IS THE TERM “RABBI” AS USED IN THE NEW TESTAMENT AN ANACHRONISM?
The current scholarly consensus is that either the Gospel writers used the term anachronistically (artificially inserting a later term back into an historical situation when it didn’t yet really exist) or the term did not really imply the kind of religious authority it took on once formal ordination developed . Unfortunately, the documents from the time are seldom specific with respect to their INTENT when they use the term or related forms. There’s no text that “tells/announces” to us that the term has moved from a practical/utilitarian description of function to a technical, formal honorific title. I’m not sure what the “value-added” element is to adoption of the scholarly consensus, except that it allows one to question the term’s appearance in the Gospels. That way, we get to demonstrate their “late date” and question their historical accuracy.
Should we go in that direction, however, we create more questions than we solve. For example, by the time the Gospels are being written, it is almost universally recognized that early Christianity is attempting to distance itself from Judaism for a number of reasons: to establish self-identity and reason for being, to create distance between itself and Judaism and therefore the necessity of adherents to choose between the one or the other, the political and economic advantage of disassociation from a rebellious/conquered/now officially oppressed people-group, etc. Question: if that’s the case, then why would the Christian community intentionally insert an anachronism in its sacred texts that would clearly demonstrate a close connection between Judaism and Christianity?
A related question: if the texts which use the word rabbi for individuals like John (the Baptist, Jn 3:26)) and Jesus (Mt 26:25, 49; Mk 9:5; 11:21; 14:45; Jn 1:38, 49; 3:2; 4:31; 6:25; 9:2; 11:8) are using those terms anachronistically, why would they do so in seeming direct disobedience to the intentions of their Master (Mt 23:7-9)? Why does the NT seem to always get the context right—the function of rabbis (authoritative teachers of the Scriptures, role-models and instructors of “disciples”), where the term appears (in Matthew, Mark, and John, but not in the Hellenistically-oriented Gospel of Luke, not in Acts [rabbis were an exclusively Palestinian phenomenon], and not in the Pauline Epistles), etc.? Why do related forms exist such as rabbounei (Mk 10:51; Jn 20:16 [and in this passage, the Greek equivalent offered is the same as that offered for the term rabbi, “teacher”]) and other rabbinic forms such as rav and rabban?
Does not the existence these variations presuppose an original, basic form that would have been broadly understood by all members of that society? To push this point one step further, if rabbi was anachronistically inserted by the Gospel authors inappropriately into a time in which it didn’t really exist, we must also assume that the same authors had the acumen and the reason to create related variations such as rabbounei (Mk 10:51 and Jn 20:16) when the original rabbi would have been sufficient and more consistent with overall NT usage) and insert it in the appropriate contexts with the right meaning attached each time it is used. We would also have to assume that the same variation developed independently and more or less simultaneously in the Markan and the Johannine communities (or we have to accept Johannine use of the Markan tradition at this point—another unprovable conclusion). Does this comply with the rule of scientific inquiry called “Ockham’s Razor” (that the simplest explanation is likely the correct explanation)?
Another (yet unanswered) question is, “Why would a later, predominantly western, Greek-speaking church be interested enough in linguistic and ecclesiastical developments within Palestinian Judaism to follow those developments carefully and then inject those developments into its own sacred literature?” Similarly (and also unanswered), “In light of their target audiences, why would the Evangelists intentionally use technical terms unfamiliar to their Greek-speaking readership unless those terms were actually present in the oral tradition perpetuated by first-generation Christians?
Lastly, there are numerous authorities in the stream of traditional Judaism upon whom is bestowed the title rav or rabban or some other morphologically- and semantically-related form. Some of these authorities (probably most notably Gamaliel and Yochanan ben Zakkai) demonstrably flourished prior to the destruction of the temple. Granted, it can and has been argued that these individuals did indeed exist before the destruction of the temple but had these titles anachronistically bestowed upon them by later generations. Those who make this argument, however, have to take issue not merely with the NT textual tradition, but also with the textual tradition of Rabbinic Literature as well. They have to ask us to believe that all the authors in antiquity have made the same historical error in their use of the same word! Surely they must all have been members of the same Facebook network! (Now that’s a real anachronism!) In reality, the honorific rav is attested at least as early the second century BC (about a century and a half before Jesus and John) in the dictum of Yehoshua ben Perachya, “aseh lecha rav” (loosely, “Get for yourself a spiritual master/authoritative teacher,” Mishnah Avot 1:4). This imperative presumes the existence of such individuals who were known and worthy of such a position of influence, and yet it does not make the total leap to the more personalized form rabbi. Naturally, the same voices that raise objections to Gospel usage will also claim that Yehoshua’s words were put in his mouth by later generations—another unprovable.
Again the question has to be asked, “Is this the most likely explanation of the evidence?” Further, if Rabbinic Literature is guilty of historically inaccurate use of the terms, why is there such intentional and consistent diversity of usage? Certain rabbinic authorities are given certain titles and not the others. In fact, if later rabbinic authorities and scribes are updating and standardizing the tradition using later honorific terms, surely great leaders of previous generations such as Hillel and Shammai should be accorded the honorific rabbi if not rabban (“OUR great teacher/master” versus the mere “MY great teacher/master”). What we see in the literary record, however, contradicts this, as Hillel is regularly referred to as HaZaken (“the Elder”) and Shammai usually appears without title. Rabban would not come into the tradition until it was bestowed upon Gamaliel I, the grandson of the great Hillel.
In summation, there exists a body of substantive, nagging questions raised by the position taken by the consensus of scholarship that is sufficient to question the conclusion that the terms rabbi and rabbounei are used anachronistically in the NT Gospels. Further, the question of whether these terms indicate some form of “official ordination” or are merely informal honorifics is not a real matter of concern, since the texts involved do not make this an issue. There is no place in any Gospel that claims smichah (formal, public ordination at the successful completion of a prescribed curriculum, complete with the laying on of hands) for John or Jesus (or Saul/Paul for that matter), and no mention of such a ceremony in which Jesus so commissions Peter or any of the other disciples. If such a text did exist, the search for antecedents and corroboration by extra-biblical evidence would indeed be warranted. As the evidence stands, however, no such debate needs to consume our time and efforts. In the final analysis, it appears that this portion of the current discussion is “much ado about nothing.”
W.E. Nunnally, Ph.D.
Professor of Early Judaism and Christian Origins