They said, "Rabbi" (which means Teacher), "where are you staying?" John 1:38

Jesus the Jewish Rabbi

Jesus and his disciples - from the teachings Behold The Man by Dwight Prior

We know that folks called Jesus Rabbi, but what is the significance of this title, beyond simply meaning “teacher”?

We have established the Jewishness of Jesus and his ministry, so what can we learn that will enhance our understanding of Jesus and his teaching.

If we want to understand what Jesus was teaching us it will help if we can understand the methods he was using and the way his Jewish audience would understand him.


Was Jesus actually a rabbi?

What made a rabbi in Jesus’ time? Jesus’ response to the request in Luke 12 v13-14 suggests he was not eager to be called Rabbi.

Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher (Rabbi ), tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." Jesus replied, "Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?" Then he said to them, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."

JNTC page 125 explains, “Traditionally a rabbi was not a clergyman but a teacher of Jewish values and customs, and as such the authoritative judge or arbitrator …… only in the 18th and 19th centuries did rabbis in the west come to be regarded like Christian priests ………… Yeshua rejects the role of arbitrator in order to probe the attitude motivating his questioner while implicitly rejecting his request.”

Also, in Matthew 23 v8 "But you are not to be called `Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. “

Dwight Prior has specialised in studying Jesus and his Jewish context and has produced a DVD and Study book, “Behold the Man” - “Discovering our Hebrew Lord, the Historical Jesus of Nazareth.” This page is very much indebted to “Behold the Man”, and to David Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible and Jewish New Testament Commentary.

Dr Prior explains many Jewish ways of thinking, teaching and story telling that are drastically different from our, predominantly Greek, ways. Looking at Jesus through Jewish lenses reveals wonderful things we would otherwise continue to miss. This page can do no more than stimulate your appetite for this teaching. Please buy the set and share it with your friends.

The itinerant teacher

Jesus was not the first, or the only, teacher to roam the country with Talmidim. (students or disciples) The itinerant teacher (rabbi) was part of the system in first century Jewish religious life. Disciples would aspire to the role of rabbi once fully trained. Notice though that Yeshua was also regarded as a prophet and healer – signs of the power of God at work in him by the Holy Spirit. Notice the questions from the establishment questioning Yeshua by the cohanim,

Matthew 21 v23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. "By what authority are you doing these things?" they asked. "And who gave you this authority?"

Authority here is s’mikhah – a commissioning involving laying on of hands. We know where Yeshua’s s’mikhah came from.

On many occasions on his travels, Yeshua ministered in the synagogue.He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

This is a reconstructed first century synagogue in Nazareth Village. "The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to release the oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." Luke 4 from v16

This is a reconstructed first century synagogue in Nazareth Village.


To obscure or reveal the truth?

Apart from one comment about the meaning being hidden, parables were stories of familiar topics from their everyday lives to illustrate a spiritual, Kingdom reality. If we have problems that may be due to our unfamiliarity with the context 2000 years later. We might need some help with understanding the context.

Mark 4 33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.

The idea certainly seems to be to make things as accessible as possible. Jesus and his audience were all steeped in the Hebrew tradition of parables and other wisdom literature, as introduced by Solomon in the introduction to Proverbs – in Hebrew

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:

for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight;

for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair;

for giving prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young--

let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance--

for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.

This suggests that the idea is to make people think rather than presenting a quick answer on a plate.

The idea of parables to obscure comes from Matthew 13 v10

The disciples came to him and asked, "Why do you speak to the people in parables?" He replied, "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables:

This raises difficult issues, similar to that of God hardening people’s hearts, but that question is answered by the fact that God hardens the hearts of those who have already chosen to harden their hearts. It seems that those who are sincerely seeking will be enabled by the Holy Spirit to apprehend the meaning of the parable.

Hebrew idioms

For example, a “good eye” or a “bad eye” Although Jesus’ hearers understood these idioms, we will miss the message if we do not recognise the need to find out what these mean. (an advantage of having a Jew translate or expound for you) see Jewish New Testament Commentary p 32. (See also Greek/Hebrew)

People often use the expression, "the apple of his eye" to imply being cherished without any real idea what it means. In Hebrew, the pupil of you eye is known as the apple your eye; it is a pictorial idiom. The usage refers to the pupil of the eye as the most treasured and protected part of the body. Your eyelid comes down at lightning speed at the first sign of a threat to your pupil.

The concept of “binding and loosing” causes some controversy, but the background to this and the “good eye” is explained in Session 6 of Behold the Man. They are halachaic terms meaning permitting or prohibiting.

Word plays

Often, in Hebrew, words are chosen that have similar meanings or common roots, calling to mind a secondary meaning or allusion.

.Matthew 16 v18 “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, ….”

The Hebrew for ”rock” is “even” and “build” is “evneh” It is interesting that Peter is Greek for rock and David Stern calls him Kefa (Aramaic for rock); was Jesus speaking Aramaic at the time or did he actually call Shimon Even? (letter "e"s are pronounced as very short “e”s)

“How much more” - kal v’chomer

Used so often in the New Testament that it can be overlooked, but an important Jewish discussion technique. If A is true, then B is even more true. This is one of the Middot (measures or norms) of Jewish thought – (see Jewish New Testament Commentary p 32 and BTM Session 8)

Parallelism – Hebrew poetry

Hebrew poetry does not rely on rhyming words, like English poetry, but on parallels that repeat or develop a thought. This makes Hebrew poetry translatable where English is not. For Example see Proverbs 1 from v7

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge,

but fools despise wisdom and discipline.

Listen, my son, to your father's instruction

and do not forsake your mother's teaching.

They will be a garland to grace your head

and a chain to adorn your neck.


While we should take literally what the Bible presents literally, hyperbole is a regular feature of Hebrew teaching. An exaggerated picture makes a point neatly. For example, Yeshua’s instruction in Mark 9 v47

And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell .

Jesus was also using hyperbole when he said,

"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple.

Clearly this was not meant literally as that was against the fifth commandment; hating is comparative; our love for Jesus should make our love for parents like hate by comparison. (BTM Session 8)

Answering with Questions

People wonder why Jewish people so often answer a question with a question. Notice how often Yeshua did this. Questioning was and still is the Jewish way of learning. It is an excellent way of drawing out of people and making them think for themselves. Our way tends to be to attempt to answer questions with a snappy explanation that may not even address what the enquirer really needed to know. Yeshua used questions to draw out of the person what he already knew to answer his own question. Consider the young Yeshua in the Temple Luke 2 v46

After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.

Remez or Kesher

Chapters and verses are a modern, often unhelpful, addition to our Bible. First century Jews knew their scriptures well enough to be able to pick up a quote and place it in the passage from which it was taken; without needing chapter and verse.

This ability to make connections (Dr Prior likens them to hyperlinks) explains why Jesus’ audience often reacted so strongly to a remez where we may not have noticed the full significance of the remark. For example John 8 v58

"I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born, I am!" At this, they picked up stones to stone him,

This took people back to Exodus 3, where YHVH identified himself as “I am.” Also, when Yeshua, referred to himself as son of man, people would think of Daniel and the vision in 7 v13, in addition to the times when prophets were addressed by God as son of man.

"In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.

(BTM Session 8)

Jewish worship practices

How often do we say “Hallowed be thy name” in the “Lord’s Prayer” without thinking or understanding what it means? The prayer Jesus taught his disciples was not an eloquent religious work, but the practical basics of doing business with a father in Heaven. The Jewish thinking is that what we do on earth reflects on God in the eyes of those around us. Therefore we must pray that God’s name is sanctified (made holy) through our lives! (see also Prayer)

Evasive Synonyms

The practice of avoiding using the name of God had been developed by the sages by the first century, and Jesus followed the practice. For instance the phrases “the kingdom of Heaven”, actually means the rule (or kingship) of God in our lives. Failure to understand this can lead one to think of the kingdom being “near” geographically or soon to come. Jesus is telling us that we can decide to repent and accept God’s rule in our lives. (BTM Session 11)

The Rabbi and his Talmidim

If Jesus was the rabbi, and those who learned of him were (are) his students / disciples; (Hebrew Talmidim) what does that mean for us?


“Greeks study in order to comprehend; the Hebrews study in order to revere”, said Abraham Joshua Heschel. We must study Jesus and his teachings, but not just to accumulate knowledge. Study is worship for the Hebrew mind.

Application – Practice

Learning requires application; we must put into practice what we learn.

Yeshua taught us to pray to our Father in Heaven, “Your name be sanctified.” How can this come about except by our lives being obedient to His instruction so we live noticeably holy lives!

Understanding the teachings of Jesus as being in the manner of a Jewish rabbi enables us to read the gospels in their true colours and with a new freshness. But, of course, Peter and John were trained by Jesus in the same manner and Paul was trained by a rabbi, so their writings benefit from the same understanding.

It is also necessary to remember to read the Bible with Hebrew instead of Greek spectacles; as Jesus and his talmidim would have done.

What did Jesus commission his talmidim to do? See the end of Matthew’s gospel,

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

While Jesus was always telling people about the Kingdom of Heaven (Kingship of God), do we just preach the love of Jesus, or do we preach Jesus' message of repentance as the way into the Kingdom of God and the state of discipleship?

Are our attempts to win others focussed on making them disciples who will give over their lives to following Jesus? - ( The Kingdom - BTM Session 11 )

One final thought - It does matter that Jesus is Jewish, because every attempt to create a "universal Jesus" has always ended up by depicting Jesus in the ethnic and cultural likeness of those who sought to portray him in a new way.

Updated 02/12/10

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