Jesus and his Disciples—- What’s in a Word

(A schematic of the large house of the fisherman unearthed in Bethsaida— hometown of Peter and Andrew).

The term mathetes is thrown around a lot in church these days, usually translated ‘disciple’. It’s actual literal sense is a ‘learner’ but often it means something more like ‘adherent’. Interestingly, this term does not really show up in the NT outside of the Gospels and Acts, and in Acts the usage seems to be Lukan, by which I mean it does not seem to come from Luke’s sources, but from his extending the usage from his first volume into his second one. Paul, for instance, never uses the word at all. Furthermore, the term is almost entirely absent from the literature of early Judaism (a few uses in Josephus, and even fewer in Philo, and not really elsewhere). By contrast it’s all over the Gospels. Of the 261 times it is used in the NT, all of them are found in the Gospels and Acts. All of them. And yet the term is not found in the LXX at all. It’s use in the Gospels cannot be attributed to the use of the LXX in the Gospels and Acts, not even in the case of Luke who uses the LXX and this term frequently.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the phenomena of this term is that it is found almost only in the plural in the Synoptics, and mainly in the singular of a particular person in John. Yes the singular form is found in Mt. 10.24,25,42 and Lk. 6.40;14.26,27,33 but in these texts the discussion is of the nature of discipleship as an abstract subject. In the Synoptics then, being a disciple is something you do with a group of people, it is a collective enterprise. We do not hear about Jesus individually discipling a particular person. He calls people as individuals but they are formed into a group— the disciples of Jesus. It may be possible to come up with a taxonomy of circles— the 12 are the inner circle, then there is the wider circle of ‘disciples’ (which includes the 12 of course), and then there are even more ‘followers’ of Jesus. Yes, there are many followers and yes the 12 are called to follow Jesus, but the calling happens to specific individuals, not apparently to all the folks that follow Jesus, and follow him around (often looking for miracles).

But as I have hinted the most interesting bit of this linguistic phenomenon is that in John, apart from John 9.28 where the blind man who has been healed is accused of being Jesus’ disciple and John 19.38 where Joseph is said to be a secret disciple, the term in the singular always refers to exactly one person— the Beloved Disciple, or put the other way around ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. I do not think this is in any way an accident. This disciple is first mentioned, and mentioned by name, like the calling of disciples by name in the Synoptics at John 11.1-3. And his name is Lazarus, not John. He is the one who is said to be especially loved by Jesus, and having once introduced the Beloved and the terminology in John 11 (and not before) it continues in one form or another throughout the remaining chapters right to the end of John 21. Yes, ‘disciples’ plural are referred to in some places in John 2, 4.1;8.31-32; 13, and one even hears of how some disciples abandon Jesus after his hard saying about eating his flesh (etc.), but these folks are not named and there is no individual or personal focus on them, unlike the case with the Beloved Disciple. It should be clear as well that the Beloved is clearly not some cipher for disciples in general since the Evangelist is perfectly happy to talk about both ‘disciples’ (plural) and one particular disciple called the Beloved One.

I would argue, and have argued at length in What Have They Done with Jesus? that the reason for this unique use of both beloved and disciple in this Gospel is because he is the eyewitness source of the material in this Gospel. It is his memoirs, as John 21 suggests, memoirs that were later collected and put into Gospel form after the death of the Beloved by a prophet named John (hence the later title that was appended to this Gospel in the early second century). The difference in the usage of the term disciple, almost exclusively in the plural in the Synoptics and in the singular in John is explained by two facts: 1) Jesus historically related to his Galilean followers as a collective group of disciples, and the testimonies we have in the Synoptics ultimately go back to this group of Galilean disciples in one way or another. It is a collective testimony about a collective group of disciples and their relationship with Jesus; 2) this is not the case in John. In John we have an individualistic perspective of one disciple, and not a Galilean one, but rather a Judean one. This is why, for instance, we have no parables and no exorcisms in John, and only one miracle story from the Synoptics recurs in John (the feeding of the five thousand/walking on water tandem). Instead, we have Judean stories like the story of Lazarus, and the man born blind, and the paralytic at the pool, and so on. The Synoptics give is the Galilean story and perspective, John gives us the largely Judean perspective and story, and Jesus operated differently in these two regions. (Note that the singular is found four times in Acts of particular people in Acts 9, 16 and 21, but not of the Beloved Disciple)

In Paul Trebilco’s recent book Self Designations and Group Identity in the New Testament Paul points out that Jesus, uniquely among his peers called people to be his disciples and set a cost of discipleship higher than anything else known in that period so far as a relationship between a teacher and his students is concerned. Jesus demanded adherence, and following him in the case of the Galilean disciples. It does not appear he demanded this of his Judean disciples— Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and others. Think on these things.

  • Patrick

    That’s an interesting view. Lazarus sure would have had a heck of an outlook on Christ for sure.

    The idea that John is from a Judean perspective is interesting. It highlights more of the divinity side of Christ, would the Judean view necessarily have focused more on that issue or is that incidental?

    Here’s another question.

    In “John”, we have the unique use of “the word” to = Yahweh the Son in the NT Gospel texts. Then, we have “John” writing Revelation using the same term he claims to be speaking of, “the word of God” in chapter 1. No other text in the NT uses “the word of God” to = Christ or the Son. I’ve heard some say that is a tipoff the author is the same for both texts.

    One thing I think Bauchkham was right on is that the author certainly was not John of Zebedee the apostle because Jesus pretty much precluded the 12 as the author because the author was at the foot of the cross and the 12 were predicted by Jesus to flee, fulfilling Zechariah’s prediction.

    Bauchkham sees the author as an eyewitness also, an anonymous John introduced to Jesus with Andrew by the Baptist. Both views are plausible to me. I think that text is direct eyewitness testimony, whether Lazarus or John.

  • Ben Witherington

    The vast majority of John scholars are clear that Revelation is by another chap, and I agree. It happens however to be John of Patmos who knew the Beloved Disciple and was somewhat influenced by him. But John of Patmos is a visionary, and his Greek very very different from that of the Gospel. BW3

  • Diana Trautwein

    Ben – this is fascinating, thought-provoking and worthy of deep reflection and wonder. Thank you.

    Patrick – if John were not somewhere near the cross, how do we account for the mother-son exchange? That has always puzzled me….

  • Patrick


    I probably mis spoke there. The author of “John” was at the foot of the cross.

    Richard Bauckham’s point is that could not have been “the apostle John” of Zebedee who tradition says wrote this Gospel because Jesus precluded the 12 when He assigned a Zechariah prediction to all 12, “Strike the shephard and the sheep will flee”. Not sure what chapter and verse that is in John.

    The author was there in hearing distance of The Lord as you noted, so he definitely did not “flee”. The author may have been Lazarus as eyewitness and this anonymous John as writer like BWIII posits here.

  • Doug

    Peter initially “fled” with the rest of the twelve but decided to go to the place where the Sanhedrin was meeting (Matthew 26:57-58). John’s Gospel says that Peter and another disciple followed Jesus and then the other disciple (traditionally John the apostle) went into the high priest’s courtyard (John 18:15). Peter calls himself a “witness of Christ’s suffering” (1 Peter 5:1). The twelve fled from the arresting authorities in the garden, but I’m not sure that precludes any of them from being near the cross.

  • Ben Witherington

    Doug the Synoptics are pretty clear that no one witnessed Jesus’ death other than the women. They don’t mention any men seeing it at all. Only John mentions one male, the Beloved Disciple, who is likely not one of the Twelve BW3

  • Doug

    What did Peter mean by calling himself a “witness of Christ’s suffering”? Did he only see the “suffering” in the garden?

  • Ben Witherington

    The whole of 1 Peter is a meditation on suffering, not dying, but suffering. It is a call to endure persecution, among other things. So, yes, I suspect that Peter is talking about the several instances of Christ’s suffering during Passion week, for example at the last supper. BW3

  • Diana Trautwein

    Thanks for these interesting insights – all of you. I remember that in one of your novels you posit this idea, Ben and I loved reading it in a fictional setting. Very interesting to see that it may well be a great deal more than fiction.

  • Diana Trautwein

    Thanks for these interesting insights – all of you. I remember that in one of your novels you posit this idea, Ben, and I loved reading it in a fictional setting. Very interesting to see that it may well be a great deal more than fiction.

  • Patrick

    I am wondering if that passage’s use of “falling away” in Matthew 26 means the 12 lost their faith until the resurrection? Jesus quoted Zecharaiah’s “the sheep will flee”, but, He used “fall away” to describe it in His own terms.

  • Dirk Masterson

    I understand that this is an older theory, and I am certainly not a Johannine scholar, but I was under the impression that the gospel of John was largely shaped by a community of early believers (the “Johannine community”). I have always understood the “Beloved disciple” to be a reflection of the community – or, in a broader sense, “us.” The community was the disciple who was bearing witness to Christ, as we are to be. Any thoughts on this?