What do you do for a living?
When we are first introduced to someone, we want to know who they are. We often ask, "What do you do for a living?" By learning something about the person's livelihood, we hope to learn something more about the person. For example, if we learn that the person we have just met is a doctor, that information tells us a great deal about the person's education, social circles, financial standing and even day-to-day routine. It is our natural tendency to define people by their vocations, at least initially.
What if you had the opportunity to step back in time and meet the Yeshua of the gospels and to ask him, "What do you do for a living?" What would he tell you? What kind of higher education does a savior need? What kind of social status does the job of Son of God carry? How much does a messiah make annually? What is the day-to-day routine for a Christ? Although these titles are the theological categories we normally use to define Yeshua, none of them were his actual vocation.
The actual vocation of Yeshua was rabbi (see endnote). He was a simple Galilean Rabbi with a large and devoted following. Knowing this alone tells us a great deal about who Rabbi Yeshua is.
In those days, the term rabbi had not yet come to exclusively mean a teacher ordained through formal rabbinical institution. Rather rabbi was simply a term of respect for a great teacher. It is in this context that we must try to understand Rabbi Yeshua.
Fortunately, Jewish literature preserves for us a vast wealth of traditions, teachings, parables and anecdotes from the great teachers of Second Temple Era Judaism. By comparing the words, the lives and the adventures of other rabbis contemporary with Yeshua, we are able to learn a great deal about the institution of "rabbi-ship" in the first century.
How much do you make?
A rabbi of the first century was not like a clergyman or an ordained minister of today. The rabbis of the first century were not on a payroll of a synagogue or a denomination. Instead they typically practiced a trade to support their own teaching ministries. For example, Rabban Gamliel advised his students to combine their study and teaching of Torah with a worldly occupation. (Avot 2:2) His most famous student, Rav Shaul HaBinyamin, (better known as Paul) chose to be a tent maker rather than to accept donations from his students.
Other teachers, like Yeshua, gave themselves full time to the work of studying and raising up disciples. Such a teacher relied on the donations of the community and his students. (Luke 8:3 recalls some women who supported the ministry of Yeshua. John 12:6 remembers a common money bag held by Yeshua and the disciples.) The result was a meager lifestyle. Thus we read, "Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man does not have a place to lay his head."
Where do you live? Where do you work?
From the Talmud, it seems evident that in most cases a first century rabbi taught out of the local synagogues, which were often referred to as the Beit Midrash, that is the House of Study. Students who sought to learn under such a teacher traveled great distances, and if accepted as a disciple, they dedicated themselves to live with and study under the teacher. On the other hand, many sages of first century Judaism seemed to be itinerant, traveling from town to town, synagogue to synagogue, teaching Torah and raising up disciples. Yeshua's ministry was certainly itinerant, but he also established Capernaum as his home base. The Gospel's refer to Capernaum as "His own town." (Matthew 9:1) In Capernaum he did have a place to lay his head. He lived in a room in Peter's house. However, he definitely rejected the offer to become the resident rabbi of Capernaum. (Luke 4:43).
Most of the ministry of Yeshua was spent traveling between Jerusalem and the Galilee. As with all Jews, he was bound by Torah law to ascend to Jerusalem and the temple for each of the three pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Pentecost and The Feast of Tabernacles. The Talmud records that the sages took advantage of these pilgrimage crowds by teaching the common folk in the temple courts throughout the duration of the feasts. Even those rabbis who normally stayed in one location took advantage of the pilgrimage festivals as opportunities for teaching the masses. So too, in the Gospels, we see Yeshua routinely teaching in the temple courts during the festivals.
What is it exactly that you do?
The job of a Rabbi in early Judaism was to transmit Torah (teaching) to the next generation. Pirkei Avot, begins with these words, "Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua (his disciple) Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets, the prophets to the men of the great assembly (Ezra's generation)." (Avot 1:1)
The teacher-disciple pattern of transmitting the Torah and the knowledge of God was established as early as Moses and Joshua. The teacher's of each generation were entrusted with the task of raising up disciples and future teachers for the next generation. Generation after generation, from teacher to student, the teaching of Torah was passed on. A rabbi of first century Judaism was a teacher dedicated to teaching the Torah of God. His purpose in life was to explain the Torah in practical terms and to communicate the knowledge of God to the next generation.
Pirkei Avot continues, "The Men of the Great Assembly said three things, 'Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence for the Torah." This was the job description of the first century rabbi.
1. Be Deliberate In Judgment: A rabbi's job was to be careful when rendering a legal decision or when interpreting a passage of Scripture. He was to carefully weigh all the evidence. When asked a question regarding Scripture, when making a legal ruling, when hearing a court case as an elder or as a judge in a court of law or even when simply making a small halachic (observance) ruling, such as "Is it permissible to heal on the Sabbath?" the Rabbi was to be careful and deliberate. The rabbi was to take the scriptures seriously, study them diligently and be deliberate in judgment.
2. Raise Up Many Disciples: A rabbi's job was to raise up many students. He was to pass the teaching on to many students. If he did not, there would be no continuity from generation to generation. Without disciples, the study of Torah and the knowledge of righteousness would vanish within a generation, and the next generation would fall into apostasy. The rabbi's job was to raise up disciples who would in turn become the teachers raising up disciples, so that the Torah would not be lost.
3. Make a Fence for the Torah: A rabbi's job was to protect the Torah. He was to make a fence around the Torah in order to protect the commandments. For example, to protect the commandment forbidding adultery the Sages made a fence around that commandment by teaching their disciples a tradition that they should not even be alone with a woman that is not their wife, so that there was never even a possibility of transgressing that commandment. Such a prohibition is a called a "fence around the Torah." These are practical rules for life to assist the people of God in living out God's Word. The rabbi's job was to protect even the least of the commandments and protect even the smallest jot and tittle of the Torah from being abolished.
In his Ministry, we see Rabbi Yeshua fulfilling all three of the above criteria. He was deliberate in judgment, rendering well thought-out decisions and interpretations on a variety of points of law. He raised up many disciples. In addition to the Twelve he had hundreds of devoted students and thousands of people listening to his teachings. He made fences for the Torah. When he said things like, "Anyone who even looks at a woman lustfully has committed adultery with her in his heart already," or things like, "Do not swear at all, let your yes be yes and your no, no," he was making fences around the commandments. In these two examples he fenced the commandment against adultery and the commandment against taking God's name in vain. Thus we see Rabbi Yeshua fully engaged in the work of a first century rabbi.
What are the tools of the trade?
When we begin to study the teachings and teaching methods of the early rabbis, an exciting thing happens. We are quick to discover that the words and teachings of Yeshua reflect (and even sometimes repeat verbatim) the words and teachings of other early Jewish rabbis. The methodology, hermeneutics, argumentation, theological presuppositions and subject matter of the Yeshua's teachings are all patently rabbinical. Even his use of parables was a common method of teaching in the first century. Many of his parables are drawn from existing rabbinic parables which Yeshua reworked in order to serve his message. In short, he used the tools of the rabbis to convey his message. He used rabbinic teaching methods and relied on rabbinic material.
Jewish literature offers us the ability to compare his words with the words of his contemporaries. We are better able to understand obscure idioms or elements of Jewish style which Yeshua employed when we compare and contrast his words with the words of the other rabbis. Through Jewish literature, we are better able to perceive the points of conflict between Yeshua and Judaisms of his day. Best of all, we are better able to understand him and his message in the original context.
Yeshua is a rabbi. His teachings were rabbinical in nature. To fully understand what he is and what he teaches we must explore the institutions of rabbinical teaching and methodology.
What made him different from other Rabbis?
So far we have seen how Yeshua fits the normal description of a first century Jewish rabbi in Israel. But there are also three distinctions that make the Rabbi-ship of Yeshua markedly different than that of his contemporaries.
1. His Message: His message was focused on the kingdom of heaven. Whereas this was a subject of great discussion among the other Sages, Yeshua came proclaiming the advent of the kingdom of heaven. The rest of his teachings dealt with the ramifications of that advent.
2. His Authority: Where as all other sages and rabbis taught in the name of their teachers and predecessors to establish authority for their message, Yeshua taught only in his own name. He invoked only his Father in heaven to validate his teaching. All other rabbis quoted the sages and teachers of previous generations. Yeshua merely said, "You've heard it said . . . but I tell you." His failure to invoke other teacher's names portrayed either incredible arrogance or ultimate authority. Thus we read,"The crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the Torah." (Matthew 7:28, 29)
3. His Miracles: The teaching ministry of Rabbi Yeshua was complimented and validated by the miraculous manifestations of the Kingdom of Heaven that accompanied him. The sick were healed, the demon oppressed were freed, the hungry were fed, the blind were made to see, the lame were made to walk, the deaf were made to hear, the dead were raised to life. Miracles of this magnitude were rare among other rabbis. But in the teaching ministry of Rabbi Yeshua, miracles were the norm, not the exception.
How Can I Make Him My Rabbi?
It is one thing to know Yeshua was a rabbi and even to call him Rabbi Yeshua. It is quite another thing to make him "My Rabbi." In order to truly learn from Rabbi Yeshua we must first follow him as students. The Hebrew word for students is talmidim. In our New Testaments, we translated talmidim as disciples. The call of Rabbi Yeshua is to follow him as disciples. If we are to know him for who he truly is, if we are to experience him not just as savior, but also as master and lord, we must commit our lives to discipleship under him.
Just as he must be understood in the context of first century rabbi-ship, so too our call to follow him must also be understood in the context of first century discipleship. His call to discipleship is still alive today. The call to follow after Rabbi Yeshua as disciples is an ongoing process even today. You are invited to accept his call, to enlist yourself in Beit Yeshua, the Academy of Jesus, and to learn to follow him as his disciple. The articles, teachings and information on this web-site are here to assist you in that endeavor.
End Note: His work as a carpenter ended around his 30th birthday. We assume that the gospel's silence regarding Joseph after Yeshua's 12th birthday indicates that Joseph died or was for some reason no longer present in the family. That being the case, it would have been the responsibility of the firstborn son to support the family until the younger siblings were all either married or engaged in a trade. So it was that Yeshua carried on Joseph's vocation as carpenter in the village of Nazareth until the age of 30. It is likely that by the age of 30 his youngest siblings were all provided for. At that point Yeshua was free to pursue a new vocation.