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What does “rabbi” mean and when was the title first introduced?

What does “rabbi” mean, and when was the title “rabbi” first introduced?

This question is much more complex than most people realize. However, antecedents to the term רַב (rab) has some basis the Tanakh, where it denotes “great,” or chief (2 Kgs 18:17;  Isa 36:2). Elsewhere the expression rab māg means “chief of princes” (Jer 39:3, 13), while rab tabbāım, is “captain of the guard” (2 Kgs 25:8, etc.). By the time of the 1st century, the title of “rabbi” probably derived from the term, “Raboni,” meaning, “My Master” and was roughly the equivalent of saying “Sir,” or “My Lord”–especially if one happens to be wealthy or politically powerful!

The author of Mathew in 23:1–3, 8 suggests that “rabbi” might have been used for individuals who engage in public teaching. The gospel of John uses the term rabbi of Jesus eight times (1:38, 49; 3:2; 4:31; 6:25; 9:2; 11:8; 20:16), Reflecting an older and probably more correct tradition, Luke never refers to Jesus by this title at all, but simply refers to him as Luke uses διδάσκαλος (didaskalos = “teacher,”) 7:40; 8:49; 22:11. According to this reading, Jesus criticizes this group of scholars for enjoying the public recognition that came with appearing to be “pious” men before the masses. However, there is reason to believe that this particular passage is an example of what is commonly called an interpolation that was added long after the death of Jesus. A similar feature occurs in the Talmud, where Hillel is called, “Rabbi Hillel.” Since the writers of these ancient wrote for a later audience, they took certain poetic licenses with respect to the text.[1]

According to the Mishnah, the Sages of the 1st century never used this title at all. The Sages simply went by their ordinary names, e.g., Simon the Just, Jose b. Joezer, Joshua b. Peraiah and Nittai the Arbelite, Judah b. Tabbai and Simeon b. Shetah, Shemaiah and Abtalion, Hillel and Shammai never used the title, although sometimes Hillel was referred to as “Rabbi’ but I suspect these citations reflect unconscious tampering with the original names by scribes who may have assumed the name “Rabbi” was already in vogue in the 1st century, when in actuality it wasn’t.

One of the greatest rabbinical scholars of the 10th century, Rav Sherira’ Gaon of Babylonia, writes that the title “rabbi” was not used before the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 C.E. He explains, “The designation rabbi came into use with those who were ordained then after the Temple’s destruction beginning with Rabbi Tsadok and Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov. The practice spread from the disciples of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakk’ai.” Before that time, great sages (like Hillel the Elder) were cited without honorific title. However, sometime during the first century C.E., the title “rabban” (Aram., “our master”) was accorded to the patriarch and other especially distinguished sages. Later on, the epithet “Rav” was later employed in Babylonia as equivalent to rabbi in Palestine.

Rabbinical ordination often claims that “semicha” (ordination) is a tradition holds that derives from the time of Moses; leaders of every generation are thus purported to have been conferred by this unbroken succession of “laying on of hands.” Even Moses is referred to frequently as “our rabbi.” Verily, based on the literature and history we know about ancient times, no such specific ceremony existed—especially during the first century C.E.[2]


[1]The Gospels confirms, there was no class of “rabbis” as we have today, but instead there were classes of scribes (i.e., “Scripture experts,” γραμματεῖς, (grammateis), who functioned as the “undisputed spiritual leaders of the people,” as well as “lawyers” (νομικοί, nomikoi) Matt. 22:35; Luke 7:30; 10:25) or “teachers of the law” (νομοδιδάσκαλοι, nomodidaskaloi, cf. Luke 5:17; Acts 5:34).