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Disciples = Christians?

22 September 2009

OK, qb concedes that the disciples were called Christians early on, in Antioch.

But we – qb included, for all of his sentient years (n<45) – seem reflexively to hear “disciple” when we hear “Christian,” and vice versa.  Is that justified?


I’m not going down the road you might think.  I’m not saying, in this post anyway, that modern western Christians have a very short discipleship streak.  That may in fact be true, but it’s not what I have in view.


No, I’ve got to give this some more thought and study, and we will do just that on Tuesday mornings.  I’m not posting a settled conclusion…far from it, in fact.  This is a set of questions that really only arose today, in a flash, as I reviewed the end of Matthew 4.

We’ve been struggling with the most onerous requirements among the halakah in Matthew 5.  Much of it seems impossible:  do not resist an evildoer?  So I simply let an assailant enter my house and take whatever he wants, whenever he wants?  Including my beloved wife and my three sons?  And their lives, if it comes to that?


If you’re going to resort to softening up Jesus’ teaching here in order to make it more palatable, don’t bother.  qb’s done with that.  And when we end up in Luke 14, where Jesus limits his disciples to those who are set to hate their immediate family members, qb will not admit any teaching that equates “hate” with “love less.”  The Greek term there, miseo, does not appear stretchy enough to accomplish that kind of grotesque contortion.  (I’m happy to be instructed on the point; the lexicons I consulted didn’t even approach such a thing.)  Suffice to say that the rest of Jesus’ teaching around these kinds of pionts is so unyielding, softening it – as in the redactor’s addition of the porneia exception to the prohibition on divorce, in contrast with Mark 10 – just does not ring true.  If anything, we have hyperbole, but that’s not the same thing as systematically distorting the semantic range of a pretty secure term.  No, qb must go a different direction.

Here’s the path that struck us from the blind side this morning.  The crowds were following Jesus, as was their wont.  And Jesus’ wont was to escape, to get out of range.  So he does:  he moves up the mountain, and the disciples follow him.  Remarkably, the narrative text carries no suggestion that the crowds followed, too.

(POSTSCRIPT:  Matthew 7:28 refers to the crowds, not to the disciples per se.  When did the transition occur?  The sermon text does not make it clear.  Interesting redaction-critical issue.  I suppose it’s possible that Jesus was speaking to his disciples, and the crowds filtered in.  The sermon takes a while!  But for whom was it primarily intended?  qb)


So, here’s the upshot:  was the Sermon on the Mount really directed at the people at large?  Really?  Or do we have a situation in which Jesus is outlining the ethical framework within those who wish to be his disciples – in the technical, rabbinical sense of vocational apprentices, as opposed to fans and followers in general – must live and act?

You might think qb would breathe a sigh of relief over this line of inquiry; if it’s accurate, doesn’t it let a lot of us off the hook for the most onerous aspects of Jesus’ hard-edged ethics?  But you would be wrong.  If anything, it saddens me, just as it saddened the rich, young ruler, perhaps.  My friend R****e was downcast, too.  We have lived and worked together with a few close friends over the past 7 years or so, aspiring to be apprentice shepherds ourselves, aspiring to be entrusted with Jesus’ Isaianic mission (see Luke 4 & Isaiah 61), aspiring to be Christians in the most literal way, wanting nothing more than to be with Jesus and not caring if we were recognized as such in any public way but wishing to be a part of what Jesus is doing.  But we’re married with children and domestic responsibility.  There’s no squaring this reading of Matthew 5 and Luke 14 (with its echoes in I Corinthians and Paul’s celibacy) with a domestic bacon-winner and security-provider.

We’re not at the conclusion of this matter.  Barely even started.  But where it leads is disappointing enough; imagine if we find it to be true.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. jds permalink
    23 September 2009 8:45 am

    On the subject of love/hate in the Greek, I cannot conclusively comment, but have some familiarity with the Hebrew, and can say that the terms do exist on a continuum.

    For example, God saw that Jacob’s wife Leah was “hated” and opened her womb. I don’t think that Jacob hated her (she bore him six sons and a daughter!), he simply loved her less than Rachel.

    [i]miseo[/i] is used in this passage in the Septuagint, but like I wrote, my familiarity with Greek ends after the alphabet.

  2. 23 September 2009 10:25 am

    jds, fair enough. We don’t have access to the psychology of the protagonists, but the suggestion that Leah’s “productivity” is evidence that Jacob did not hate her seems to beg the question, particularly given the circumstances under which he was forced to marry her. Plenty of *ahem* procreative activity takes place in this world without reference to any sort of love between the participants!

    The other thing that gives me pause is that “despise” is within the semantic range of the word, and that carries with it overtones of contempt that one might certainly expect between a manipulated man and an unwanted wife.

    Plus, I’m not sure I can find much evidence in Genesis that Jacob loved Leah at all, to say nothing of loving her slightly less than he loved Rachel. I’ll check it out. As always, thanks for stopping by.


    • jds permalink
      24 September 2009 8:35 am

      qb, I went through my Hebrew Bible on the computer and looked up a lot of the uses of the word hate, expecting to find plenty of evidence to bolster my point that it can be used in the comparative sense. Alas, I did not find much, if any. I would have to rest my argument on the relationship between Leah and Jacob, and that is certainly not conclusive, as you pointed out.

      I will let my last stand be one that is admittedly eisogetic instead of exegetic, in saying that Jesus ,could not be teaching us to hate our families, and then at another time command us to love one another.

      Thanks for sharpening my thinking on these things.

  3. 24 September 2009 12:32 pm

    jds, we walk together on this, and that’s why qb leaves room for a hyperbolic reading of “hate,” which seems to fit his M. O. throughout Matthew 5 and Luke 14 and many other places. I think that following a hyperbolic reading, one can claim an exegetical posture rather than an eisegetical posture and still come out the same place you have on Jesus’ intended meaning (and, in fact, the hearers’ actual understanding of what Jesus was saying). But hyperbole is not redefinition-in-perpetuity. It is more of a rhetorical device than a lexical device, IOW, which allows us to be struck by the starkness of his speech and invites us to engage our imaginations in a more colorful, nuanced way than simply sucking the blood out of the words as they stand before us.

    The hyperbolic reading refuses to allow a Kittel or a Thayer to add a new, softened definition to the word’s entry; it keeps the sharper-edged definition and forces the reader to work in the poetic realm rather than in the Petri dish. (I’ll admit that I’m writing here as a lay-pupil of Eugene Peterson, in particular his recent _Tell It Slant_.)

    The sharpening is mutual, so I appreciate your persistence!


  4. Briefs permalink
    25 September 2009 11:13 am

    A simplistic view, perhaps. In the issuance of the Great Commission, Jesus said to make disciples and then teach them his commandments. I have been drawn to wonder which commands he refers? I suspect he was thinking of the Sermon on the Hill/Mount. Following these would seem to be clearcut over inferences-and-examples-as-commands. As you stated, the commands found in that discourse are not easy to entertain.

  5. 25 September 2009 3:40 pm

    Interesting, “Briefs.” It also causes qb to wonder how distant a time horizon Jesus had in view when he commissioned his disciples in Matthew 28. We just naturally seem to assume that he was speaking to us, but that begs the similar sort of question, and I have no coherent answer for why we assume that.

    That’s not to say that there isn’t one (or more), just that qb has never really thought about it…just taken it for granted.


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