The answer is, “Yes, no, and it depends on what you mean by ‘rabbi.’” Sound confusing? Actually, it is fairly simple.
We know from the gospels that Jesus was sometimes called “Rabbi” by His followers (the term literally means, “My teacher, my master”), just as John the Immerser (John the Baptist) was called “rabbi” by his followers (for the latter, see John 3:26). So, in that sense we can answer in the affirmative and say, Yes, Jesus really was a rabbi, and quite a rabbi at that—a rabbi who opened blind eyes (Mark 10:51; John 9:2), raised the dead (John 11:8), walked on water (John 6:25) and had power over nature (Mark 11:21; He is also addressed as rabbi in Matthew 26:25, 49; Mark 9:5; 14:45; John 1:38, 49; 3:2; 4:31).
This underscores both the Jewishness of our Savior and the Jewish roots of our faith, especially when we remember that:
• He was called rabbi, not reverend.
• He went to synagogue, not to church.
• He celebrated Passover, not Easter.
• He knew all about the story of His miraculous birth but never heard of Christmas.
In one sense of the word, then, it is right to say that Jesus was a rabbi. On the other hand, official rabbinic ordination (called s’mikha) had not yet been established in Jesus’ day and so, there was no way to become arabbi in any formal sense of the word. The term rabbi was an informal title of honor and esteem used in Jewish circles, reflecting the way in which a disciple would address his teacher, rather than signifying a formal title associated with public ordination. In that sense of the word, there were no rabbis in Yeshua’s day.
And this leads to the last part of our answer—“It depends on what you mean by ‘rabbi’”—since there is quite a difference between what “rabbi” meant in the early first century and what it means today. Judaism has come a long way in the last 2,000 years, developing thousands of traditions and producing hundreds of sacred books, most of which would have been unknown in Jesus’ day. More importantly, Judaism as a religion does not recognize Yeshua as Messiah and Lord.
A rabbi today, especially in traditional Jewish circles, is primarily a scholar, expected to give himself to study and to be responsible for teaching and for making judgments in Jewish law, along with being—at least on some level—an inspirational leader by example and even a shepherd of his flock. Although Jesus fulfilled some of these roles, He does not fit the mold of a traditional Jewish rabbi, nor would He endorse some of the manmade traditions of Judaism that, in His words, make the Word of God void (see Mark 7:8-9).
It would therefore be misleading to think of Jesus as being a rabbi in the traditional Jewish sense of the word. But I hasten to add that it would be wrong to think of Him as a member of the Christian clergy! We do well, then, to put Yeshua in a special class of His own, never forgetting that from a historical perspective, He was more of a “rabbi” than a “reverend,” and it was out of Jewish soil that the roots of our faith grew.
For more on this and related subjects, read Dr. Brown’s book, 60 Questions Christians Ask About Jewish Beliefs and Practices.