In our last lesson we looked at the two types of rabbis that were present during Jesus’ day; the regular Torah teachers and the special rabbis who had s’mekah. We discovered that Jesus was one of those special rabbis who had s’mekah and He spoke and operated with that authority. Rabbis with s’mekah could make their own interpretations of the Scriptures because they were anointed by God to do so. They would say, “You have heard it said, but I say to you” and then make a new and different interpretation of a passage in the text. This was a very special authority and was only conferred on a very few of the most brilliant rabbis of the day.
These rabbis with s’mekah referred to their own unique collection of interpretations of Scripture as their “yoke”. They traveled around the countryside showing their students how to understand and obey their “yoke of Torah”. They established and fostered their reputation by attracting the best and brightest students to study under them and learn their “yoke”. These rabbis wanted the crowds to accept their teachings and to take on their way of doing things, and more or less saying, “Join my church”. There was competition among these top rabbis to see who had the most followers and the brightest students. Often, a rabbi would send one of his brightest students to test the yoke of another rabbi. He would ask a question like, “Suppose a woman marries seven successive brothers and all die, whose wife is she in heaven?” The rabbi would be expected to give a detailed answer incorporating his interpretation of the Text. This was done very respectfully, but they did this testing in order to sharpen their own yoke and expose what they thought were fallacies of the other rabbi’s position.
We see these types of dialogues throughout the Gospels. It was very usual and normal that they would test Jesus’ yoke. It’s not that they thought He was a heretic or a false teacher, this was just the way the system worked. Every rabbi was trying to show that their yoke was best and made the most sense, so it was natural that they would test and question their rivals to see if their beliefs would hold up under tough scrutiny. It is easy to imagine the disciples from one rabbi saying to each other, “They are wrong on that issue, let’s see how they answer this question. This will expose the fallacy of their teaching.”
For an example of this, let’s go to the town of Capernaum in the Galilee, where Jesus had His headquarters. Capernaum was the Harvard of Israel. The largest synagogue school ever found in Israel is located here. At least five rabbis with s’mekah were based here during Jesus’ day, and all of them had large followings of disciples. It was a very academic and thought challenging atmosphere, with all the rabbis testing and challenging each other. Jesus comes into town,with his disciples following Him, in Matthew 11:20-30. He says, ”Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” In this context, Jesus was not talking to them as sinners and not discussing their burden of sin and the heavy load that they were carrying. He was talking to these very Torah-smart, disciplined, Jews who were trying to decide which rabbi’s yoke of Torah made the most sense. He was saying, “My yoke is the one that is easiest to understand and is the one that will meet your needs.” Jesus explained His yoke even further in Matthew 22:34-40 when the Pharisees and experts of the Law tried to test Jesus with the question of what He thought was the most important commandment. Jesus replied that the most important command was to “Love the Lord your God with all you heart, soul, and mind, and the second was to Love your neighbor as yourself”. Then He said if you keep these, then all the rest of the law is just commentary. There are many examples of this testing and questioning in the Gospels. If you continue re-reading the text with this understanding of their teaching methods, their yoke and competition among the top Rabbis, then the stories read a lot differently and have much more meaning.
To conclude our study on the concept of “rabbi”, we have seen that Jesus was, in His human sense, a product of the system that was in place at the time. He was a brilliant teacher that amazed even the best trained and well-versed experts of the day. He was given His authority to speak and interpret the Text by God, Himself. Our rabbi, Jesus, gave us the correct “yoke” to follow and said that it was easy to understand and that it would give us rest for our souls. It is our task to learn that yoke and follow our rabbi with all our,” Heart, Soul and Mind”.
Footnote: For a deeper understanding of Jesus statement about His yoke, please re-read the post entitled, “What Jesus Was Saying in Matthew 11:28-30”.