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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Disciple

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The use of the word ‘disciple’ (μαθητής) in the NT is remarkable and very instructive. It occurs 238 times in the Gospels. In the Epistles and the Apocalypse it does not occur at all, its place being taken by ‘saints’ (ἅγιοι) and ‘brethren’ (ἀδελφοί). Acts exhibits the transition, with ‘disciple’ (μαθητής) 28 times and the feminine form (μαθήτρια) once, but with ‘saints’ 4 times (Acts 9:13; Acts 9:32; Acts 9:41; Acts 26:10) and ‘brethren’ (not counting addresses, and mostly in the second half of the book) about 32 times. In Acts, ‘believers’ (πιστεύοντες, πιστεύσαντες, πεπιστευκότες) is another frequent equivalent. This explanation of the change from ‘disciple’ to the other terms is simple. During His life on earth, the followers of Jesus were called ‘disciples’ in reference to Him; afterwards they were called ‘saints’ in reference to their sacred calling, or ‘brethren’ in relation to one another (Sanday, Inspiration3, 1896, p. 289). In Acts, the first title is going out of use, and the others are coming in; in ch. 9 all three terms are found. Christ’s charge, ‘Make disciples of all the nations’ (Matthew 28:19), may have helped to keep ‘disciple’ in use.

‘Disciple’ means more than one who listens to a teacher; it implies his acceptance of the teaching, and his effort to act in accordance with it; it implies being a ‘believer’ in the teacher and being ready to be an ‘imitator’ (μιμητής) of him (Xen. Mem. I. vi. 3). It is remarkable that St. Paul does not call his converts his ‘disciples’-that might seem to be taking the place of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:13-15); but he speaks of them as his ‘imitators.’ In the Gospels, ‘disciple’ is often used in a special sense of the Twelve, and sometimes of the followers of human teachers-Moses, or John the Baptist, or the Pharisees. Neither use is found in Acts: in 19:2, ‘disciples’ does not mean disciples of John, as is shown by ‘when ye believed’ (πιστεύσαντες), that is, ‘when ye became Christians,’ which is the dominant meaning of this verb in Acts. These ‘disciples’ were imperfectly instructed Christians.

See also article Apostle. Alfred Plummer.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Disciple'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/d/disciple.html. 1906-1918.

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