John 15:9-17 Disciple vs Apprentice

In the context of Jesus’ time, followers of Jesus (or any particular Sage) were known as talmidim (sing. talmid). In almost all English translations of the Gospels, followers of Jesus are known as disciples and most Christians and contemporary Jews are taught that disciple means student. This understanding is accurate, but it is not complete. Knowing the whole picture is important to understanding, in part, Jesus’s teaching and His salvific mission.

In Biblical Hebrew, a first century talmid is better understood in English as an apprentice. The distinction is important because during late 2nd temple Judaism (the period in which Jesus lived), the objective of a talmid was to become a Master (or journeyman in contemporary English). To do this, a prospective talmid was required to leave home and family and join with the Master as he journeyed from town-to-town. They did not join with a master simply to learn Torah and then go back to some other profession as did the thousands of other Jews and gentiles who listened to Jesus when His entourage came to their village.

This context has important theological consequences. If one views Jesus’s 12 apostles as his apprentices, we have a context for viewing otherwise inexplicable behavior. For example, the question of why would Peter (and the others) drop what he were doing and leave hearth and home to accompany Jesus? Why, indeed! Here Peter has a chance to take up a profession that promises a good living and stands at the pinnacle of respect and admiration in early first century Judaism. No greater honor in Jesus’s day existed that surpassed that of the respect and deference paid to a Master of God’s Word.

Considering the apostles as talmidim gives us some insight into John 15:9-17. Here, Jesus makes two somewhat curious statements: First, he is described as telling his “disciples” that they are no longer servants, but friends. Second, he emphasizes the idea of abiding in him as he abides in the Father and that they must obey his ‘commands’ just as he obeyed the Father’s.

But now, Imagine Jesus as the Master and his disciples as his apprentices. In this light, the concept of abide and obey can be understood as “continue my teaching just as I have continued in my Father’s teaching”. Paraphrased in English, John 15:9-17 is perhaps better understood along these lines:

Congratulations. You are all now teachers of Torah. No longer are you my apprentices. I am pleased to call you journeymen, masters, colleagues. But I must warn you again, as my colleague, each of you must continue my teachings just as I have continued my Father’s teachings. So, let me once more, summarize the gist of Torah – Love your Father with all your heart, soul, and mind and teach your own talmidim to love one another as I have loved you.

Apologies to St. John
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