Jesus the Forgotten Rabbi: Part 2

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The Calling of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew by Luca Giordano (1632–1705)

Was Jesus a rabbi?

This is Part 2 of a three-part series on Jesus the Forgotten Rabbi. (See Part 1: A Rabbi in Jesus’ Day and Part 3: Discipleship to Rabbi Jesus Today.)

What did they call him?

One of the best witnesses of what someone is is how others address him. The New Testament bears witness to many people addressing Jesus as Rabbi: Judas (Matt 26:25), Peter (Mark 9:5), two early disciples of John (John 1:38), Nathanael (John 1:49), Nicodemus (John 3:1-2), a crowd (John 6:24-25), and his disciples collectively (John 9:2) are all recorded as addressing Jesus as Rabbi. A blind man (Mark 10:51) and Mary Magdalene (John 20:16) also call Jesus Rabboni (a heightened form of Rabbi). It is important to note that it was not just his close followers who called him Rabbi, but also those who met him for the very first time. Of interest is that Luke does not record any instances of the disciples or outsiders addressing Jesus as Rabbi. Luke prefers Teacher; this is best explained that the title Rabbi was normally avoided in Greek-speaking circles because it was unfamiliar.1 Luke, a Greek-speaking gentile, wrote his gospel to Theophilus, who was also likely a Greek-speaking gentile. Even John in his gospel felt it necessary to translate Rabbi to Teacher for his audience, as well as other nuances of Jesus’ Jewish life.2

Just as the New Testament shows Jesus being addressed as Rabbi, it also bears witness to many people addressing him as Teacher. A couple examples will suffice: Insiders (Matt 12:38), those meeting him for the first time (Matt. 19:16), and even his enemies the scribes and Pharisees (Luke 21:7) all address Jesus as Teacher. In all four gospels Jesus is directly addressed as Teacher 29 times. The community at large recognized Jesus as holding the reputation of Teacher. As shown in Part 1, Teacher and Rabbi in the New Testament context are synonymous as titles of respect for outstanding teachers of the law who are not only especially knowledgeable about the Jewish religion but who exemplify it in practice. Particularly telling is that the scribes and Pharisees addressed Jesus as Teacher. If Jesus were not a Rabbi, they most certainly would not have given him that respect.

Finally, the New Testament shows Jesus referring to himself as Teacher:

  • [Jesus] said, “Go into the city to a certain man and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is at hand. I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” (Matt 26:18)
  • You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. (John 13:13)
  • “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master.” (Matt 10:24-25)

Jesus affirms he is a Teacher. Matthew 10:24-25 is especially clear where Jesus is basically describing the master-disciple relationship within the context of discipleship to a rabbi. Jesus is proclaiming himself to be the rabbi, while his followers are the disciples; it is the disciple’s job to become like the teacher and the sole reason why a disciple comes after a rabbi in this relationship.

How He Functioned

The New Testament not only shows Jesus to be a rabbi by how he is addressed and his own claims, but also by how he functioned like the esteemed rabbis of his day. The rabbis of Jesus’ day were known for a number of things; mainly, they interpreted the Torah, explained the Scriptures, and told parables. Some traveled from village to village, teaching in the synagogues. Though they relied on the hospitality of others, rabbis were never paid. They often took disciples who would study under their direction for years, traveling with them everywhere they went. Study sessions were often conducted outdoors in vineyards, marketplaces, beside a road, or in an open field.3

Concerning discipleship specifically, a great rabbi of the day “has his disciples. They travel together. They have a common fund. They prepare meals together. When they gather for a lesson in the town square or under a fig tree, others who are not disciples also gather and listen. When they travel, they are housed in local communities.”4 The conduct of Jesus along with his disciples resembles this. Like other rabbis of his day, he “walked the land, taught in parables, engaged in debates, interpreted Scriptures, and raised up disciples. His teaching, too, fit well within rabbinic styles.”5 Further, like the rabbis of his day, Jesus’ goal was to raise up disciples who would acquire his knowledge and character.6 He did just this, reproducing his knowledge and character in those who followed him, so they could also take his message and way of life to the whole world.

It is easy to focus solely on Jesus’ mission to die for the sins of the human race and forget or ignore that he accomplished the task as a Jewish rabbi. He had more as his ultimate goal than to die. The New Testament bears witness that Jesus was a rabbi in the context of first century Jewish tradition. Like other rabbis, he was a teacher in the synagogue. As soon as his ministry begins, Jesus goes around Galilee teaching in the synagogues. Scripture says it was his “custom” (Luke 4:14-16). In order for him to be allowed to do this, more so even able to do it, he had to have been very learned for his day as well as a faithful observer of Mosaic law.7 It is likely he would not be allowed to teach in a synagogue otherwise. Jesus is a synagogue Jew with sufficient education to be recognized as “teacher,” as education is a synagogue function.8 Knowledge of the Law is what gives a man the right to read and comment on the readings in a synagogue.9

Like the rabbis of his day, Jesus was an expert teacher of the Mosaic law, specifically teaching and commenting on it. He also took it a step farther: where scribes quoted previous rabbinical interpretations of the Mosaic law, Jesus gave his own interpretation (Luke 4:16-21).10 By this he showed he had authority, daring to make new claims and interpretations based on his own knowledge (Matt 7:28-29). Rabbis were famous for knowing previous biblical interpretations by rabbis and sages before them in their handling of the written tradition and perpetuating the oral tradition. Jesus would have been well aware of these traditions having grown up receiving the typical Jewish synagogue education of his day, with education in Galilee being exemplary.11

Perhaps nowhere else in Scripture does Jesus prove to be a rabbi more so than in his famous Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). The whole discourse is couched in a rabbinical approach to teaching. Jesus gives his interpretation of the Mosaic law concerning murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, eye for eye, and love for enemies. In each of the six cases, he begins with a form of “You have heard that it was said,” then says, “but I say to you,” and then he gives his correct interpretation. Like any rabbi of the time, Jesus knows what has been written: he states it, then gives his interpretation of what he thinks it means.

Jesus also did many other things characteristic of rabbis of his time, and in so doing solidifies himself as one of them. The following list is comprised of things rabbis typically did in Jesus’ day, and which he also did:

  • He called disciples after himself, to be with him and go in and out with him, to learn his knowledge and way of life: Mark 1:14-20; Matt 11:28-30.
  • He modeled how to live by examples from his life: John 13:13-15.
  • He disputed over questions of the Law: Matt 22:23-33 and 22:41-45.
  • He not only taught in synagogues, but out in the open among the common people: cities, villages and streets: Luke 13:22, 26; along a lake: Mark 2:13; from a boat: Luke 5:3; in the Temple: Luke 19:47. 
  • He taught in parables: Matt 13:34-34.
  • He interpreted Torah: Matt 5:17-48.
  • He raised up disciples and sent them to do the same: John 17:6-19; Matt 28:18-20.
  • He gave his inner circle of disciples an esoteric teaching:12 Matt 13:11.
  • Students applied to be his disciples yet he could choose who he wanted:13 John 1:37-39.
  • He employed cryptic words conveying subtle versions of simple thoughts:14 John 3:3.
  • He alluded to spiritual ideas with common objects such as light, water, cup, bread, wine and salt:15 Matt 5:13-15, 6:23, 9:16-17, 26:39-42; Mark 8:14-21; John 3:5.
  • He was responsible for his disciples:16 Luke 19:39.
  • He demanded much of his disciples to the point where they could fall out:17 John 6:60-66.
  • He demanded people forsake all to follow him as his disciple: Luke 18:22.
  • He sometimes gave a disciple a new name to signify his new condition and indicate his future life:18 Mark 3:16-17.

Scripture and history bear a clear witness that Jesus lived and functioned as a rabbi. Perhaps there is no more fitting conclusion than to quote what Rudolf Bultmann, famed Christian skeptic-scholar, was at least willing to credit to Jesus:

It is at least clear that Jesus actually lived as a Jewish rabbi. As such he takes his place as a teacher in the synagogue. As such he gathers around him a circle of pupils. As such he disputes over questions of the Law with pupils and opponents or with people seeking knowledge who turn to him as the celebrated rabbi. He disputes along the same lines as Jewish rabbis, uses the same methods of argument, the same turns of speech; like them he coins proverbs and teaches in parables. Jesus’ teaching shows in content also a close relationship with that of the rabbis.19

Go to Part 3: Discipleship to Rabbi Jesus Today

1 Henry Lopold Ellison, “Rabbi,” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 3, 115.
2 Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus through the Centuries, 17.
3 Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 27.
4 Bernard J. Lee, The Galilean Jewishness of Jesus: Retrieving the Jewish Origins of Christianity (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1988), 126.
5 Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, 30.
6 Ibid., 34.
7 Ibid., 29.
8 Bernard J. Lee, The Galilean Jewishness of Jesus, 118.
9 Ibid., 121.
10 William E. Phipps, The Wisdom and Wit of Rabbi Jesus, 61.
11 For a treatment on Jesus’ probable education and the quality of such, see David Bivin, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, 3-7.
12 J. Duncan M. Derrett, Jesus’s Audience: The Social and Psychological Environment in Which He Worked (New York: Seabury Press, 1973), 143.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid., 144.
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid., 147.
17 Ibid.
18 Ibid., 148.
19 Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and the Word, trans. Louise Pettibone Smith and Erminie Huntress Lantero (New York: Scribner, 1958), 58.

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