Was Jesus Really a Rabbi?
Over the years most people have developed a picture of Jesus as an uneducated and poor man – a simple carpenter. People of his day might have thought this of him because he came from Galilee, whose inhabitants were pretty much the hillbillies of their day. But today, as we look back on his life, we should know better. From scripture we learn Jesus was an exceptional student, who showed a remarkable capacity to understand scripture and to explain it in simple terms.
Like all the Jewish men of his time, Jesus would have spent much of his youth studying the Torah, as well as Oral Law and rabbinic rulings. As part of this education, he would have memorized all the sacred literature of his day. But was all of this enough to earn him the designation of “Rabbi”?
What was a Rabbi back then?
The word “rabbi” (and the related term, Rabbouni) means, literally, “my master.” It was used as a title for a highly educated, respected teacher. At that point in time, it was not a formal title, like a Pastor or priest today, but was more of an honorary term.
In fact, a rabbi was not a clergyman as we think of one today. His role was that of a teacher of Jewish values and customs. As such, a rabbi could serve as an authoritative judge or arbitrator, though his chief task was teaching the Law. This included the Written Law (Torah) and the Oral Law of the time, laws which were handed down by word of mouth, and were not actually part of Scripture.
Certainly, Jesus served all these functions, and did it better than the recognized rabbis and religious leaders of his day. Enough so that we are told in the Bible people who heard him were amazed he spoke with such authority.
How Did One Become a Rabbi?
A rabbi received his “education” from another rabbi before he could teach on his own. This was not a formal course of study, but was more a life lesson style of learning. Students lived with the rabbi and followed him wherever he traveled, learning by observing the rabbi’s actions as well as his words.
When the original rabbi considered a student ready to go out on his own, he would perform a “commissioning.” This involved the laying on of hands as he released his disciple to begin his own work. Only then was the new rabbi considered fit to begin his career. This commissioning was called the disciple’s “authority.”
That’s why, in Matthew 21: 23, when Jesus entered the temple courts to teach, the chief priests and elders confronted him with the question, "By what authority are you doing these things?" Essentially, they were asking, "Who gave you this authority (to teach)?" Since Jesus had been sent by God–essentially “commissioned” by Him to teach His people--Jesus needed no human commissioning.
What Did a Rabbi Do?
In Jesus’ day, a rabbi was not paid by the synagogue, so he generally had another occupation from which he earned his livelihood. (Remember Jesus was often called “the carpenter.”) Because a rabbi had to travel from town to town to share his teachings and interpretations of Scripture, he was itinerant, with no specific place to call “home.”
This itinerant lifestyle meant rabbis depended largely on the hospitality of the towns and villages they visited. They could only carry limited supplies with them, as food spoiled in the heat and water was quickly consumed. When a rabbi entered a town, the people living there were expected to provide some of his needs in exchange for the teaching he gave.
Hundreds of rabbis ministered in Israel during Jesus’ time. They generally held classes in the village square or on a hillside, to accommodate all who wanted to hear them. Often a rabbi arrived in town with a group of students who had been added as he traveled.
The position of rabbi was held in very high esteem by Jews. Rabbouni were often invited to the homes of the wealthy and were much sought after guests. They were generally given the best seats at any social gatherings, and the best meal a host could offer.
So, Was Jesus a Rabbi?
Just reading through the gospels, we see Jesus was a scholar, well versed in the Scriptures and religious literature of his time. We see him teaching in the synagogue and astounding his listeners with his knowledge and understanding of scriptural principles. So yes, Jesus was a rabbi.
When he finally began to make public appearances, he was called “rabbi,” and he was recognized as such by his peers. The Bible records him walking by the Sea of Galilee in search of followers as he began his public ministry, so He called disciples the way a rabbi would. His offer, recorded in Matthew 4:19, was “Come, follow me.” To “follow” literally meant, “walk after me.” In Hebrew this was the term used for becoming a disciple.
Jesus was born, grew up, and spent His ministry among people who knew Scripture from memory, who spent much of their time debating what it meant to their lives, and who wanted to really know God. It is no surprise that God sent Jesus into this environment so he would have a receptive audience for his clarifying message about the kingdom of heaven.
To fully understand and interpret the words of Jesus from the Bible, we need to recognize him as a Jewish rabbi. He taught with the authority of God, using the methods of a rabbi. The lawyers and religious leaders in Jerusalem tried to prove Jesus was not fit to be a rabbi, but they never could.
Seems to me Jesus was a rabbi’s rabbi, speaking with the full authority of his Father, not some other teacher of the time. Only he could give the definitive interpretation of scripture and the true picture of the Heavenly Father who had sent him.