The word “rabbi” is of Hebrew origin, essentially meaning “master” and used as an honorary title for “teacher.” The apostle John, writing to a non-Jewish audience, uses the word “rabbi” (a Jewish term) and then translates it into Greek as didáskalos (“teacher”). This informs John’s readers of what the person who wears the title does but doesn’t explicitly convey the deep respect inherent in the term. The other Gospels do. In recounting the story of Christ’s transfiguration, the synoptic writers employ different words in their respective translations of the Aramaic conversation. Mark records the original Hebrew title Rabbí (Mark 9:5), whereas Matthew uses “Lord” [Kúrios] (Matt. 17:4) and Luke “Master” [Epistátēs] (Luke 9:33). These parallel renderings show the title’s reverential intent.1
Jesus and the Jewish educational system in 1st-century Palestine
John 7:15 indicates that Jesus received no formal training, so how did he come to be recognized as “Rabbi”? Growing up in Nazareth of Galilee, what were his educational opportunities, and what was necessary to be a teacher of the Law in Jewish society? Education among the ancient Jews was provided in four settings: (a) the home; (b) the synagogue; (c) the temple; and (d) rabbinical school.
All Jewish children were taught in their respective households. The Law decreed: “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:6-7).2 Timothy, from Lystra in eastern Asia Minor, is typical of one who knew the holy scriptures from childhood (1 Tim. 3:15), thanks to a godly parent and grandparent (2 Tim. 1:5).
When the Logos became flesh (John 1:14), “born of woman, born under the law” (Gal. 4:4), he was named Jesus (Matt. 1:21-25) and had no undue advantage over anyone else in the human race. “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things …. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect [katà pánta] …” (Heb. 2:14, 17).4 Jesus of Nazareth “learned,” just like everyone else, mostly in the proverbial school of hard knocks (Heb. 5:8).
He was raised in an orthodox Jewish home. His stepfather Joseph was knowledgeable of and obedient to the Mosaic Law (Luke 2:21-24, 27, 39, 41). Jesus’ mother also knew her Bible well, quoting or alluding to numerous passages from all three sections of the Hebrew scriptures (the Law, the Prophets, the Writings) in her song recorded in Luke 1:46-55.3 Young Jesus was subject to his parents (Luke 2:51) and would have been taught the word of God from his earliest years. “And the child grew and became strong …. increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:40, 52).
Another very important part of the Jewish educational system was the synagogue. The synagogue was a multi-purpose assembly place for prayer, worship, and scripture reading (Acts 15:21), also functioning as a court, a community center, and a school. Both boys and girls attended the synagogue school from age 5 or 6; boys continued on until around age 15, while girls were usually married by then. In Nazareth, where Jesus was raised [tréphō], it was customary [eíōtha] for him to attend the local synagogue (Luke 4:16).
The temple in Jerusalem also had a role in the Jewish educational system. For those living in the vicinity or visiting from time to time, there were occasions to learn from respected rabbis. As a 12-year-old boy, Jesus had opportunity to be “in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). Young Jesus would have also been quizzed by these learned rabbis, an important method of rabbinical instruction,5 and “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (v. 47).
Finally, Jewish boys who demonstrated exceptional promise were sent to Jerusalem to learn from a renowned teacher of the Law (like Hillel, Shammai, or Gamaliel). Young Saul of Tarsus was “brought up” in Jerusalem, “educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law …” (Acts 22:3). Since Jesus showed so much promise as a boy (Luke 2:47), why was he not afforded the opportunity to attend rabbinical school? First of all, his family probably couldn’t afford it. Secondly, the last time in the biblical record his stepfather is depicted alive is when Jesus was 12 years old (Luke 2:48-51). Afterwards there are numerous references to Jesus’ mother and his siblings but no mention of Joseph, who presumably had died. Jesus would then have the responsibility of supporting his family (cf. Mark 6:3; John 2:12) and therefore could not have pursued further education.
A few months before his death, Jesus was teaching in the Jerusalem temple. “The Jews therefore marveled, saying, ‘How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?’” (John 7:15). This observation, of course, must be understood in context. Jesus had “studied” or “learned” [manthánō] his entire life – at home, in the synagogue, and periodically in the temple (Luke 2:46, 51; 4:16; Heb. 5:8). His listeners were amazed simply because he didn’t have a degree from one of their prestigious institutions of higher learning.
Education is good, and Christian education is even better. But whether or not you have the opportunity to pursue additional training in more formal settings, do what Jesus did. Develop good Bible study habits at home, search the scriptures with fellow Christians at church assemblies and small group gatherings, avail yourself of the plethoric learning opportunities at lectureships, workshops, seminars, retreats, gospel meetings, et al., and then share what you’re learning with others (2 Tim. 2:2, 24; Heb. 5:12). There is absolutely no excuse for any member of the Lord’s church, especially in the 21st century, to be biblically illiterate!
But “whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:5-6).
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Luke, writing from a Greek perspective, never employs the Hebrew term “rabbi.” John uses the word but translates it for his Gentile readers (John 1:38). In John’s record, the title is applied once to John the baptizer (3:26), and the rest to Jesus by Philip and another disciple of John (1:39), Nathanael (1:49), Nicodemus (3:2), his disciples (4:31; 9:2; 11:8), Jewish crowds (6:25), and Mary Magdalen (14:45, the emphatic form Rabboni). Mark, as a Jewish writer, seems to employ the title instinctively in reference to Jesus, recording the words of Peter (9:5; 11:21), a blind man (10:51, the emphatic form Rabboni), and Judas (14:45). Matthew appears to be more reserved in his usage of the title, perhaps because of its abuse among egotistical leaders, recording the Lord’s rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees (23:7, 8) and the words of Judas Iscariot (26:25, 49).
2 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.
3 1 Sam. 2:1; Psa. 34:2, 3, 9; Hab. 3:18; 1 Sam. 1:11; Psa. 138:6; Gen. 30:13; Mal. 3:12; Hos. 11:1; Psa. 71:19; 33:21; 105:3; 126:3; 111:9; Gen. 17:7; Ex. 20:6; Psa. 103:17, 18; 147:11; 2 Chron. 20:6; Ex. 6:6b; Psa. 98:1; 118:15; Isa. 40:10; 52:10; Job 5:11; Psa. 138:6; Prov. 11:2; 29:23; 1 Sam. 2:5-8; Psa. 113:9; 23:5; 34:10; 107:9; 146:7, 9; Prov. 13:7; Eccl. 5:13; Psa. 98:3; 1 Chron. 16:12-16; Psa. 136:21-23.
4 See Jesus Christ: the Son of Man.
5 According to the biblical record of Christ’s earthly ministry, he asked 307 questions and only directly answered three. See M. B. Copenhaver, Jesus is the Question (Nashville: Abington, 2014).