Over the years, Torah Keepers have struggled with what title to use in reference to a Torah teacher. Should they just be called 'teacher'? What about 'pastor'? Some prefer the Jewish term 'Rabbi' while others wholeheartedly oppose it. This opposition typically stems from a verse in the Gospels.
Mattithyahu [Matthew] 23:8 - But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.
Because of this, many in this walk have opposed the title, and I have personally witnessed numerous heated debates and arguments over the use of said title.
But perhaps we should stop and ask if there isn’t a bit more to this verse than we see at a cursory glance. In this article, we will define the word Rabbi, as well as some of the other honorific titles used in Jewish writings and the Scriptures.
First, we should go ahead and define the word Rabbi at its Hebrew root level, and then look at it in the context of its usage in the B'rit Hadasha (NT).
The word 'Rabbi' in this form is not used in the Tanakh (OT), so we'll start with its usage in the NT. The word in Greek is actually transliterated from Hebrew and appears thusly: ραββι (rhabbi, rhab-bee). Thayer's Greek Lexicon says this about it:
(Hebrew רַבִּי from רַב, much, great), properly, 'my great one,' 'my honorable sir;' Rabbi, a title with which the Jews were accustomed to address their teachers.
Further, the Abbott-Smith Manual Greek Lexicon states:
a title of respectful address to Jewish teachers.
And the Liddell-Scott-Jones gives:
My Master, a Hebrew word.
So we find that the word used, in context, is a title of respect given to teachers. We also find that, etymologically, it derives from the word רב (rav). So let's check the definition of rav.
Brown-Driver-Briggs' Hebrew Lexicon gives us the following definition for rav:
As an adjective: much, many, great, abundant, strong
As a masculine noun: captain, chief
Just as Thayer's shows, the origin of the word means "great," and as such the honorific title makes sense: "my great one." This is hardly different from calling someone "sir" or "ma'am." In fact, the English word "Mister" (often abbreviated to Mr.) that is so commonly used still today, is derived from the French monsieur, which means "my lord" or "my master." At one time, this French word referred to the oldest living brother of the French king. Over time, however, it began to see use among the common people as well.
In the same vein, 'Rabbi' etymologically means "my great one" yet began to trickle down as a title for teachers of the Hebrew faith. In practice, it was used no differently than someone today going to a university and calling someone "Professor Smith" or "Dr. Talbot."
Further, the Gospel of Yochanan [John] actually tells us what "Rabbi" means when we see it in the Gospels.
Yochanan [John] 1:38 - ישוע turned, and saw them following, and said to them, "What are you looking for?" They said to Him, "Rabbi" (which is to say, being interpreted, 'Teacher'), "where are you staying?"
Yochanan actually says "Rabbi is interpreted as 'teacher'." This alone should tell us that the usage of the word 'Rabbi' in the Gospels is in the same way as the common Jewish understanding of the post-Second Temple era; that is, that "Rabbi" referred to teachers of the Hebrew faith.
There is no doubt that Jews have used the term "Rabbi" for quite some time. Indeed, anyone familiar with the Talmud or Mishnah – or that have ever been to a synagogue – know that Jews use this term…well, religiously. But when did it start? When did the term "Rabbi" first get used, and has it always meant "teacher"? Well the simple answer, isn't actually that simple.
For starters, we can't be sure of when exactly this term came into common usage. We know that by the beginning of the 2nd Century CE at the latest that it was commonly used this way, as we find this in the Mishnah. Its use continues further in both Talmuds. However, the Talmuds also use other words, like Rabban and Rab. In the case of a couple different teachers of Talmudic lore, the title "abba" (that is, "father") is also used. Each of these, Rab/Rav, Rabbi, and Rabban are related to the same root, and thus refer generally to something around the same. At least, in terms of actual definition. They were, however, used to differentiate between various Rabbis, especially those that shared the same name. (For example, Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri is called "Rabbi Yochanan," while Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai is called "Rabban.")
As for the term "Abba" it is used in Talmudic literature to refer to a couple of different men who were considered teachers, but did not warrant the official title of "Rabbi." Again, it, too, was an honorific title. And this actually brings us back to our verse from Matthew.
Mattithyahu 23:9 - 9“Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven."
Note here Yeshua says not to call anyone "father." Well now this presents a particular problem. Are we supposed to interpret this to mean that a man's own children cannot call him "father"? This clearly cannot be the truth, as Scripture refers to the Patriarchs as "father" quite often. In Bereshiyt (Gen.) 44:34, Judah refers to Jacob as his father. In Bereshiyt 27:18, Jacob calls Isaac his father.
So perhaps this could mean not to refer to men as "Father" that aren't your actual biological father. Such as, not referring to them as "father" as an honorific title, yes? Well there's a problem with that, too. In Shemu'el Aleph (1 Samuel) 24:11, David calls Saul "father" as a title of honor. Perhaps we could argue that he called Saul such on account of Saul being his father-in-law (David was married to Michal, Saul's daughter). Yet even this would be a stretch of interpretation. I'll explain in a moment. But first, let's go back to Matthew 23 again in order to finish the major verses we're examining.
Mattithyahu 23:10 – 10Do not be called guides, for One is your Guide: Messiah.
The word "guide" here is a bit odd, since the only two times the Greek word is used, are both in this verse. But let's recap all three verses, and put them in context.
Matthew 23:8-10 - 8“But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9“Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10“Do not be called guides; for One is your Guide: Messiah."
Each of these titles – Rabbi, Father, and Guide – are all three functions of leaders and teachers. They all refer to honorific titles. But it is the context here that matters most.
At the beginning of the chapter, we find Yeshua teaching a crowd of people. The topic is on the attitudes of the Scribes and Pharisees. He tells us that they sit in the seat of Moses, and that we are to do according to what they say, but not what they do. The reason, as He reiterates all over the Gospels, is because of their hypocrisy; that they kept the Torah in a strict fashion, but failed to keep it from the Heart. That they would focus the attention on themselves, while neglecting the weightier matters of mercy, love, and compassion. Not that their Torah observance was a problem (not once did Yeshua ever tell them that keeping Torah was bad); rather, that they forsook the more important things. He even told them in this same chapter (vs. 23) that they should have continued their strict observance, but without neglecting the rest.
From here, we find that Yeshua tells the crowd that the Scribes and Pharisees love greetings (being respected and "famous" among the people), and places of honor (sort of like sitting at the head of the table), and to be called by the title "Rabbi." They broaden their tefillin (phylacteries) and lengthen their tsitsiyot (tassels), just to be noticed. It's pretty much the definition of "self-righteous."
So given the context, Yeshua's warning is explicit: do not act like the Pharisees, with their self-righteous, attention-seeking behavior. Do not seek out special greetings, and to be noticed by people for your "perfect" Torah-keeping, and titles of honor like "Rabbi" and "Father" and "Guide."
I would posit that these titles, in and of themselves, are not a problem. After all, He didn't say, "Do not call anyone Rabbi" or "Do not call anyone guide." In each example, He offers a proper understanding. Do not seek to be called Rabbi as a title to place yourself on a pedestal, for you have One Teacher, and you're all brothers. (Again, I would add, that Yeshua essentially defines "Rabbi" as "Teacher" here Himself).
In this same verse, He also says that we have only One Teacher, yes? But this word for Teacher in Greek, διδάσκαλος (didaskalos) is the same one Paul uses in Eph. 4:11 when he says that some people have been given to be teachers, and some Apostles, and some prophets, and so on. So upon a casual and literal reading, we have Yeshua telling us that we have only one teacher, while Paul tells us that there have been many teachers (the word as he uses it is plural). So who's wrong: Yeshua or Paul? May it never be; rather, I assert that our traditional understanding is what has been wrong, and thus neither Paul nor Yeshua contradict the other.
For one more example, we have the following passage from Yochanan.
Yochanan [John] 3:26 - And they came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified, behold, He is immersing and all are coming to Him."
Why was John not reproved for being called "Rabbi" by his disciples? Why were his disciples not reproved for using the term?
So to summarize: in context, Yeshua says a number of things in this chapter that, if taken completely literally, do not align with other Scriptures. However, put in the context of His teaching to the crowd at this time, we find His warning consistent: do not seek these things to aggrandize yourself, and display your works and self-righteousness before men. Do not seek to place yourself in a position of honor. Note that this does not mean these positions of honor will not exist. In Luke 14, Yeshua says just this: do not take the place of honor; do not raise yourself up above everyone else. Rather, seek the lower place; humble yourself, so that you may be exalted.
I hope and pray this study has blessed you.
Be Berean; Shalom.