The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
In Part 1 of this series, we explored the question “What is a Rabbi?”, along with some of this question’s implications. In this article, we will examine the question “Was Jesus a Rabbi?”, to which I believe the answer is “yes”, that he was a rabbi with sâ€™mikah (authority) in the tradition of the hasidim – which, per Part 1, is not the same as a Jewish Orthodox Rabbi, in today’s world.
Who Called Jesus Rabbi?
From the Biblical record, we have note of 7 different groups/types of people who refer to Jesus as “Rabbi” or “Teacher” (the rough translation): His disciples (Mark 9:5, Mark 11:21 etc.); Pharisees (John 3:1-2); John the Baptist’s disciples (John 1:35-38); Common people (Mark 10:51, John 6:24-25); Torah teachers (Matthew 8:19); Herodians (Luke 3:12); and the Sadducees (Matthew 22:23-32). Additionally, he refers to himself by this title (John 13:12-14, Luke 22:10-11).
The title ‘Rabbi’, in first-century contemporary literature, could refer both to Torah teachers (”Teachers of the Law”) and sages/rabbis with s’mikah (authority). Jesus, who was clearly recognized by this title, would have fallen into one of these two categories, though clearly – from scripture – it was the latter.
In similar fashion, Jesus was recognized by many people in scripture as having authority (s’mikah). In Mark 1:22 we read:
The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.
According to Hebrew tradition, for a sage/rabbi to have s’mikah – authority to make new teachings to interpret scripture – he had to be recognized as a prophet from God, himself, or – as Aaron and Moses had traditionally given authority to 70 elders – they had to be recognized as having s’mikah by two other rabbis with s’mikah.
We know, from the scriptures, that John the Baptist was considered to be a similar sort of Rabbi (John 3:26) or a prophet (Matthew 11:7-9), with disciples of his own (Matthew 9:14), and followers in Asia Minor, who were later baptized into Jesus by Paul (Acts 19:1-7). And so it is we read in John 1:
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.”
Additionally, when Jesus was questioned by the Sadducees as to where he got his s’mikah (authority), his answer (via the rabbinic technique of answering in questions) would indicate that John – a prophet – had heralded (not granted) his authority from God.
In Part 1, discussing rabbis in general, I noted that:
they lived a more itinerate lifestyle and took on followers – called talmidim (disciples) – who lived with them most of time, though they would be sent out on their own later in their learning. The rabbis had a yoke, their method of interpreting scripture, in which they would order the commandments of Torah from greatest to least. The talmidim of a rabbi would be expected to live by that yoke and to memorize the key teachings of that rabbi. Living with their rabbi, these talmidim would also learn to live in the same manner – with their greatest desire to be to learn to follow God just like their rabbi. In all of this, the talmidim were also in complete submission to the authority of their rabbi.
It is the presence of disciples, talmidim, which is one of the strongest bits of evidence of Jesus’ role as a rabbi in the tradition of the hasidim. In the Jewish culture, in order for one to be called a talmid, they had to have a rabbi to follow. To say that Jesus’ disciples were disciples, but he was not a rabbi is like saying “I’m married to Suzanne, and I am Suzanne’s husband, but she is not my wife”.
Additionally, Jesus had a yoke (Matthew 11:28-30; 22:36-40 ), he sent our his disciples on their own later in their learning (Matthew 10:5-25), they memorized his teaching and followed it (Matthew 7:24-29, Luke 6:46-49), they lived with him so that they could follow his example (Matthew 10:1, 16:24-28).
It seems clear, from Biblical and cultural evidence from the first century that Jesus was a Rabbi, in the tradition of the hasidim and not the post-70 AD midrash Rabbis of today. It is also clear that Jesus was recognized by the people as having s’mikah, and that he had talmidim following him.
In the coming articles, we will examine some more aspects of Jesus as a Rabbi in addition to what it means for us to be a disciple in the true meaning of the word.