I’m working on a paper this week for school. In lieu of something more personal or original this week for the blog, here’s a taste (1/20th) of my paper on the call narratives of Jesus (minus the footnotes). In examining these call narratives (when Jesus calls someone to “follow me”), my hope for the paper is to show how the gospel writers frame Jesus’ purposes, expectations, and distinct social location within his first century Jewish context. Sounds like a party, right? Anyway, here’s a snapshot (and forgive the wooden, academic language):
The gospels often speak of the Jesus’ disciples – as well as the disciples of John the Baptist and those of the Pharisees. The gospel accounts use a specific term to denote such disciples: mathetes (μαθητής). In the first century, this Greek term and its Hebrew equivalent (תַּלְמִיד//talmidh) could readily be used to refer to a learner, in a general sense, or more technically to an adherent of a significant teacher or master. While the term mathetes rather literally denotes a disciple, the gospels also employ a metaphoric use of the term akolouthein (to follow; ακολούθει) to describe a disciple’s relationship to a master. Thus, with two simple words, Jesus calls Matthew (or Levi) from his tax booth: “Follow me.” Matthew followed, and from this point forward is consistently numbered among the disciples of Jesus. Indeed, the term akolouthein plays a significant role in the gospel call narratives, where it can, as Kingsbury argues, “connote accompaniment in the extended sense of discipleship.”
On the other hand, of course, the gospels also use akolouthein in a strictly literal sense. Matthew’s gospel provides a ready example: after an encounter with a “ruler” (whom Mark and Luke identify as Jarius, a synagogue leader), “Jesus rose and followed him.” The language is that of akolouthein – yet nothing in the context would suggest that Jesus is now a disciple of this ruler. Given these examples from Matthew’s gospel (cf. Mt. 9:9 and Mt. 9:18), the question becomes how the reader determines whether Matthew (or any other gospel author) is using akolouthein in a literal sense (to come/go after a person in sequence) or a metaphoric sense (to come/go after a person as a disciple). How does one discern whether a gospel author intends to indicate a sense of discipleship in a given use of akolouthein?
Along this line of inquiry, Kingsbury, in his analysis of Matthew, identifies two factors that characterize the metaphorical use of akolouthein: personal commitment and cost. In the context of call narratives, then, it does not surprise the reader to find Jesus telling would-be disciples to forego familial obligations, take up one’s cross, deny one’s self, or sell one’s possessions to benefit the poor. Fundamental to akolouthein as discipleship is Jesus’ call for a personal commitment (whether by way of a direct summons or a word addressed to his disciples) – an invitation which entails some sense of sacrifice, renouncement, or cost.
Already then, the reader begins to form some conclusions about Jesus’ position in the socio-religious landscape of first century Palestine. The almost formulaic connection between call, commitment, and cost as found in the metaphor of akolouthein as discipleship is nowhere recorded in the context of appointed office or authoritative succession. Rather, as Hengel observes, “these ideas occur in contexts where the traditional order and its standards are repeatedly broken down, or indeed outright rejected.” Jesus’ call to follow did not stem for a position of institutional authority (be that the Temple or a Pharisaic school of thought). This call comes from one who seemingly never even had formal instruction under a recognized rabbi.