From Prophets to Disciples to Apostles – Discipleship in the Original Jewish Context, Part 4


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According to the Talmud, “The Men of the Great Assembly said three things, ‘Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence for the Torah’” (Avot 1:2). But the bonds between rabbi and disciple varied.

Nicknaming Leading Disciples

Jesus nicknamed several disciples. Simon was “Peter” (Rocky), James and John the “sons of thunder,” while Thomas was called “Didymus” (twin). This is different from having alternate names, as demonstrated by Nathaniel as Bartholomew or Matthew as Levi.1

Nicknames and alternate names are common in Scripture. God renamed Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, and Jacob to Israel. The example of someone in a rabbinic role renaming his leading disciples is exemplified by “rabbi” Moses and his leading disciple who was renamed “Joshua.”

Numbers 13:16b reads, “Moses called Hoshea the son of Nun, Joshua.” His original name, “He has saved” is changed to highlight Who has done the saving, “Yahweh has saved.”

Since the rabbis based their view of the rabbi-disciple relationship via the Old Testament, the relationship between Moses and Joshua was prime fodder: Moses – a model rabbi – and Joshua – an ideal disciple.

The cited Numbers text sets a pattern for a rabbi to nickname his leading disciples. A Rabbi would sometimes single out his leading disciple for special honor, as Moses did with Joshua.2 David Friedman, in his book, They Loved the Torah comments:

I see Shim’on as Yeshua’s Torah-observant…. talmid hakham…a Hebrew technical term meaning the leading student (of a rabbi). Every famous rabbi who daily taught the same students had a talmid hakham, his chief student. This is the student who figured most prominently in narratives about his rabbi. In first-century Judaism, the chief student was trusted by his rabbi to learn and pass on the rabbi’s teachings.3

The Origin of the Rabbi and the Multiple Disciple Model: The School of the Prophets

When addressing the subject of the “company of the prophets” (aka, “school of the prophets” or “sons of the prophets”), we find an excellent early paradigm for later development.

Merrill Unger writes:

From I Sam. 19:20 we learn that there was a company of prophets at Ramah, under the superintendency of Samuel, whose members lived in a common building. The origin and history of these schools are involved in obscurity, but would seem to have been called into existence by Samuel…it is probably that there was one at Gibeah (I Sam. 10:5, 10). The next mention of them is in the times of Elijah and Elisha, as “sons of the prophets” (I Kings 20:35), living in considerable numbers at Gilgal, Bethel, and Jericho…About one hundred sons of the prophets sat down before Elisha, at meals in Gilgal (II Kings 4:38, 42, 43).

…From these passages we feel warranted in the belief that the sons of the prophets lived in a common house (see also 6:1). Those who were married most likely lived in their own houses (4:1).

…The prophets did not wish to withdraw from active life for purposes of carrying on a contemplative life of holiness, but their unions were formed for the purpose of mental and spiritual training that they might exert a more powerful influence upon their contemporaries.4

Martina Gracin and Ervin Budiselić refer to an assessment by M.J. Wilkins:

Examples of such relationships Wilkins sees in the group of ‘prophets associated with Samuel (1 Sam. 19:20-24), the sons of the prophets associated with Elisha (2 Kings 4:1,38; 9:1), the writing prophets Jeremiah and Baruch (Jer.36:32), Ezra and the scribal tradition (Ezra 7:6,11), and the wise counselors within the wisdom tradition (Prov. 22:17; 25:1; Jer.18:18).’

Based on this Wilkins (2013, 202) concludes: ‘Each of these institutions was involved in the process of the communication of the revelation of Yahweh (prophecy, law, wisdom), and the suggested intimacy of the relationship indicates mutual support of master and disciple in the task of revealing the word of God to the nation.’5

The Idea of 12 Apostles

The 12 Apostles were a distinct class of disciple. Apostles (in the sense of “trustee” mentioned below) were part of Jewish structure in the first century. In contrast, the role of the 12 was Jesus’ innovation – influenced partly from Old Testament “apostles.”

The fact that Jesus chose 12 apostles is significant. The number is reasonable since Israel consisted of twelve tribes (the tribe of Joseph subdivided as Ephraim and Manasseh).

Yeshua’s Apostles as Delegated Leaders

In Matthew 19:28 [NASB], Jesus reinforces the correspondence between the number of apostles and the number of tribes:

And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. “6

Jesus selecting twelve men to be apostles seems correlated to Moses sending out twelve spies (who could properly be called apostles – sent ones) to prepare the way for Israel to invade Canaan.7 Likewise Jesus named twelve men to prepare the way for His spiritual kingdom, the church.8 The Matthew 19:28 text quoted above (“the regeneration”) also suggests a millennial role for the Apostles (both the current era and Millennium can be labeled as parts of “the Messianic Era,” IMO).

Richard B. Hays rightly suggests that the idea of “judging” is probably slanted toward the idea of “ruling,” not primarily dispute settling, as per the judges in the Old Testament. Hayes fortifies the idea that judging equates to ruling via the so-called Psalms of Solomon – written a century before Christ – based upon Isaiah 27:13.

He will gather a holy people whom he will lead in righteousness; and he will judge the tribes of the people that have been made holy by the LORD their God. (Pss. Sol. 17:26).9

Jesus’ plan to name 12 apostles may have been His own Spirit-led innovation, but may have been influenced from His personal study of Numbers 13; if so, we can conceive of the apostles duel function as both authorized leaders and “scouts” for the yet-future church.

As representatives of both the Jesus’ assembly and the nation of Israel (Matthew 19:28), the 12 laid the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20), in a sense a temporary duty. The majority of the Jewish people and certainly their leaders continued in unbelief, thus wandering in the spiritual wilderness until a new generation is prepared for the Millennial Kingdom (Romans 11:26, Zechariah 13:8-9).

The Apostles As Trustees

The Greek word for Apostle was used by the Jews to refer to an office perhaps akin to our modern term “trustee.” Kaufmann Kohler explains:

… Apostle… a person delegated for a certain purpose…one invested with representative power. “Apostoloi” was the official name given to the men sent by the rulers of Jerusalem to collect the half-shekel tax for the Temple, the tax itself being called “apostolé.” …Eusebius is quoted as saying: “It is even yet a custom among the Jews to call those who carry about circular letters from their rulers by the name of apostles”…The so-called apostoloi are next in rank to the patriarchs, with whom they sit in the Sanhedrin, deciding questions of the Law with them.” The emperor Honorius, in his edict of 399, mentions… “apostoloi, who are sent forth by the patriarch at a certain season of the year to collect silver and gold from the various synagogues …”

The meaning of the term “Apostle,” still used in its old sense (Phil. ii. 25) of “Epaphroditus, your apostle [delegate] who ministers to my wants,”…

In the New Testament, we see apostles who are leaders and judges (“Apostles with an uppercase ‘A’”) and others (like Epaphroditus) who are essentially trustees, trusted sent ones (with a lowercase “a”).


1 In the 16th century Ecclesiastes Rabbah [7:3], we read a summary of Jewish observation on this issue: “A man is given three names: the one given him by his father and mother, the one given him by other people [his nickname], and the one which Heaven predestines for him.”

2 Perhaps the equivalent of a “spiritual firstborn” with double honor?

3 David Friedman, They Loved the Torah, p. 59.

4 Merrill Unger, Unger’s Bible Dictionary, p. 979.

5 “Discipleship in the Context of Judaism in Jesus’ Time, Part 1” by Martina Gracin and Ervin Budiselić [source:] quoting M. J. Wilkins, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, pp. 176-182.

6 Matthew 19:28

7 Numbers 13

8 The fact that Moses also had a group of 70 elders to help him (Numbers 11:16-17) may have led Jesus to develop another group of 70 (Luke 10:1), as indicated by some manuscripts and followed by NASB, CSB, KJV and others.

9 Richard B. Hayes, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, p. 137.

Ed Vasicek Bio

Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic but, during high school, Cicero (IL) Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute and served as pastor for many years at Highland Park Church, where he is now pastor emeritus. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has published over 1,000 columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers which are available at Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul's Teachings.