Can we call Jesus “Rabbi”?

In March 2009, my new book, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus will be released by Zondervan. Just the title of the book might cause you to ask, “Is it OK to speak of Jesus as a ‘rabbi’?” Some have suggested that the term may be from after Jesus’ time, so to apply it to Jesus isn’t appropriate. What is going on here?

jesus-rabbiIt’s true that there is a change in how the word “rabbi” was used right around the time of Jesus. Jewish teachers who lived a few decades before his time, like Hillel and Shammai, were not called “Rabbi Hillel” and “Rabbi Shammai,” even though they had numerous disciples. They simply went by their name with no title, like Jesus did. It was only after 70 AD that we find numerous religious teachers who had that title, like “Rabbi Akiva” or “Rabbi Eliezar.”

Because of this, modern day scholars refer to the era after 70 AD as “the rabbinic period” and speak of teachers in this period as “the rabbis.” Religious teachers who gathered disciples prior to 70 AD are called “sages,” so Jesus technically was a “sage” rather than a “rabbi” by modern definition. In the minds of academics, calling Jesus a “rabbi” sounds if he lived a few decades later than he did.

It is important to not to transplant Jesus from his own time into another. But if we disassociate him entirely from the rabbis that lived slightly after him, it is misleading as well. It’s important to keep in mind that Jesus actually lived in the critical period of Judaism that formed the nucleus of later rabbinic thought. The disciples of Hillel and Shammai were debating in his day, and their opinions became the focus of much of the discussion that is preserved later in the Mishnah and Talmud. Jesus himself commented on their debates. To artificially divorce him from early rabbinic discussions excludes extremely relevant information about the Jewish conversation that was going on in his time.

So what word would Jesus’ disciples have used to refer to him? Rabbi. But in a different sense. Quotations from before Jesus’ time often spoke of the relationship between a “talmid” (disciple) and his “rav” (master). The same word, “rav” was what a slave would say to his owner, displaying an attitude of humility. When an “i” was added to the end, it meant “my,” so a disciple would address his teacher as rav-i, “my master,” or rabbi. (In Hebrew, b and v are often interchangeable.) In the decades after Jesus’ time, the word for “my master” gradually became the title of a Jewish religious teacher. This is very analagous to how clergy were once honored with the phrase, “the most reverend so-and-so,” but later “Reverend” became a professional title.

The gospels show that Jesus’ disciples called him “rabbi” in this older sense of the word. We hear Jesus saying, “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.” (Matthew 10:24-25) The reason he makes this comparison is likely because the disciples were calling him “rav,” and addressing him each time they spoke to him as rav-i, “my master.”

This sheds light on Matthew 23: “Everything they do is done for men to see… they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers.” (vs. 5,7-8, NIV) Jesus’ was objecting to his disciples demanding others pay them obeisance and competing for honor with each other. But he did not object when his disciples used rabbi to refer to him. The Greek is explicit about this. In the text of the gospels, Greek letters are used to spell out the Hebrew word “rabbi” as ραββι rather than translating it into a Greek equivalent in 15 different places (see Matt. 23:7, 8;  26:25, 49; Mark 9:5, 11:21, 14:45; John 1:38, 1:49, 3:2, 3:26, 4:31, 6:25, 9:2, and 11:8). John’s gospel explains:

When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” [ραββι] (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” (John 1:37 )

John is saying that his use of “rabbi” is the equivalent of the Greek word didaskalos, which means “teacher.” It’s reasonable to assume then, that when we see Jesus addressed as “teacher” in English translations, the actual word spoken at the time was rabbi.

To sum up, many modern scholars do not refer to Jesus as a “rabbi” because the boundaries have been set to define him as slightly before the rabbinic era. But the gospels themselves explicitly spell out the word “rabbi” in reference to him. And Jesus himself speaks as if he expects that we as his followers would think of him as our “master.” It seems very appropriate, then, that if we are his disciples, we should speak of him as our “rabbi.”

For more, see the entry “Rabbi” at http://www.JewishEncyclopedia.com.

Published in: on January 14, 2009 at 2:40 pm  Comments (3)  

Why did God become a Jewish Rabbi?

Just a little update on my life, and a question for you. A few months ago I told you that I’m working on a book on understanding Jesus in his Jewishness. One of the first chapters has the title “Why did God become a Jewish Rabbi?” Provocative, isn’t it?

I’ve written a lot in the past few years about what it meant that Jesus was a rabbi that fit into the Jewish culture of his day. That idea has really transformed my thinking – that I need to read his words in context, and that he was thoroughly human and part of a culture that we can learn more about.

But I’d like to ask you, the readers of this blog, for your input on this question too. I think most of my readers are old friends and readers of www.egrc.net, and maybe some new folks who’ve bumped into this site through a link. We’re a crowd of folks who are fascinated about digging into the God’s Word, and some have a little knowledge, some have much more.

But now, I’d like to ask you to please tell me, how has it impacted your faith to learn about Jesus as a Jewish rabbi?  What does it mean for us today? What does it say about God? What questions does it bring up in your mind that you never had before?

Published in: on November 12, 2007 at 10:29 am  Comments (4)