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Rabbis and Their Disciples between the 1st Century B.C. and the 2nd Century A.D.

The word rabbi means “my master” in Hebrew. A rabbi is a Jewish religious leader. Some rabbis lead congregations (synagogues), others are teachers, and yet others lead informally. Rabbinic ordination is known as semichah. Semichah is done by three other rabbis who are in good standing with the community. After examinations and tests, the three rabbis lay hands on the candidate’s head and pronounce a blessing and infer on him the title “rabbi.” In the Hasidic community, a rabbi who has advanced training in Jewish law (halachah) is known as “Rav.”

Yeshua the Rabbi

Yeshua (Jesus) is called “Rabbi” by both His disciples and His opponents. Why is Yeshua called “Rabbi?” Christians know Jesus as God, as Christ, as King of the Jews. But one must not overlook that, in reading the four Gospels, one sees that the main function of His ministry was to teach. He was a charismatic rabbi who gave healing, deliverance, and signs and wonders to draw people to His teaching. The implication of receiving Yeshua as a rabbi are great for the early followers and for His followers today.

It is from Yeshua’s teaching that we learn how to live. We receive our values and the very matrix of our lives as His disciples. We learn from Yeshua’s teaching the very essence of obedience to God and His commandments.

The fact is, Yeshua was a Rabbi, and He ought to be our Rabbi today. We ought to consider ourselves the disciples of Yeshua just like the early followers of Yeshua were called. There is interesting evidence in the Jewish Rabbinical Literature that speaks of Yeshua’s disciples and I would like to bring you one such example. In the 2nd century A.D., Rabbi Eliezer was accused of heresy and brought before the tribunal. Although released as not guilty, he recalled a moment of weakness of which he saw himself as guilty. For he recalled an interchange he had with a disciple of Jesus, wherein he found himself pleased with some of Jesus’ teaching:

“I was once walking in the upper-market of Sepphoris when I came across one of the disciples of Jesus the Nazarene Jacob of Kefar-Sekaniah by name, who said to me: ‘It is written in your Torah, “Thou shalt not bring the hire of a harlot . . . into the house of the Lord thy God.” May such money be applied to the erection of a retiring place for the High Priest?’ To which I made no reply. Said he to me: ‘Thus was I taught [by Jesus the Nazarene], “For of the hire of a harlot hath she gathered them and unto the hire of a harlot shall they return.” they came from a place of filth, let them go to a place of filth.’ Those words pleased me very much, and that is why I was arrested for apostasy” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah 17a).

What do we see from this Talmudic story from the early 2nd century A.D.?

We see that there were Jews in Galilee that were known as disciples of Yeshua and that they were honored enough to be asked questions of the Torah. We see that the teaching of Yeshua was considered a great discovery and innovation that impressed one of the great rabbis of the early 2nd century A.D. and we see the legacy that Yeshua left as a Rabbi in the land of Israel.

When we look in the Greek New Testament we see that Yeshua is called “Rabbi” 16 times. Here are some of the texts:

“Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’” (Mark 9:5).

”And Peter, remembering, said to Him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree which You cursed has withered away’” (Mark 11:21).

”As soon as he had come, immediately [Judas] went up to Him and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi!’ and kissed Him. Judas said this in the moment of his betrayal” (Mark 11:21).

”Then Jesus turned, and seeing [the two disciples of John the Baptist] following, said to them, ‘What do you seek?’ They said to Him, ‘Rabbi’ (which is to say, when translated, Teacher), ‘where are You staying?’”(John 1:38).

”Nathanael answered and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’” (John 1:49).

“This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him’” (John 3:2).

“In the meantime His disciples urged Him, saying, ‘Rabbi, eat’” (John 4:31).

“And when they found Him on the other side of the sea, they said to Him, ‘Rabbi, when did You come here?’” (John 6:25).

“And His disciples asked Him, saying, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” (John 9:2).

In addition, if I look at the Hebrew background of the Greek Text, then everywhere where the Greek says didaskalos (i.e. teacher), then that too ought to be understood as “rabbi.” This would increase the number of times that Yeshua is called “Rabbi” in the Gospels to 63 times.

Here is another text from the Gospels that make it clear that Jesus was considered a rabbi: “Then Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news of Him went out through all the surrounding region. And He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all” (Luke. 4:14–15 NKJV). It ought to be obvious that a person who is not considered a rabbi would not be invited to Jewish synagogues to teach the Torah. Yeshua was famous and that is why “news of Him went out through all the surrounding region.” The second thing that this text indicates is that when the people in the synagogues heard Yeshua teach, they all glorified Him. This would not happen unless Yeshua was already accepted as a rabbi.

It is also clear that Yeshua was a rabbi from the use of the word disciple to describe His followers.

The word disciple or disciples appears in the New Testament 275 times. It is the most prevalent name that the followers of Yeshua are called in the New Testament.

What did it mean to be a disciple of a rabbi?

The Hebrew term for what it means to be a disciple is shimush chachamim. In context of the time, this means a “deacon/servant of the rabbis.” Serving is essentially the first stage of discipleship. You serve your rabbi as you learn how to follow the Word of God like he does. The object of discipleship is to follow, emulate, copy, duplicate, and replicate your rabbi, all while serving him.

According to the Babylonian Talmud, a disciple would carry the rabbi’s baggage, prepare his food to his liking, and provide him with money for his needs. A disciple could not contradict his rabbi in public or rule against his rabbi in matters of the Torah. A disciple was obligated to protect his rabbi. This is the reason that Yeshua ordered his disciples to sell their coats and buy swords.

We have a fascinating text that demonstrates what it means to be a disciple: “But Jehoshaphat said, ‘Is there no prophet of the LORD here, that we may inquire of the LORD by him?’ So one of the servants of the king of Israel answered and said, ‘Elisha the son of Shaphat is here, who poured water on the hands of Elijah’ (2 Kings. 3:11 NKJV). The prophet Elisha’s greatness is demonstrated by describing him as a disciple of Elijah the prophet. And the greatness of his discipleship is that he had the privilege to help Elijah wash his hands.

In turn, the duties of the rabbi are first of all to teach Torah. He would train his disciples to emulate him and even surpass himself in knowledge and practice of the Torah. The rabbi was obligated to protect his disciples from heresy and from sin. For this reason, the rabbi has the privilege to reprimand his disciples and judge their action.

These instructions are taken very seriously by the Jewish community from the first century A.D. and in some circles even until this day.

For Jews the issue of disciples is one of the most important issues for the preservation of Judaism and of the Jews themselves. Discipleship creates a chain and a continuum that insures that the next generations will continue to be related to and influenced by the Torah that God gave Israel in Mt. Sinai. Without disciples of Moses and then Joshua and then the prophets, there would be no Judaism today. Furthermore, only through the preservation of the tradition do we have a Bible today. We consider it holy and correct and true because it was transmitted meticulously from one disciple of Moses to the next.

In the same way, The only guarantee for preserving true Biblical Christianity is the perpetuation of disciples.

Follow the leader.

I remember in the 1960’s when I was a student in Georgia Christian School near Valdosta, Georgia, I could tell who was a disciple of Bill Long and who was a disciple of Howard Wakefield, by the kind of trousers that they would wear. The disciples of Bill Long were wearing the Sansabelt type trousers that did not need a belt. Howard Wakefield was wearing trousers with a 1.25” belt and a big buckle. Similarly, in Jerusalem you will see Orthodox Jews wearing these big mink-fur hats of different shape even in the sweltering heat of the summer in Israel. These mink hats are of different shapes and height and thickness. Those who know how to distinguish will be able to tell you which Hasidic Jewish rabbi they are following. Following his master, a disciple will wear the same hat, shop in the same shop, and—even if there is only one shop in the world who makes a hat like the rabbi’s hat—you have to buy your hat in that same shop. This is the rabbinical method of making disciples.

And is not imitation the method that Yeshua commanded those who follow him? Let me bring to your memory some of the Yeshua principles of making disciples. They follow the same pattern as those of the rabbinic tradition for many centuries:

Matt. 10:24-25 – “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.”

Matt. 10:37-38 – “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

The essence of this latter text is essentially that the disciples have to put their rabbi/master in first place in their lives. This text does not teach a disciple to hate his physical family, but it does teach that to be a disciple of a great rabbi and man of God is to take first place in the set of priorities that he has.

When a disciple studies Torah from his rabbi, he considers it the most important thing in his life. He is spreading the link between Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion—between the past and the future of Israel. It is a prophetic act of redemption to study the Torah with a teacher of authority.

This principle of discipleship is already laid down by Moses in the wilderness. Look at these two passages and learn from them:

Num. 14:24 – “But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it.”

Num. 32:11 – “Surely none of the men who came up out of Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, because they have not wholly followed me . . .”

The operative phrase in these two texts, like in many more, is the words followed me. In the New Testament we see the very same pattern in the demand of Yeshua from His disciples.

Again, Matthew 10:38:

“And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

(For more of Joseph Shulam’s teachings, visit Used with permission.)

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