Discipleship in the New Testament

Written by Fernando F. Segovia (ed.) Reviewed By H. J. Bernard Combrink

This collection of nine papers is the outcome of a three-day symposium during April 1982 at the Marquette University on the theme of Call and Discipleship: New Testament Perspectives. The result is a very noteworthy publication in more than one respect, and one that is a real benefit to NT studies as a whole.

An important asset of this volume is the illuminating introduction by Fernando Segovia. Here the distinctive contribution of this volume is characterized against the background of four previous major treatments of the topic of discipleship, all dating from the 1960s. In these contributions, the emphasis was largely on the religio-historical background of the concept and the historical Jesus and his disciples. In the present volume, attention is given to discipleship in its narrower (the first four studies) as well as its broader definition (the remaining five studies) of the self-understanding of early Christian believers.

Over against the previous studies, these essays are characterized by their emphasis on the analysis of the conception of discipleship in the various NT writings as independent literary and theological entities. This ties up with another important feature of this volume, namely that a wide variety of recent methodological approaches is being implemented here. Recent developments along the lines of literary criticism and narratology, the social world approach as well as more traditional approaches (be it influenced by recent literary developments) are reflected here. The result is a volume in which contemporary methodological advances are actually illustrated and implemented in a very commendable and enlightening manner. Although one should be clear about the inevitable presuppositions implied by these various approaches, this definite concentration on the respective books of the NT as coherent literary and theological entities is to be welcomed as a very timely application of generally accepted principles in the interpretation of texts to a typical NT theme.

Due to the diversity of the nine contributions, it is impossible to give here an adequate impression of the stimulating results of the different studies. A list of the well known names, and the books of the NT in which the theme of discipleship is addressed in their respective studies, should serve as an indication of the range and importance of this work: Werner H. Kelber, ‘Oral tradition and Mark’; Richard A. Edwards, ‘Matthew’; Charles H. Talbert, ‘Luke-Acts’; Fernando F. Segovia, ‘The Fourth Gospel’; William S. Kurz, ‘Philippians 2 and 3’; Robert A. Wild, ‘Ephesians’; Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, ‘Revelation 14’; Luke T. Johnson, ‘James’; John H. Elliott, ‘1 Peter 2:18–25’.

In his study on Mark, Kelber emphasizes the narrative pattern of discipleship as a parabolic role reversal: the initial role of insiders is reversed to one of outsiders. Interesting are the historical conclusions Kelber is willing to deduce from this as well as from the narrative withholding of Easter in Mark: the written gospel is seen to be a corrective reaction against a gnosticizing oral tradition. Edwards on the other hand refrains from any historical deductions and concentrates on the reaction of the reader to the information presented and withheld in Matthew’s characterization of the disciples. This is in other words an experiment in reader-response criticism in which the primary concern is the text as well as the reader.

In his contribution on Philippians, Kurz takes as point of departure the literary unity of the present letter, and furthermore illuminates his discussion of discipleship as imitation of Paul and Christ in the light of a history-of-religions approach. Another stimulating contribution is Schüssler Fiorenza’s discussion of discipleship against the background of Revelation as a poetic-rhetorical construction seeking to convince its readers that following Jesus entails an uncompromising rejection of Rome.

One must agree with Segovia’s verdict in his introduction to the volume that although this is only a beginning of our endeavour to reassess what Christian discipleship implied in the first century and entails now, it is undoubtedly a beginning in the right direction. These contributions not only deserve careful and interactive reading, but should provoke further research along these stimulating lines.

H. J. Bernard Combrink

University of Stellenbosch, South Africa