Our Lord was actually a Jewish Rabbi, contrary to the common belief that He was a Christian minister. He adhered to the Jewish tradition and religion, and His teachings were considered innovative by the scholars of His time. These teachings were initially referred to as “the Way,” and the symbol associated with it was a fish image, not a cross. It is important to note that His Jewish identity was based on His religious and traditional beliefs, rather than solely on His ethnicity or country of origin.
The image above is from this website: My Jewish Learning
In Acts 11:26, the term “Christian” wasn’t used first to name His followers but to mock the church in Antioch. Being a Christian means being a follower of Christ and emulating Him, even in His suffering. However, the current state of Christianity is vastly different from its origins in the first century, particularly when compared to its Jewish roots. It’s important to acknowledge that Jesus did not come from the same world of Christianity that exists today. Therefore, we should not assume that He is similar to the modern Christian minister. Rather, Jesus was a Jew and, within that context, a Rabbi – a spiritual teacher of the Jews. So while He is a Servant of God, we must recognize and respect His Jewish identity and not conflate it with contemporary Christian practices.
This writing does not aim to refute the divinity or humanity of Jesus. He is both God and the Man who lived among us 2,000 years ago. Rather, this article seeks to clarify His profession and the extent of His contributions to humanity. It is hoped that through this understanding, we can deepen our love for Him and strive to be like Him more.
Pay attention to this verse, Luke 4:17-21 (NIV).
And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. Unrolling it, He found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,(Isaiah 61:1-2)
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
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. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
When the Lord finished reading the aforementioned verses, it marked the official commencement of His ministry on earth. Specifically, He recited Isaiah 61:1-2. Prior to this, He had been baptized by John the Baptist as recounted in Luke 3:21-22, where the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove. Later on, as detailed in Luke 4:1-13, He faced temptation. Verse 14 reveals that Jesus returned to Galilee after this ordeal, imbued with the power of the Holy Spirit.
It’s commonly believed that when Jesus stood up to read the Scriptures in verse 16, He was similar to any Christian minister who stands up at the pulpit to read the Bible or share their testimony. There may be some truth to this idea, especially since Jesus was in the synagogue, which is considered the Jewish equivalent of a church. However, we must not take this notion too far. Due to the conflicts He had with the scribes and Pharisees later on, we tend to assume that Jesus was not one of them, nor was He a Jewish priest or scholar. While this isn’t entirely incorrect, it does overlook the true nature of Jesus at that moment.
Now, we like to think that when Jesus stood up to read the Scripture, in verse 16, He was just like one of the people in our church who stood up to read the Bible and to share something, or to testify. Maybe this was true, at least for the moment when it was happening at that time. After all, wasn’t Jesus in the synagogue, the congregation of the Jews, so-called the church of the Jews by many of us? Verse 16, and on the Sabbath day He went into the synagogue, as was His custom. Furthermore, because of the later conflicts with the scribes and Pharisees, we also like to assume that Jesus must not be one of them, not the scholars, not the scribes, not the Jewish priests. This understanding is actually not wrong, but often we take it too far. The conclusion we drew actually obscured who Jesus really was at that time.
If someone suddenly stands up in front of a congregation to share their testimony or story, it’s usually okay for the church leader to permit it. However, it’s not that simple when the opportunity to participate in pulpit ministry is given. We all know that for someone to preach or teach God’s Word, they cannot simply be a “layman”. They must have at least gone through a school of ministry or a Bible school, or be a senior member of the congregation who has a close relationship with the pastor or church leadership. This logic makes sense, but in practice, even if the person is close to God but not to the pastor, they may not get an opportunity to preach from the church’s pulpit.
This is good because a Pastor’s job is indeed to watch over his flock from someone he doesn’t know, right? However, we should not assume that Jesus, on that day, could have simply stood up and taken part in the “pulpit” directly. Aren’t we assuming that He was an outsider, not a scribe, let alone a Pharisee, not one of them? Could Jesus have been given the opportunity to read God’s Word? In verse 17, it says, “the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. Unrolling it, He found the place where it is written.“
The Synagogue and the church are two distinct entities, with different functions and purposes. The Synagogue was a community center that also served as a marketplace, with a library of Torah (Beit Midrash) and regular teachings by Rabbis for common people. It is not accurate to assume that Jesus was just one of the common people in the Synagogue, unknown by the leaders who handed Him the scroll of Isaiah to read. On the contrary, He was well-known to them, and they expected Him to deliver a powerful reading as a young and dynamic Rabbi.
Notice that Jesus was not affiliated with the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, or Zealots. However, He was a respected Rabbi and teacher of the Jewish faith. This is evident in Luke 4:17 when the Synagogue leader entrusted Him with the scroll of the prophet Isaiah to read during the Jewish congregation’s ritual reading of the scriptures, known as K’riat haTorah or קריאת התורה. It’s unlikely that the leader would have given Jesus such an important task if He wasn’t recognized as a Rabbi in His own right.
Therefore, Jesus was not merely an uneducated layman. However, in Jewish society, it was rare to find laypeople, especially during Jesus’ time. From a young age, children were taught the Scriptures, and the command in Deuteronomy 6:7 NKJV, “You shall teach them diligently to your children,” was taken seriously in the Jewish community. Furthermore, memorization of scripture was commonplace from childhood. Jesus’ ability to engage in discussions in the Temple at the age of 12 indicates that His parents had taught Him well about the Scriptures. In contrast, many Christian parents would think bringing their children to Sunday School is enough. We do not really care to teach them to pray or to read the Bible, moreover to memorize it. (Probably because we ourselves know nothing about it!)
Luke 2:46-47, 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.
So Jesus was a recognized Rabbi among the leaders of the Synagogue in Galilee, who were well acquainted with Him.
Luke 4:22, All spoke well of Him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from His lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
Matthew 13:54-57, Coming to His hometown, He began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t His mother’s name Mary, and aren’t His brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Aren’t all His sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at Him.
Luke 4:21 records that the leaders were taken aback upon hearing Jesus’ declaration of being the Messiah, as they were familiar with Him and His background.
Numerous verses refer to the Lord being addressed as “Rabbi” by a multitude of individuals, not just by His disciples. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that in Luke 4:17, the synagogue leader anticipated an exceptional reading of the K’riat haTorah from this young, celebrated, and energetic Rabbi, as He was presented with the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
- Nicodemus, a scribe who sought to reason with Jesus about being “born again,” addressed Him as “Rabbi” in John 3:2. This interaction occurred at night.
- In John 8, when individuals attempted to entrap Jesus by presenting a woman caught in adultery, they addressed Him as Rabbi, Teacher, in John 8:4, saying, “Rabbi, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.” Rabbi or Rav רב is an esteemed title within the Jewish community. It’s improbable that Jesus’ detractors would have used this title if He wasn’t regarded as such. It’s unlikely to call someone an honorable name if you hold animosity towards them, as doing so would contradict the purpose of their slander. It’s evident from the Bible that their issues with Jesus had nothing to do with His status as a rabbi, but rather with His claims to be the Son of God, the Messiah, the Anointed One.
- In addition to being called “Rabbi,” Jesus, like every Rabbi, wore a prayer shawl with tassels on its end as part of His ministry and discipleship. These tassels, known as “Tzitzit,” are not just loose ends of a long piece of cloth but are instead tied in a knot, a bundle of thread tied together in a particular way according to Jewish religious tradition, and are tied to the four corners of the prayer shawl. Luke 8:44 (Tree of Life Translation) records that a woman who had been bleeding for years approached Jesus from behind and touched the tzitzit of Yeshua’s garment. Immediately, her blood flow stopped. The woman didn’t merely touch the cloth of Jesus’ garment; she touched the tzitzit, the tassels that Jesus typically holds when He prays in His prayer rituals as a Rabbi. It was through this contact that the healing power of prayer flowed out immediately.
- Jesus’ construction of the Torah fence is another indication that He was a Jewish rabbi. In Matthew 5:27-28, Jesus states, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This type of statement is known as a “fence of the Torah,” which is a concept only a rabbi would have the authority to declare, rather than a layperson. Therefore, when Jesus made this statement, He did as the Rabbi of the Jews and the Teacher of Israel.
It is uncertain from the Bible who Jesus’ Rabbi in this matter. While Paul studied under Rabbi Gamaliel, according to Acts 22:3. Jesus could not have been a Rabbi on His own. However, due to His intellect and comprehension, as noted in Luke 2:47, no Rabbi during that time would have confidently asserted that Jesus was their disciple. Additionally, when others learned of Jesus’ self-proclaimed identity, as is common in life, individuals tend to take credit as teachers when one is successful, but when one is deemed unsuccessful, supporters often abandon them.
But clearly, the role of Joseph and Mary in educating Jesus took a very crucial role. There is much speculation about where Jesus was during the period from age 12 to 30. One prevailing belief is that He may have taken over the role of His father, Joseph the carpenter, who passed away at a young age, and worked as a carpenter during this time. However, it is highly probable that He was actually being educated and trained to become a Rabbi during these years.
Indeed, Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi who received a thorough education in the Scriptures, including the Torah, the Books of Praises, and the Prophets. He was not an uneducated man who simply received the anointing of the Holy Spirit, nor was He a layman who lacked understanding of the guidance of the Scriptures and relied solely on the leading of the spirit. It is important to note that in using the lowercase spirit here, I am referring to those who claim to walk “by the spirit” without having a deep understanding of the Word of God and refuse to study it. Such individuals may find themselves being led not by the Spirit of God, but by a deceiving spirit before God, as illustrated in 2 Chronicles 18:18-22.
2 Chronicles 18:20-21, Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ And the LORD said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.
Yes, so He was a Jewish Rabbi. He was a man considered equal by His fellow Scribes to be entrusted with the Synagogue pulpit. Many of us hold incorrect assumptions about Him, often assuming that He is just like us: ordinary, uneducated people who lack the desire to study the Word of God but are eager to be utilized by the Holy Spirit.
We are the ones who often have wrong assumptions about Him. Thinking He was just like us, some lay people, uneducated people, who many times don’t want to study, but are eager to be used by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus was not an ordinary, laid-back individual, despite His willingness to dine with ordinary people, including sinners and tax collectors as described in Luke 5:29. Although He was a Rabbi, Jesus was also humble. Unlike the Jews, who determined their worth and identity based on whom they ate with, Jesus did not base His identity on those with whom He dined. Furthermore, Jesus was not ignorant because He allowed His disciples to eat without washing their hands, as described in Mark 7:5. Rather, He rejected the unnecessary customs of Jewish traditions, which were elevated to the same level as God’s Word.
Jesus was not just a member of the Pharisees group; He was also a scribe, a Jewish teacher, and a Rav or Rabbi. While the Pharisees were a group of scribes who originated from Judea, Jerusalem, and its surrounding areas, which were considered the metropolitan area of Jesus’ time and home to the upper class, Jesus came from Nazareth, a lower community area known for its fishermen community. Galilee, where Jesus hailed from, was also the birthplace of the Zealot movement and the site of the Maccabean revolt against Rome. Recently, there has been a strong belief that Jesus was a Rabbi from the Hasideans group, a group of scribes from Galilee who claimed to be miracle workers in the tradition of Elijah and Elisha, two ancient Jewish prophets.
The Hasideans group and the Pharisees are closely related as they were both comprised of scribes. However, the Pharisees placed greater importance on external rituals and ceremonies, whereas the Hasideans group focused on the state of a person’s heart, emphasizing the significance of genuine service to God and love for others. Additionally, the Hasideans group was known for its reputation as a miracle worker. Honi HaMe’agel, also known as Honi the circle maker, and Hanina ben Dosa are two well-known figures from this group.
A notable feature of the Hasideans was their bravery in renouncing worldly possessions, embracing poverty, and devoting themselves completely to serving God. This set them apart from the Pharisees who were more highly regarded in the urban areas of Judea and Jerusalem because of their tendency to seek personal enrichment and hold themselves in high esteem. In contrast, the Hasideans found greater acceptance among the lower-class citizens of Galilee, including Nazareth.
Jesus, as Rabbi of Israel, aimed to restore the purity of God’s Word according to the Scriptures in His teachings. He disregarded the customs and traditions of the Jews during His time and stressed the significance of the Word of God above all else. For instance, when He healed the sick on the Sabbath, He was not negating the importance of the Sabbath but rather highlighting that assisting and loving others on that day did not necessarily break the Sabbath law. According to Jewish customs and traditions, the Sabbath was to be observed according to the Word of God, which meant that any form of work was prohibited, including lifting or moving objects such as a sleeping mat, as seen in John 5:8-9. However, this became an obstacle to helping sick people, which Jesus rejected since He knew that the Jews would immediately rescue their sheep that fell into a pit even on the Sabbath, as described in Matthew 12:11. Thus, He questioned why healing the sick or helping others on the Sabbath was deemed a violation of the law while saving a sheep was not. He argued that such practical acts of kindness did not go against the essence of the Sabbath law, as emphasized in Matthew 12:12.
Even in Christianity today, Jewish customs such as the one described above persist. Some pastors prioritize observing church and denomination regulations over the Word of God itself, while others place more emphasis on regional Christian traditions than loving their neighbors. However, if we examine the root causes of such practices more closely, we may find that they stem from political factors within the church and denomination, such as competition and envy between pastors vying for power.
In John 2:19, when Jesus spoke about destroying the temple and rebuilding it in three days, He was not only referring to His death and resurrection as explained in verses 21-22. He was also challenging the values of the Pharisees’ customs and traditions, which placed more emphasis on the physical location and structure of worship rather than the worship itself. Unfortunately, this tendency to focus on the physical building of worship over the act of worship persists in the Christian world today. We tend to define the church as a physical place, forgetting that we ourselves are the church and our bodies are the temple of the Holy Ghost. We get upset when churches are destroyed, yet we disregard the harm we do to our bodies through unhealthy habits and poor nutrition.
Frequently, we tend to interpret God’s Word based on our personal perspective, influenced by our past experiences, beliefs, and cultural traditions. This tendency can be particularly strong if we are heavily influenced by the practices and doctrines of our Christian community, including the teachings of our pastor and denomination. Consequently, it can be challenging to approach scripture with an open mind and expand our understanding beyond our existing assumptions. Instead, we may confine ourselves to narrow interpretations that fail to fully explore the broader meaning of the text.
Now that we are aware of Jesus being a Rabbi, a Jewish Teacher, it is crucial to comprehend that we, too, must continue to engage in the study of God’s Word, diligently pursuing His teachings and uncovering the deeper truths of the Scriptures. Jesus’ ability to captivate the scribes at a young age underscores the importance of adhering to Deuteronomy 6:7, which instructs us to teach God’s Word to our children from an early age. We cannot rely solely on Sunday school teachers to impart this knowledge; instead, we must take on the role of priests and Bible teachers for our children, instilling in them a lifelong love for God’s Word.
If we are not willing to learn about the Word of God ourselves, how can we expect to teach our children? It’s important for us to have something to share or teach, and studying the Word of God is never too late. We can start by reading our Bible again, even if we feel like there’s a lot we don’t understand. This is a good starting point for us to delve deeper. We shouldn’t use our lack of understanding as an excuse to not read. Ultimately, our spiritual and mental well-being is determined by what fills our minds and heart, not by our titles, possessions, or position. These are all just physical attributes.
God can use us even if we are not educated, but this may limit how God can use us. We need to continue to improve ourselves and study, which means having the attitude of a disciple. Unfortunately, many Pentecostals and Charismatics focus too much on spiritual experiences, which can lead to misunderstandings of the Word and even straying from it. This is often because they consider dramatic spiritual manifestations as the ultimate experience. It is important to study the Word, especially when we realize that Jesus Himself was a Rabbi who earned this title through studying the Scriptures since childhood, not just because He was filled with the Holy Spirit.
An example, if we only know one language, the knowledge we acquire through diligent reading will be limited to sources written in that language or those that have been translated into it. However, if we are proficient in multiple languages, we can broaden our learning by accessing a wider range of sources. This proficiency in multiple languages adds value to our skill set and expands our horizons, opening up more opportunities. While it is possible for God to grant the ability to speak new languages miraculously, it is unlikely that many will experience such a miracle. Instead, most people would have to invest time and effort into learning new languages to enhance their skills. It is important not to assume that Jesus was uneducated just because He associated with uneducated people. He held the title of Rabbi, which carries the same level of education and religious authority as many modern titles.
When considering the time of Jesus’ rabbinate, it is understandable that the Pharisees and scribes felt betrayed by Jesus. They viewed Jesus as a Rabbi like themselves but were taken aback to discover that Jesus opposed their tradition and interpretation of the Scriptures. They were threatened by Jesus’ popularity, particularly when they realized that the crowd was listening to Jesus more than those Rabbis who outranked him. Moreover, Jesus was able to perform miracles, a feat that they could not accomplish. The Pharisees and scribes were afraid because they knew that people were starting to recognize that despite their title as Scholars of the Scriptures, the LORD God Himself was not with them.
It is understandable that many Pharisees and scribes wanted to eliminate Jesus, and they ultimately succeeded through the Roman soldiers who crucified him. This was the only way to stop him and set an example for the people that this religious group should not be challenged. In the first century, Jesus was regarded as the founder of a new teaching called the Way. However, if they were truthful, it was they who had created a “new teaching” through their deviations from Jewish teachings caused by the influence of tradition and misinterpretation that emphasized external things. These deviations were so severe that when Jesus attempted to restore the Scriptures, he was considered a traitor and was believed to have founded a new sect.
We must return to the purity of God’s Word. It is crucial that we study and search diligently for the truth of the Word of God, instead of relying solely on our Christian traditions and customs. We should not be deterred when we hear someone say that a particular custom is not followed in this church. Let us not repeat the mistakes of the Pharisees and scribes. Jesus, through his Rabbinical teachings, brought us back to the purity of the Scriptures, and we must follow his path today. Amen.
This writing is dedicated to The Late Dr. Dwight Pryor which through his teaching I have and continue to learn so much about Jesus, our Jewish Rabbi.
I would also like to express my appreciation to Robert Bleakney, Anthony Cheah, and Simon Katimin for their contribution to this writing. May we all know Him better everyday!