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What happened to the “disciples”?

Posted by on Mar 10, 2011 in discipleship | 10 comments

What happened to the “disciples”?

So, this post is related to my previous series on disciples and discipleship. But, I decided not to make it part of the series. Perhaps it should have been, but it’s not. So sue me.

The various Greek terms related to “disciples” (μαθητήςmathetes) and “making disciples” (μαθητεύωmatheteuo) are found many, many times in the Gospels and in Acts. However, once you move to the epistles (Pauline and General) or Revelation, the terms are not found at all. Not once.

Now, maybe that doesn’t mean much to you, so let me spell it out a little more. The verb μαθητεύω (matheteuo – “be a disciple” or “make a disciple”) is found four times in the Gospels and Acts. The noun μαθητής (mathetes – “disciple) is found 261 times in the Gospels and Acts. But, in Paul’s Epistles, the General Epistles, and Revelation, these terms are not found one time. Again… not once.

So, what happened to the “disciples”?

Now, some have suggested that the term “disciple” was reserved for those who spent time with Jesus face-to-face, that is, when he was physically on the earth. However, that doesn’t fit with the evidence found in the Gospels and Acts. For example, Acts 6:1 says that the number of “disciples” was increasing, indicating that there were now disciples who had not followed Jesus. Similarly, in Acts 19:9, while Paul was in Ephesus, he moved from the synagogue to the Hall of Tyrannus because of problems with the Jews. He took some “disciples” with him. Obviously, these disciples had not spent time with Jesus when he was physically on the earth.

So, what happened to the “disciples”?

Could the use of the term “disciple” be related to an author’s preference? That’s possible, but only if the Gospel of John and the Epistles of John were written by different authors. Similarly, authorial preference of the use of “disciple” would also indicate that Luke could not have written Hebrews. However, we know that Luke and Paul were close friends and traveled together often. Yet, Luke used the term “disciple,” but Paul never did (at least, not in his extant letters).

So, what happened to the “disciples”?

What about a timing issue? Could the use of the term “disciple” be related to a certain time period in church history (i.e., when certain books were written). Unfortunately, this doesn’t work either. While scholars disagree about the specific dates that each book was written, it seems that the writing dates of the books that use the term “disciple” are interspersed with the writing dates of the books that do not use the term “disciple.” (Interestingly, the term “disciple” shows up again in some of the writings referred to as the “Apostolic Fathers” – Ignatius’ letters, Epistle of Diognetus, and Martyrdom of Polycarp – but not in other writings from the same time period.)

So, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious reason as to why the Gospels and Acts use the “disciple” terms but the other books of the New Testament do not.

I think the most likely explanation has to do with author and recipients. For example, it seems that Paul preferred the terms “servant” or “slave,” and he used those in places where you might expect “disciple.”

What do you think?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 3-10-2011

    Interesting observation. Never thought about it before. One of the difficulties we come up with is when is a disciple a disciple? How do we define the term we are using? The one I tend to favor is “Christ follower”. When someone is following Christ in obedience, they are a disciple. But is this a definition, or a process? Are we disciples? Or are we disciples in the making?

  2. 3-10-2011

    I’m no textual critic, so this should be taken with a grain of salt, but is it possible that the different nature of the writings has something to do with it? The gospels and Acts are accounts of events so it would be fitting to talk about disciples, who share a life with their teacher, as opposed to epistles which are not about recording events, but about instructive teaching? Just my thoughts.

  3. 3-10-2011

    I think that Paul might have shied away from using mathetes because of its connotations in greco-roman culture. As I understand it the term originally referred to the followers of sophists. Sophists exhibited the kind of competition in leadership that Paul was dealing with in Corinth. Paul may not have wanted to confuse what it mean to follow Jesus with the patterns established by sophists.

    Back in my bible college days I wrote a long paper seeking to understand what Paul meant when he said “the kingdom does not consist of words but of power.” It turned out to be a long commentary on the the first four chapters of 1Corinthians. This is how I discovered the possible negative impact of sophists on the church.

    Here is a link to it. (The paper is 7 years old, I wonder how much I would change today)

  4. 3-10-2011


    I like the term “follower” too. It is slightly different than, though related to, “disciple.” For example, Jesus said to many of his disciple, “Follow me.”


    I haven’t thought about genre as a reason for using or not using the “disciple” word groups. What do you do with aspects of the epistles that do narrate events dealing with sharing life with a teacher? (I’m thinking of 1 Thessalonians 1 in particular, but there may be other times as well.)


    Yes, I briefly mentioned that the combination of author/recipient might be one reason for the change in vocabulary. Of course, other terms (like “servant”) had different connotations in Greco-Roman society, but those terms were not changed. It’s still a possibility though.


  5. 3-10-2011

    Something like Leighton’s suggestion makes the most sense to me. It makes sense for Luke-Acts to stay consistent with the term, but whatever Aramaic term mathetes replaces in the Gospels, it clearly referred to an established custom within Palestinian Judaism. The Baptizer and the Pharisees also had “disciples”.

    So, whether it was Sophistry in particular or several factors or a general lack of reference to the PJ custom, it seems the cultural milieu of the audience(s) must be what explains the term’s disappearance.

    However, Alan, I don’t see “slaves” being a direct replacement term for Paul. Maybe one of several terms that he’d reach for instead of mathetes, but surely not a 1-1 match. Not sure that’s what you meant, but that’s how I took your suggestion. Probably my fault, but… fwiw.

  6. 3-10-2011


    I couldn’t say for sure what to do with narrative parts of epistles, and I certainly am not set on my previously stated reasoning, but I guess it would be possible that it is more of a general thing, as in, epistles are generally not narrative and the gospels and acts are. This seems to be the only obvious difference between the gospels/acts and the rest of the NT.

  7. 3-10-2011

    I also have a question about the sophist thing. Wasn’t the gospel of John written more for a gentile audience? Did John shy away from using mathetes? Wouldn’t that make sense based on the sophist argument?

  8. 3-10-2011


    No, I didn’t intend to suggest a 1-to-1 correspondence between “disciple” and “slave”/”servant”. In fact, Paul uses other terms when one might expect “disciple” – “brother/sister” for instance.


    I was simply thinking out loud when I mentioned narrative parts of the epistles. Your question about John is a good one. If we accept the early Christians view of the writing of the Gospels, then Mark’s Gospel was originally spoken by Peter to a Roman audience. But, he used “disciple” often also.


  9. 3-10-2011

    I have answered your question in the most clear and obvious way I know how over at my blog. I hope this clears things up for everyone! Where Did They Go?

  10. 3-11-2011


    Of course. That makes perfect sense. Next, tackle the Synoptic problem.



  1. Where did they go? « The Ekklesia in Southern Maine - [...] Knox at The Assembling of the Church has written an interesting post regarding the disappearance of the word ‘disciple’…