Jesus; Rabbi or Sage?
The term "rabbi" is derived from the Hebrew word rav, which in biblical Hebrew meant "much, many, numerous, great." It also was sometimes used to refer to high government officials or army officers (e.g., Jer 39:3, 13). In Jesus' day, rav was used to refer to the master of a slave or of a disciple. Therefore rabbi literally meant "my master" and was a term of respect used by slaves in addressing their owners and by disciples in addressing their teachers. It was only after A.D. 70 that "rabbi" became a formal title for a teacher1 and thus cannot technically be applied to Jesus. A learned teacher of this time period is commonly referred to as a "sage," so that term is a very appropriate way to refer to Jesus. Nonetheless, the designation "rabbi" may still be more helpful than any other in conveying a correct image of Jesus to the average Christian reader, if it suggests that Jesus was recognized among the Jews of his day as a teacher of Scripture, and that he was famous enough to draw students to himself. A Typical First-Century Jewish Rabbi From the gospel accounts, Jesus clearly appears as a typical first-century sage, or Jewish teacher. He traveled from place to place; he depended upon the hospitality of the people; he taught outdoors, in homes, in villages, in synagogues and in the Temple; he had disciples who followed him as he traveled. This is the very image of a Jewish teacher in the land of Israel at that time. Perhaps the most convincing proof that Jesus was a sage was his style of teaching, because he used the same methods of Scripture interpretation and instruction as other Jewish teachers of his day. A simple example of this is Jesus' use of parables to convey his teachings. Parables such as Jesus used were extremely prevalent among ancient Jewish sages, and over 4,000 of them have survived in rabbinic literature. Jewish teachers of first-century Israel lacked the sophisticated methods of mass communication we have today. Consequently the rabbis of Jesus' day spent much of their time traveling throughout the country, much like the ancient prophets, to communicate their teachings and interpretations of Scripture. An itinerant rabbi was the norm rather than exception. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of such rabbis circulated in the land of Israel in the first century. These rabbis did not hesitate to travel to the smallest of villages or the most remote parts of the country. In some instances they would conduct their classes in someone's home, but often classes would be held in the village square or under a tree. Jesus' ministry also followed this custom. Much of Jesus' teaching was done indoors: in homes (Lk 10:38–42), synagogues (Mt 4:23), even in the Temple (Mt 21:23; Lk 21:37). But we also find Jesus, like a typical first-century rabbi, teaching outside in impromptu situations. A picturesque account of Jesus teaching from a boat is found in Luke 5. The feeding of the five thousand occurred in "a lonely place" (Mt 14:13; Mk 6:32; Lk 9:12), and the Sermon on the Mount was so named because it was delivered in a rural location. From the Gospels we learn that Jesus likewise moved from place to place a great deal, often accompanied by crowds. Mark 6:6, for example, records that Jesus "went around from village to village teaching." He traveled considerably in Galilee, especially in the vicinity of the Sea of Galilee, and likely in Judea as well.2
A rabbi's stay in a community might last from a few days to weeks or months. Although rabbis would not accept payment for teaching Torah, most would accept lodging, and usually food as well, for themselves and their students. Jesus clearly felt that his disciples should be entirely supported by their hosts when out teaching. In one instance, he sent out disciples commanding them to take nothing with them, neither food nor money (Lk 10:4). Covered in the Dust of the Rabbi A saying from approximately one hundred years before Jesus supports this picture of the rabbi in the land of Israel, and is remarkably descriptive of the ministry of Jesus: Let your home be a meeting-house for the sages, and cover yourself with the dust of their feet, and drink in their words thirstily.5 In the context of this statement, "a meeting-house for the sages" should be understood to mean a place where the rabbis could hold classes, not a place where they themselves could assemble. Had people not opened their homes to the rabbis, it would have been impossible for them to reach the masses with their message.