The title ‘Rabbi’ – its origins and (mis)use

The Lord Jesus is called ‘Rabbi’ or ‘Rabboenie’ 15 times in the Bible (for example in Marc 9:5; John 20:16). Nowadays this is emphasized by various teachers. However, this title is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament (OT). The word is also not Hebrew, but Aramaic. Reasons to ask the question where it originates from and how its meaning developed in Judaism.

By Marco van Putten

Current use
Today ‘Rabbi’ is the title of the teacher or sage in the Jewish religion. This title is gained after a thorough study of mostly post-Biblical literature (the Oral Torah), like the Talmoed, and of Jewish culture. This study is concluded with an exam. After successful completion the ‘Rabbi’ will receive the so called semiecha. This is a spiritual blessing/ordination for their office. The Rabbi will then serve the local Jewish (Diaspora) community. The Rabbi is not so much a spiritual leader, but a guide for the daily religious life. He is judge and overseer. Since the Jewish world is divers, so the guidance that Rabbi’s give is also very divers. The leading Rabbi in a country/region is called chief Rabbi. Amongst (chief) Rabbi’s there exists no hierarchy.

In many ultraorthodox groups the leading teacher is called ‘Rebbe’. This title is in contrast to that of Rabbi a spiritual role. It represents is a different role then a Rabbi. The ‘Rebbe’ doesn’t need a formal university certification but receives its ‘title’ dynastically. He is seen as the patriarch and spiritual father of a community. His leadership is often seen as divine.

Some leader and teachers in (Christian) Messianic groups have taken or are given the title of Rabbi. Although, some have had formal training or are certified as Rabbi (for example in Judaism before becoming Messianic), this gives rise to confusion. But it shows that many Messianic groups strive for recognition within Rabbinical Judaism. Christianity however is no Judaism. Messianic faith, not even that of Messianic Judaism, is inherently incomparable with Jewish religion. It cannot even be aligned with it, since it is incompatible with its theological construct.

Linguistical origin
The word ‘Rabbi’ originates from the Aramaic verb rabab – multiply/being great/become great. This verb is found even in the oldest Bible books (e.g. Genesis 6:1; Job 35:6). This is not so surprising, since the patriarchs, like Abraham, and their wives were Aramaic. They and their offspring had to learn the local languages spoken in the land Canaan and later the language of Egypt. In this way they more and more used a mingled language which became the language of the Hebrews (the offspring of the patriarchs). A millennium later Aramaic became the common language in ‘the promised Land’ because the empires of the world, like Assyria and Babylon, took control over that Land. They used Aramaic as the formal language. They also used the title ‘Rav’ (i.e. ‘ruler’ or ‘commander’) for their officials in the king’s service (see for example: 2 Kings 18:17; 19:4; Isaiah 36:2; Jeremiah 39:3, 13).

When the Judeans (the remaining Israelites living in de promised Land during the 7th century BCE) were exiled to the Babylonian empire (c.605-535 BCE) they had start speaking Aramaic in their day-to-day life from then on. The Judeans thus also replaced their original Hebrew alphabet by the Aramaic alphabet. This explains why the Israelites, after they returned to the Promised Land, and in the days of the Lord Jesus didn’t speak Hebrew but Aramaic in their daily lives. They also started using Aramaic for their religion and the Bible was thus translated into Aramaic; the so called Targoemim.

Development of the title Rabbi
It seems that the title Rabbi was used as honorary title as early as the first century BCE or perhaps even earlier, but Jewish manuscripts dating from the 2nd century and before, like the Septuagint and the scrolls of Qumran, do not mention the title. This is important, because from the 2nd century BCE onward there was a growing end-of-days (apocalyptic) expectation amongst the Israelites. This expectation was used by the sect of the Pharisees to gain influence. Typical for this sect was their emphasis on religious study. They wanted to make the religious practices of each Israelite comparable with that of the Temple priests. Knowledge of these practices and of the Jewish faith was scarce. It seems that the Pharisees started using the title ‘Rav’, common in the Babylonian World of their Diaspora, for their teachers and leaders. In the time when this happened the title was becoming popular as title next to the old Biblical title of ‘chacham’ (sage). Once the Pharisaic sect started to dominate Judaism (end of 1st CE) the title became limited to them.

The Lord Jesus as Rabbi
That the Lord Jesus (c.5 BCE – c.30 CE) was called ‘Rabbi’ (i.e. my religious master) doesn’t mean that He was a Pharisee. From the New Testament it is explicitly clear that He sharply rejected the ‘religious teachings of man’ promoted by the Pharisees. According to Him these teachings put aside the central issues of the Bible and in this way was trespassing them (Matthew 15:3; 23:23). The Lord Jesus distinguished Himself from the other Jewish sects by bringing His own message announcing the New Covenant which God was going to make with Israel based on contemporary Judaism of the 1st century CE.

The Lord Jesus called upon his disciples to be humble before God’s Sight and thus, amongst others, to avoid taking or receiving any titles, like ‘Rabbi’ or connected to that the name of spiritual ‘Father’ (Matthew 23:8). Perhaps He did that also because He foresaw the future dominant role of the Pharisees in Judaism and the later developments in Christianity. His disciples should distinguish themselves in favor of their missionary work amongst the nations. Since after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem the forced dispersion of the Jews amongst the nations became fact. The prospect of rebuilding the Temple in the near future was lost. Hence, the Pharisees took over the leading role in Judaism from the Temple priests (of which the Sadducees was the dominant sect) and became the sect that has dominated it until this day. They then gave the title ‘Rabbi’ its specific and distinguishing meaning which it has today.