Was Jesus Really a Rabbi?

by Chip Brogden
I have generally assumed that Jesus was a Jewish rabbi. After all, He was born in Israel, He was Jewish, and people called Him, “Rabbi.” But that would make Him a professionally trained religious leader. Was He?

Bible teachers generally assume that when the Jewish leaders saw how brilliant the boy Jesus was, they immediately took steps to get Him enrolled in one of their schools to be formally trained as a rabbi. This accounts for why Jesus is not seen or heard from during his formative years. At the completion of His training He emerges and begins His ministry as a full-fledged rabbi – one of the best, most brilliant, and most controversial rabbis of them all.

Sounds nice.

Is that really what happened?

I don’t think so.

Let’s not assume, but let’s look into the Scriptures and see what was really going on.

Consider the following…

The Boy Jesus Was Teaching in the Temple

“Now so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers” (Lk. 2:46,47).

Luke is the only one who gives us a sense of what Jesus was like as a child, describing His visit to the Temple in Jerusalem at the age of twelve. For three days, Jesus sat in the midst of the teachers, rabbis, doctors of religion, and professional clergy, listening and asking them questions.

To the uninformed, this sounds like a really curious, precocious lad who had a keen interest in religion; but that is incorrect. The Jewish way of both learning and teaching is to ask questions. Someone has said that Judaism is a religion of questions. In His teachings, Jesus was adept at using difficult questions to stump the experts. For example:

“If the Messiah is David’s son, why does David call Him, ‘Lord’?”

“What is the greatest commandment? How do you read it?”

“Who was a neighbor to the Samaritan?”

“Where are you accusers?”

“When the Son of Man returns, will He find faith in the earth?”

“Is to lawful to do evil on the Sabbath day, or good? To destroy, or to heal?”

“Why do you not judge for your own selves what is right?”

“Does this offend you?”

“Do you now believe?”

“Are you Israel’s teacher? How do you not know these things?”

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord’ when you do not do the things I say?”

Jesus used these and many other questions to challenge, and provoke. This is the Jewish way of teaching. So when Luke says that the boy Jesus was sitting in the Temple listening and asking questions, He was not asking questions as a curious but unknowing student – He was asking questions as a learned teacher, instructing the others. This is why they were astonished and amazed. And (because I know the type), they were most likely to be envious, jealous, and offended that a country boy from Nazareth would presume to teach them.

Jesus even questioned His parents when they found Him in the Temple: “Why were you looking for Me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Lk. 2:49). I’m not sure why it is translated “Father’s business” or even “Father’s house” because the Greek here simply says, “Did you not know that I must be with my Father?”

As for the idea that the Jews whisked Jesus away and enrolled him in a rabbinical school, what does Scripture say? Only that “He went down with [His parents] and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them” (Lk. 2:51). So, the “missing years” were spent quietly in Nazareth, living with His parents.

Jesus Had No Teacher But God

“Then they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes… And they were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? What new teaching is this?  (Mk. 1:21,22; 27).”

Every rabbinical student enrolled in a school that was named after the rabbi they were submitted to. For example, before he was Paul the apostle, Saul sat at the feet of Rabbi Gamaliel. Rabbis chose students based on their ability to carry on their unique teachings. When they graduated, they would setup their own schools, call their own disciples, and basically hand down the same teachings they learned to the next generation. Students did not come up with their own ideas, but quoted their rabbi.

We see Jesus teaching in the synagogues so we assume He must be a Rabbi. Yet again, the people are astonished at His teaching. Why? What is so astonishing to them? The teaching is new and powerful, which is totally unexpected. Rabbis would quote other Rabbis, the way a modern court cites older legal cases as precedent, the way an academic cites existing research before proposing new research. Jesus is different. He doesn’t quote other teachers and rehash the same old teachings. He brings something astonishing, new, living, and powerful. He speaks as One Who has authority to speak on His own, Who does not base His teaching on the teachings of others.

This reinforces the idea that Jesus was not an actual Rabbi. Scripture does not mention the school He attended, nor does it mention which Rabbi He trained under. Not once does He say, “According to Rabbi Yosef…” This is why they always asked Him where He got his teaching, who have Him the authority to say and do the things He did, since He had no formal rabbinical training:

“Not until halfway through the festival did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews there were amazed and asked, ‘How did this man get such learning without having been taught?’ Jesus answered, ‘My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me’” (Jn. 7:14-16).

The simple, plain truth is that Jesus, the Son of God, did not need any man to teach Him because He was taught by His Father. He was discipled by the Most High God. His teaching was not borrowed from man or invented by Him, but came from the One Who sent Him. To think that Jesus ever submitted to a human authority to become a student in the tradition of men, to imagine Him being professionally trained as a religious teacher, is ludicrous.

Jesus Exposed Other Rabbis as Hypocrites

“They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ” (Mt. 23:6-10).

The fact that Jesus taught His own doctrine with authority and power, the fact that He had the ear of the people, the fact that He was wiser than all the professional teachers of Israel, explains why the scribes and Pharisees argued, debated, and attacked Him at every turn, seeking to discredit Him. They failed at every attempt. When they could not beat Him in an argument, they accused Him of being illegitimate, which would have disqualified Him from being a rabbi. Then they accused Him of blasphemy, hoping to silence Him forever.

And all the while, the people called Him “Rabbi!” The synagogues opened their doors to Him and let Him teach. He went to the Temple, sat down, and taught as if He owned the place. The very force of His authority, the truth that He spoke, and the signs and wonders that He performed naturally commanded respect. How the “real” Rabbi’s hated to hear Him called “Rabbi!” as if He were on the same level as them! Jesus was what we might call today a “lay preacher.” No credentials. No ordination. No degrees. Yet, they called Him “Rabbi” because He surpassed every rabbi they had ever known.

But Jesus repudiated the rabbinical school and professional religious education. “Rabbi” or “Teacher” or “Master” were titles others had to go to school to earn, and once they earned them, Jesus noted how they wore them with pride and arrogance. So He infuriated them, not only by exposing their hypocrisy to the people, but by telling the crowds, “You only have one Rabbi: Me. You only have one Teacher: Me. You only have one Father: God. All these others, running around seeking the praise of man, who love to be called ‘Rabbi, Rabbi’ – they are hypocrites, dead men walking around, pretenders and impostors!” He had been accused of illegitimacy; He simply returned the accusation. He was right. They were wrong.

Given His polemic against the hypocrisy of the Jewish rabbinical system, should we conclude that Jesus Himself submitted to several years of religious instruction in order to “earn” the title of Rabbi and be accepted within the circle of religious elite? I think not! Instead, it seems more likely that He claimed to be the True Rabbi just like He said He was the True Vine and the Good Shepherd and the Only Way to the Father. Everyone else was pretending; He actually was what others could only claim to be. This is the root of the conflict between Jesus and the religion system – a conflict made all the worse by Him being an unprofessional, non-credentialed outsider.

* * * *

It makes me wonder… what else do we assume to be true about Jesus that isn’t necessarily so? What else have people told us that we take for granted as “what the Bible says” when it is really just what man says?

Knowing whether or not Jesus was really a rabbi makes for an interesting discussion, but it isn’t a matter of life and death. Getting the wrong idea about Him in this regard isn’t a fatal flaw this time. But what about next time?

About the Author

CHIP BROGDEN is a best-selling author, teacher, and former pastor. His writings and teachings reach more than 135 nations with a simple, consistent, Christ-centered message focusing on relationship, not religion. Learn more »


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