. Hundreds of Rabbis roamed the countryside during the time of Jesus, each with a band of disciples. Godly Jews were trained to house, feed, and otherwise care for rabbis and their disciples as they entered town. Indeed, their sons would one day follow a rabbi as disciples, roaming the countryside for weeks or months.
Although the Rabbis held the relationship between Moses and Joshua (and the 12 elders) as a model for discipleship, the Rabbis particularly viewed the relationship of Elijah and Elisha as the ideal model of a rabbi and his disciples, as Spangler and Tverberg note in Sitting At the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. This little-known fact opens the door to a proper understanding of what discipleship really entails, especially when distilled and applied beyond the Jewish culture.
Jesus’s Teachings About Discipleship: A Midrash on I Kings 19:19-21
I am convinced that Jesus derived his basic teachings about discipleship from expounding the Elijah and Elisha example. I am suggesting that these texts are correlated: I Kings 19:19-21, Luke 9:57-62, Matthew 19:21, and Luke 5:27. These verses are quoted from the New King James Version:
I Kings 19:19-21, So he departed from there, and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen before him, and he was with the twelfth. Then Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle on him. And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah, and said, “Please let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.”
And he said to him, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?”
So Elisha turned back from him, and took a yoke of oxen and slaughtered them and boiled their flesh, using the oxen’s equipment, and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and followed Elijah, and became his servant.
Luke 9:57-62: Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, “Lord, I will follow You wherever You go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”
Then He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God.”
And another also said, “Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house.” But Jesus said to him, “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Matthew 19:21: Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
Luke 5:27: After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
Note how Elijah seems to appear abruptly to Elisha, without formal notice. We can assume that Elijah and Elisha had experienced previous interaction. Elijah expects Elisha to drop whatever he is doing.
When he requests to kiss his father and mother before he leaves to follow Elijah, it is difficult to interpret Elijah’s response, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” Perhaps the best interpretations are that either Elijah forbade Elisha from kissing his parents goodbye, or that he grudgingly allowed it. When the text says, “So he went back…” we are told that he went back to slaughter the oxen. There is no actual mention of him returning to actually bid his parents farewell, so his going back may have been a return simply to “close shop.”
In another vein, a simple “goodbye” kiss may not be what Elisha had in mind; he may have implied a traditional, lengthier delay, using the idea of “the kiss” as representative for the final act of departure. This compares amazingly with Jesus’s answer to the man who wanted to bury his dead father: “Let the dead bury their dead.” In this instance, the one-year period between initial burying and retrieving and sealing the bones in an ossuary is probably in mind. (See Michael Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Vo. 4, p. 133).
Elisha slaughtered his oxen and gave the meat to the people (“the poor”). He did not necessarily sell all his possessions, but disposed of whatever had to be maintained by him — and thus might impede him from following Rabbi Elijah. In the Matthew 19:21 call to discipleship, Jesus commanded the prospective disciple to sell all that he had (perhaps all that required attention?), thus removing all distractions.
Jesus did not typically make this demand. Peter, Andrew, James, and John, for example, retained their boats and fishing business. As a matter of fact, they followed Jesus part-time — returning to their fishing business between trips — for two years. They followed him “full time” for the last one and a half years. But they set their business aside for a time, resuming it again after the resurrection.
We must not confuse Jesus’s demand in this or related instances as a permanent way of life, but as a temporary relinquishment while a disciple was pursuing a deeper relationship with God through following a rabbi for a finite period of time.
The call to serve Jesus is a life-long call, but the call for intense spiritual training and indoctrination was a temporary call. We might compare becoming a “disciple” to enrolling in a modern Bible college or seminary. And, believe it or not, other rabbis made similar demands on their disciples. The only thing unusual about Jesus’ discipleship demands is Who Jesus is, not the demands themselves.
Jesus’s Teachings in Light of Hillel’s precedent
Let’s note the similarities between Jesus’ discipleship teachings and those of Hillel (died in 10 A.D.), the Jewish Rabbi who whose legacy is seen in even modern Judaism.
He [Hillel] would stand at the gate of Jerusalem and meet people going to work. He questioned them, “How much will you make at work today?” One person would answer, “A denarius.” Another replied, “Two denarii.” Then he would ask them, “What will you do with your earnings?” They would reply, “We will buy what we need to live.” Then he challenged them, “Why don’t you come follow me and acquire knowledge of the Torah. Then you will receive life in this world as well as life in the future world?” In this way Hillel lived all his days and was able to bring many people under the wings of Heaven.” (Avot R. Nat)
So much more to examine…
The similarities between Elijah (or Elisha) are bountiful, some of which include fasting 40 days (I Kings 19:5-9), multiplying loaves and fishes (2 Kings 4:42-44), resurrecting the dead (I Kings 17:22-24, and having a disciple (Gehazi and Judas) who betrays his rabbi and is cursed (2 Kings 5:21-27), among others.
From 2 Kings 1:1-12, the passage in which Elijah discourages Elisha from following him before Elijah is swept up in a chariot, Jesus very well could have derived the idea of making it difficult for potential disciples to follow him. Teachings like “counting the cost,” “taking up the cross daily,” etc. may have been either midrashim or at least connected to this text. Other rabbis expressed the hardship involved with being either a rabbi or a disciple.
Bible believing Christians need to rethink the subject of discipleship. Since the early believers were called “disciples,” and since many of them did not physically leave their vocations to follow Jesus, we need to ask what discipleship means in the trans-cultural sense. I do not claim to have the complete answer, but I will assert that a disciple is one who desires to study, learn, and grow in the “grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” in concert with fellow haverim. Believers who have little desire to study are not disciples. And not all those who study are believers.