Jesus’ Educational Credentials
Every Hebrew man’s son was a potential future rabbi. Every son was expected to memorize the book of Leviticus by the age of six. Normally, his father taught him by word of mouth, because there was usually no more than a single copy of the Torah in each community.
From the age of six to twelve, a boy entered the Bet ha Sepher, the School of the Law, where he was to memorize the entire Torah. If he failed to do this, he was deemed unqualified to continue his path toward being a rabbi and instead focused on the family profession to make a regular living.
Those who succeeded in memorizing the Torah were then tested by the rabbis. His test was based on his ability to ask questions and to keep the conversation of God going. Since God was too big to fully comprehend, it was understood that such conversation had no end. He was not tested on his answers, since it was assumed that he already knew the law, but rather on his questions, which showed how well he understood the law.
And so when Jesus was twelve, he went to the temple to be tested by the rabbis. Luke 2:46 says,
46 And it came about that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions.
Any boy who could pass this examination might get the attention of a rabbi in search of disciples. If a rabbi should come to him and say, “Follow me,” it meant another eighteen years in the Bet Talmud, “The School of Disciples,” which would last until he was thirty years old.
During that time, he would take on the “yoke” of the rabbi and learn everything that the rabbi knew about the law and its righteous way of life. The gospel writers are all silent about these eighteen years of Jesus’ life. Most writers assume that Jesus went home to work in his father’s profession as a carpenter. This would assume, however, that Jesus either reached the pinnacle of his rabbinical prowess, or that no rabbi was willing to take Him on as a disciple.
It seems likely, however, that Mary’s great uncle Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus as his disciple. Joseph was not only a member of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, but was also the Minister of Mining for the Roman Empire. His primary trade was hauling tin from Cornwall, England. All members of the Sanhedrin were educated rabbis.
There is much evidence that Jesus had visited England in His younger years prior to His ministry. It is also known that Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, was an older man and had already died by the time Jesus began His ministry. Most likely, Joseph took Jesus on his ship and continued to train Him, not only in the law, but also in geography, giving Him a broader understanding of the world. This would have given Jesus a greater worldview than most of the people who lived in Judea at the time.
At the end of a disciple’s training under his rabbi, he would be recognized as a rabbi in his own right. So he was called rabbi in John 1:38, 49 and again in John 3:2. This term was not used frivolously, nor were they applied to just anyone who had the ability to teach. Hence, Jesus would have achieved this recognition when he reached his thirtieth birthday.
Even so, we find that Jesus normally shunned the title of Rabbi, because He had come as their servant. Matt. 23:8 criticizes the rabbis of his day, saying,
8 But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.
At that point, according to custom, He would have needed two rabbinic witnesses to become an Authority.
A Rabbi with Authority
Most rabbis were without authority. They were bound to teach the things that their teacher had taught them as disciples. There were a few rabbis with authority, which seemed to come, they said, about every third generation.
At the age of thirty, Jesus went to Rabbi John the Baptist, who immediately bore witness of Him, for we read in John 1:15, “John bore witness of Him.” John, too, was a rabbi (John 3:26). Jesus needed a second witness to confirm His authority, so the voice from heaven bore Him the second witness, as we read in Matt. 3:17,
17 and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”
Of these two witnesses, we read in John 5:33 and 37,
33 You have sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth… 37 And the Father who sent Me, He has borne witness of Me.
Jesus also had a third witness—His works (John 5:36). Two witnesses established His authority, but if anyone needed clarification, they could see His works and know that He was a rabbi with authority.
As a rabbi with authority, Jesus could create His own “yoke” of discipleship that was different from other rabbis. Of course, He could also ordain disciples with the words, “Follow Me.” Hence, when Jesus called His disciples, all of whom were working their various professions, it meant that a rabbi with authority had called men who had already dropped out of the school of rabbis. They were not brilliant enough or they could not memorize the Torah as well as others, or perhaps at the age of twelve, no rabbi had said to them, “Follow me.”
They were all dropouts from Rabbi School—even Matthew Levi, whose name indicates that he was of the priestly tribe. He was educated enough to be a tax collector and to keep the ledgers at the Sea of Galilee. But he too had dropped out for some reason. However, Jesus called both the tax collector and the taxpayers (fishermen) and taught them to love each other. Love was the greatest weight of Jesus’ yoke. After the Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 7:28, 29 says,
28 The result was that when Jesus had finished these words, the multitudes were amazed at His teaching; 29 for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
During Jesus’ ministry, other rabbis without authority questioned Jesus about how he became a rabbi with authority. Toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, we read how the temple priests questioned His authority in Luke 20:2, saying to Him,
2 … “Tell us by what authority You are doing these things, or who is the one who gave You this authority?”
Jesus did not answer them directly but pointed to John the Baptist, asking them about the authenticity of John’s baptism. The chief priests already knew that John had borne witness to Jesus, but they were afraid to answer His question. This story was important enough to be repeated in Matt. 21:23-27 and in Mark 11:27-33.
There was one further step in the upward climb of a rabbi that was reserved only for the Messiah. It was called the memrah, the idea that the rabbi with authority was so perfected that his very life was the fulfillment of the law. He was the word made flesh. That is, he lived the word of God by manifestation. The Jewish Encyclopedia says in Vol. VIII, pages 464-465, 1904 edition,
MEMRA (= “Ma’amar” or “Dibbur,” “Logos”): “The Word,” in the sense of the creative or directive word of speech of God manifesting His power in the world of matter or mind; a term used especially in the Targum as a substitute for “the Lord” when an anthropomorphic expression is to be avoided….
“The Memra,” instead of “the Lord,” is “the consuming fire” (Targ. Deut. ix. 3, comp. Targ. Isa. xxx. 27). The Memra “plagued the people” (Targ. Yer. to Ex. xxxii. 35.)
“Not His “hand,” but His “Memra has laid the foundation of the earth” (Targ. Isa. xlviii. 13)…
Like the Shekinah (comp. Targ. Num. xxiii. 21), the Memrah is accordingly the manifestation of God. “The Memra brings Israel nigh unto God and sits on His throne receiving the prayers of Israel” (Targ. Yer. to Deut. iv. 7)….
As in ruling over the destiny of man the Memra is the agent of God (Targ. Yer. to Num. xxvii. 16), so also is it in the creation of the earth (Isa. xlv. 12), and in the execution of justice (Targ. Yer. to Num. xxxiii. 4). So, in the future, shall the Memra be the comforter (Targ. Isa. lxvi. 13): “My Shekinah I shall put among you, My Memra shall be unto you for a redeeming deity, and you shall be unto My Name a holy people” (Targ. Yer. to Lev. xxii. 12). “My Memra shall be unto you like a good plowman who takes off the yoke from the shoulder of the oxen.”
The Jewish Encyclopedia also notes that the idea of the Memra was expressed by the early Christians by the Greek term, Logos. We read further on page 465,
“In the ancient Church liturgy, adopted from the Synagogue, it is especially interesting to notice how often the term “Logos,” in the sense of “the Word by which God made the world, or made His Law or Himself known to man,” was changed into “Christ” (see “Apostolic Constitutions,” vii. 25-26, 34-38, et al.). Possibly on account of the Christian dogma, rabbinic theology, outside of Targum literature, made little use of the term “Memra.”
John gives Jesus’ credentials, saying, “In the beginning was the memrah,” translated into Greek as the Logos, “the word.” It was used to represent God when He manifested Himself on earth. (Another word is the Shekinah.) John looked at the Messiah in the same way that the people looked at the memrah. It is the “image” of God. Heb. 1:3 reflects the same belief, saying,
3 And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.
Jesus fulfilled the expectations of the Memrah, but He was rejected because He did not use that power to release Judah from its captivity to Rome. Likewise, Jesus’ “yoke” was unlike that of other rabbis. He had greater similarity to the School of Hillel, which was peaceable and tried to submit to Rome, but Jesus was very different from the rival School of Shammai, which was ultra-nationalistic and hostile to Rome.
The Jewish Encyclopedia says on page 465,
“My Memra shall be unto you like a good plowman who takes off the yoke from the shoulder of the oxen.”
The School of Shammai began to dominate the leadership in Jerusalem just before the birth of Christ. This lasted until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., when the people realized that the yoke of Shammai had led to utter disaster. Only then did the more peaceable School of Hillel regain support from the majority of the people. The Jewish Encyclopedia says in Vol. III, p. 115, 116,
“The Shammaities, on the contrary, were intensely patriotic, and would not bow to foreign rule. They advocated the interdiction of any and all intercourse with those who either were Romans or in any way contributed toward the furtherance of Roman power or influences….
“Their religious austerity, combined with their hatred of the heathen Romans, naturally aroused the sympathies of the fanatic league [i.e., the Zealots], and as the Hillelites became powerless to stem the public indignation, the Shammaites gained the upper hand in all disputes affecting their country’s oppressors. Bitter feelings were consequently engendered between the schools; and it appears that even in public worship they would no longer unite under one roof… These feelings grew apace, until toward the last days of Jerusalem’s struggle they broke out with great fury.
After the destruction of Jerusalem, we are told, “the characteristics of the Hillelites once more gained the ascendency. All disputed points were brought up for review… and in nearly every case the opinion of the Hillelites prevailed.”
So we see that during the time of Jesus’ ministry, the rebellious Shammaite view dominated among the religious leaders, although the peaceful Hillelites were still very present. In general, Shammai closely represented the evil figs of Judah, whereas Hillel closely represented the good figs. This division in Judaism formed the background of Jesus’ own ministry, which agreed in great part with the lighter yoke of the School of Hillel.
Whereas many yokes had been full of demands and disciplines that were difficult to fulfill, Jesus’ yoke was light. Matt. 11:28-30 says,
28 Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy, and My load is light.
Jesus criticized the yokes that the other rabbis had placed upon the shoulders of their disciples, saying in Matt. 23:4,
4 And they tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.
This is repeated in Luke 11:46. The yoke of the rabbis was far heavier than Jesus’ yoke, because the rabbis had added numerous burdens to the law of God. Jesus taught a return to the original law, leaving out all the cumbersome traditions that had encrusted the purity of the law itself.
Luke presents us with Jesus’ genealogical credentials, but not far in the background are also Jesus’ educational credentials. Though He did not flaunt His education, He did present three witnesses to His authority. His authority was second only to His manifestation as the Logos, or the Memrah, in whom was the Shekinah presence of God.