The salutation of “rabbi” was given to Jesus early in His ministry, first by the disciples and then by others in the course of His travels. Rabbi referred to a man who was an authorized teacher of the Law. It was also a respectful or honorific title and recognition of someone who was learned, capable, or qualified to teach others. We find both of these applications of the term in this Gospel; the first instance in John 1:38-39. Andrew and John addressed Jesus as rabbi initially because of the testimony of John the Baptist. The title of rabbi at the time of Jesus was the normal salutation with which a follower or disciple would address his teacher. “By the end of the first century C.E., the expression had become a technical term for ‘ordained’ teachers who had satisfied certain formal requirements of rabbinical training. At this point, however, the term was used more generally to refer to a respected Jewish religious leader.” [i]
Under Judaic law, there were specific conditions and requirements to which a man had to conform to become a rabbi. He had more education than the typical Jewish child. The male children who showed promise and interest in religious matters following their Beth Midrash (elementary) education could continue their training at a rabbinical school. At this academic level, the students acquired in-depth training in the Scripture and gained recognition as possessing the requisite authority to interpret Jewish Scripture. At the conclusion of this school, a young man, likely in his late teens or early twenties, would approach a rabbi and ask to become a disciple. However, that was not how Jesus chose to gather His disciples, with the exception of Andrew and John, who came to Him at the prompting of John the Baptist. The other men who became disciples, Jesus chose from different walks of life and educational levels. Rabbis were held in high esteem at the time of Jesus, and people typically called them “Father” or “Master.” As a symbol of his status, the rabbi had “precedence in honor over the aged, even over parents. In the synagogue too, he had the seat of honor; he sat with his back to the cupboard containing the Torah, in full view of the people.” [ii]
A man had to attain the age of thirty before he could become a rabbi. This requirement is why Jesus waited until that age before beginning His ministry as a rabbi (Luke 3:23). Presumably, He followed in the vocational footsteps of Joseph and worked as a carpenter until reaching the age of thirty. When He began His ministry, Jesus spoke and conducted Himself as a rabbi and received the due respect and treatment given to such individuals. The Fourth Gospel has several examples of this type of salutation including John 1:48-49, 3:1-2, and 6:24-26. The rabbi would travel from place to place with his followers and totally depend upon the generosity and kindness of others (Luke 8:1-3); he would often stay in private homes (Luke 10:38-42), which was the practice of Jesus throughout His ministry.
Students and followers of rabbis would spend considerable amounts of time—typically several years—with their mentor, learning and maturing. At some point, “the rabbi would judge that his pupil could now stand on his own feet and that now, in his turn, he could preach and make commentaries.” [iii] As part of his duties, the rabbi would visit synagogues to teach and discuss Scripture (Matthew 4:23). When teaching, the rabbi would typically cite the opinion and Scriptural interpretation of a better-known rabbi; much like the legal professional has case law precedents. Jesus was different, however, from other rabbis of His time because He taught as one with authority (Matthew 7:28-29), and this amazed those who heard Him. In addition to teaching the public in the synagogues, the rabbi would also spend considerable time with his disciples and followers teaching and ministering to the younger men. While the students primarily listened, learned, and observed, they could ask questions or even object to the actions of the rabbi as long as the objections were respective and courteous. We find a good example of this in John 9:1-2 when Jesus healed the man born blind. It was also the responsibility of the disciples to provide for the rabbi’s physical needs such as food, water, and shelter. We can see an example of this when Jesus wants to travel to Bethany where Lazarus is dying (John 11:7-9), but, as the situation there was dangerous for Jesus’ personal safety, the disciples protested. The disciples show this concern when they return with food (John 4:30-32) only to find Him talking with a Samaritan woman at the Sychar well.
Following the custom of the rabbi, Jesus wore a seamless robe. At the four corners of the garment were tassels or fringes (tzitziyot) as Numbers 15:37-41 and Deuteronomy 22:12 stipulate. As a rabbi, Jesus often said He came to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17), not to abolish the Law or the Prophets. Jesus understood the Law as a means to define the relationship between God and His chosen people instead of as a body of rabbinical and legal statutes. Jesus took upon Himself the authority to clarify and reveal the true meaning of the Law in His role as a rabbi. He affirmed the Law when He gave the great commandment to love the Lord with all one’s heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30) and to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Matthew 23:39, Mark 12:31).
Copyright © 2016 Craig B. Manning. Al rights reserved.