The Tannaitic Rabbi

tannaim1Rabbinic schools of tannaitic times are more accurately characterized as “disciple circles” than academies. There were no school buildings, hierarchies of positions, administrative bureaucracies, curricula, or requirements. Because study was oral, there was no need for books or libraries either. A few disciples gathered around a rabbinic master and learned traditions from him in his home or in some other private dwelling that could serve as a school. But such formal instruction in the memorization and interpretation of texts constituted only part of the educational experience.

It was supplemented on a daily basis as students served their master as apprentices, observing his daily conduct and emulating his religious practice as he passed through the market, journeyed to various villages, performed his personal hygiene, or ate his meals. After years of learning, having reached a certain level of proficiency and perhaps (though not always formal) “ordination” from their master, disciples might leave their master and strike out independently, attempting to gather their own circles of disciples. If their master died, they would have to seek a new master elsewhere as there was no institutional framework to provide continuity or replacement. As opposed to an academy, the disciple circle was not an institution in that there was no ongoing life or continuity of the group beyond the individual teacher. The “school” was essentially the master himself.

-Jeffrey L. Rubenstein
“Social and Institutional Settings of Rabbinic Literature”
from The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature (p. 59)

But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.

“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”Matthew 13:16-23

I admit that I’m stretching things a bit. The Tannaitic period of Jewish learning didn’t formally begin until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. (and extended to about 220 C.E.) but if you look at Rubenstein’s description, read the “sample teaching” from the Master, and recall other examples of how Jesus interacted with his disciples, you’ll see a lot of similarities. Although the Talmud talks about the “House of Shammai” and the “House of Hillel” (see Pirkei Avot), these ancient sages didn’t teach in formal institutions named after them but rather, in their own homes, or in rooms provided by wealthy patrons (and it should be noted that both Shammai and Hillel also taught during the Second Temple period and preceded Jesus by a generation or more).

Why am I telling you all of this?

I want to paint you a picture. It will be a portrait, actually. The portrait is of someone you believe you know very well, if you’re a Christian. The portrait will be that of Jesus Christ. There’s only one problem. When you actually see the portrait, it will look nothing like you expect. It will look like a middle-eastern man of Semitic heritage in his early thirties, the oldest son of a rural carpenter living in a tiny nation occupied by a vast foreign power. Don’t expect a picture of Jesus that you can buy in any Christian book store or the image of some non-Jewish actor with blue eyes and fair complexion you may be familiar with from the movies or television.

I want to put Jesus..uh, Yeshu or Yeshua, back where he belongs. I want to put him back in the early first century of the common era in what the Romans would one day call “Palestine” (to mock the Jews). He looks and sounds and moves and teaches like an itinerant Rabbi who has gathered a small group of men for disciples and who teaches in the same manner as the Tannaitic Rabbis would a few decades later.

Recall the example from Matthew I previously quoted. Jesus was teaching a group of “lay people” in a public area but later provided a more detailed interpretation privately to his inner group. This also is described by Rubenstein (pp. 67-8)

Rabbis and their students also interacted with non-rabbis in a teaching forum that the Bavli called a pirka. This seems to have been a sermon or lecture delivered by a sage to a lay audience: Several such descriptions being “Rabbi So-and-so expounded (darash) at the pirka”.. Some sources draw a distinction between that which should be taught at the pirka and that which should be made known only to sages.. Despite teaching his students in private that the law follows the lenient view, Rav taught the stricter position at the pirka due to his concern that non-rabbis in attendance might not behave scrupulously and violate the law.

the-teacherWhile the specific content of each of these two examples doesn’t match absolutely, the teaching dynamic of the Tannaitic rabbis and Jesus fits hand and glove. The master teaches one, less detailed and more conservative lesson to the public and provides the inner, more intricate details to his disciples. As you switch back and forth between your New Testament view of Jesus and the portrait of a Tannaitic period teacher, can you see the similarity between the two? If you can, does that mean the “inner portrait” of Jesus you carry around with you is beginning to change just a bit? Is he not quite the same man you first met in a church sanctuary or in a Sunday school class?

All I’m saying is that, to understand Jesus, we need to see him in action in his “native element”. We need to see him doing what he did, teaching his disciples as a Jewish master wherever he happened to be. His students followed him everywhere, watching his every move, listening to his vocal inflections, seeing how he treated others, imitating him in every way possible…just like students of a Tannaitic period Rabbi.

With one possible difference.

If their master died, they would have to seek a new master elsewhere as there was no institutional framework to provide continuity or replacement.

When Jesus died, his disciples did not seek a replacement. To be fair, only three days passed before he rose, so there really wasn’t any time, but I still doubt they could have cast the Master aside so easily. But after he rose, they still did not go elsewhere in search of a new teacher, but then again, he was no ordinary Rabbi.

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Moshiach, the Son of the living God.” –Matthew 16:16

Rubenstein wrote: “After years of learning, having reached a certain level of proficiency and perhaps (though not always formal) “ordination” from their master, disciples might leave their master and strike out independently, attempting to gather their own circles of disciples”, which the disciples did do. In fact, they were commanded to do so.

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” –Matthew 28:18-20 (NASB)

the-teacher2Without realizing it, we are all struggling to become disciples, not just of the “Christian” Jesus Christ, but of a sort of “proto-Tannaitic” period Master. We are all in search of the true face and voice of Jesus. We long to sit at his feet under a fig tree listening to a parable, to walk along a hot and dusty road watching him heal the sick, to rest with him as guests in the home of a sinner and tax collector who amazes us by turning from his corrupt life to the God of his fathers. We want to be with him as he really was, and as he really is.

2,000 years removed, we have to work on it. We have to remove the mask that has been placed over his face. We have to get past the surprise at how different he looks; how “Jewish” he looks. But he is our Master, our guide, and our shepherd. If we are his, we already know his voice.

19 thoughts on “The Tannaitic Rabbi”

  1. People have a trouble connecting Yeshua to rabbinic Judaism because the very early rabbinic period (the Zugot) was so different from what came later. It was quite another breed from today’s Orthodox Beit Midrash. By implication, Yeshua’s itinerant, unheirarchical model of discipleship was less of a radical break from the mainstream than one would think. And those who consider him some kind of Karaite make me laugh.

    Another thought: one sure way to tell if a person is racist is if they refuse to accept a brown-skinned Jewish man as their savior.

  2. Also Paul was “educated at the feet of Gamaliel.”

    “Yose b, Yoezer says, “Let your house be the gathering place for sages. And wallow in the dust of their feet. And drink in their words with gusto.” (Avot 1:4).

  3. “Let your house be the gathering place for sages. And wallow in the dust of their feet. And drink in their words with gusto.” (Avot 1:4)

    That reminds me:

    “Now one of the Pharisees was requesting Him to dine with him. And He entered the Pharisee’s house, and reclined at the table. And behold, there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet, and anointing them with the perfume.”

  4. “And wallow in the dust of their feet.”

    Disciples were always covered with the dust of their Master’s feet as they followed him wherever he went, watching him, listening to him, and drinking his “words with gusto.” We see this with Jesus and his disciples and as you pointed out Dan, we see this with Paul. The history of rabbinic teaching and midrash was alive and well in the time of Jesus and even before, though it was much less developed than in post-Second Temple times going into the Talmudic era.

    The form and content may have become more involved (some people might say “confusing” or “convoluted”) in the centuries after Jesus, but the general style and theme of teaching and interpretation was and is essentially the same. To know the Messiah and to understand his words, we must understand how he taught. Otherwise, quite without realizing it, we will stumble into an area were have absolutely no clue what he was really trying to say.

  5. James,

    When Yeshua taught his disciples, he was teaching the scriptures (as he is the Word become flesh). It was His commentary of The Torah, not a Rabbi before him. Why wouldn’t he be thought of as a Karaite Jew?? It actually makes more sence to me, since he obeyed the scriptures only, not the traditions of Men. This, maybe is one of the reasons the Pharisees hated Him, because he didn’t follow their traditions which had nothing to do with the scriptures. This is much like the Church today, Pastors and fellow believers get angery, when someone actually wants to learn Hebrew and discover the Jewish Roots of their faith,because, as a result they may learn the Churches traditions have nothing to do with Scripture. Don’t get me wrong, I believe there are many wonderful Rabbis, very learnded and wise, that can add light to the scriptures, but the focus should be on the actual scripture itself. Learning the Hebrew language and culture are absolutely
    essential, and also learning the Talmud, but the final authority is the Scripture.

  6. Hi Michelle.

    It’s important to understand that I’m to paint a picture of Jesus as he taught and lived in Gospel times. It is true that he stood out somewhat because he didn’t refer to the teachings of another Master and taught with his own authority (Mark 1:27 for example), but he didn’t stick out as too much of an “oddball” in relation with other itinerant rabbis. If he had, no one would have known what to do with him and he probably wouldn’t have attracted any disciples at all.

    I agree that his interpretation of the Scriptures would be unerringly consistent with the original meaning and intent, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t teach in the exact same manner as any other rabbi in that time period in ancient Judea. It’s also true that traditions and interpretations (midrash) were being taught by rabbis and his methods would have been the same here as well. He would have appeared as an exceptionally righteous man (a tzaddik), most likely a prophet like in days of old, and Peter did figure out that he was indeed the Messiah. But he also looked like a traditional Jewish man, taught like a traditional rabbi (although exceptionally well), and related to his disciples as most other rabbinic Masters did in that place and time.

    As far as the Kararite Jews go, they weren’t identified as such until around the 9th century C.E., so there’s no real connection there. Also, as far as Jesus completely rejecting every tradition or dumping halacha in the waste basket, I don’t think we can go that far. It’s true that almost 2,000 years of Christian interpretation of the NT tells a tale of Jesus being anti-law and anti-tradition, but looking at the Scripture through eyes focused on its context shows another picture. I recently commented on an FFOZ article involving the netilat yadayim or handwashing ritual (see Mark 7:1-23). While I’m quite aware of the traditional Christian interpretation of the sequence of events in Mark 7, FFOZ writer Toby Janicki said, in the Fall edition of Messiah Journal, that Jesus may not have been opposed to the netilat yadayim out of hand. Instead, he may have been opposed to how some of the Pharisees were making a big deal out of this tradition while hypocritically failing to obey the greater commandment to care for their parents. The wording of the scriptures also indicates that perhaps only some of the disciples did not participate in this ritual, but not all of them. The context does not indicate that Jesus didn’t participate in this ritual. As an aside, John 10:22 may show that Jesus participated in Chanukah (Feast of Dedication) as well, so tradition and ritual probably wasn’t foreign to him at all.

    If we allow ourselves to see Jesus as the first century Jewish teacher that he was, we need to set aside those things that we’ve been taught about him that completely alienates him from that role, that context, and that life. He couldn’t have looked and acted like some 21st century European and he couldn’t have taught like a modern evangelical Christian pastor. He would have been as alien as a martian who had just landed on the latest rocketship from space if he looked and acted that way in Gospel times.

    I’m deliberately creating the most awkward, uncomfortable, and alien picture of Jesus as I can to drive home the point that, by today’s church perceptions and standards, Jesus would be virtually unrecognizable to us. But he would have been right at home where we originally found him: in the late Second Temple period in occupied Israel.

  7. > -Jeffrey L. Rubenstein
    > “Social and Institutional Settings of Rabbinic Literature”
    > from The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature (p. 59)

    Coincidence, or are you reading along with the syllabus for MJTI’s R501? In any case, nice!

    > Jesus may not have been opposed to the netilat yadayim out of hand.

    +1!

  8. Michelle,

    First of all, know that every major sect of Judaism in the first century had an oral tradition. Yes, even the Sadducees. There is now a scholarly consensus that they kept some kind of “Book of Decrees.” Karaism would have been alien to first-century Jews, and if Yeshua was was anti-tradition, he would never have gained favor with the common people.

    Secondly, there are numerous examples of Yeshua being an active part of the Jewish tradition. Dig into some of First Fruits of Zion’s Torah Club material with an open heart and mind and you will understand this. Note that Yeshua criticized those that wore exceedingly broad tefillin (phylacteries) to be seen as pious, not the practice itself. Probably he wore them himself. When criticizing Pharisees for going beyond the plain meaning of scripture and tithing mint, dill, and cumin, he said: “THIS YOU SHOULD HAVE DONE ALSO” while not ignoring the ethical basics of Torah. The criticism was of tradition that negated Torah, not tradition per se. He recited b’rakhot (blessings) prior to eating. He did not make these up as he went along. They come from tradition. They looked nothing like today’s Christian blessings. And when he gave to his disciples a daily prayer (Matthew 6:9–13 or Luke 11:2-4), he was doing something that Jewish teachers first century commonly did to supplement the established liturgy. He did not say: pray this prayer instead of the traditional ones you are used to. Praying from a siddur (Jewish prayerbook) is a commendable thing.

    Lastly, it is simply wrong to say that “the Pharisees” as a collective entity hated Yeshua. That’s a remnant of the anti-Jewishness you wish to get away from. In reality, some of the Pharisees hated him and conspired to kill him. Others simpy wanted to understand what he was about. And still others, like Nicodemus, Joseph of Aramathea, and Rabban Gamliel II, were sympathetic. If you’re not aware of the many similarities between Yeshua’s teachings and opinions found in the Mishnah, I suggest you look that up, too.

    As far as criticizing traditions that clearly contravene the plain meaning or basic thrust of the written Torah, I am on your side. Most rabbinic halakha I know of does not contravene written Torah, but expounds on it pragmatically. Yeshua understood this and that is why he said the Scribes and Pharisees “sit in Moses’s seat,” and so their interpretations are authoritative.

    Blessings in the name our risen Master.

  9. James & Andrew,

    Just wanted to say, I’m aware that the pharisees are not all against Yeshua, and that being a pharisee was actually honorable. I also pray from a siddur. Thanks for your comments.

  10. Good morning, Michelle. I hope my response didn’t come on too strong and I apologize if I said anything you found offensive or upsetting. I just feel passionate about trying to communicate the complexities of who Jesus was and is. Sorry if my response to you got “carried away”.

  11. Just my two cents, though it might seem so at first glance, Yeshua did not necessarily bring any originality as in something completely new that is not found in tradition. As James points out, itinerant rabbis would teach their disciples their particular interpretation of Torah, without necessarily dumping tradition. I mean to say that what we read in the Gospels is in a sense the Judaism of Jesus, his interpretation of it, an excellent one at that. Yet we can see in almost all instances how it relates to the issues of that time. How in many instances he borrows from the school of Hillel, and in others the school of Shammai (on divorce for example), and in some from the Essenes (as with the rich young man, telling him to sell his possessions). So yes he taught Torah because he is so to speak Torah incarnated, but that is not to say that nobody before him had gotten it right. I mean that just because he might not have been the first to say ‘do unto others…’ (being preceded by sages such as Hillel and Shammai) does not mean he is lesser. It means that thank God there has been men who got it right before he came (and also after). His disciples, as first century Jews in the middle of the Pharisaic disputes (Hillel vs Shammai) and all the other branches of judaism, sought out counsel and clarity in the teaching of their master.

  12. Thanks for the comment, JD. That’s a good summary of what I’ve been trying to say about the relationship of the teaching style of the Master with the other rabbinic teachers in the late Second Temple period.

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