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Questions (courtesy of Rob Bell) – Part 3

April 9, 2008

Today I want to look at a chapter in the Velvet Elvis book that I loved.  This may be a longer post than usual, but hang in there because he paints a great picture of what it was like in the first century world of Jesus.  In this chapter Rob Bell is looking at Jesus’ calling of the disciples and what it meant to the people of that day. Here are a few excerpts from chapter 5:

Now the question among the rabbis, the teachers, of Jesus’ day was, how young do you begin teaching the Bible, the Torah, to kids?…Education wasn’t seen as a luxury or even as an option; education was the key to survival.  The Torah was seen as so central to life that if you lost it, you lost everything.  The first century Jewish historian Josephus said, “Above all else, we pride ourselves on the education of our children.”  So around six years old many Jewish kids would have gone to school for the first time.  It would probably have been held in the local synagogue and taught by the local rabbi.  This first level of education was called Bet Sefer (which means “House of the Book”) and lasted until the student was about ten years old…The students would begin memorizing the Torah and by the age of ten would generally know the whole thing by heart. Genesis. Exodus. Leviticus. Numbers. Deuteronomy. Memorized.

Rabbis who taught the Torah were the most respected members of the community.  They were the best of the best, the smartest students who knew the text inside and out. Not everybody could be a rabbi.  By age ten, students had begun to sort themselves out.  Some would demonstrate natural abilities with the Scriptures and distance themselves from the others.  These students went on to the next level of education, which was call Bet Talmud (“House of Learning”) and lasted until sometime around the age of fourteen.

Students who didn’t continue their education would continue learning the family trade.  If your family made sandals or wine or were farmers, you would apprentice with your parents and extended family as you learned the family trade in anticipation of carrying it on someday and passing it down to the next generation.

Meanwhile, the best of the best, continuing their education in Bet Talmud, would then memorize the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures.  By age thirteen or fourteen the top students had the entire Bible memorized. Genesis through Malachi…thirty-nine books…memorized.

Around the age of fourteen or fifteen, at the end of Bet Talmud, only the best of the best were still studying.  Most students by now were learning the family business and starting families of their own.  Those remaining would now apply to a well known rabbi to become one of that rabbi’s talmidim (disciples). We often think of a disciple as a student, but being a disciple was far more than just being a student.  The goal of a disciple wasn’t just to know what the rabbi knew, but to be just like the rabbi.  This level of education was called Bet Midrash (“House of Study”) A student would present himself to a well known rabbi and say, “Rabbi, I want to become one of your disciples.”

…if the rabbi believed that this ked did have what it took, he would say “Come, follow me.” The student would probably leave his father and mother, leave his synagogue, leave his village and his friends, and devote his life to learning how to do what his rabbi did. He would follow the rabbi everywhere.  He would learn to apply the oral and written law to situations. He gave up his whole life just to be like this rabbi.

So at the age of thirty, when a rabbi generally began his public teaching and training of disciples, we find Jesus walking along the Sea of Galilee.  “He saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew.  They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.” Why are they fishermen? Because they aren’t disciples.  They weren’t good enough; they didn’t make the cut.  Jesus calls the not-good-enoughs.  The story continues: “At once they left their nets and followed him.”

..Given the first century context, it’s clear what is going on here.  Can you imagine what this must have been like – to have a rabbi say, “Come, follow me”?  To have a rabbi say, “You can be like me”? Of course you would drop your net.  The rabbi believes you can do what he does. He thinks you can be like him. Jesus took some boys who didn’t make the cut and changed the course of human history.

I thought this was the best explanation of the calling of the disciples I had ever heard.  I can see the excitement on the faces of those young men as they were chosen by Jesus to follow him.

Does this give you any additional insight into a story that you have probably heard numerous times? What is your story of Jesus choosing you, and your decision to “drop your net” and follow Him?

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2008 11:57 am

    That’s great insight on their calling. Knowing the customs of the times certainly punctuates the event for me. Good post. I always read the story of them dropping their nets and think, “wow, Jesus must have spoken with authority to make those guys go immediately” but this now makes me think how precious it was these guys saw in Jesus someone who believed in them!…

  2. Winny Ku permalink
    June 2, 2008 12:44 am

    The students would begin memorizing the Torah and by the age of ten would generally know the whole thing by heart. Genesis. Exodus. Leviticus. Numbers. Deuteronomy. Memorized.

    Dear Sirs,

    Do you mean the Jewish children “memerize” literally the books of Moses word by word ? Or only the certain part of them ? Thank you for your reply.

  3. Mike High permalink*
    June 2, 2008 11:08 am

    Winny, the quoted portions of this post aren’t my words, but are part of a book by Rob Bell. But, yes, I believe they memorized the books word by word.

  4. Bruce permalink
    March 5, 2011 1:10 pm

    I heard someone talking about this idea that Jesus was a rabbi, so I wanted to get some info, and I found this page. While the story of the fishermen seems good and seems to add another dimension to the biblical account we’re familiar with, I think Bell creates more problems than he solves.

    For example, how would this idea make sense of Matthew’s calling? If Jesus was a rabbi, then there’s no reason to think Matthew would have followed him. Matthew had a Roman job and was an outcast from his society. He would have thought a rabbi was insane for saying, “follow me.” And there’s no reason to think he would have wanted to follow a rabbi. He had, in fact, chosen to align himself with the Romans. It would be like an American military officer asking an American Taliban member to come join our army. Would that make sense to anyone?

    Also, why would Jesus have been rejected in his hometown? If he was a respected rabbi, they would not have questioned why this son of a carpenter was acting as if he had some authority to teach. Had he been a rabbi, he would have been known as one with authority to teach.

    • Mike High permalink*
      March 6, 2011 9:36 am

      Thanks for your comments Bruce. Those are good question you raise. I’m not a Hebrew or Jewish scholar so I don’t claim to know all the details of the time. I think the quoted passage gives a potential “human” reason for why the disciples followed Jesus. I still believe that it was a supernatural event in some or most likely all of the cases.

      Let me recommend a good book on the calling of the disciples. “Twelve Ordinary Men” by John MacArthur gives a good account of all the disciples calling as well as a character study on each of them.

      Thanks again for the comment.

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