Follow up on “Rabbi Jesus” in Velvet Elvis

The following is a follow-up on my previous post reviewing “Velvet Elvis” by Rob Bell. If you haven’t read the previous post, I suggest you read this first.

In regards to Jesus’ status as a rabbi, I should have been a bit more precise… Jesus is called “Rabbi” at several points in the gospels (see Mark 9:5; 1:21; 14:45; 10:51; John 20:16). There are numerous times also when Jesus is called the Greek equivalents of the Hebrew word “Rabbi” (epistata “master” and didaskalos “teacher”). However, the word “Rabbi” did not refer to a formally trained, ordained rabbi in the sense that Rob Bell indicates. It did not begin to take on this meaning until 70 AD. The New Testament scholar, Craig Evans states, “…prior to 70 CE the designation ‘Rabbi’ is informal, even vague, and lacks the later connotations of formal training and ordination, which obtain sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple…” (Craig Evans, “Jewish Scripture and the Literacy of Jesus,” From Biblical Criticism to Biblical Faith, p. 42). Notice that in John 20:16, the word “Rabboni” is even defined for the reader–confirming that it was not a formally defined status: “She turned and said to him in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher).”

In 66 AD the Jews rebelled against the Romans, and eventually in 70 AD Jerusalem was besieged. This ended in 70 AD when the Romans captured Jerusalem, and obliterated the Temple. Judaism following the destruction of their temple and their capital took on a much different flavor than Judaism prior to AD 70. Prior to 70 AD Jewish worship centered around the Temple and the sacrifices performed there. Jerusalem was the center of Judaism. Post AD 70, Jews were scattered around the world and faced the need to redesign religious activities without the Temple. The Essenes, Sadducee’s, and Zealots largely disappear from the scene and the Pharisaic movement leads the way forward in Judaism. During the siege, a teacher named Johanan ben Zakkai was smuggled out of the city in a coffin and secured permission from the Roman authorities to reestablish his academy at Jamnia. Johanan was of the school of Hillel and favored submission to Rome. This academy became the dominant rabbinic school following the destruction of Jerusalem because it was officially authorized by Rome to represent the Jewish people.

The academy at Jamnia marks the beginning of the change from a temple-oriented Judaism comprising a variety of sects to a more united Judaism centered around the local synagogues. It was at this point that “rabbinic Judaism” came into being where “Rabbi” was defined as an ordained appointment to an office that gave one judicial authority in interpreting the Jewish law. Interestingly, the council of Jamnia also recognized the Old Testament canon for the first time. Other things also changed in Judaism during this period. Everett Ferguson describes this period: “…the rabbis produced significant changes in Judaism: making the study of Torah a central act of piety incumbent on all male Jews, and developing prayer into a communal act of service to God. In the process, the rabbis elevated a new type of holy man — the scholar replaced the priest as the religious leader. Although the result in the circumstances of the post-70 period was something new, the rabbis were drawing on elements in earlier Jewish tradition in fashioning ‘rabbinic Judaism'” (Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, p. 573). It was during this period that the Mishnah was written, which can be dated at about AD 200, and then around AD 500 the Gemara was written, which together form the Talmud. The mistake Bell makes is reading the Talmud and especially the Mishnah back into Jesus’ times. But as Jimmy Dunn says, “…the portrayals of rabbinic Judaism in Mishnah and Talmud may not simply be projected backwards into the first century” (James Dunn, Jesus Remembered, p. 90).

As you can see, the history is complex and I couldn’t find an easily accessible source of info other than maybe wikipedia… You can check out a general book on NT backgrounds like the book I cited by Everret Ferguson, or maybe the one by James Jeffers called The Greco-Roman World in the New Testament Era. N.T. Wright’s book, NT and the People of God is also helpful on this…. There are full-scale technical treatments of this issue by Lee Levine, and Jacob Neusner, and others… but they’re big expensive books that are extremely technical. But this is the consensus view… there might be a couple of wacky scholars out there who disagree, but on a whole scholarship accepts the view I gave above.

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