The term disciple (Grk. mathētēs) occurs many times in the New Testament, but only in the Gospels and Acts. It is used both of the twelve who according to the Gospels originally followed Jesus, and also of a wide range of Jesus' followers. The Gospels speak not only of disciples of Jesus but also of Moses (John 9.28), John the Baptist (Mark 2.18; Luke 11.1; John 1.35), and the Pharisees (Matt. 22.16). But above all the term refers to followers of Jesus, who are literally “learners,” students of Jesus of Nazareth.
The somewhat amorphous group called disciples constitutes a vital feature of all the Gospel narratives, but the authors used the term to communicate different aspects of being a follower of Jesus. In Mark the disciples are agents of instruction for the author, but as negative examples. They teach the audience or readers, but mostly through the things they do wrong or fail to understand. The constant questions and concerns of the disciples, particularly in the central section of Mark's gospel, provide an opportunity for the author to explain the purpose of Jesus' mission and the hidden meanings of his teaching. Discipleship in Mark involves fear, doubt, and suffering, as 8.31, 9.31, and 10.33 make explicit; nowhere is this more poignantly captured than in the character of Simon Peter. The disciples in Mark, whomever this broad term may include, never fully understand and never quite overcome their fear and apprehensions. There is actually the hint in Mark that the disciples' fear is in some sense the beginning of wisdom.
The gospel of Matthew on the other hand offers a rather different portrayal of the band of disciples, a term he uses with much greater frequency than the other Gospels (forty‐five times without parallel in Mark or Luke). A disciple in Matthew is one who understands, teaches, and does (5.19) what Jesus taught and did. Discipleship in Matthew is not a distinctive office or role but rather describes the life of an ordinary follower of Jesus in the Matthean community. Disciples have authority to teach (5.19; 13.52; 23.8–10; 28.20), and so naturally, unlike the Marcan disciples, they understand the teachings of Jesus, himself portrayed as the authoritative teacher, as the Sermon on the Mount illustrates. Matthew alone among the Gospel writers ascribes the authority to forgive sins to the disciples (6.15; 9.8; 16.19; 18.18). As in Mark, the figure of Peter embodies all aspects of discipleship, but in contrast to the Marcan Peter, in Matthew he understands, can teach, and is granted unusual authority (16.16–19; cf. 18.18).
The meaning and content of the term “disciple” varies in the four Gospels. Each writer uses this broad term, which tends simply to designate a follower of Jesus, in ways that support their understanding of the community of the followers of Jesus and impress on their audience the contours and complexities of the life of a contemporary disciple.
J. Andrew Overman