Q. Was Jesus really a rabbi?A. The title rav is found in the Bible as a leader or authority. It was a title of honour, but not until the early Common Era did it indicate a person learned in Jewish tradition, both halachah (Jewish law) and aggadah (literally “narration”: understood in a broad sense as the non-legal parts of the tradition – poetry, liturgy, history, philosophy, ethics, exegesis).
Some rabbis were expert in one area or the other, and some were expert in both.
Some rabbis were kohanim, descendants of the Aaronic priests, but most were not. The rabbis themselves said that an illegitimate person who was a scholar was preferable to a priest who was ignorant.
The rabbis generally practised other professions and trades. Some were hewers of wood or drawers of water. At least one was a gladiator. At the same time they were scholars and teachers, but they earned no salary from being rabbis. The tradition said in the name of God, “Just as I gave you the Torah free, gratis, so should you convey the Torah without charge”.
Rabbinic salaries did not begin until the Middle Ages, when life was so difficult that unless rabbis were paid there might be no rabbis. The argument was that the rabbi was not being paid for “using the Torah as a tool to dig with” but as compensation for the time that could otherwise have been spent on another occupation.
A rabbi’s authority depended not on a public position but on his learning. Everyone had the right and duty to study the tradition and pursue free enquiry. Expert knowledge was valued in itself and as the yardstick which measured a person’s interpretations.
Was Jesus a rabbi? There were times according to the Gospels when he was called one, but at that stage this was probably a respectful mode of address which meant merely “Sir”.
Solomon Zeitlin points out that “Rabbi” as a title had not yet come into use. The famous sages Hillel and Shammai did not have rabbinic titles and were simply known by their first name.
The title was bestowed in an ordination ceremony which is said to have begun in Moses’ time; there is no evidence that any such bestowal of a title took place with Jesus, and the rabbinic sages of the time would have questioned whether Jesus was fully pledged to the tradition.
The fact that he claimed personal authority (“It has been told to you…, but I say unto you…”) would have worked against him, because rabbis speak from and within the tradition that dates from Moses.
The modern use of the title “rabbi” to indicate a synagogal minister only came in the 19th century.