I have been reading a little book, The Origins of the Gospel Traditions by Birger Gerhardsson (95 pages). It is a distillation of two of his earlier works Memory and Manuscript: Oral Traditions and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity and Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity. In them he discusses how rabbis would have passed down their teachings to their students and how faithful these students were to commit them to memory. As I was reading, I noticed how the process of discipleship has been passed down from the rabbis through Jesus and Paul and what we can learn from this process. I have excerpted a few chapters that point us to proper discipleship techniques.
To learn Torah one must go to a teacher. Students would then flock around teachers. And such a group formation – teachers and students – become something of an extended family. The teacher is the spiritual father, the students his spiritual children. They spend their time with him, they follow him, and they serve him.
Students learn much of the Torah tradition by listening: by listening to their teacher and his more advanced students as well as by posing questions and making contributions of their own within the bounds prescribed by modesty and etiquette. But they also learn a great deal by simply observing: with attentive eyes they observe all that the teacher does and then proceed to imitate him. Torah is above all a holy, authoritative attitude toward life. Because this is true, much can be learned by simply watching and imitating those who are educated.
We see in the Talmud that it was not only the teachings of the great rabbis that were preserved but their actions as well: “I saw rabbi so-and-so do thus and so.” The rabbinical tradition preserves examples of how bright and eager students followed their teachers’ actions even in the most private situations, motivated by the belief that “This has to do with Torah, and I want to learn!” (This includes a humorous story of students hiding in a rabbi’s bedroom because they wanted to learn the Torah in that “situation.”)
In seeking to preserve their teachings on the Torah, the rabbi’s were not so much only interested in the “cramming and mechanical recitation” of their teaching. They were very conscious of the importance of comprehending and personally applying that which had been impressed upon one’s mind. For this reason they carried on an energetic struggle against lifeless knowledge. According to the rabbis a disciple ought not be a dead receptacle for the received tradition. He should rather enter into it so that he understands it and is in agreement with it. Only thus can he actually live according to it, be a faithful steward of it, and pass it on to others in an infectious way. A living bearer of the tradition is to be like a torch which has been lit by an older torch, in order that it might itself light others.
Paul picks up this mantle of a “rabbi” as he looks upon himself as a spiritual father to those who have been won for the gospel (1 Cor. 4.17; Philemon 10). He encourages his congregations to be imitators of him in all respects, even as he himself is an imitator of Christ (1 Cor. 4.16; 11.1; 1 Thess. 1.6; 2 Thess. 3.7).
Paul thinks of the life of imitation which comes into being when obedient disciples receive (and pattern their lives according to) the instruction of their teacher. After his admonishment to “Be imitators of me,” he follows with the statement: “For this reason I am sending to you Timothy…He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church” (1 Cor. 4.17).
When Paul speaks of “my ways” he is referring to patterns of his life and teachings. Imitating Paul means the same as to receive and live according to the teaching which Paul proclaimed in all of his congregations. Thus Paul is not only passing down tradition as oral or written teaching but also how he lives. We see this fleshed out even more in Phil. 4.9: “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice.” The Philippians were even told to look in their own community for imitators of Paul, “Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you” (Phil. 3.17).
As I read this, I see that Paul is passing down a tradition of rabbinic discipleship. Just as the rabbis gathered students to themselves and passed on to them not only instruction in the Torah but also a lifestyle that exemplifies the Torah, Paul exhorts his followers to not only hold fast to his teaching but to imitate his lifestyle as well. We see that for the rabbis and Paul, discipleship is not a program or a book study to take someone through, but an opportunity to live out their teaching (in Paul’s case the gospel) in front of students and encouraging them to follow along. It seems deeply personal and time consuming but it is the model that we have been given.