Was Jesus a rabbi?

The 19th century work by Carl Bloch, “The Sermon on the Mount,” depicts Jesus teaching his disciples in the manner of a rabbi. But was Jesus a rabbi in the traditional sense?

Jesus asks in Matthew 16:13, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The apostles respond with a few erroneous responses. However, erroneous answers can provide insights. A person who didn’t have much detailed knowledge of Jesus would probably assume that he was a rabbi. But was he a rabbi? As odd as it might seem, this question provides us with an interesting vantage point to view Our Lord.

Let’s begin by looking at the similarities. First, Jesus was sometimes called “rabbi” in the Gospels (Matthew 26:25, 49; Mark 9:5, 11:21, 14:45; John 1:38, 49, 2:2, 4:31, 6:25, 9:2, 11:8). The word “rabbi,” as John informs us, is translated “teacher” (John 1:38). The title “teacher” is more common. Nevertheless, both Jesus and John the Baptist were called “rabbi.”

A second similarity is that rabbis have disciples — as both Jesus and John the Baptist had. Usually, disciples picked the rabbi under whom they wished to study. To the casual observer, Jesus and his disciples looked more or less like the rabbi-disciple circle, which was common in those days.

Another similarity with rabbis is how Jesus taught. For rabbis, “to repeat” meant the same as “to teach,” and so rabbis would use repetition to help their disciples learn and memorize their teachings. Jesus also used repetition. For example, Jesus appears to have given essentially the same sermon in two different places (the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6). Scholars believe that the differences in place and composition might be due to editing by the Evangelists, but it could be that Jesus simply gave two similar sermons on two separate occasions.

With rabbis, their teaching wasn’t just a lecture; rabbis proposed legal questions to their disciples for their judgment, and the disciples would ask questions. The Gospels are filled with examples of Jesus using the same technique as, for example, the issue of paying the temple tax. When Simon Peter approached Jesus about paying the temple tax, Jesus responds by proposing a situation to Peter: “What is your opinion, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take tolls or census tax? From their subjects or from foreigners?” Like a good rabbi, Jesus answers Simon’s question with a question.

As interesting as these similarities might be, Jesus also does things that no rabbi would ever do. These dissimilarities are even more illuminating.

First, disciples chose their rabbis, but Jesus also chooses some of his disciples. While it is true that a large group of disciples followed Jesus on their own accord, Jesus nevertheless chose 12 people to be disciples — namely, the Apostles.

A second dissimilarity is the content of Jesus’ teaching. In rabbinical literature, rabbis hand on the tradition of their forefathers. In the Jewish Talmud, it’s very common to find passages that state, “Rabbi so-and-so taught in the name of so-and-so.” Rabbis conveyed and refined knowledge. It is here that Jesus is very unlike a rabbi.

As the Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner observes, “No rabbi was so important to rabbinical Judaism than Jesus was to Christianity. None prophesied as an independent authority. None left a category of ‘I’-sayings, for none had the prestige to do so” (Development of a Legend: Studies on the Traditions Concerning Yohanan ben Zakkai, 190).

Indeed, who Jesus is (i.e., the Messiah and Son of God) makes what he said important. Just as the crowd recognized in Mark 1:22, he did not teach like the scribes, but taught with authority. It is only because Jesus is who he is that he could say things like, “You have heard it said [in Scripture] ... but I say to you” (Matthew 5). No rabbi would say “but I say to you.” They would only appeal to the authority of their predecessors. Clearly, Jesus’ teachings go way beyond those of a rabbi, because he is who he claimed to be: the Messiah and Son of God.

Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.