A modern rendering of the title "Rabbi" would probably
be a simple "Sir". In some Christian circles it might be equated to
"Father" or perhaps "Pastor". A common factor is that the term is
respectful and deferential, used by an inferior towards a socially
A question which arises here is
why the gospel authors should have made an issue of the title "Rabbi" at
all? They all use it (Matthew 17; Mark 16; Luke 23; and John 10 times) for
Jesus in a sense which became usual only after the year 70. Their a
primary meaning is "Respected Teacher" rather than "Master" as the title
is often translated, or merely "teacher" (Greek = didaskalos).
In the West today, the term "teacher" has lost the sense of great
deference it once had. In many countries it still has the older meaning.
In South Africa, for instance, rural Zulu people use the word umfundisi
to refer with respect and deference to an ordained person. Its literal
meaning is "most respected wise man".
It is this
meaning which the gospel authors seek to attach exclusively to Jesus who
by the time they wrote had long been identified as the Messiah (in Hebrew)
or Christ (in Greek). Jesus, they imply, deserves the title "Rabbi"
because of his close relationship to the "one Father, who is in heaven".
It's possible that Jewish Rabbis of the time when the gospels were being
written feared that their status might be compromised if the title was
degraded - a result they understandably resented and opposed.
The use in this way of the title "Rabbi" indicates the lateness of the
gospels. Mark, the earliest, has been dated as early as 65 - that is, at
least 30 years after the crucifixion. It seems more likely, however, that
it is better dated around 70 or very soon afterwards. In 70 Roman forces
ended a 5-year guerilla war in Palestine by taking and then destroying
Jerusalem. Luke's Gospel dates no earlier than the year 80, Matthew's
Gospel dates no earlier than 90, and John's no earlier than 100.
Thus it was only later that the term "Rabbi" became more and more an
honorific title - possibly because the focus of Hebrew worship shifted
from the Temple to the synagogue (what we today call a "house church"). As
the sacrificial priestly function decreased, so the pastoral increased. In
the decades following the destruction of Jerusalem, the Rabbi was
increasingly at the centre of the local or regional Hebrew community. The
title gradually became a technical term for one who had received authority
to act in religious matters.
For example, a famous
Pharisee who flourished at the time of Herod the Great (47-4
bce) was Hillel. He would have been addressed as "Rabbi" and later
became - and still is - a famous name in Judaism. It is he to whom is
attributed the saying about 20 years before Jesus' version, "Don't do to
your fellow human being that which you hate. That sums up the whole Torah,
and everything else is a commentary on it." By the year 200, the Rabbi
based on a local congregation was the norm.
Chilton  thinks that the
Pharisees were not particularly influential at the Jerusalem Temple before
the year 70. But, he writes, "Pharisees seem to have succeeded reasonably
well in towns and villages, even in Galilee ..." - that is, the very part
of Palestine where Jesus was most successful and where some of the first
"transitional Christians" would have lived. "Transitional Christians" were
those who, as Jews, preserved orally the material which was later
assembled into the gospels.
Much of Matthew 23,
for example, is clearly contaminated by this early conflict between
Christian Jews and the Jewish establishment. In short, Christian gospel
writers have an axe to grind. Few now think that Jesus denounced the
Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in the intemperate language of
Matthew 23 and the outright anti-Semitism of much of John's Gospel. In
other words, the term "Rabbi" is used for Jesus mostly when the gospel
writers are devaluing the Jewish office.
letters reflect a similarly strong antagonism from traditionalist Jews
towards what was in his time still regarded as a sect or offshoot of
Judaism. The account of the Christian-Judaism conflict in the Acts of the
Apostles is later (around 80) than the gospels of both Mark and Matthew.
In other words, its account (by the same author as Luke's Gospel) goes
back to events which had taken root some 40-50 years earlier.
By the time the two gospels were written it seems that the struggle
between Christians and Jews had become quite severe. Not unnaturally,
therefore, any anti-Jewish material in the gospels has to be carefully
weighed up for bias. Only when gospel material apparently critical of
Judaism is [a] well-attested by several sources and [b] is typical of the
kind of thing we know Jesus said, should it be retained as "what Jesus
Nevertheless, even the most
sceptical of scholars think that Jesus probably said something very like
verses 5-7 of Matthew 23. The theme of the reversal of normal social
pecking orders is repeated again and again in various forms in the
gospels. He is not so much criticising the Pharisees and other Jewish
dignitaries as calling his listeners to a life of servanthood, a life
which contrasts strongly with the normal social pecking order.
Jesus seems to be saying that the way God does things ("the Kingdom of
God") isn't necessarily the way we do them in our various cultures. In
particular Jesus thought that social superiority isn't the kind of virtue
that God particularly values.
Dictionary of New Testament Background, IVP, 2000