Ok, I admit it. I’ve discovered that catchy titles to my blog posts bring in more readers. So instead of the staid “Defining ‘Disciple’ #2: The Latin Roots,” I went for something more appealing. The more immediate question is, “Why are you concerned about ‘Latin roots’ in the first place?” After all, the New Testament was written in Koine Greek. Jesus and his disciples likely spoke Aramaic. Why a concern for Latin?
The reason is that the English word disciple derives from the Latin root discipulus. Since we used that Latin-base word in our translations, we need to establish the essence of what we are saying in English so that we can compare our interpretative translation against the Greek standard. Have you ever wonder if “disciple” is a good translation of what Jesus was saying? If not, here’s an opportunity to probe behind our English translations and try to recover what discipleship meant to Jesus and his followers.
“Disciple” basically means “a learner.” That same Latin word also provides the basis for the Latin word disciplina, from which the English word discipline is derived. These two Latin words provide a foundation for our beginning attempts to define and understand discipleship. While we can learn in many ways, the Latin roots for disciple imply that the source of learning is a teacher. Though much learning, instruction, and disciplining take place in the home under parental guidance, disciple steps beyond the parent-child instruction into the intentional instruction of a teacher. The learner or “disciple,” therefore, is associated with the teacher as a pupil and, by extension, is a recipient of the teacher’s instruction.
Because of our current educational system, we probably need to acknowledge that the Latin origins have more similarity to the one-room schoolhouse than to contemporary educational practices that involve an academy with many teachers and numerous specialties. Even with that focus, however, the image of a schoolhouse or a designated building devoted to instruction would be misleading. Many teachers or rabbis taught in open forums and public places, the colonnade (often interpreted as “courts” in contemporary translations) of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem being one of the more familiar locations (cf. Luke 2:46; Matt. 21:23; 26:55; Mark 12:35; Luke 20:1; 21:37; John 7:28; 18:20). The last reference in John 18:20 reminds us that another central location of teaching in Jesus’ day was the synagogue. Of course, we also see the role of public forums in marketplaces in Paul’s missionary work.
If you check an English dictionary for the meaning of “disciple,” you will find that our English understanding actually has been expanded for the original derivation of the word. The initial focus was on teaching, but the meaning has been expanded in two directions. The first is the addition of the idea of being a follower of a teacher, and that is extended to include the idea of being an adherent to a school of thought initiated by a teacher. The “following” idea certainly is a reflection of Jesus’ call, and that has been added to the meaning of “disciple” as a by-product of the influence of the use of the word disciple in the English Bible. What this means is that we have altered the original meaning of “disciple” to accommodate the biblical terminology, and the original word “disciple” by itself was too centered on the idea of instruction to represent the best understanding of Christian discipleship.
The Great Commission’s emphasis on “make disciples” certainly goes way beyond making students or learners. We must go deeper to find a well-rounded understanding of what discipleship means.