Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.¹ —John 20:16 (KJV)
Lord, enlighten our minds!— Intercession Response, Morning Prayer, Monday, Easter Season. (Shorter Christian Prayer.)
This week (May 6th-10th) is National Teachers’ Appreciation Week. It’s appropriate therefore to consider the role of Jesus as a teacher, and what is now synonymous with that, as a “rabbi.” The terms “teacher,” “rabbi” and “master” are used almost interchangeably for Jesus in various editions of the New Testament (see here and here for examples).
In this article I’ll try to distinguish between these terms, to show that Jesus was the Great Teacher and the great Rabbi (as “Rabbi” meant when Jesus lived).
WHAT IS A RABBI?
“Rabbi” derives from the Hebrew “רב (rav),” meaning “Master” or “Great One.” After the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the name was applied to leaders of synagogues who interpreted the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) and later the written and oral body of Law derived from the Torah, the Talmud and Mishnah.
Synagogues then became the focus of Jewish religious observance. So when the Torah was read at synagogue every Sabbath, the scholars who could interpret the closely packed Hebrew characters on the scroll of the Five Books became the religious leaders. They imparted their knowledge to the men and boys of the congregation and thus became “teachers.”
WAS JESUS A “MASTER,” RATHER THAN A “TEACHER?”
When Jesus lived there were no rabbis, as we know them today. Religious authority belonged to the priests. There were men who proclaimed the Torah at synagogue and were called teachers. In those days “Rabbi” would have been a term of respect and honor, not necessarily meaning “Teacher.” In the New Testament at least one verse clearly indicates this to be so:
And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.—Matt 23:6-8 (KJV)
The original Greek for this verse shows that “Rabbi,” rather than “Teacher” is meant: “Ῥαββί (Rhabbi)” is the Greek word used, rather than “Διδάσκαλε” (Didaskale), “Teacher,” or “Κύριος” (Kyrios), “Master.”
Moreover, Judas addresses Jesus as “Rabbi,” a mock term of respect, when he betrays Him (Mark 14:45). Again, the specific term “Rabbi” is meant, rather than “Teacher” or “Master” (unlike translations given in various New Testament Editions), as shown by the original Greek:”Ῥαββί (Rhabbi).”
If we turn to the use of “Master” rather than “Teacher” in the King James version, we should note that “Master” can be interpreted not only as an authority, but as a guiding leader, as in the Master of apprentices or a Master of novice monks. Such a master can also be called teacher.
HOW DID JESUS TEACH?
And he taught them many things by parables, and said unto them in his doctrine—Mark 4:2 (KJV)
Jesus taught as a scientist teaches, by empirical demonstrations (miracles) and using models (the parables). The miracles are more often referred to by the Greek word “σημείων (semeion)—signs—” than by “δύναμις (dynamis)—mighty works (see here).”
The teacher of science demonstrates to the student, to his/her senses, how a law of nature is manifested in a particular situation, a ball rolling down a plane, smoke coming from the mixing of two chemicals, the spark moving up the Tesla coil. And thus Jesus demonstrated that he was the Son of God to the Jews by his miracles.
Scientists also teach (and learn) by models, in what is called retroductive reasoning. The parables are then models for moral laws, as is the weight attached to a spring a model for molecular vibrations or radiation. The model focuses on the essentials, simplifying in order to enlighten.
Thus, Jesus is the Great Teacher. What He teaches us is the most important thing we could learn. We pray to Him, the Rabbi (“the Great One”) for enlightenment. We pray that His teachings will be not only in our mind but in our hearts.
¹ There are several translations of this verse, according to which Bible version it’s taken from. In several modern versions “Aramaic” is used instead of “Hebrew.” For all modern versions “Teacher” is used instead of “Master.” According to the Greek New Testament (the original version), one has “Ἑβραϊστί·” (Hebraisti), “in Hebrew,” and “Διδάσκαλε” (Didaskale), “Teacher.” Note that in Elizabethan times, when the King James Version of the Bible was written, “master” meant not only “leader” or “he who is to be obeyed,” but “teacher,” as in the one who supervises apprentices, or the monk who supervises novices.