from jesus to christ - the first christians

Jesus as Rabbi

Scholar Jaroslav Pelikan examines the changing perceptions of Jesus' role as a Jewish rabbi and teacher.

Jaroslav Pelikan, The Illustrated Jesus Through the Centuries,
(Yale University Press 1997) pp. 9-23

The Rabbi

The study of the place of Jesus in the history of human culture must begin with the New Testament, on which all subsequent representations have been based. But the presentation of Jesus in the New Testament is itself a representation, resembling a set of paintings more than a photograph.

In the decades between the time of the ministry of Jesus and the composition of the various Gospels the memory of what Jesus had said and done circulated in the form of an oral tradition. The apostle Paul, writing to the congregation at Corinth in about A.D. 55 (twenty years or so after the life of Jesus), reminded them that during his visit a few years before, probably in the early fifties, he had orally "delivered to you as of first importance what I also received" still earlier, thus perhaps in the forties, concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:1-7) and the institution of the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:23-26). Chronologically and even logically, therefore, there was a tradition of the church before there was a New Testament, or any book of the New Testament. By the time the materials of the oral tradition found their way into written form, they had passed through the life and experience of the church, which laid claim to the presence of the Holy Spirit of God. It was to the action of that Spirit that Christians would attribute the composition of the books of the "New Testament," as they began to call it, and before that of the "Old Testament," as they began to describe the Hebrew Bible.

It is obvious--and yet, to judge by the tragedies of later history, not at all obvious-- that Jesus was a Jew, so that the first attempts to understand his message took place within the context of Judaism. The New Testament was written in Greek, but the language Jesus and his disciples usually spoke seems to have been Aramaic, a Semitic tongue related to Hebrew but not identical with it. Aramaic words and phrases are scattered throughout the Gospels and other early Christian books, reflecting the language in which various sayings and liturgical formulas had been repeated before the transition to Greek became complete. These include such familiar words as Hosanna, as well as the cry of dereliction of Jesus on the cross, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? (Mark 15:34)--"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (which in the Hebrew of Psalm 22 was Eli, Eli, lama azavtani?). Alongside Immanuel, "God with us"--the Hebrew title given to the child in the prophecy of Isaiah (7:14) and applied by Matthew (1:23) to Jesus, but not used to address him except in such apostrophes as the medieval antiphon Veni, Veni, Immanuel that forms the epigraph to this chapter--four Aramaic words appear as titles for Jesus: Rabbi, or teacher; Amen, or prophet; Messias, or Christ; and Mar, or Lord.

The most neutral and least controversial of these words is probably Rabbi, along with the related Rabbouni. Except for two passages, the Gospels apply the Aramaic word only to Jesus; and if we conclude that the title "teacher" or "master" (didaskalos in Greek) was intended as a translation of that Aramaic name, it seems safe to say that it was as Rabbi that Jesus was known and addressed. Yet the Gospels seem to accentuate the differences, rather than the similarities, between Jesus and the other rabbis. As the scholarly study of the Judaism of his time has progressed, however, both the similarities and the differences have become clearer.

Luke tells us (4:16-30) that after his baptism and temptation by the devil, he "came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read." Following the customary rabbinical pattern, he took up a scroll of the Hebrew Bible, read it, presumably provided an Aramaic translation-paraphrase of the text, and then commented on it. The words he read were from Isaiah 61:1-2: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." But instead of doing what a rabbi would normally do, apply the text to the hearers by comparing and contrasting earlier interpretations, he declared: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Although the initial reaction to this audacious declaration was said to be wonderment "at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth," his further explanation produced the opposite reaction, and everyone was "filled with wrath."

Behind the confrontations between Jesus as Rabbi and the representatives of the rabbinical tradition, the affinities are nevertheless clearly discernible in the forms in which his teachings appear in the Gospels. One of the most familiar is the question and answer, with the question often phrased as a teaser. A woman had seven husbands (in series, not in parallel): whose wife will she be in the life to come (Matt. 22:23-33)? Is it lawful for a devout Jew to pay taxes to the Roman authorities (Matt. 22:15-22)? What must I do to inherit eternal life (Mark 10:17-22)? Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:1-6)? The one who puts the question acts as a straight man, setting up the opportunity for Rabbi Jesus to drive home the point, often by standing the question on its head.

To the writers of the New Testament, however, the most typical form of the teachings of Jesus was the parable: "He said nothing to them without a parable" (Matt. 13:34). But the Greek word parabole was taken from the Septuagint, the Jewish translation of their Bible into Greek. Thus here, too, the evangelists' accounts of Jesus as a teller of parables make sense only in the setting of his Jewish background. Interpreting his parables on the basis of that setting alters conventional explanations of his comparisons between the kingdom of God and incidents from human life. Thus the point of the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), better called the parable of the elder brother, is in the closing words of the father to the elder brother, who stands for the people of Israel: "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found." The historic covenant between God and Israel was permanent, and it was into this covenant that other peoples, too, were now being introduced.

The oscillation between describing the role of Jesus as Rabbi and attributing to him a new and unique authority made additional titles necessary. One such was Prophet, as in the acclamation on Palm Sunday (Matt. 21:11),''This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee." Probably the most intriguing version of it is once again in Aramaic (Rev. 3:14): "The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness." The word Amen was the formula of affirmation to end a prayer, as in the farewell charge of Moses to the people of Israel, where each verse concludes (Deut. 27:l4-26): "And all the people shall say, 'Amen.'" In the New Testament an extension of the meaning of Amen becomes evident in the Sermon on the Mount: Amen lego hymin, "Truly, I say to you." Some seventy-five times throughout the four Gospels Amen introduces an authoritative pronouncement by Jesus. As the one who had the authority to make such pronouncements, Jesus was the Prophet. The word prophet here means chiefly not one who foretells, although the sayings of Jesus do contain many predictions, but one who is authorized to speak on behalf of Another and to tell forth. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is quoted as asserting (Matt. 5:17-18): "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly [amen], I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished." That affirmation of the permanent validity of the law of Moses is followed by a series of specific quotations from the law, each introduced with the formula "You have heard that it was said to the men of old"; each such quotation is then followed by a commentary opening with the magisterial formula "But I say to you" (Matt. 5:21-48). The commentary is an intensification of the commandment, to include not only its outward observance but the inward spirit and motivation of the heart. All these commentaries are an elaboration of the warning that the righteousness of the followers of Jesus must exceed that of those who followed other doctors of the law (Matt. 5:20).

The conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount confirms the special status of Jesus as not only Rabbi but Prophet (Matt. 7:28-8:1): "And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him." Then there come several miracle stories. The New Testament does not attribute the power of performing miracles only to Jesus and his followers (Matt. 12:27), but it does cite the miracles as substantiation of his standing as Rabbi-Prophet. That identification of Jesus was a means both of affirming his continuity with the prophets of Israel and of asserting his superiority to them as the Prophet whose coming they had predicted and to whose authority they had been prepared to yield. In Deut. 18:15-22, God tells Moses, and through him the people, that he "will raise up for them a prophet like me from among you," to whom the people are to pay heed. In its biblical context, this is the authorization of Joshua as the legitimate successor of Moses, but in the New Testament and in later Christian writers, the prophet to come is taken to be Jesus-Joshua. He is portrayed as the one Prophet in whom the teaching of Moses was fulfilled and yet superseded, the one Rabbi who both satisfied the law of Moses and transcended it; for "the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17). To describe such a revelation of grace and truth, the categories of Rabbi and Prophet were necessary but not sufficient. Therefore later anti-Muslim Christian apologists would find Islam's identification of Jesus as a great prophet and forerunner to Muhammad to be inadequate and hence inaccurate, so that the potential of the figure of Jesus the Prophet as a meeting ground between Christians and Muslims has never been fully realized.

For Rabbi and Prophet yielded to two other categories, each of them likewise expressed in an Aramaic word and then in its Greek translation: Messias, the Aramaic form of "Messiah," translated into Greek as ho Christos, "Christ," the Anointed One (John 1:41, 4:25); and Marana, "our Lord," in the liturgical formula Maranatha, "Our Lord, come!" translated into Greek as ho Kyrios (1 Cor. 16:22). The future belonged to these titles and to the identification of him as the Son of God and second person of the Trinity. But in the process of establishing themselves, Christ and Lord, as well as even Rabbi and Prophet, often lost much of their Semitic content. To the Christian disciples of the first century the conception of Jesus as Rabbi was self-evident, to the Christian disciples of the second century it was embarrassing, to the Christian disciples of the third century and beyond it was obscure.

The beginnings of this de-Judaization of Christianity are visible already within the New Testament. With Paul's decision to "turn to the Gentiles" (Acts 13:46) after having begun his preaching in the synagogues, and then with the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, the Christian movement increasingly became Gentile rather than Jewish in its constituency and outlook. In that setting the Jewish elements of the life of Jesus had to be explained to Gentile readers (for example, John 2:6). The Acts of the Apostles can be read as a tale of two cities: its first chapter, with Jesus and his disciples after the resurrection, is set in Jerusalem; but its last chapter reaches its climax with the final voyage of the apostle Paul, in the simple but pulse-quickening sentence "And so we came to Rome."

Recently, scholars have not only put the picture of Jesus back into the setting of first century Judaism; they have also rediscovered the Jewishness of the New Testament, and particularly of Paul. His epistle to the Romans (9-11) is the description of his struggle over the relation between church and synagogue, concluding with the prediction and the promise: "And so all Israel will be saved"--not, it should be noted, converted to Christianity, but saved, because, in Paul's words, "as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable" (Rom. 11:26-29). This reading of the mind of Paul in Romans gives special significance to his many references to the name of Jesus Christ there: from "descended from David according to the flesh... Jesus Christ our Lord" in the first chapter, to "the preaching of Jesus Christ," which "is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations" in the final sentence. Here Jesus Christ is, as Paul says of himself elsewhere, "of the people of Israel..., a Hebrew born of Hebrews" (Phil. 3:5). The very issue of universality, supposedly the distinction between Paul and Judaism, was, for Paul, what made it necessary that Jesus be a Jew. For only through the Jewishness of Jesus could the covenant of God with Israel, the gracious gifts of God, and his irrevocable calling become available to all people in the whole world, also to the Gentiles, who "were grafted in their place to share the richness of the olive tree"--namely, the people of Israel (Rom. 11:17).

No one can consider the topic of Jesus as Rabbi and ignore the subsequent history of the relation between the people to whom Jesus belonged and the people who belong to Jesus. That relation runs like a red line through much of the history of culture, and after the events of the twentieth century we have a unique responsibility to be aware of it as we study the history of the images of Jesus through the centuries. The question is easier to ask than it is to answer, and it is easier to avoid than it is to ask at all. But ask it we must: Would there have been such anti-Semitism, would there have been so many pogroms, would there have been an Auschwitz, if every Christian church and every Christian home had focused its devotion on images of Mary not only as Mother of God and Queen of Heaven but also as the Jewish maiden and the New Miriam, and on icons of Christ not only as the Cosmic Christ but also as Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of David, come to ransom a captive Israel and a captive humanity?

from The Illustrated Jesus Through the Centuries by Jaroslav Pelikan
© Yale University Press 1997
Reprinted with permission

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published april 1998

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