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Ancient history New Testament

Was Jesus a Rabbi?

That designation is applied to Jesus more than any other single designation in the Gospels.

The Gospels repeatedly designate Jesus as a rabbi. For some, the term adds an extra layer of depth to the historical Jesus. But it’s not that simple for everyone. For example, calling Jesus a rabbi associates him with Judaism. It also reinforces his role as a historical figure. Both implications go against the grain of certain ideologies. In this interview, Mary Magdalene author Bruce Chilton explains more—and reflects on reactions to his book, Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography.


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Table of contents


What is the Rabbi Jesus backstory?

My religious awakening as an adolescent happened in Dubrovnik, then in Yugoslavia, in 1967. I loved walking the streets and the parapets of that city, but also needed to shelter from the summer heat inside churches from time to time. In one of them, a rendering of the Crucifixion struck me, which focused several years of spiritual searching.

The terrible truth of human suffering and its collective inevitability came home to me. But at the same time I felt the force of an answering, transcendent compassion.

His thinking was illuminated.

Years later, studying in seminary for the priesthood, the truth of the Creed of Chalcedon, the Christ is both entirely human and entirely divine, made sense of what I had directly experienced in Dubrovnik. In many ways, my education, culminating in a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, was an exploration of my own experience. I have some friends who helpfully call this a born again moment, and others who see it terms of mystical union. I just understand it as an encounter with Christ, in a relationship that has been lifelong.

Research gave me the tools to investigate Jesus, the human nature of Christ, by means of the languages of his time and place, analysis of the complex history of his setting, and literary analysis of the Gospels and related sources. My work in its initial stages was necessarily technical, but I also became convinced that one test of any finding is its capacity to be expressed in language that can be commonly understood. That conviction was growing just as I moved from England, where my first tenured position was at Sheffield University, to my first endowed chair at Yale University.

While at Yale I was invited to join the “Jesus Seminar” and took part in its work. Although I appreciated discussion with my many fine colleagues in that project, I also grew dissatisfied with its failure to take what I think of as a “from the ground up” approach. That is, start with the Judaism of Jesus’ time, and then see what he did and said so as to produce the results we can see in the written evidence before us in the New Testament and related sources. That requires, not piecemeal analysis, but a drawing together of findings in a narrative form. That is the agenda of Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography.


How has it been received?

Some of my colleagues have remarked that the book was helpful to them, because it enabled them to see the point of several of my more technical publications. That made me realize that, while writing for a general readership, I had inadvertently performed a service for my academic counterparts.

Writing in the National Catholic Reporter, Arthur Jones invited:

Open this book, and see Jesus as you have never seen him.

Arthur Jones

That focused on the point of book, and he commented so favorably on its prose that I am too embarrassed to quote him. But what made me happiest was his remark that Rabbi Jesus “made me feel better than ever about the Jesus we try to serve and follow.”

A headshot of Bruce Chilton, author of religious historical books such as Rabbi Jesus.
Bruce Chilton says that reactions to “Rabbi Jesus” have been both positive and negative.

The inevitable contrast came in the negative reaction, whose most extreme form accused me of being “an angel of Satan.” Whether or not criticism was crudely expressed, it consistently has come for the reason that my historical analysis had led me to criticize and replace received ideas about Jesus, and to develop a comprehensive account of his life that is consistent with the best evidence. In conversation, some of my critics have expressed the view that neither history nor evidence matter as much as their ideologically driven views of Jesus.

So the book has rather clearly drawn the line between two approaches to understanding Jesus in history. I am happy to be on the side of that line that I am, and I am encouraged that the individual ideas of the book have gained ground since I wrote.


How did Bruce Chilton become interested in religious history?

In order to understand (and especially, to preach on the basis of) the New Testament, I decided I needed to learn its language, Koine Greek, but also the principal languages of the Judaism of its time, Aramaic and Hebrew. But one thing led to another, and I found myself learning Coptic, Latin, and Syriac, as well. Latin was pretty much required of graduate students in religion at the time, and French and German had to be used for secondary literature. Languages became a lens of analysis for me.

The Aramaic paraphrases of the Hebrew Bible known as Targums interested me in particular, especially in the study of Jesus. I was able to show that, time and again, when Jesus quoted the Book of Isaiah (his favorite work) he did so in a way that corresponded more to the Aramaic Targum than to the Hebrew text. Of course, all that had to be worked out technically, but I brought the results out in a more popular book, A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible.

The point about Jesus’ recourse to the oral, Aramaic Bible of his time is not only that his words are better understood on that basis, but also that his thinking is illuminated. Because I was interested in this thinking process, my editor at Doubleday, Andrew Corbin, came up with the subtitle (An Intimate Biography) for Rabbi Jesus.

At the end of the day, religious history and personal history intersect, both at the origin points of events and their interpretation.


Do Bruce Chilton’s scholarly work and life in the Episcopal Church support one another?

I was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church the same year I began my doctoral program in Cambridge, and the next year I was made a priest of the Church of England at Ely Cathedral, the diocesan seat of Cambridge. For the whole of the time since 1974, I have been involved in pastoral ministry—usually in formal appointments that I have fulfilled while also engaged in teaching and research. My experience of ministry, as person-to-person engagement, is deeper than most of colleagues in academic positions have benefitted from.

That experience has given me insight into how faith is developed, and where it is challenged. When you see generations of people enter this world and conduct their lives through predictable rites of passage and completely unexpected blessings and challenges, you gain a certain perspective.

My pastoral experience has taught me that people and congregations are resilient, intellectually engaged, and at the same time vulnerable. Their vulnerability, however, is not reduced by telling people what you think they want to hear. The practice of pandering to received opinion has diminished the standards of preaching and scholarship for many decades. At the end of the day, that habit undermines genuine faith.

Because the center of Christian faith involves a person who is both fully human and entirely divine, no investigation can be foreclosed out of deference to a previous, ideological finding. When I began study at Cambridge, C.F.D. Moule, one of the most influential scholars of the New Testament of his time and an Anglican priest, was my graduate supervisor. He gave me superb advice in regard to methods of research and strategies of communicating findings. More deeply, he embodied a theological confidence that, because the divine Word had taken flesh (John 1:14) believers should be confident that their increasing engagement with that history will bring them greater awareness of God’s purposes.


Was Jesus a rabbi?

Indeed he was: and that designation is applied to Jesus more than any other single designation in the Gospels. I pointed that out and listed the passages involved on p. 296 of Rabbi Jesus, in one of its Endnotes. As I went on to say, the meaning of the term “rabbi” in the first century did not involve an institutional qualification, and referred to a teacher, as is plain from literary sources and the archaeological record.

Nonetheless, resistance to associating Jesus with a function in Judaism remains very strong in many quarters of Christianity, and also among secularists who would prefer not to think of Jesus as an historical figure at all. This is why the most controversial feature of Rabbi Jesus is its title: it directly challenges the view that Jesus had nothing to do with Judaism, and the view that Jesus is a figment of religious imagination that has nothing to do with history.

At the time I gave the book its main title, I had no intention of upsetting either Fundamentalist believers or their secular fundamentalist counterparts. I have long understood that I do indeed rile up both groups, and see that as inescapable. But the title simply begins at the beginning, by giving Jesus the title accorded him, not only by his followers, but by neutral observers and his opponents.

Had I known how much controversy my decision would produce, I suppose I would have leaned in on it harder.


Do we know when and how his father died?

Joseph is an shadowy figure in the earliest attested evidence; the mystery of his background and the course of his life is not illuminated very much by later, apocryphal legend. Still, as I point out in a footnote on p. 20 (note 9), the lack of reference to Joseph after Jesus’ early adolescence makes it probable that he died by that time—although he had influenced Jesus up until then.

This was also Saint Jerome’s conclusion. The process of reasoning involved, whether mine or Jerome’s, is typical of how early sources from largely nonliterate cultures need to be assessed. We cannot expect written certificates of death from civilizations that did not produce them, and so need to proceed by a process of inference. This approach to history has become standard in the humanities generally; unfortunately, the outdated expectation that every important event was literally documented in its time persists among some of those who discuss the Bible and its meaning.

In connection with Joseph, it is perhaps even more interesting to sort out how he came to be responsible for five sons, James, Joses, Judas, and Simon, together with Jesus, as well as more than one daughter (see Mark 6:3). As another scholar of the ancient Church, Epiphanius, pointed out, this makes it likely that Joseph had been widowed before his relationship with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and brought children into his new marriage.

I agree with Epiphanius in Rabbi Jesus, citing the relevant critical literature (p. 6 with n. 4, pp. 294-295 in the Endnotes). Because Joseph came to his marriage from another town after his first wife’s death, and was not living with Mary when she became pregnant (Matthew 1:18), Jesus was by definition a child of doubtful paternity, a mamzer.


What do we lose if we don’t view a mortal Jesus through the context of His time?

Historically speaking, we of course lose everything if we fail to view any person through the context of the setting and the period involved. History is of value in itself, and should be pursued with the usual methods. That means including archaeological evidence and anthropological analysis, as well as the consideration of textual sources. The range of material to be surveyed, especially when the resources of Second Temple Judaism and Roman historiography are taken into account, is demanding and also fascinating.

This was a perfect storm.

There is also a theological side to your question, because Jesus is the focus of the most influential religion there has ever been. He catalyzed the complex teachings of Christology that came after him, from the Pantocrator of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, through the Atoning sacrifice of Anselm of Canterbury, and on to the “man for others” of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Those are all deeply influential teachings, which cannot be appreciated apart from an understanding of how they interfaced with Jesus himself.

The most important of all influences, however, occurs when Jesus encounters believers. That encounter is both collective and individual, but in all cases the paramount concern is how this specific human being, fully human, conveys a reality that is also fully divine.

Without familiarity of Jesus’ human nature, the divine nature that is its counterpart is likely to be missed.


What environments most influenced Jesus?

All those who contributed to the New Testament—Jesus included—acted within specifiable cultural environments, and there was a considerable amount of variation among them. Sometimes, a microclimate emerged within crosscurrents of trade, political hegemonies, military campaigns, and claims of religious identity. The scale of change, including linguistic change, as one moved from one region to another, or even one town to another, was greater than most modern readers are familiar with.

Jesus was nurtured in Galilee, in a tiny agricultural settlement whose Judaic identity had only been secured from the time of the Maccabees in the second century BCE. Its reputation as “Galilee of the nations” (a phrase that reflects Assyrian domination after 722 BCE) still lingered, at least among the population of Judea to the south.

Crucifixion became unpreventable.

Galilee was governed by a Herod Antipas, one of Herod the Great’s sons. But Antipas never acquired the title of king that he coveted. He was strictly a Roman appointee. Judea was even more directly ruled from Rome, by means of a prefect (later called a procurator). Direct rule was no advantage, because it signaled the concern of the Roman Emperor that Judea was prone to revolutionary outbreaks.

In between Galilee and Judea lay Samaria, and Jesus also had dealings with Samaritans. Doing so was controversial in Judaism, since Samaritans were regarded as representing an impure, breakaway religion. Jesus’ own status as a mamzer made him more willing than most of his contemporaries to engage outcasts, since he was one himself.


How did Caiaphas and Pilate conspire to kill Jesus?

My analysis of the forces that led up to the Crucifixion is grounded in the work of earlier scholars, especially Cecil Roth and Victor Eppstein. As I took their lead, and looked into the political situation in Rome at the time of Jesus’ execution at the order of Pilate, the motivations of Caiaphas and Pilate as well as Jesus became clear.

Caiaphus and Pilate plot to kill Jesus in ancient Israel
An AI-generated image of Caiaphas and Pilate conspiring to kill Jesus.

Caiaphas, the longest serving High Priest of the first century CE, had consolidated the sacrificial process by introducing trade in animals into the Great Court of the Temple. This involved removing them from across the Kidron Valley. Pilate at this time had been put in a tenuous political position by the brutal execution of his protector, whose name was Sejanus, in Rome. Sejanus had encouraged Pilate in pursuing anti-Semitic policies, and now Pilate had to reverse course, and make common cause with the High Priest.

Jesus, meanwhile, had been forced out of his native Galilee as a result of a campaign by the governor, Herod Antipas, to arrest and kill him—as he had earlier executed John the Baptist. In Jerusalem, Jesus involved himself in the controversy caused by Caiaphas’ innovation, taking the prophetic view, that trade was not to be introduced into the Temple (Zechariah 14:21).

As one of my graduate students once remarked, this was a perfect storm:

  • Pilate was at a moment of unprecedented weakness and had to take the side of Caiaphas.
  • Caiaphas sensed his influence at its peak and was determined to use it.
  • And Jesus would not retreat from his dedication to the prophetic strand of Judaism that had also given him his signature preaching of the kingdom of God.

Once these three forces clashed, the Crucifixion became unpreventable.


How has E. P. Sanders influenced Bruce Chilton?

At Union Seminary, E. P. Sanders enjoyed the supervision of W. D. Davis in his dissertation. Before Davis left the United Kingdom to take up posts in the United States, he had been active in Cambridge, where he exerted an influence until I studied there. Not only C.F.D. Moule, but also Ernst Bammel (my second Ph.D. supervisor) regarded Davis highly and encouraged my reading of his work; Davis later took up a correspondence with me. In Rabbi Jesus, I mention Davis along with Asher Finkel and Samuel Sandmel as formative influences in my seeing Jesus as, not merely Jewish, but as shaped by Judaism (p. xix).

The greatest influence Sanders exerted on me was through his book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, which developed the idea of comparing “patterns of religion” to describe Judaism and Paul’s emerging conceptions. Sanders entered into a sometimes acrimonious debate with Jacob Neusner, the premier scholar of Rabbinic Judaism of his generation. As that debate developed, Neusner also wrote a very favorable review of my book, A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible.

The result was my longstanding collaboration, which included his acceptance of a senior position at Bard College. The heart of our agreement was and is that, while comparable as Sanders suggests, religions are not static patterns, but dynamic systems. We brought out a series of books in order to develop that analysis of Judaism and Christianity—both in relation to one another and each in its own terms.


Did Paul reform Judaism rather than help establish Christianity?

Paul never used the term “Christianity” in his letters, although the term “Christian” had been invented in his lifetime (Acts 11:25-26). He correctly understood that the term was demeaning, an attempt to reduce followers of Jesus to the status of partisan political adherents.

To Paul’s mind, as I point out in Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography, all believers in baptism—both Jews and gentiles—became “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16). This was in my opinion his most radical contribution, and one that remains controversial.

Paul sought not so much to “reform” Judaism, as to redefine it. In the period after World War II, several contributors, in the effort to stress the commonality of Christianity and Judaism, used the language of “reform” or “renewal” to speak of how Jesus and Paul acted within their religious environments.

There are two problems that persistently arise as a result.

  • First, the language of “reform” and “renewal” treats Judaism as a monolithic entity, which it was not, and assumes that Jesus and Paul set out programs of improvement, which they did not.
  • Second, those terms are not at all adequate to explain the profound transformation these two leaders announced. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, and Paul declared that the form of this world is melting away in the blaze of Christ’s glory.

What might Bruce Chilton include in a new edition of Rabbi Jesus?

As one compares Rabbi Jesus, Rabbi Paul, and Mary Magdalene, the maps, the typography, and the indices all improve. So, I would want to take advantage of that progress.

Then there is the matter of how to present notes, which it seems to me publishers still have not settled on in any field. Perhaps your readers would like to offer advice?

Mary Magdalene has notes at the end of the volume by page number, keyed to the wording on that page, which is indicated in bold type. That is a straightforward method, but I am not sure that it is as helpful to readers as it might be. Rabbi Paul has notes at the end, but numbered, followed by observations on sources, chapter by chapter.

Rabbi Jesus offers the most complex approach, with both footnotes at the bottom of pages for immediate explanation and notes at the end for a more extended discussion of sources, also chapter by chapter. Because Rabbi Jesus is designed to be readable, a couple of reviewers skipped the notes, and then stated falsely that there were no notes. I suppose some method to make them more prominent might be a good idea; in any case, I still prefer Old School footnotes at the bottom of pages.

However the issue of formatting might be approached, updating the whole, perhaps with comments on subsequent discussion, would help to orient readers in the further exploration of Jesus’ character and contribution.


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About Bruce Chilton

Bruce Chilton is Director of the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College. He holds a PhD from Cambridge University and is the founding editor of the Journal for the Study of the New Testament. Dr. Chilton is the author of numerous books and articles, including Rabbi Jesus, Rabbi Paul, Mary Magdalene, and Abraham’s Curse.


Further reading

Rabbi Jesus resources

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By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

One reply on “Was Jesus a Rabbi?”

Thank you for this article. It is fascinating. I just purchased Dr. Chilton’s book and look forward to learning even more about Jesus in the context of His time. The AI generated artwork is beautiful and interesting.

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