Jesus was not simply a Jewish man. He was also a Rabbi. Jesus is actually called “rabbi” in the gospels. (Mk 9:5, Jn 1:49, Jn 3:2) And what does that mean? Well a Rabbi was a teacher of Scripture. And yes they still have Rabbis today. Today we’re going to look at 4 different ways Jesus’ life matched up with other Rabbis. In a couple weeks we’ll end with looking at some hard to understand statements Jesus made and show how they make more sense when understood from a Rabbinic Jewish context.
4 Ways Jesus’ Life Matched Up With Other Rabbis of His Day
(1) Travel and support
A typical Rabbi would travel from town to town teaching wherever he went about the OT and how to walk out or live the commands. For instance, one of the 10 commandments says to honor the Sabbath. What does that mean? How do you practically honor the Sabbath? Today they’ve had to answer questions about driving on the Sabbath or cell phones and internet? Saving life is very important so is it ok for Doctors to work on the Sabbath in order to save a life? These are the types of questions and discussions with which they’ve had to wrestle. And there are actually 613 different commandments found in the OT. Every single command does not apply to every single Jewish person. Some apply only to women, some apply only to men, to priests, to the Temple, to those living in the land of Israel under a kingship… But, there’s still quite a few left that apply to everyone, so how do you walk out those commands? Well, that was the question the Rabbis would try to answer.
Because Rabbis traveled they were dependent upon the generosity of others to survive. And Luke records how wealthy women actually supported Jesus and His disciples and financed their trips. (Lk 8:1-3) This was very typical of that world. Due to raising families and needing to take care of their homes, women weren’t usually able to leave and travel with specific Rabbis like men were. But, men weren’t able to just leave either, they needed to have their wives approval. And it wasn’t like the men would be gone for months. It was usually weeks and then they’d go home to rest for a while before they’d leave again. Most women couldn’t do that, although some could, but all women could support these teachers financially. And this was seen as just as valid and important a ministry as traveling with the Rabbi.
Rabbis also taught using parables, short stories to help explain God and His Word. “How can one describe God? What is his grace like? Jesus and the rabbis employed colorful word pictures to illustrate [God and His character]….When Jesus says that God is like a noble landowner who is characterized by [amazing] generosity, the people could gain greater insight into God’s nature..” (Young, Brad. Jesus The Jewish Theologian. 135) Today when we talk about God we use big words – God is omnipotent, God is omniscient and then we have to define what we mean by the word and explain how God is this thing. Rabbis simply told stories taking the supernatural and bringing it down into our world to help us better understand. Jesus did the same thing when He told parables.
Rabbis also raised up disciples, mainly men, but some women, who traveled with the Rabbi from place to place to learn from the teacher. But being a disciple was way more intense then just being a student. You were to study not only what your Rabbi taught but also how he lived and applied his teaching. Did his walk match his talk? How did he treat his wife and children, the person on the street? You were constantly watching and learning from your Rabbi. Disciples during this period would even try imitate their rabbis physical walk and patterns of speech. You wanted to pick up every aspect of your Rabbi’s life and try to emulate it. There’s a comical story told of how some disciples went so far as to lay under their Rabbi’s bed to see how he and his wife acted in bed together. I believe they were caught before anything occurred but I’m not sure. (oy vay!) The bond between a Rabbi and his disciples was to be unbreakable. It would be the greatest shame to leave or deny your Rabbi. Which might help shed some insight on how Jesus felt when the disciples fled in the garden the night He was arrested.
There is, however, one place where Jesus stands apart from other Rabbis. But I think it’s deliberate. During the days of Jesus and after it was important for any new Rabbi who came along to quote from a previous Rabbi. It was just accepted that you were building on the traditions of the elders and what you had been taught. As a Rabbi you would begin by saying something about how you were teaching what Rabbi Gamliel taught you and he had received it from Rabbi Shlomo, who was taught by Rabbi Hillel. And you would have authority based on their reputation/authority. People would know to listen to you because you were teaching what you had been taught and not taking the Bible and completely misapplying it or changing it.
Can you think of one Rabbi Jesus quotes or uses to back up His authority? Jesus didn’t apply to any one else’s authority but His Father’s (Jn 5:43; 8:16,18,28,38,42). Jesus consistently acknowledged His only authority came from His Father in heaven. Matthew 7 records this statement – ‘the people were amazed because He (Jesus) taught as one who had authority and not as their teacher’s of the Law.’ Every other teacher had authority based on another Rabbi who came previously. Not Jesus. As the Son of God He received His authority and His understanding of Scripture based solely on His Father, not on another human being. In Matthew 5 Jesus makes this clear when He says numerous times “You have heard that it was said by the teachers long ago… But I tell you…”
So yes, He was a Rabbi but He was unlike any other Rabbi who lived.