Was Jesus a rabbi?

In the Bible, many people referred to Jesus as "Rabbi." Jewish scribes (Luke 20:21), Jewish Sadducees (Luke 20:28), Nicodemus—a Pharisee (John 3:2), a wealthy man among the crowd (Luke 12:13), and His disciples (Luke 9:33) including Mary of Bethany (John 20:16) all addressed Jesus as Rabbi. Jesus even affirmed their use of this title in John 13:13 when He said, "You call me Teacher [Rabbi] and Lord, and you are right, for so I am." So the question becomes what this term meant.

In John 1:38, the author tells us that "Rabbi" means "Teacher." The title Rabbi is a Hebrew term literally translated "my great one," meaning master or teacher. It was a term of honor bestowed on sages or those who knew and taught the Scriptures. The modern use of the term Rabbi as an official title of ordination did not start until the 1800s. But in Jesus' day, many Jewish men who taught or had followers were addressed with this title of respect. John the Baptist was called Rabbi in John 3:26 and the Apostle Paul's teacher, Gamaliel, would have been considered a rabbi as well (Acts 22:3).

During the early first century, Jewish sages or rabbis would take on disciples and train them in specific interpretations of Jewish law. Each rabbi had his own opinion and their teaching was referred to as a "yoke." Based on a person's behavior and mannerisms, others could tell which rabbi he followed. This list of regulations ruling one's behavior is what Jesus referred to when He said, "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:30). He meant that His teaching would not add to God's law placing undue burdens on His followers the way so many other rabbis' "yokes" were prone to do.

Despite the multitude of people who referred to Jesus as "Rabbi," the authority of His teaching was certainly questioned. The chief priest, scribes, and elders confronted Jesus saying, "Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority" (Luke 20:2). They wanted to know who trained Him and why He was considered qualified to be "teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel" (Luke 20:1). So even though there was no official process at the time to be bestowed with the title Rabbi, the Jewish leaders doubted Jesus' qualifications for such a title.

Today, becoming a Rabbi requires attending four to five years of rabbinical training which encompasses academic programs, internships, and life experience, including spending one year in Israel before being officially ordained. So by today's standards, Jesus was not a rabbi. However, during His day, with the historical meaning and use of the word, He certainly was an expert of Scripture with a following of disciples He trained in biblical living and thus rightly bore the title of Rabbi.

It is important to note that Rabbi is not the only title Jesus claimed for Himself. He was no mere mortal interpreting God's law, but rather Jesus claimed to be God Himself (John 8:58). He confirmed that He was the Jewish Messiah (Matthew 16:15–17) and on more than one occasion God declared to everyone present that Jesus was His Son (Matthew 3:17; 17:5). So while Jesus was a Rabbi during His day, He is actually so much more.

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