The word used in English to refer to a follower of Jesus is disciple. In English translations of writings included in the New Testament, disciple is used again and again to refer to the group of people, usually the men called ‘the Twelve Apostles,’ whom Jesus called. Translations of the writings of the New Testament is also the primary context for the use of disciple as a whole in the English language.
The earliest English uses of disciple occur in biblical contexts, such as gospel references to the followers of Jesus or the followers of John the Baptist, or in Acts in reference to members of early Christ associations. ‘Disciple’ is a term inseparable from much later interpretations and translations of New Testament writings, a term that has taken on religious implications wholly separate from the language in which these writings were composed, namely, Greek.
In Greek, a follower of Jesus is called a mathētēs. This word is used across a considerable number of the writings of the early Jesus groups, from the gospels included in the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and the Gospel of Thomas, to the Book of Acts and other early writings like the Apocryphon of John (Secret Revelation of John).
A mathētēs is a student. More specifically, in ancient Greece and Rome, a mathētēs was a student of a particular philosopher or philosophy—a pupil of Socrates, for example. Plato introduces a man named Antimoerus of Mende as “the most highly reputed of Protagoras’ mathētais” who is “taking the [philosophy] course professionally with a view to becoming a sophist” (Protagoras 315a). While you could also be a mathētēs of an orator or a medical professional, the word most often refers to a pupil of a philosopher.
The writings of the Jesus groups sound different with the use of ‘student’
When we translate mathētēs according to the original Greek – not according to the much later Old English word ‘disciple’ that derived not from Greek, but from a mix of Latin and French – the writings of the Jesus groups sound much different. At the beginning of what is now generally called the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, for example, we hear,
“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5.1-2).
Note the difference in meaning and implication when mathētēs is appropriately translated:
“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his students came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5.1-2).
The verses make more sense when we hear student rather than disciple, as we see the connection between student, teacher, and teaching. Jesus’s students come to him in order to learn. His mathētais are not people who are devoted to him as the Anointed One or Christ; they are certainly not Christians, as there were no “Christians” until much later; they are not worshippers or devotees of a god. They are students, people we should view on similar terms as pupils of philosophical schools. They are pupils of Jesus. Jesus’s followers are those who seek his knowledge.
Students in their social groups
Translated according to the ancient Greek, Jesus’s followers are understood as knowledge-seekers, as pupils of philosophy. When Acts names followers of Jesus ‘the students’, this is a title given to this particular group: the term is an absolute, a designation for the group: “The Students.”
The implications of the translation of this one word are vast. Early Jesus groups share features in common with many different social forms of organization from ancient Greece and Rome. The household and the family, as well as ancient clubs and guilds are examples. The importance of this word student indicates that we must also compare Jesus groups to philosophical schools. This comparison enables us to move away from later historical concepts such as ‘Christian’ and ‘church’ and to better understand what these groups looked like and how they functioned. Learning is the primary activity of these groups; they are focused on the acquisition of knowledge.
The followers of Jesus were philosophical pupils. Read this way, many of the actions described in writings included in the New Testament make better sense – or, perhaps, call us to ask new interpretative questions. What does it mean that Jesus’s students deny knowing him, or betray him to Roman authorities? They are not denying Jesus as a Christ figure, as the Anointed One, but rather, they are denying that they know their teacher, their philosophical leader. There is evidence that philosophers could betray colleagues or students when their teachings were questioned or viewed as dangerous. (See section 1.1 Life, middle of paragraph 6)
Jesus as a teacher
If Jesus was a philosopher, or understood by his students as a teacher, we find other important ancient resonances. When Plato describes the death of his teacher Socrates – a death brought about through a trial on charges of subversive teaching, of corrupting the youth – we can draw interesting comparisons to the trial and death of Jesus:
“But you will find that through all my life, both in public, if I engaged in any public activity, and in private, I have always been the same as now, and have never yielded to any one wrongly, whether it were any other person or any of those who are said by my traducers to be my pupils. But I was never anyone’s teacher. If anyone, whether young or old, wishes to hear me speaking and pursuing my mission, I have never objected…” (Plato, Apology 33a).
The teacher in other writings
Finally, the understanding of Jesus’s followers as students helps us to better understand writings that were not included in the New Testament, such as Gospel of Thomas. This writing is all about the acquisition of knowledge: Jesus states at the opening of the writing, “Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death. Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds it, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished…” (Gospel of Thomas 1-2).
The Gospel of Thomas tends to be treated as a sort of “mystical” writing, associated with a much later academic idea of ‘gnosticism.’ If we are thinking about Jesus’s followers as philosophical pupils, based on the Greek context for the word mathētēs, the Gospel of Thomas makes sense as a kind of philosophical treatise. The Gospel of Thomas does not have to be removed from its broader social contexts and treated as something other, alien, gnostic, or anomalous.
Use of the word disciple obscures the primary meaning of the Greek word that designated a follower of Jesus: mathētēs, student. Disciple takes Jesus, his teachings and his followers out of their social context and into a much later realm of church, of doctrine, and of Christianity. Jesus’s followers were pupils, learners, those who sought the acquisition of knowledge, in the same way that philosophical students sought knowledge from philosophers. The translation of a single word can have a vast impact on our understanding of the writings of early Jesus groups, of their social contexts, and their organization and purpose.