The "Jesus Was a Rabbi" Myth

Over the past few years, I’ve occasionally heard Christians (including a pastor at the pulpit) make the claim that Jesus was trained as a rabbi. While I initially thought this claim seemed reasonable, and I understand that Jesus was frequently addressed as “Rabbi” and imitated the style of contemporary rabbis (public teaching with close personal instruction for select disciples), I have since noticed that the gospels indicate that Jesus did not formally train under a rabbi.

For example, Mark 6:2b-3 tells us the reaction of the people of Nazareth to His teaching (Matthew 13:54-56 reads similarly): “‘Where did this man get these things?’ they asked. ‘What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him" (NIV). A response of this type seems unlikely if Jesus had formally trained under a rabbi, as it stresses Jesus as being a common, laboring man from an unexceptional family.

Recently, though, I noticed that John’s gospel explicitly states that Jesus was not formally trained: “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?’” (John 7:14-15). While Jesus, like any properly-raised Jewish boy of the 1st century, no doubt learned the Old Testament by heart and may have had the advantage of learning to read and write, this passage seems to clearly indicate that He was not the disciple of a rabbi. (In fact, having a human teacher would have probably undermined His claim to be teaching what was given to Him by the Father.)

Does anyone know where the “Jesus was a rabbi” idea originally came from? Was it a Christian idea, or was it perhaps a secular idea originally formulated to try to explain away the divinely inspired aspect of His ministry?

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You raise an interesting question, Micah. I’m no expert on the subject, but i can share my experience. I was originally taught that the term “rabbi”, before the rabbinic system was formally in place as official Judaism, could mean “respected teacher” in its broader meaning.

Which could be a wrong understanding, it is just an idea i picked up from various writers. Now i think it was the confidence and authority with which he taught that made people think he must have been a God-inspired rabbi.

Matt 7:28-20
“When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.”

As i understand it now, the “teachers of the law” were accustomed to frequently quoting, or at least referring to, the decisions/sayings of many great Jewish teachers of the past in order to prove their points. This was so common as to be accepted as the “norm”, the standard of correct teaching.

But here comes this powerful leader, healer, revolutionary, who is rumored to be a common carpenter, yet he speaks with such conviction, and wisdom, that he makes regular rabbis look like his pupils rather than his instructors.

Must have been confusing at first, but after listening to him teach for a while, i can imagine many people were impressed that he was perhaps a prophet, especially considering his apparent connection with John the Baptizer (cousin, right? plus the switching of followers ot John to Jesus). And i would bet that they started cheering him, even if silently, in his confrontations with the pharisees and scribes. Wouldn’t we have?

In our time, my contacts with Messianic Jews reinforced the idea of Christ being a “rabbi of rabbis” even though he said, “You are not to be called ‘rabbi’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.” Matt 23:8 [No doubt he was referring to himself here.]

Thanks for the topic, Micah