You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other.
In the next set of articles in this series, we will explore the relationship between the rabbi and his disciples.
As we’ve noted previously, one of the defining aspects of a “rabbi” prior to 70 A.D. was that they had disciples, talmidim, who followed them. Often, from a western standpoint we tend to equate “disciple” as being a “student”, and the “rabbi” as a “teacher”. This falls short of the cultural richness of this relationship, though:
A student wants to know that the teacher knows. A talmid wants to be what the rabbi is.
This cannot be overemphasized. (NOTE: In the case of Jesus, wanting to be what the rabbi is is a statement about Jesus’ human nature, not his divine nature.)
As we’ve touched on before, the culture of the hasidim was highly educated, in comparison to their contemporaries, particularly regarding the knowledge and memorization of scripture.
From the age of about 4 to the age of 11 or 12, they participated in bet sefer, memorizing the books of Torah (for boys) and the Psalms (for girls). Even today, there are a number of Jewish communities that continue this practice, where it is not uncommon for all members of the community above the age of 12 to have Torah (Genesis – Deuteronomy) memorized. (From my own grade-school church experience, we seemed pretty satisfied having one verse memorized each week!)
At the completion of bet sefer, the children began to learn their family trade (boys) or home skills (girls), with the most talented boys continuing their Torah studies on top of this. This level of education, called bet midrash, included memorization the prophets and the writings, along with interpretation and application of Torah.
At this point in their education, the student would approach a s’mikah rabbi in an attempt to further their study. The students would approach such a rabbi, often based upon the rabbi’s area of focus and key methods, to see if the he would accept them as a talmid, a disciple.
The way they would do this is by approaching the rabbi and asking him, “can I be like you?”
The rabbi would then test the student thoroughly. Should the potential talmid not fully meet the expectations of the rabbi, the rabbi would likely suggest that the family profession best suits the student – a devastating blow. If the potential talmid met the mark, though, the rabbi would reply “yes, I believe you can become what I am”, and would accept the young man as his disciple.
Very few young men ever made it this far. In modern America, it would be the relative equivalent of a young football player making it into the NFL. Being the talmid of an authoritative rabbi was a big deal – an opportunity of great proportion.
However, history records that three of these authoritative rabbis altered this model: Hillel, Akiva and especially a certain Galilean, Yeshua. These three rabbis sought out and chose their own disciples rather than having the talmidim come to find them.
In Jesus’ case, we see him in each of the gospels coming out and choosing his talmidim:
As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
When viewing this calling in its original context, it is no wonder that these young men immediately dropped everything to follow Yeshua! The fact that they were already practicing the family trade would indicate that they were not “good enough” students to make the cut after bet sefer or bet midrash (From the context of Acts 4:13, it is likely that Peter and John were not talented enough to have participated in bet midrash, though they undoubtedly would have participated in bet sefer with all of the other children.) Jesus’ disciples were the “C” students, but he chose them – which should speak to us as well, when we consider our own lack of qualifications.
Jesus even reiterates this to his talmidim:
You did not choose me, but I chose you
In the Hebrew view, this is often expressed as the “faith” of a rabbi in his talmidim – which is not a statement of divinity, but rather a statement of belief that his talmidim are fully capable of living in a way enough like his own to live out Torah correctly.
Footnote on Age
One interesting, though sometimes controversial, footnote to this rabbi/talmid relationship is that in the extra-biblical accounts of talmidim serving under rabbis, these talmidim are all between the ages of 12 and 30, primarily weighted toward the teen-age years.
In the Bible, we have no indication that Jesus’ talmidim were outside of this norm. In fact, at least one scripture seems to indicate that Jesus’ disciples, apart from Peter, were all in their teens:
After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”
“Yes, he does,” he replied.
“But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”
The two-drachma temple tax was paid by ALL adult (over the age of 20) Jews, and in this passage, we see that Jesus pays the tax for only him and Peter, even though the text says that disciples were with Jesus. So – either Jesus paid for Peter and himself through miraculous providence, stiffing the others , or (more likely) Jesus and Peter were the only ones required (male and twenty years of age or older) to pay it.
Because of our cultural biases, we often “see” the disciples as being the same age as – if not older than – Jesus. Rather, it is far more likely that, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, John (the youngest) was likely 12 or 13 and Peter was probably 18 or 19.
Additionally, most talmidim served 12-16 years under a rabbi, but Jesus’ were only with him for three before he sent them out to make their own disciples! As you consider the age and level of “official” training of Jesus’ disciples, it is truly a statement to the his power and the simplicity of his teaching that he sent out a group of teen-age boys, and they, in turn, through him, changed the world by going out and making their own disciples – just like their rabbi.