Doctoral Studies

Adherence to the Master

Here’s another excerpt from my doctoral thesis on the need for pastors to employ more embodied forms of wisdom in an age of increasingly impersonal and disembodied ministry. I get to the guts of my research now, and explore Jesus and the rabbis and the context for formation. I discover (to my horror, at first) that rabbinic education is less about adherence to a teacher’s ideas, and more about adherence to the teacher’s person. Very un-American. We get more technical now in these posts, but wanted to give a taste for those who are interested.


Twenty-first century Christians trying to think their way back into the world of Jesus and his disciples are clouded by nearly 2,000 years of academic and institutionalized versions of Christian education. We have a hard time imagining teachers and students operating outside of some kind of an established, government-funded public school context. In fact, it didn’t take long for early non-Jewish Christians to take Jesus out of his Jewish world and place him into a Greco-Roman styled university world. By the end of the second century, Clement of Alexandria had transformed Jesus the itinerant rabbi into the quintessential toga-wearing ‘Instructor’ in his Pedagogue. 

Can we place Jesus and the rabbis of the day in a ‘school’ setting? Do we know how teachers and students interacted in such a setting? What did the learning process and interaction look like between the teacher and his mathetes?  James D. G. Dunn speaks for most in saying, “Of no one else has it been said so often down through the centuries, ‘Would it not have been wonderful to see him for ourselves, to hear his own voice, to spend time with him’.”

And the curious mind echoes the sentiments of B. Gerhardsson in his seminal work a generation ago: “We are still waiting for one of the leading experts in Rabbinic Judaism to give us a comprehensive description of the way in which these various rabbinic colleges, assemblies and “sessions” were organized, the functions of the various officials, the different “classes” and levels of study to be distinguished there, and the different activities carried on in them.”

We are not so much waiting for a description as we are carefully sifting the rabbinic writings we do have and trying to avoid anachronistically reading back into the first century the rabbi-student practices of the post-70 academies of later rabbinic Judaism after Jamnia. Even when the sifting is through, we still face what James Crenshaw calls a “deadening silence” on the actual details of how Jewish education actually was practiced. “There is talk of pitching camp and peering through Wisdom’s windows and speculation about pursuing Dame Wisdom like precious treasure or a bride,” Crenshaw notes, “But not a whisper about the acquisition of knowledge is heard. How did learning occur, and how was it transmitted?”

Despite the difficulties with dating, Bill Hull suggests the following characteristics of discipleship were operative among the rabbis and pupils in Jesus’ day: 1) deciding to follow a teacher; 2) memorizing the teacher’s words; 3) learning the teacher’s way of ministry; 4) imitating the teacher’s life and character; and 5) raising up their own disciples. Noteworthy for our purposes is where he places the emphasis in such rabbi-pupil relationships:

Mathetes was a convenient term to designate the followers of Jesus, because it didn’t emphasize learning or being a pupil but adherence to a great master. So a “disciple” of Jesus, designated by the Greek term mathetes, was a person who adhered to his master, and the master himself determined how the disciple followed.” 

In our twenty-first century context where students are primarily focused on the teacher’s content, and the teacher himself is merely a disposable vehicle for delivering “the goods,” we are far removed from the teacher-centric world of first century Judaism. Wilkins notes a classic rabbinic tale from Shabbath 31a illustrating the rabbinic ideal of student-dependence on their master: 

A heathen became a proselyte of Hillel and, “On the first day he [Hillel] taught him, Alef, beth, gimmel, daleth; the second day he reversed [them] to him. ‘But yesterday you did not teach them to me thus,’ he protested. ‘Must you then not rely upon me? Then rely upon me with respect to the Oral [Torah] too.’  

Jesus also taught a strong view of “dependence” on him when he said things like, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5); or when he simultaneously astonishes and offends the mixed crowd of onlookers when he said people are either wise or foolish based on whether or not they they build their lives on his teachings. The response according to Matthew: “The crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matt 7:28-29). 

Culpepper investigates the nature of various ancient Greco-Roman and Jewish schools including Qumran, Hillel, Philo, Jesus and the Johannine school. He concludes that the evidence for Jesus having a school similar to these other schools is strong when school is defined by the following common characteristics: 1) they were groups of disciples emphasizing phileo or koinonia; 2) they gathered around a founder they regarded a wise or good man; 3) they valued the founder’s teachings and traditions about him; 4) members of schools were disciples of him; 5) teaching, learning, studying, and writing were common activities; 6) they observed communal meals, often in memory of founder; 7) they had rules regarding admission, retention of membership, and advancement; 8) they often maintained distance from the rest of society; and 9) they developed organizational means of insuring their perpetuity. 

Still, Hengel and others have made strong cases against placing Jesus too comfortably among the other rabbis and schools of the day. So we finally turn our attention directly toward Jesus and his mathetes and ask the driving question of this chapter: How did Jesus himself view his role as teacher and his relationship with his disciples? 


A thesis now begins to take shape after establishing the prevalence of (1) forms of master-pupil relationships (discipleship) in the ancient Jewish world, (2) various movements centered around strong, “personality-driven” charismatic leaders in the Jewish world before, during and after the time Jesus; and (3) some basic characteristics of rabbinic schools of the time. We are in search of the interpersonal glue or bonding agent that drew disciples to Jesus and his message in the first place. Were the disciples committed primarily to Jesus’ teachings, or to the teacher himself? Was discipleship in ‘the school of Jesus’ based on his new halaka, or on his person and authority? Or some combination of both?  Answers to these questions will begin to provide pastors today with building blocks for laying a new (or very old) foundation for more effective discipleship.

Based on our study so far, I propose Jesus founded a movement that had a master-pupil relational structure typical of the times, but the lifeblood and energy that fueled his movement and attracted loyal followers was the power of an embodied teaching and ethic rooted in his unique person and authority.


1 Hermas et al., Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, Reprint Edition of The American Edition edition (Hendrickson, 1994).

2 James D.G. Dunn, Jesus’ Call to Discipleship (Cambridge University Press, 1992), 1.

3 B. Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity (C. W. K. Gleerup, 1961), 91.

4 For a general survey of the discussion see George Wesley Buchanan, “The Use of Rabbinic Literature for New Testament Research,” BTB 7, 110-112, as cited by Wilkins, Discipleship, in his discussion in p. 116ff. Also B. D. Chilton, “Rabbinic Traditions and Writings,” in Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall, eds., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 651-650.

5 See James Crenshaw, Education in Ancient Israel: Across the Deadening Silence, 1st edition (New York: Anchor Bible, 1998), 115-116: “One thing is missing in Israel’s wisdom literature and in extra-biblical texts. Where is reflection on the learning process itself?” This was a discouraging conclusion to read at the beginning of my quest to find precisely that! 

6 Ibid.

7 Bill Hull, The Complete Book of Discipleship: On Being and Making Followers of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2006),62. Also m. Avot 5:21 details the stages of education: “At five years of age [one is ready] for Scripture; at ten, for Mishnah; at thirteen for [keeping] the commandments; at fifteen for Talmud; at eighteen for marriage; at twenty for pursuing [a trade].”

8 Bill Hull, The Complete Book of Discipleship: On Being and Making Followers of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2006),54.

9 Wilkins, 121.

10 Culpepper, The Johannine School, 259. 

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