There were several terms in antiquity used about followers of a teacher, with “disciple” being one of the most commonly used. Usage of the word “disciple” included the senses of “learner,” “adherent,” and “institutional pupil.” “The world Jesus encountered when he entered human history displayed a variety of religious, philosophical, and political leaders. Each of these leaders had followers who were committed to their cause, teaching, and beliefs” (Wilkins, Following the Master: A Biblical Theology of Discipleship, 57).
“Disciple (mathētēs) was used in many of the Greek philosophical schools of the classical and koine periods for one who learned from and became a follower of a particular teacher” (Longenecker, “Introduction” in Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, 2–3). The master determined the type of adherence. “The relationship assumed the development of a sustained commitment of the disciple to the master and to the master’s particular teaching or mission, and the relationship extended to imitation of the conduct of the master as it impacted the personal life of the disciple” (Wilkins, “Disciples and Discipleship” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd, 203).
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the equivalent Hebrew term for “disciple” (talmid, “pupil”/ “learner”) occurs only once (1 Chron. 25:8 about a student among the temple musicians). The related participle “one who is taught” (limmud) occurs in Isaiah 8:16 about disciples of Isaiah.
Although the word “disciple” is infrequent in the Hebrew Scriptures, the concept is not. The existence of master-disciple relationships within Israel frequently surfaces in the biblical text. Joshua seems to take the role a disciple of Moses (Exod. 24:13; 33:11; Num. 11:28; Josh. 1:1). Elisha follows after Elijah (1 Kgs. 19:19-21) in the sense of being his disciple. The prophets associated with Samuel (1 Sam. 19:20–24) and the sons of the prophets connected to Elisha (2 Kgs. 4:1, 38; 9:1). The master-disciple relationship may have been the relationship between Jeremiah and Baruch (Jer. 36:32), Ezra and the scribal tradition (Ezra 7:6, 11), and in the wisdom tradition (Prov 22:17; 25:1).
The New Testament indicates several groups had disciples. John the Immerser and the Pharisees both had disciples (Mark 2:18). Some of the Pharisees claimed that they were “disciples of Moses” (John 9:28). The Mishnah (a compilation of Jewish rabbinic teachings) records, “They said three things: Be prudent in judgment. Raise up many disciples. Make a fence for the Torah.” (m.abot 1.1).
The type of “disciple” and the corresponding life of “discipleship” was determined by the kind of master. Central to the concept of being a disciple was allegiance to the master. According to Wilkins, “Jesus took a commonly occurring phenomenon—a master with disciples—and used it as an expression of the kind of relationship that he would develop with his followers” (Wilkins, DJG, 203). Disciples of Jesus pledge their allegiance to Him and are not followers of any other master.