WAS JESUS REALLY A RABBI?
A careful reading of the New Testament suggests that Jesus was a scholar,
in the Scriptures and religious literature of the period, which was vast and
varied. Yet the popular view of Jesus is that he was a simple, uneducated
character from the northern part of Israel.
>This misunderstanding is due in part to a number of disparaging statements made about Nazareth and the Galilee such as, "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" (Jn. 1:46), and "Utterly amazed, they asked: 'Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?'" (Acts 2:7).
> It sounds as if there was a Judean bias against Galileans. Some Judeans may have seen themselves as a cultured and educated city dweller. . To them, the Galileans were provincials ,of low education and breeding.
> Actually, however, the reverse may have been true: the Galileans were the more exposed to the outside world while the Judeans, living in the interior of the land, were partially sheltered from contact with foreign nations. The Galilee also was more urban, with many developed villages.
This attitude shows up when the Galileans prompted the assumption, preserved in John 7:15, that Jesus had no education: "The Jews were amazed and asked, 'How did this man get such learning without having studied?'"
The New Testament says almost nothing about Jesus’ life from after his birth until he appeared in the temple at age twelve, and from then until he began his ministry at about the age of thirty (Luke 3:23) but, here is the end of the mystery for he was in Rabbinical school.
Here is an example of the education Jesus would have received-
Age 5 - ready for study of written Torah
Age 10 –ready for study of oral Torah
Age 13 – Bar Mitzvah (religious ceremony for coming of age)
Age 15 –Study of Halachot (rabbinic legal decisions)
Age 18 –Ready for marriage
Age 20 – Looking for a profession
Age 30 -ready to enter the mainstream of community life
Formal education ended at age twelve when the boys were expected to go to work. The more gifted went to Bet Midrash to continue their higher learning.
A few of the most outstanding scholars left home to study with a famous sage (like Hallel). Only the most promising students would be accepted, as the family would need to support them and allow them to leave home where they would have been needed to work on the land.
Judaism has always held that Study of Torah was the highest form of worship. (Babylonian Talmud)
Elementary school was 7 days a week with learning for 6 and the 7th day used for memorization. Each home had al least one scroll of scripture (a portion of a book or perhaps an entire book)
Jesus’ young life: From accounts found in Jewish sources we know that Jesus would have studied the written and oral scriptures.
He would have memorized vast portions and learned commentary of the Torah. All Jewish boys would have done the same.
Jerome (342-420) said “There doesn’t exist any Jewish boy who doesn’t know by heart the history from Adam to Zerubbabel (beginning to end of scripture).
We need to look in the New Testament for clues as to whether Jesus was a “rabbi” by education or just by his wisdom.
Several places in scripture present to us the common disputes brought only to Rabbis as they had the learning of the Halachot- legal decision-making.
One of the most familiar is the question and answer, with the question often phrased as a teaser. A woman had seven husbands (in series, not in parallel): whose wife will she be in the life to come (Matt. 22:23-33)? Is it lawful for a devout Jew to pay taxes to the Roman authorities (Matt. 22:15-22)? What must I do to inherit eternal life (Mark 10:17-22)? Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:1-6)? The one who puts the question acts as a straight man, setting up the opportunity for Rabbi Jesus to drive home the point, often by standing the question on its head.
The conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount confirms the special status of Jesus as not only Rabbi but Prophet (Matt. 7:28-8:1): "And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”
By the time Jesus began his public ministry, he had not only received the thorough religious training typical of the average Jewish man of his day, he had probably spent years studying with one of the outstanding rabbis in the Galilee. Jesus thus appeared on the scene as a respected rabbi himself. He was recognized as such by his contemporaries, as passages in the New Testament reflect. “And Jesus answered and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." And he said, "Rabbi, what is it?" (Luke 7:40)
•A lawyer asked him a question to test him: "Rabbi, what is the greatest commandment in the Torah?" (Matthew 22:35–36)
•And behold, a [rich] man came up to him and said, "Rabbi, what good thing must I do to have eternal life?" (Matthew 19:16)
•And someone in the crowd said to him, "Rabbi, order my brother to divide the inheritance with me." (Luke 12:13)
•And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Rabbi, rebuke your disciples." (Luke 19:39)
•Some of the Sadducees came up to him...and they asked him, saying, "Rabbi...." (Luke 20:27–28)
Origin of "Rabbi"
The term "rabbi" is derived from the Hebrew word rav, which in biblical Hebrew meant "much, many, numerous, great."
Among the Jews the twelfth year was the time that separated a boy from his childhood. Then a Hebrew boy was called "Bar Mitzvah", which is a "Son of the Law" or "Child of the Commandment". This is a period in which he was to study and be taught by the wisest teachers in Israel, learning and studying the law and the testament. There were annual gatherings, like conferences, in which many of these wise teachers gave instructions. Three special annual feasts were particularly set apart from the instruction of young men. These feasts were the Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles. The Passover was the most zealously attended, and worshippers came from all parts of the land to commemorate the deliverance of the Israelites from bondage, by the judgments of God upon the Egyptians (Exodus 12).
At the age of 12 Jesus ventured inside the great Jewish Temple and, perhaps, for the first time, He saw the paschal sacrifice of the lamb, robed men acting in the office of High Priests, while hearing the sacred prayers of His nation and smelling the consecrated Temple incense. But more important than this, Jesus came into contact with the learned Rabbis of Israel. It is supposed at this time that Jesus spoke with Rabbi Hillil, whose teachings are recorded with high esteem in the Talmud. However, there is no proof that Hallil taught him -- it was He who was teaching and answering the questions of the councils, and they "were astonished at His understanding and answers" (Luke 2:47, AV).
Jesus spent three days in the Temple conversing with the learned Elders of Zion. After the third day His mother had become aware of His absence and found Him still in the Temple speaking to the priests and teachers. She then proceeded to chastise Him for the way He had "treated" her. In reply, He said: "Did you not know that I must be about My Father's business?" (Luke 2:49, NKJV)). But "they did not understand what He was saying to them" (Ibid, v.50, NIV). His Father's business was teaching and instructing -- not doing carpenter's work, as modern tradition teaches. His wisdom and understanding superseded all the learning of the councils; but He could not reveal all that he knew, not could He expose all of the existing evils within the empire. This would have been the perfect time for the teachers of the Torah to acknowledge that Jesus was one gifted by The Most High to be a Rabbi as they became amazed at his wisdom at such a young age.
There was another reason, which delayed the full ministry of Jesus. We read that it was not until He was "about thirty years of age" that He began His ministry. This indicates that He was complying with one of the laws required to fulfil the office and calling of a Rabbi or priest.
It was not until Jesus was 30 years of age that He was baptized, fasted for 40 days, and gathered disciples into the ministry. By this time He had complied with all of the requirements of Jewish law as a Rabbi except for marriage. Jesus could not pledge himself to another for he was already the Bridegroom got His Bride- the body of Christ.
Compliance to the rules and regulations of Jewish law were essential in the work of the ministry, lest the High Priests and Councils use legitimate reason to condemn or reject Him. Jesus knew this, and warned His disciples to obey carefully the requirements of their laws, because "they sit in Moses' seat; therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do" (Matthew 23:2-3, NKJV). The chief priests and councils sought with lawyers to trap Jesus for violating even the least of the laws. Jesus, however, could recite the law in His own defence, and by the same law condemn the Pharisees for their disobedience. He could condemn the hierarchy of Judah for their hypocrisy by their own law; and also condemn them according to the laws of God.
It should be carefully noted that Jesus was often called "Rabbi" which "is to say, being interpreted, Master" (John 1:38). This was an office, title, or position of "teacher", which was highly honoured by the Jews -- so much so, that it became a title of prestige and social respect. If a man was a "Rabbi" he was entitled to the choice seats in social gatherings and praises of the multitudes. Jesus warned His disciples to avoid the social prestige, the public honours, and the praiseworthy titles that came with the title "Rabbi" (Matthew 23:5-8).
Jesus was often called Rabbi, which He did not deny. It was justly applied, both as to office and honour. If Jesus were not a Rabbi according to that Jewish office, He would have immediately renounced the title. His chief Apostle, Peter, often called Him "Rabbi" (Mark 9:5; 11:21) but received no word of correction from Jesus, indicating that the title was properly applied. When Jesus was called "Rabbi" by Judas (Matthew 26:25,49), and by Nathanael (John 1:49), and the other disciples (John 1:38; 4:31; 9:2; 11:8), He acknowledged the title without dispute. Great masses of the people also called Him "Rabbi" (John 6:25); and when Nicodemus, a Pharisee, and a ruler of the Jews acknowledged Jesus as "Rabbi", it was conclusive evidence that Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi (John 3:1-2).
The office of Rabbi required a person to be particularly well versed in the scriptures and the Talmud, whereas the office of Priest required certain sacrificial and temple ordinance ceremonies; yet both were especially commissioned:
To be recognised as a Rabbi, however, a Talmudic student has to be ordained. The custom of ordination is very old. Moses ordained Joshua...The practice of ordination in its Mosaic form ceased in Palestine in the second half of the 4th century (A.D.) when the Judean academies were closed. In the 16th century an attempt was made in Palestine to revive the ancient ordination, as well as the Sanhedrin, with all the power and authority that it possessed, but this attempt resulted in failure (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol.18, p.978).
With the ordination to this official calling of Rabbi, Jesus could teach the gospel principles wherever he was led to do so. As a Rabbi He taught thousands upon the mountainside, in the synagogues, and even resorted to using a whip to teach a special lesson to the moneychangers in the Temple. The councils, lawyers, Pharisees and Priests of Judah tried by every means to prove Jesus unfit for that office, but to no avail. Jesus acknowledged the title, office, the position of Rabbi by precept and example. He was destined to be the most honoured of rabbis, priests and even kings!
By looking at one text, we learn a great deal about Rabbi Jesus in
the context of the first-century rabbinical climate. “A woman named Martha
welcomed him into her home. She had sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s
feet and listened to what he was saying” (Luke 10:38-39). This tells us Jesus
was a first-century itinerant rabbi. One of the old Jewish sayings long
predating Jesus was, “Let your house be a meetinghouse for the sages. Sit
amidst the dust of their feet.” (Aboth 1:4). We see this re-enacted in Martha’s
If extended hospitality, Jesus entered a home, willing to teach all who were interested. This typical of the origin or the expression, “to sit at the feet of a great teacher.” It is interesting that this story of Mary and Jesus is the best example we have in the New Testament of someone sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching. And from the context, Mary was as audience of one. For women to listen in while a rabbi taught the men of a crowd was likely not that unusual. But for a Jewish rabbi to allow a woman to sit at his feet, as his entire audience, was a shocking and even degrading visual symbol.
And then Martha, the head of the household, entered the scene, “distracted by her many tasks,” likely the tasks of extending hospitality to an honoured teacher, So she went to Jesus and asked, “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
Perhaps Martha really did have a lot of chores to do. But I prefer to think she was embarrassed that Mary did not realize a woman’s place. The story might have made more sense if Martha had entered the room and asked to have a word in private with Mary. In whispered tone, the older sister could have reminded her, “Come, Mary, you know that the place of a woman is not at the feet of a rabbi. It’s not becoming of you, and you are insulting him. You are tiring him for the more important work he has be about. He came here to rest. He came here asking for our hospitality. What a shocking and even degrading visual symbol.
Perhaps Martha knew her sister well enough to know that if she had asked to speak to her in private, it would have done little good. The Rabbi’s words had already filled Mary’s head, and she would not easily miss this rare opportunity to have Rabbi Jesus to herself. But maybe Martha brought up her concern in front of Jesus to show her respect for him and his need for rest. Yet Jesus defended Mary. “Martha, there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part which will not be taken away from her.”
Had this rabbi gone mad? Mary had chosen the better part? A woman as learner? A woman sitting alone at the feet of a rabbi? A woman as disciple of a rabbi? In relation to other rabbis, Jesus surely charted his own course in relation to women and others customarily excluded from full participation in the community of faith. He was a different sort of rabbi.
This look at Jesus as a Rabbi is a good indication of where Jesus was and what He was doing during the years that the scripture is silent. He was not in Africa, Asia, Britain or even North America. He was at home in Israel preparing Himself for ministry to a world that so desperately needed Him.