OzTorah: Ask the Rabbi.

Written and Submitted by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple.



Was Jesus really a rabbi?


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.

Old Synagogue

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.



How did our ancient ancestors derive their medical knowledge?


The Bible is aware of other people’s cultural and scientific findings. Moses, for instance, picked up Egyptian culture as a child in Pharaoh’s court. Though there is much to criticise in ancient Egyptian civilisation, there were areas such as medicine where the Egyptians were experts.

To what extent the public health measures of the Torah reflected the usages of other peoples we are not certain. But the great axiom of the Torah, that there is one only God, enabled Israelite medicine to become sophisticated and manageable. Other nations had many deities, each of which was thought of as capable of causing disease; placating one deity would offend another, and one never knew how to weave a safe path between them.

The Torah, on the other hand, attributed everything, both pleasant and less pleasant, to the one God (e.g. Deut. 32:29), and one knew that all that was needed was to follow His prescriptions. These included a range of public health measures that promoted a hygienic life-style and made disease much less rampant.

Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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One comment

  1. Always thought this to be an interesting question.