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Episode 21: Rabbi

Despite Nicodemus’ own high status in society, he addresses Jesus as one whom he considers higher yet.

      It is not uncommon to find an individual who bases their opinion of someone or something on a piece of negative information, rather than on goodwill toward others or positive indications by others. The practice of using a title to address an individual is one such instance when we often ‘judge a book by its cover.’ Titles abound in our society: Mr. President, Madam Secretary, Sir, Ma’am, Miss, Mister, Misses, or even The Doctor, Some regions of the country prefer that children learn to use titles as a demonstration of politeness, while other population groups do not practice the use of titles at all.

     Jesus’ teaching regarding the use of titles is reported only in Matthew 23. What he says there raises important questions among students when I ask them to read the passage.

They love having the most important seat at the banquets
and the best chair in the synagogue as well as greetings
at the city square and to be called “Rabbi” by the people.
But you are not to be called Rabbi; for your teacher
is only one person, because you are all brothers.
Nor shall you call anyone on the earth your father,
for your father is only one, the one in heaven.
Don’t be called leaders, since your leader is one,
the Messiah. (Matthew 23:6-10)

By focusing on the negative instructions found here these students, and many others like them, miss the main point of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus is not forbidding the use of titles, rather he is using hyperbole, that is to say exaggeration, in order to communicate his main point.

BUT, the greatest among you will be the servant among you.
Whoever will exalt himself will be humbled and whoever humbles
himself will be exalted. (Matthew 23:11-12)

Elsewhere in John

     In order to understand the implications for when Jesus is called Rabbi in Chapter 1, it is helpful to hear the disciples of John the Baptizer in Chapter 3.

so they came to John and asked him, “Rabbi, that person
who was with you earlier along the Jordan River, the one
about whom you gave that testimony, well he is now
baptizing and more people are going to him for
baptism.” (3:26)

The Baptizer's followers were accustomed to addressing him as Rabbi, so it is not unusual for two of John’s former followers to address Jesus as Rabbi when they begin following him.

When [John’s] two disciples heard him say this, they
followed Jesus. Turning around and seeing them following
him, Jesus asked them, “what are you seeking?” Then these
two said to him, “Rabbi, (which is another way for saying
Teacher) where are you staying? (1:37-38)

     Since Rabbi is a word from the Aramaic language and not from Greek, the writer of this gospel immediately informs his Greek speaking audience about its meaning, Teacher. Yet even that translation of words does not carry the entire depth of the title’s meaning. With the advent of public education, those who work with young students are often addressed as "Teacher, Teacher" instead of by the appropriate name. The main meaning for the word “Rab” is “great” or “big” so that calling one “Rabbi” or “Teacher” in the first century is not the same as calling one teacher today.

     Many cultures continue to use honorific titles which we are unaccustomed to in the USA. The typical college instructor in the US may be called Professor regardless of his or her status on the university campus. They might even be addressed as Doctor if they have earned such a degree. In other places only the most esteemed individual is called Professor; other instructors are known as readers or tutors. In Germany one can be addressed as Herr Doctor Professor, which gets more to the point of what the title Rabbi or Teacher indicates in this gospel.

     Jesus is addressed as Rabbi a second time once Philip brings Nathanael to meet Jesus. The significance of Nathanael’s greeting is best seen in view of his earlier response to Philip. “Is it possible for anything good to be from Nazareth?” (1:46) When Nathanael hears Jesus declare knowledge as to his own earlier location sitting under a tree, he addresses Jesus as “Rabbi.” He then adds more context for this term by using two more exalted descriptions, “Son of God” and “King of Israel.”

     A third instance comes by way of Nicodemus. He greets Jesus with a title of honor, more impressive when viewed in light of the high accolades he himself is given.

There was a man from the group known as Pharisees, by the
name of Nicodemus, who was a ruler among the Judeans;
This man came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know
that you are a teacher from God; for no one can work the
signs you accomplish unless God is with him.” (3:1-2)

As a ruling official from a group known as Pharisees, Jews who devoted their life so they could maintain a state of religious purity according to God’s teaching in the Old Testament, Nicodemus was an elite in his community. Yet, when he addresses Jesus he uses a title which acknowledges Jesus’ own remarkable reputation. Nicodemus identifies Jesus based on the teaching he has obviously heard and the many signs he has either seen or heard about. Despite Nicodemus’ own high status in society, he addresses Jesus as one whom he considers higher yet.

     While this gospel often uses both the Aramaic and the Greek words for Teacher, Rabbi and didaskalos, rarely do they both appear. However, just as the author informs those reading or listening about both words on the first occasion, so too on the last occasion. When Jesus addresses Mary by name in a garden close to his now-empty tomb, her response is remarkable.

Jesus said to her, “Miriam.” As she was turning she spoke to
him in Aramaic, “Rabboni” which is to say,
“Teacher.” (20:16)

Having searched for her master out of grief, the woman now turns around in joy having found, or rather been found by the gardener, who is in fact her Rabbi, perhaps the most underestimated form of address given to Jesus.

Concluding Thought

     Within the Gospel of John, Jesus is assigned various titles by those who encounter him. Today we often consider such titles unnecessary since we seem to think we already understand all we need to know about Jesus’ identity. When we do so, however, we often narrow the aperture we view Jesus through. Since the Bible records these various titles, even though each is somewhat inadequate, perhaps we should take time to understand the qualities they each ascribe to Jesus. How might you or I benefit from addressing Jesus as “Rabbi” for a day, a week, or even a month while we sit at the feet of, and learn from, the Great Teacher.

Take 5 Minutes More

     The titles we assign to people frequently indicate our receptivity to them and to their opinions: politician, physician, tycoon, entertainer, athlete. When giving consideration to the idea that Jesus is not A teacher, but is THE Teacher, many respond by seeking to learn from him and his teachings to the fullest extent possible. Which teachings of Jesus are you most familiar with? Which of his teachings are you most comfortable with?

     Take a few moments to write down how you respond to Jesus as honored teacher, respected teacher, preeminent teacher. What impact would recognizing Jesus as The Teacher on a daily basis have for your continued learning and living?


Updated August 4, 2022