When you hear the word disciple, what comes to mind? I think of my time spent discipling believers and being discipled. I also think of The Twelve? Or Jesus’ words “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)? Or you might think of yourself as a disciple. Perhaps you even think of discipleship, making disciples, etc.
What would you think if I told you that discipleship in ancient times was a very serious undertaking both for the Teacher and for the Disciple, and it involved more dedication than what we think of (or practice) today? What if discipleship had its roots way back to Socrates and even before his philosophical era? Now, I hope I have you interested (and not bored!). And I also hope you’re wondering what in the world this might have to do with Mary of Bethany. I’m so glad you asked! I would like to take you through a short (ha!) history of discipleship so that you can see why it is so important for understanding our Mary and her interactions with Jesus.
The word disciple in English means follower, adherent, or student of a great master, religious leader or teacher. The Greek word is mathetes and the Hebrew words are talmid and limmud. (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels)
One example of a well-known teacher and disciple in the Greek culture would be Plato and Aristotle. Here is a picture of Raphael’s fresco entitled “School of Athens” where you see the two men walking along discussing their philosophies. Aristotle was well-known for his peripatetic teaching (which simply meant, walking along as he taught), and we see this demonstrated in Raphael’s painting. You see all the people gathered in this area, indicating desire for knowledge.
By the time Jesus arrives on the scene, the term mathetes was most commonly used in the sense of adherent, or follower of a great thinker or devotee of a religious master. Within Judaism of the 1st century individuals were known as “disciples” if they were adherents or followers committed to a recognized leader, teacher or movement.
Here is a picture of Jewish rabbis most likely immersed in a religious discussion. The best example of a Jewish disciple-teacher relationship would be Paul under Gamaliel studying as a Pharisee. Other examples included the more radical religious groups that tried to raise up zealot-like nationalists. (From Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels)
Remember what I said about the pious Jews and their thirst for the knowledge of God? Wilkins writes, “Pharisaism was at heart, though tragically miscarried, a movement for righteousness. It was this concern for righteousness that drove the Pharisees to their legalism with such a passion.”
Ray Vander Laan (a Bible teacher who teaches in the Holy Land) has a video on this topic called In the Dust of the Rabbi, and in his definition of talmid he explains that being a disciple is not just someone who wants to know what the rabbi knows, it’s someone who wants to be who the rabbi is.
Now in 1st century Palestine, to become a disciple, the student started very young. Boys attended Torah school when they were ages 6-10. This part of their schooling was called Bet Sefer (or House of the Book). They would have a Rabbi, or teacher, who taught the Torah, or first 5 books of the bible. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.
On the first day of class the rabbi would take honey and would cover their slate where they would write. Honey was a sign of God’s favor. You may recall the image of the Promised Land as one “flowing with milk and honey.” As he rubbed the honey all over their slate he would say, “Now class, lick the honey off the slate and off your fingers.” And as they did this the rabbi would say, “May the words of God be sweet to your taste, sweeter than honey to your mouth” (Psalm 119:103). May the words of God be the most pleasurable, the most enjoyable thing you could even comprehend.
In addition to this they ate a honey cake (inscribed with the words “The Lord God gave me a skilled tongue to know [Isaiah 50:4-5]). And they would also eat a boiled egg (with the words written on it “Mortal feed your stomach and fill your belly with this scroll and I ate it and it tasted as sweet as honey to me [Ezekiel 3:3]). So these Jewish children were raised to cherish the words of God as the most important thing in all of their lives. To savor it. To taste the Word. (From a *Shavuot article by Rabbi Golinkin)
They would learn the Hebrew alphabet (if they hadn’t already learned it in their homes) and would learn to read the Torah in both Hebrew and Aramaic. And they would memorize the first 5 books of the bible by the time they were 10 years old. How many of you can say you’ve memorized a verse in the OT? What about a chapter in the OT? How about the first 5 books? No one has Leviticus memorized? I’m so surprised! Neither have I! That equals out to 187 chapters and more than 5800 verses! (5,853 in NAB) That is some insane dedication!
Another thing the rabbi did in their first year is he would take the scroll (the scroll was what the Scriptures were written on. Remember they didn’t have the Gutenberg press. In fact each scroll contained only a chapter or a short book from the Hebrew Bible. The scrolls were housed in the Temple at Jerusalem. This meant that they would circulate these scrolls so that they could get the full Bible read throughout the land. No one had the full Scriptures except maybe the very wealthy. So these scrolls were precious). (From the article *Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine by Catherine Hezser)
So the rabbi would take this scroll, unfold it, and hold it up in view of all the students. As it passed the students, they would reach out and touch the scroll, and they would kiss it.
You might say, they grew up in a culture of a LOVE for God’s Word.
According to some sources, there was a second school called Bet Midrash, which translated meant House of Study. Only the best male students would go to this school from age 10-14.
If they weren’t one of the “best” students, they would go home, and they would “ply your trade”. Simply put this means that if you were a girl, you learned to be a wife and mother. If you were a boy, you learned your father’s trade. Peter and Andrew, James and John all learned their father’s trade: fishing.
In Bet Midrash they had quite the task set out before them of memorizing the entire rest of the Scriptures! That is a total of another 1,074 chapters and over 27,500 verses (27,570). Everything else…from Joshua all the way to Malachi! That’s a GRAND TOTAL of 1,261 chapters and over 33,300 verses.
The Rabbi also had a very different way of teaching than what we are used to today. Rather than asking questions and expecting to get answers from their disciples, the rabbi would teach the art of learning by asking questions and having them respond with questions. (similar to the Socratic Method)
This is why we see Jesus at age 12 in the Temple in Mark 2:46,
they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers.
At the end of their study, if one was found to be a promising student, he would enter what is known as Bet Rabbi around age 13-14. Here is how it happened:
The student would go and present himself to a well-known respected, rabbi. And he would say, “Rabbi, I want to become your disciple. Please let me in your Bet Midrash.” Then the rabbi would ask him lots of questions, to find out if he was the best of the best. Because each rabbi wanted to teach his thinking, his philosophy, his interpretation of Scripture. Do you know what this was called? It was called his yoke. This rabbi wants to know, when he is questioning this possible disciple, “Is this boy able to become a rabbi himself and to teach and spread my yoke?” Remember in Matthew 11:28 when Jesus told the people:
Come unto Me all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.
And if the rabbi believed that this student was the best of the best, that he was able to become a rabbi, He would say, “Come, follow me.” Sound familiar? The boy would then leave his family. Leave his village. Leave the local synagogue where he had been studying to follow that rabbi. He would become a talmid, a disciple, a student. This boy would give his life to being exactly like that rabbi and would follow him everywhere.
The Mishnah rabbis would tell their disciples, “May you be covered in the dust of your rabbi.” It was because a rabbi would come to the village and these talmidim would be following right behind him. Since the roads were dusty these disciples would get covered with the dust of their rabbi. In fact they wanted to be so much like their rabbi that when he would pick up a piece of straw and put it in his mouth then they would too. If he washed his hands a certain way, they would mimic the way he washed his hands. If he ate his food a certain way, they ate like him. They would learn his gestures, his voice inflections, his teachings. And they would follow this rabbi everywhere. Because the rabbi believed that they could be like him.
So you see the student chose the Rabbi under whom he wished to learn, thus becoming that Rabbi’s disciple. And the goal was to be exactly like your Rabbi.
The rabbis would not seek out anyone to teach the Scriptures. There was a Rabbinic disdain for the masses which resulted in limited disciple circles. There was a saying among the teachers “Like the thighs of a woman, Torah was to be kept covered in public.” And this was because of fear of casting pearls before swine. (From an article in *Neotestamentica p. 245)
But what does Jesus do?
Jesus completely reverses the Rabbi-disciple exchange. Jesus, the Rabbi, calls the disciple rather than waiting for a disciple to come to Him. In fact, He beckons for all to come to Him! It wasn’t just the spiritual elite who could be a disciple. The one who had made it through to the Bet Midrash. He was calling for anyone to come to Him. Remember His words:
Whoever wants to be My disciples… (Mt. 16:24; Mk 8:34; Lk 14:33)
You did not choose Me, I chose you… (Jn 15:16)
Come to Me, ALL who are weary and burdened…(Mt. 11:28)
He went to Andrew and Peter, James and John, the fishermen, who had already been told they didn’t make the cut as a disciple, who were already plying their trade, and He called them to follow Him. He chose the fisherman and tax collector. And more amazingly, He chose women!
Ah, yes, here is where our Mary comes in. You noticed in all of the information you heard regarding discipleship, not once was a girl given the chance to learn in Bet Sefer much less go on to Bet Midrash. Remember Jewish men thanked God that they were not “a gentile, an outsider, or a woman.” (From *Neotestamentica p. 244) Not once could she be considered by a Rabbi as a disciple. She was supposed to go home and learn how to be a homemaker. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that (!) Jesus chose women to be His disciples as well! To be a learner. An adherent to the Master. One who was called to be exactly like the Rabbi.
[Stay tuned next week for part 2 on Mary of Bethany (I know it was just getting good!)]