Was Jesus Really a Rabbi?

2017-03-05T07:51:18+00:00 By |Blog, Ekklesia, Fellowship & Church|
I have generally assumed that Jesus was a Jewish rabbi. After all, He was born in Israel, He was Jewish, and people called Him, “Rabbi.” But that would make Him a professionally trained religious leader. Was He?

Bible teachers generally assume that when the Jewish leaders saw how brilliant the boy Jesus was, they immediately took steps to get Him enrolled in one of their schools to be formally trained as a rabbi. This accounts for why Jesus is not seen or heard from during his formative years. At the completion of His training He emerges and begins His ministry as a full-fledged rabbi – one of the best, most brilliant, and most controversial rabbis of them all.

Sounds nice.

Is that really what happened?

I don’t think so.

Let’s not assume, but let’s look into the Scriptures and see what was really going on.

Consider the following…

The Boy Jesus Was Teaching in the Temple

“Now so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers” (Lk. 2:46,47).

Luke is the only one who gives us a sense of what Jesus was like as a child, describing His visit to the Temple in Jerusalem at the age of twelve. For three days, Jesus sat in the midst of the teachers, rabbis, doctors of religion, and professional clergy, listening and asking them questions.

To the uninformed, this sounds like a really curious, precocious lad who had a keen interest in religion; but that is incorrect. The Jewish way of both learning and teaching is to ask questions. Someone has said that Judaism is a religion of questions. In His teachings, Jesus was adept at using difficult questions to stump the experts. For example:

“If the Messiah is David’s son, why does David call Him, ‘Lord’?”

“What is the greatest commandment? How do you read it?”

“Who was a neighbor to the Samaritan?”

“Where are you accusers?”

“When the Son of Man returns, will He find faith in the earth?”

“Is to lawful to do evil on the Sabbath day, or good? To destroy, or to heal?”

“Why do you not judge for your own selves what is right?”

“Does this offend you?”

“Do you now believe?”

“Are you Israel’s teacher? How do you not know these things?”

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord’ when you do not do the things I say?”

Jesus used these and many other questions to challenge, and provoke. This is the Jewish way of teaching. So when Luke says that the boy Jesus was sitting in the Temple listening and asking questions, He was not asking questions as a curious but unknowing student – He was asking questions as a learned teacher, instructing the others. This is why they were astonished and amazed. And (because I know the type), they were most likely to be envious, jealous, and offended that a country boy from Nazareth would presume to teach them.

Jesus even questioned His parents when they found Him in the Temple: “Why were you looking for Me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Lk. 2:49). I’m not sure why it is translated “Father’s business” or even “Father’s house” because the Greek here simply says, “Did you not know that I must be with my Father?”

As for the idea that the Jews whisked Jesus away and enrolled him in a rabbinical school, what does Scripture say? Only that “He went down with

[His parents] and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them” (Lk. 2:51). So, the “missing years” were spent quietly in Nazareth, living with His parents.

Jesus Had No Teacher But God

“Then they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes… And they were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? What new teaching is this?  (Mk. 1:21,22; 27).”

Every rabbinical student enrolled in a school that was named after the rabbi they were submitted to. For example, before he was Paul the apostle, Saul sat at the feet of Rabbi Gamaliel. Rabbis chose students based on their ability to carry on their unique teachings. When they graduated, they would setup their own schools, call their own disciples, and basically hand down the same teachings they learned to the next generation. Students did not come up with their own ideas, but quoted their rabbi.

We see Jesus teaching in the synagogues so we assume He must be a Rabbi. Yet again, the people are astonished at His teaching. Why? What is so astonishing to them? The teaching is new and powerful, which is totally unexpected. Rabbis would quote other Rabbis, the way a modern court cites older legal cases as precedent, the way a college student.  Jesus is different. He doesn’t quote other teachers and rehash the same old teachings. He brings something astonishing, new, living, and powerful. He speaks as One Who has authority to speak on His own, Who does not base His teaching on the teachings of others.

This reinforces the idea that Jesus was not an actual Rabbi. Scripture does not mention the school He attended, nor does it mention which Rabbi He trained under. Not once does He says, “According to Rabbi Yosef…” This is why they always asked Him where He got his teaching, who have Him the authority to say and do the things He did, since He had no formal rabbinical training:

“Not until halfway through the festival did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews there were amazed and asked, ‘How did this man get such learning without having been taught?’ Jesus answered, ‘My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me’” (Jn. 7:14-16).

The simple, plain truth is that Jesus, the Son of God, did not need any man to teach Him because He was taught by His Father. He was discipled by the Most High God. His teaching was not borrowed from man or invented by Him, but came from the One Who sent Him. To think that Jesus ever submitted to a human authority to become a student in the tradition of men, to imagine Him being professionally trained as a religious teacher, is ludicrous.

Jesus Exposed Other Rabbis as Hypocrites

“They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ” (Mt. 23:6-10).

The fact that Jesus taught His own doctrine with authority and power, the fact that He had the ear of the people, the fact that He was wiser than all the professional teachers of Israel, explains why the scribes and Pharisees argued, debated, and attacked Him at every turn, seeking to discredit Him. They failed at every attempt. When they could not beat Him in an argument, they accused Him of being illegitimate, which would have disqualified Him from being a rabbi. Then they accused Him of blasphemy, hoping to silence Him forever.

And all the while, the people called Him “Rabbi!” The synagogues opened their doors to Him and let Him teach. He went to the Temple, sat down, and taught as if He owned the place. The very force of His authority, the truth that He spoke, and the signs and wonders that He performed naturally commanded respect. How the “real” Rabbi’s hated to hear Him called “Rabbi!” as if He were on the same level as them! Jesus was what we might call today a “lay preacher.” No credentials. No ordination. No degrees. Yet, they called Him “Rabbi” because He surpassed every rabbi they had ever known.

But Jesus repudiated the rabbinical school and professional religious education. “Rabbi” or “Teacher” or “Master” were titles others had to go to school to earn, and once they earned them, Jesus noted how they wore them with pride and arrogance. So He infuriated them, not only by exposing their hypocrisy to the people, but by telling the crowds, “You only have one Rabbi: Me. You only have one Teacher: Me. You only have one Father: God. All these others, running around seeking the praise of man, who love to be called ‘Rabbi, Rabbi’ – they are hypocrites, dead men walking around, pretenders and impostors!” He had been accused of illegitimacy; He simply returned the accusation. He was right. They were wrong.

Given His polemic against the hypocrisy of the Jewish rabbinical system, should we conclude that Jesus Himself submitted to several years of religious instruction in order to “earn” the title of Rabbi and be accepted within the circle of religious elite? I think not! Instead, it seems more likely that He claimed to be the True Rabbi just like He said He was the True Vine and the Good Shepherd and the Only Way to the Father. Everyone else was pretending; He actually was what others could only claim to be. This is the root of the conflict between Jesus and the religion system – a conflict made all the worse by Him being an unprofessional, non-credentialed outsider.

* * * *

It makes me wonder… what else do we assume to be true about Jesus that isn’t necessarily so? What else have people told us that we take for granted as “what the Bible says” when it is really just what man says?

Knowing whether or not Jesus was really a rabbi makes for an interesting discussion, but it isn’t a matter of life and death. Getting the wrong idea about Him in this regard isn’t a fatal flaw this time. But what about next time?

About the Author:

CHIP BROGDEN is a best-selling author, teacher, and former pastor who shares "real, simple, truth" about a Christ-centered faith that is based on relationship, not religion. Learn more »

14 Comments

  1. Alfred Barnaby March 5, 2017 at 8:52 am - Reply

    It was was good near God?s explain so clear.
    God Bless and a great day.

  2. Tonya March 5, 2017 at 10:09 am - Reply

    Take me back LORD where I first believed……where it was honest, pure, confidence, clarity and TOTAL dependence upon you. This is my prayer!!!!

  3. Christine Carlton March 5, 2017 at 10:19 am - Reply

    Thank you Chip,
    God tells us not to worry on the day we are dragged before authorities to make an account, not to try and work out what we should say beforehand because He will give us the words to say and no one will be able to refute them. Therefore if The Father will do that for us, the followers of Jesus then how much more would Jesus have spoken as one not taught by man but on the Authority of His Father, Almighty God.

    Maranatha!
    Christine

  4. Clare Watts March 5, 2017 at 10:44 am - Reply

    LOVE it! I came to Christ in the 60’s but a dreadful incident happened that had me on the run from God for 21 long years until in the early 90’s I found God’s forgiveness and love, and surrendered to Him. From that day on, there was just Him and me, my Bible and the Holy Spirit to guide me for 7 years. Not one man had input in my walk with God. I am SO thankful for this, as all the churches in that area were steeped in man’s traditions and man’s opinions and “spin” on God’s Word. I would have had SUCH a different path, and probably would have lost my passion for the Lord had I joined a church then. I am so thankful to Jesus that the passion, the love, the joy, the TRUTH of God’s Word and the power it had to transform my life was not skewed by man’s input, but straight from the heart of God. Jesus was in tune with the the heart of His Father, and He knew the hearts of the Rabbis and teachers….He encourages us ALL to seek HIM and HIS heart, HIS revelation, and be guided by the Holy Spirit into all truth! Hallelujah!

    • molly March 6, 2017 at 8:52 am - Reply

      my life too transformed in such way as yours . my life changed in 1978 after i wanted to know Jesus is God and was touched through a Charismatic Retreat though after that my life was surrounded completly under the Lordship of Jesus following step up step through the direction of the Holy Spirit . He gave me Isaiah 60;19 ,20 and i am under the control of the Holy spirit through the word of God leaving the world and the worldliness s Rubbish serving god where ever i am used !Praise God

  5. Ken Dawson March 5, 2017 at 11:38 am - Reply

    I love that comment by Clare Watts–that tells the story

  6. Roger March 5, 2017 at 3:40 pm - Reply

    Very enlightening article, thanks Chip. I also identified with Clare Watts’ story as I recently left a home church that was drifting toward churchianity. The Word, the Spirit and fellowship with believers hungry not for religion but the Lord is all that we need.

  7. Deneen March 6, 2017 at 10:14 am - Reply

    Forget getting the wrong idea… what about getting his name wrong. There is one name under heaven where by men must be saved. Is our Lord’s name “Jesus?”
    You mention in this beautiful article the fact He was Hebrew. It is also a fact there is no “J” in the Hebrew alphabet and that the name Jesus is a transliteration of his hebrew name Yashua, but I don’t believe you ought to transliterate someone’s name.
    For example your name is Chip and where ever you go in the world that will be what they call you. When you die and they write a book about you even in another language they will translate the English words you spoke but your name will remain the same.
    Anyway my point is if there’s only “one” name given, where by we must be saved , hadn’t we ought to be sure we are getting it right?
    Chip there are so many things through your writings and ministry that correct so many religious error and reveal so much truth. What if calling Him by a false name is the biggest error of all?
    I’ve been receiving your teachings for years and have never said much. A good friend of mine let me know about you shortly after I came out of systematic religious organization in October of ’98, and I’ve never felt the need to say anything before until now.
    I don’t want a debate,because my minds made up on what I call him, if anything I just wanted to share.

    • Chip Brogden March 6, 2017 at 10:49 am - Reply

      “I don’t want to debate, because my minds made up on what I call him.”

      So then, it will not matter if I tell you that any debate over “what to call Him” is splitting religious hairs. He does not penalize English-speaking people who pronounce His name with a “J” instead of a “Y.” This is a good example of something that distracts from the simplicity of Christ. All words and names are different from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to English. Making yourself “right” and others “wrong” based on pronunciation is the subtle pride and arrogance of the Judaizer. By the way, I have never had a demon say back to me, “Sorry, you’ve got Jesus’ Name wrong, I won’t come out until you pronounce it correctly!” Let’s go on to maturity, please!

      • Ben March 15, 2017 at 10:56 am - Reply

        Hello Brother Chip, much as I agree with your response, I just thought it sounded rather “strong”, one may even say dismissive. To quote your last sentence, yes, “let’s move on to maturity, please!” but let’s also remember to “speak the truth in love”. I know your prophetic temperance does burn through sometimes 😉 and that is in order. But please do remember the feeble in faith.
        We’re in this together. May He continue to increase whiles we decrease… Be blessed!

        • Chip Brogden March 15, 2017 at 11:15 am - Reply

          You’re assuming if something sounds “strong” it is not said in love. The very act of speaking strongly can be an expression of love if it helps to shake someone out of complacency.

  8. Linda5713 March 6, 2017 at 7:16 pm - Reply

    Hi Chip,
    This is a great article speaking of an issue I had never considered reference Jesus’ upbringing from the age of 12 to 30. Thank you so much!

    I would like to add my opinion to the discussion on using “The name of Jesus”: has anyone considered the Strong’s definitions of the word “name”? Hebrew # 8034: the idea of definite and conspicuous position; by implication, honor, authority and character. Greek # 3686: also means authority and character.

    God has a very specified, unique and above all else honor, authority and character: as His Son, Jesus also has such. What this all means to me is that whenever I am totally surrendered to God in what I do and say, I am operating in Christ’s and therefore God’s authority and character (because at that point in time, we are all one as discussed in the oneness chapters in John). Any person can say the Name “Jesus” or “Yeshua” or any of the other names of God or Christ: however, just how many of these do you believe are actually operating in God’s/Christ’s authority and character at that moment of time? That is why we must be wise, discerning and test what is said against scripture.

    I have thought this was the meaning for over two decades. What do you think?

  9. Howard March 7, 2017 at 1:55 pm - Reply

    I can’t say I find your logic compelling. You present what is essentially a circumstantial case .. but then again, anybody who thinks Yeshua was a formally-trained rabbi is arguing from equally shaky ground. I’m still in the carpenter camp myself, recognizing that also is based on assumption, and very little evidence.

  10. Ken March 9, 2017 at 7:48 am - Reply

    Very insightful article, thanks!

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