Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Use of “Rabbi” and “Rabboni” in the New Testament

The Greek loan words drawn from the Hebrew rabbi and its Aramaic equivalent, rabbouni (in English, spelled rabboni), are used 17 times in the New Testament. Luke did not use the terms at all in his writings, probably reflecting his intended Gentile audience. Matthew and Mark employed them four times each, and John used them nine times (the count includes the one Aramaic usage each in Mark and John). The term is not used outside the Gospels.

The title “Rabbi” in the New Testament is mostly applied to Jesus. Only once is it applied to someone else (i.e., John the Baptist by his disciples in John 3:26). On nine occasions the title is used by an individual in addressing Jesus.

1. In John 1:49, Nathaniel, in his initial encounter with Jesus, called him “Rabbi,” “Son of God, and “King of Israel” in response to Jesus’ disclosure that he knew more about Nathaniel than would be normally expected and revealed a vision he had had of Nathaniel.

2. In Mark 9, six days after Peter’s pivotal confession of Jesus as the Christ (or Messiah) and Jesus’ rejection of Peter’s understanding of what that title meant, Jesus led Peter, James, and John up into the high mountains around Caesarea Philippi. There he was transfigured before them (9:2); and Elijah and Moses appeared, talking with Jesus. Peter, though frightened and confused by the strange experience, in customary fashion felt compelled to speak. “Rabbi,” he said, “it is good for us to be here.”

3. Later in Mark, when Peter observed that the fig tree that Jesus had cursed (11:14) had withered from its roots by the very next day, Peter again addressed Jesus as “Rabbi” (11:21).

4-6. Judas called Jesus “Rabbi” in three passages: Matthew 26:25, 49 and Mark 14:45—all near the end of Jesus’ ministry.

7. In Mark 10:51, a blind man addressed Jesus using the Aramaic “Rabboni.”

8. Mary Magdalene also used the Aramaic “Rabboni” in addressing Jesus after he revealed himself to her at the empty tomb (John 20:16).

9. In John 3:2, a Jewish leader and member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus, addressed Jesus as “Rabbi.” This is a pretty startling declaration for a prominent member of the establishment.

On four occasions (all in the Gospel of John) Jesus is called “Rabbi” by two or more of his disciples: John 1:38 (specifically Andrew and Peter) and John 4:31, 9:2, and 11:7-8 (“his disciples”). Only once do the crowds apply the title “Rabbi” to Jesus (6:25).

The other two uses of Rabbi are by Jesus himself. I will address those in the next post.

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