Chapter 4 – Jesus the Rabbi
Rabbi Boteach’s takeaway in this chapter is simple: to show that "Jesus and the rabbis shared both purpose and vision." Jesus’ ethics are found in other Jewish writings, says Boteach, and his teaching included methods found in rabbinic literature. And he lived like rabbis of his time as well, taking a secular occupation to support himself. (Though he does not mention it in this chapter, the apostle Paul did likewise, working as a tentmaker, which probably involved a range of leather goods, not just tents.)
And Boteach is right. Jesus is in fact called "rabbi" several times in the New Testament, and the term is used in other contexts. Since this chapter of Kosher Jesus concerns "Jesus the Rabbi," the sixteen times the word is used are given at the end of this post for those interested. And as Boteach points out, rabbis as we know them today are not to be found in the first-century; rather, the word was a title of respect used of a teacher.
Boteach is mostly right too about Jesus’ teachings, which derive from the Torah and many of which are found elsewhere in Jewish thought. In fact, though Boteach does not say so, many misconceptions about Jesus’ teaching can be corrected via the Jewish background. "Blessed are the meek," said Jesus, which some have taken to advocate a very non-Jewish sort of attitude, something like being a religious nerd. But Jesus’ statement is based on Psalm 37:11. Similarly, Jesus’ instructions to love our enemies derives not from misguided idealism but from Exodus 23:4. It is interesting to contemplate that some scholars who do not consider much of the New Testament to be historical, have claimed that the only statements of Jesus that he really said are those that have no relationship to other statements found in Judaism. It is thought that whereas it would be easy to put words in Jesus’ mouth found in other Jewish sources, anything totally original to him would not be likely to have been invented. But this approach strips Jesus of his Jewishness — and is no longer widely accepted, either, since it denies the historical background necessary to understanding a first-century Jew like Jesus, and is overly-skeptical too.
Where I disagree with Boteach is his statements such as "Jesus was equally familiar with Talmudic sayings" (p. 24). The Talmud was compiled about 200 CE – 550 CE.* When Boteach says Jesus’ statement about removing the plank from our eyes (Matthew 7:3-5) "alludes" to a statement by Rabbi Tarphon, he is simply being anachronistic; Rabbi Tarphon taught a generation or two after Jesus. Probably these were general statements that were "in the air" in Jewish circles. It is even possible that it is the later rabbinic statements that "allude" to sayings of Jesus, for there was much polemic as well as positive influences going back and forth between the early communities of Jesus-believers and the Jewish community. The "Golden Rule" is another example of statements that are similar, voiced in different variations by both Jesus and Hillel.
Boteach is also off the mark when he comments on Jesus’ words, "You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’" This statement is found neither in Torah nor in the later Talmud. Boteach therefore claims that the "later New Testament editors introduced the idea that the Jews urged hatred of one’s enemy to make Jesus’ teaching stand out with greater impact" and ended up casting "the rabbis as misguided teachers of unjust Jewish doctrine" (p. 26). But rabbis, even as an honorific meaning teachers, were not the only Jews of the time. Nor would Jesus be citing Torah by saying "You have heard that it was said" — he would have said, "It is written." Neither Jesus nor the gospel writers were making up a Torah statement to make Jesus look good — how would that have worked anyway? Made-up Torah in the mouth of Jesus would make him look bad.
Rather, this is teaching that was evidently in popular circulation, not from rabbis but from elsewhere. As Craig Keener writes:
The Old Testament did not explicitly teach hatred for one’s enemies (Ex 23:4-5; Prov 25:21-22), although hating God’s enemies was a pious way to feel (Ps 139:19-22); some Jewish groups, like the Essenes, emphasized hatred toward those outside the covenant. Greek ethics sometimes stressed learning from one’s enemies’ criticism but also could stress making sure to hurt one’s enemies more than one was hurt by them (so Isocrates, a fourth-century B.C. Athenian orator and rhetorician).
Aside from the anachronism (Jesus alluding to the later Talmud) and the notion that the gospel writers made up things to denigrate the "rabbis" and bolster Jesus’ image, Boteach is correct in chapter 4. He goes on to point out the similarities between Jesus’ hermeneutic (method of interpretation) and that of the other Jewish teachers. His case in point is the rule of "light and heavy" or "how much more so" — "If that is how God clothes the grass of the field," says Jesus, "which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you ..." (Matthew 6:30). This is a standard method known in Hebrew as qal va-homer.
And so Boteach concludes that Jesus was a "classically trained rabbinic scholar" (p. 28). More likely, he learned informally, and even supernaturally (compare Luke 2:46-47). But was Jesus’ teaching in content and method Jewish? Absolutely!
The Uses of "Rabbi" in the New Testament
All but two of the occurrences are used of Jesus.
- Matthew 23:7-8 — "They love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers."
- Matthew 26:25 — Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, "Surely not I, Rabbi?"
- Matthew 26:49 — Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, "Greetings, Rabbi!" and kissed him.
- Mark 9:5 — Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah."
- Mark 10:51 — "What do you want me to do for you?" Jesus asked him. The blind man said, "Rabbi, I want to see."
- Mark 11:21 — Peter remembered and said to Jesus, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!"
- Mark 14:45 — Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, "Rabbi!" and kissed him.
- John 1:38 — Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, "What do you want?" They said, "Rabbi" (which means Teacher), "where are you staying?"
- John 1:49 — Then Nathanael declared, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel."
- John 3:2 — He came to Jesus at night and said, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him."
- John 3:26 — They came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him."
- John 4:31 — Meanwhile his disciples urged him, "Rabbi, eat something."
- John 6:25 — When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, "Rabbi, when did you get here?"
- John 9:2 — His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"
- John 11:8 — "But Rabbi," they said, "a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?"
* The Mishnah is earliest, at 200 CE, and the Gemara, commenting on the Mishnah, exists in two forms, the latest being compiled approximately in the 6th century. The Mishnah plus the Gemara equals the Talmud.