Words cause a lot of confusion. “Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination,” wrote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). If every person’s imagination is unique, how can any “melody” cross from one mind to another? Someone else has said, “It’s a miracle that any communication at all takes place!” But what are the options? Grunts and gestures don’t lead to fewer misunderstandings. Pictures take a long time to draw. Music and dance convey feelings wonderfully but are less suitable for discussing the history of manuscripts or pregnancy in elephants.

The meaning of the word “rabbi” has changed significantly over time, which often creates confusion. Nowadays many people think of a rabbi as a Jewish congregational leader, parallel to a pastor or priest in the Christian tradition or an imam in Islam. However, this is a relatively recent meaning and not applicable to most of Jewish history.

Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), one of the most esteemed rabbis of the twentieth century, had this to say: “I am a descendant of a rabbinic family…. On both the paternal and maternal sides, they were all rabbis. If you should ask me what the rabbinate stands for, I cannot give you an answer…. What is a rabbi? I do not know.” How could this erudite man be speechless about a word so central to his own origins, activity, and identity? The answer lies in its history. Unlike many basic concepts of Judaism, the idea of a “rabbi” as such is not found anywhere in the Hebrew Bible. The word consists of two Hebrew elements: רב (rav) “great, master”; and the suffix -י (-i) “my.” The combination רבי (rabbi) therefore means something like “my master.”

The word “rabbi” was used to mean a teacher of Torah (God’s instruction/law) probably beginning in the first century CE/AD. This made sense in the ancient setting, where education often meant that students or “disciples” literally followed around and tried to imitate their teachers or “masters.” Jesus/Yeshua of Nazareth was a “rabbi” in this sense of the word (Matt 26:25, 26:49; Mk. 9:5, 11:21, 14:45; Jn 1:38, 1:49, 3:2, 4:31, 6:25, 9:2, 11:8). So was John/Yokhanan, who had immersed him (Jn. 3:26). And furthermore, Jesus/Yeshua contrasted the Pharisaic aspiration to attain the status of “rabbi” with the different community lifestyle he wanted for his own followers – a brotherhood of equals (Mt. 23:7-8).

This first-century meaning of the word “rabbi” should not be confused with later meanings within “rabbinic” Judaism. Robert Bonfil, a professor of Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has explained that in the Middle Ages rabbinical ordination meant something very similar to the doctoral degree awarded by European universities. Through most of Modernity as well, a “rabbi” was someone who had passed a long and intensive course of study to become an “expert” in questions of Judaism. In short: the meaning of “rabbi” depends a lot on the particular historical time and place being discussed!

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36 COMMENTS

  1. It’s commonly understood that Rabbi meant master or teacher. Jesus Christ is our master and he taught both the multitudes and the disciples. I think that’s a good definition of Rabbi.

    • Thank you, Matthew! As pointed out in the post, that is a good definition for the 1st century, but not as good for later periods. In rabbinic Judaism the main definition of “rabbi” is someone who has received smikhut (something like “ordination”) and is therefore considered authorized to decide particular questions of halakhah (rabbinic Jewish law).

  2. This was taken from Jewish Lives Publication “Rabbi Akiva: Sage of the Talmud
    By Barry W. Holtz”

    Before the Rabbinic period, there was no formal institution like we have now, no curriculum to comply with, students were teachers and vice versa at the same time, no ordination. Rabbi simply meant “my teacher.”

    Rabbi Akiva himself has no Rabbi in his family line on both parental sides, he studied at the age 40.

  3. When Yeshua said to his disciples: ” what ever you bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven….”,was he not referring to rabbinic authority? Whatever was pronounced by a rabbi in their assembly was considered permitted or forbidden? So he was giving them rabbinic authority??

  4. In Matthew 13:55 Jesus is the son of Joseph, a carpenter, and Mary.
    In John 3:1, Nicodemus, a Pharisee of a Jewish ruling Council member, called Jesus Rabbi.

    This seems that Rabbi is not inherited. Anyway, I do not know in details…..especially how to become a rabbi.

    • Thank you, Paulus. You are correct that the title “rabbi” is not inherited. In the first century, it was a respectful way to address a teacher. Later, in the rabbinic tradition, it was not inherited, either, but rather earned through years of study. Soloveitchik does not talk about his rabbinic heritage in order to suggest that he inherited this title, but rather to show how familiar he should be with the concept that he nonetheless has a hard time explaining! 🙂

    • Any insights into why Saul of Tarsus was not called a rabbi? Is there any bridge between the first century rabbi and the Eph 4:11 teachers?

      • Silas, thanks for the interesting questions! There is a connection in the Jewish-Greek language of the time. Eph. 4:11 uses the word διδάσκαλος (didaskalos) “teacher.” This is the same word used in (for example) Jn. 1:38: “And they said to him: ‘Rabbi’ — which translated means ‘Teacher’ (didaskalos) — ‘where are you staying?'”
        As for Saul/Paul, he called himself διδάσκαλος ἐθνῶν (didaskalos ethnōn) “teacher [rabbi??] of the [Gentile] nations” (1Tim. 2:7).

  5. In my novel, Second Born, Jacob (Jesus’ older brother James) is the son studying at the Temple to become a priest. If Eisenman and Painter have it right, he may have served as high priest for a time. Meanwhile, out in the countryside where he is developing a reputation among the peasants, Jesus acquires the informal title Rabbi because of his teachings, not his position.

    • Thank you, Bruce. In the article I refer to this text in the context of explaining the meaning of “rabbi” in the first century.

  6. But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’ ; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren.
    Matthew: 23 : 8.

  7. I havent found an article on spiritual warfare so ill just ask here. Pls give me any hebraic ommentary on gadarene demoniac pigs…im asking why did the pigs have to all die, or who killed them? Who killed them as all pigs can swim at birth, yet they all died in the lake. They either killed themselves to escape demon possession or to due to fear of judgement from Jesus but most likely the demons killed the demons to cause drama to Yahshua plan to evangelize the decapolis…& if so…the demons won the battle…Yahshua did not go evangelize where he wanted in person but only sent one…it is a battle lost..so why did he allow demons to instill fear in gadarenes villagers via killing the village pigs? He did not know what would result if demons go in pigs? He gave mercy to demons by permitting them to enter the pigs to show us…never give mercy compromise to demons..result is lost battle?? Yes one man was saved but its still a loss since the original goal of Yahshua was to visit the village in person.

    • Thank you for the question, Bryant. I would recommend that you look at the MA thesis by Samuel Rausnitz, “Expelling Demons from the Gospel of Luke: Recovering the Sense of Δαιµόνιον in Jewish-Greek Literature” (which can be found online). It has a good section on this story and places it in a broader context of how such themes are discussed in the text.

  8. Shalom. Thank you for this explaination on the meaning of the word Rabbi. I knew the meaning had changed since the time of Yeshua but this explains so well.

  9. Thank you so much Dr Gruber , your explanation was so helpful….I wish I had read your work when I was in team with my husband as ‘pastors’ for many years , our very best wishes ! Shalom …

  10. It seems Jesus was focused on Torah, and how a proper interpretation and action in light of it allowed one to see, experience and enact God’s Kingdom. The Kingdom both broke in through Jesus, and Jesus enables one to see it always present whenever people relate through love.

  11. Above someone says James the older brother of Jesus!
    Jesus was born of a virgin parents so how is James be older brother of Jesus. He is his young brother becoz Mary and Joseph had other children after Jesus. Is this correct?

  12. Hi Dr. I am also to comment another question not in line of text. Need to know more about the bind and loose that was commented earlier, I can’t find it in one of IBC’s teachings.
    Thanks for the ‘Rabbi’ info. It’s interesting!

  13. What is the relationship between a rabbi and a levitical priest. I know the levitical priests were of the tribe of Levi. Jesus was a priest after the order of Melchizadec (not sure of the spelling).

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