In Christ's time the Greek word mathetes described apprentices, one adhering to one of the many Greek schools of philosophy, one who kept the company of a particular teacher or simply subscribed to that teacher's doctrine even if far removed in space and time. There were groups of students who continued their teacher's traditions after he died (such as was the case with Socrates). This type of commitment usually entailed passing on his wisdom and sayings. As today, one need not be a religious figure to gain and accept disciples. In the rabbinic spheres, the talmid devoted himself to the study of Scripture and the precepts of his particular tradition--one that had been passed to him from his instructor. Disciples were highly esteemed among the Jews of Christ's time, especially if his rabbi was highly regarded. Most rabbis were, some more than others, and this regard was extended to his followers to a lesser degree until his period of listening and learning was over and he, in turn, began to teach as well.
The rabbis typically assembled their pupils in what we would call a classroom. All sat and the rabbi would drill his disciples by asking questions. Also, rote memorization was of the greatest import, repeating passages of Scripture over and over until ingrained in their disciples heads. This would go on for hours and hours, with this apprenticeship often lasting years. During this entire process, it was expected of the disciple to render silent, respectful service to his teacher.
There are some 260 NT references to disciple(s) and 230 appear in the Gospels. Not surprising. Although mentioned are the disciples of others a few times, almost all refer to the followers of Jesus. While similarities certainly existed between the disciplship of Christ and that of others there are marked differences as well. I feel they are illuminating.
Above all was the fact that Jesus called his disciples to Him (ref. Mk 1:6/par.). Most jews selected their teachers. Christ asked his disciples to leave their livlihoods in order to follow Him wholly, whereas, disciples of most rabbis would have retained their 'day jobs'. The Lord's 'classrooms' consisted of hillsides and shorelines, wells and pools as opposed to the traditional four-walled settings. Instead of filling His disciples' heads with centuries of obscure and, ultimately, meaningless and worthless sayings that had been piled in, on and around the Law, Christ taught His followers the true meaning of God's Word--direct and untainted. Small wonder then that His disciples so often failed to understand Him or marveled at what He said.
What does all this mean for us? I hope to address that with my next post.