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The mimesis ("imitation") theme is
extraordinarily large in the New Testament. While Louw-Nida lists
only 5 words in this immediate family, some 42 words or word
groups appear in the semantic field, "Guide, Discipline, Follow,"
26 expressions for "teach" or "instruct" and comprising a
sizeable number of references to such activities as repeating,
following, obeying, instructing. Moreover, the extensive field of
"knowing" words contains a strong Semitic overtone of "knowing by
interaction with someone" as opposed to knowing by detached
observation or deriving knowledge from abstract principles.
It is impossible to survey the multitude of
variations in the above fields to make our point that Jesus
expressed the clear intention that his mission was to be
replicated exactly by his followers, irrespective of their place
in succeeding generations. This intention can be shown by an
examination of Jesus' cultural and religious background,
particularly the terms, "rabbi," "disciple" and "follow[er]," his
explicit statements about the nature of his ministry's continuity
in his followers, as well as the disciples' expectations of those
who would follow them.
While an examination of Jesus' historical
and cultural background with respect to the teacher-disciple
relationship represents no necessary proof as to the nature of
the relationship between Jesus and his disciples, it is
nonetheless instructive to note that in general in the Greek
world, the teacher-student relationship "is predominantly
characterized by the concept of mimesis. Teachers and
students are bound together by a certain teaching and
practice of life, and the student is recognizable in his
imitation of the teachings and life of the teacher"
Closer to Jesus' experience, Josephus offers a
similar goal for all young Jews: "[The Law] orders that they
shall be taught to read and shall learn both the laws and the
deeds of their forefathers, in order that they may imitate the
latter, and being grounded in the former, may neither transgress
nor have any excuse for being ignorant of them."
Even more relevantly, the Palestinian
rabbi-student relationship reflects a similar pattern. Ben Sirach (d.
ca. 175 BC) cites the goal of a rabbi is to train his
student to such an extent that "When his father [teacher] dies,
it is as though he is not dead. For he leaves behind him one like
a humorous extreme, Rabbi Akiva (d. 135), followed his mentor, R.
Joshua into the privy, during which time Akiva claimed to have
"learned three good habits." He defended his action: "I
considered everything a part of the Torah and I needed to
In the Gospels and Acts the followers of Jesus
are called "disciples" (mathetai) some 67 times in
Matthew, 44 in Mark, 34 in Luke and 73 times in John. This does
not include numerous references to disciples of others, such as
John the Baptist or the Pharisees. In Acts the term, including
one feminine form applied to Tabitha (9:36), appears 29 times,
generally to believers in Jesus. The verb form
(matheteuo-"to become a disciple") appears three times in
Matthew and once in Acts.
The word, "follow" in its noun and verb forms
appear some 14 times as disciples of Jesus in the Gospels, and
once as a participle in Rev 14:4 of the 144,000 "who follow the
Lamb wherever he goes." It is interesting, here that these terms,
"disciple" and "follow" apply both to the disciples of the
earthly Jesus, and also to Christians in general.
In the Gospels, Jesus clearly stakes out a
claim for his status as "teacher/rabbi" in the face of potential
competing claims among his own followers. For example, in the
context of rabbinic pride and intellectualism run amok (Mt 23),
Jesus makes a triptych of demands, focusing on his authority as
But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you
have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call
anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in
heaven. Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one
Teacher, the Christ (vss. 8-10).
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