The Rabbi and the Yoke

A few days ago, Joe Carter mentioned something in passing that set me to thinking. He said that there was a growing sentiment that Jesus, contrary to what we’ve been used to thinking, was more of a rabbi than a carpenter. And that’s set me to thinking. I’d been hearing these rumors for a while: Jesus the rabbi. But I’d taken it to be just another shift in emphasis in the flow of what people are talking about. I hadn’t realized that people were taking it in as an either/or sort of question. Was Jesus a carpenter or a Rabbi?

Here’s how this works: as Jesus entered into that 3 year period of public ministry, we tend to think of him as some kind of itinerant preacher circa the 19th century Methodist evangelist. But that’s our paradigm of a traveling minister. They didn’t have those in the 1st century A.D. What they did have, at least in Israel, was the itinerant rabbi. So when Jesus walked the dusty streets of Galilee and the decapolis, he settled into the mold of what people knew: the rabbi. Which is why you frequently hear people addressing him as ‘teacher’ or, ‘rabbi.’ And Jesus accepts this form of address without hesitation.

This is fine so far as it goes, with one caveat: The one truly remarkable thing about Jesus’ ministry, at least from the perspective of “Jesus as rabbi” was the fact that he had no formal education. Remember, he declined, at the age of 13, the opportunity to establish himself as a student at the temple in Jerusalem. Instead, the scripture says, he went back with his mother and father and submitted to them, or “associated himself with them.” That is, he opted to be raised as a small town laborer, rather than take the path of a career rabbi.

So when Jesus suddenly shows up one day and starts teaching with great authority and knowledge, and confidence, it’s a Big Deal. Who is this man? He hasn’t been studying in Jerusalem all this time. He hasn’t been a rising star of rabbinical studies. In fact, he has little to no formal education at all. Yet he has more to say, of more worth than the best of them.

So Jesus the rabbi was a pretty revolutionary thing. Nevertheless, I’m willing to accept him settling into the role of a Jewish rabbi in order to mesh with his culture and effectively get his message across.

But then we get to the details of how people play out this rabbi thing. An item in particular: The rabbi’s yoke.

I’ve heard this story a couple of times, and I’m not sure where it comes from, of if it’s actually true or not. And that’s what concerns me. The story goes that a 1st century rabbi would basically set himself up as a kind of guru. The rabbinical lifestyle included not just public teaching and discussion and interpretation of scripture, but actively seeking out and training disciples in a particular kind of holy life. They tell us, then, that this whole *system*, the teaching, the theological methods, the certain fasts, the particular kinds of prayers, the appropriate length of prayer shawl, all of these things combined together were called the rabbi’s “yoke.” A student who entered into training under a rabbi was said to have taken up that rabbi’s yoke.

You can see where this is going. Jesus one day cries out, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” If you accept this teaching about what a “rabbi’s yoke” was supposed to be, there’s only one way to interpret this passage: Jesus is saying to everybody that they should become his disciples and submit to his lifestyle and teaching.

THIS ALL SOUNDS GREAT, and it makes perfect sense. But my question is, where does this yoke thing come from? I never heard of it before maybe a year ago. Where was the example of the rabbi’s yoke for the last 2000 years? Was it common knowledge in the church and then suddenly forgotten? Or did somebody make the whole thing up?

Because that’s happened before. The classic case is the story of the eye of the needle. You know the phrase: “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus is engaging in first rate hyperbole. It’s excellent, and it gets the point across. But sometime ago, probably under the visage of the prosperity message, there came out a teaching of what this phrase literally meant.

You see, every city gate, in ancient times, had two doors: the great doors, which were open during the day, but closed at night for security, and then a smaller door, cut directly into the gate, that was just wide and tall enough to let a lone traveler in who had managed to get to the city after things were closed for the night. This second door, for some reason, was called “the eye of the needle.” Now the small door was built for a person to walk through. But what if he had an animal with him, say a camel? Well, it wasn’t completely impossible for that camel to get through the narrow gate. It was just awfully difficult. You see, what the camel had to do was to get down on its knees and sort of hobble in through the door.

The interpretation was obvious: It isn’t impossible, after all, for a camel to pass through “the eye of the needle.” It’s just very difficult. But it can be done, if the camel will simply bow itself down. So also for a rich man. He can enter into the kingdom of God, but only with great difficulty, if he will only humble himself and bow low.

The only problem for this interpretation is that it’s just not true. I couldn’t tell you if they cut “narrow gates” in the larger city gates for night entry, though I certainly doubt it. What good is a barred city gate, if there is a clearly marked weak point where they cut a hole in it? But if there was, I can tell you for certain that it wasn’t called “the eye of the needle.” Why would it be called that? And I can doubly assure you that nobody was forcing caravan camels to crawl through them on their knees like a pilgrim at a shrine. Have you ever seen somebody try to get a camel to walk somewhere on it’s own feet? Want to imagine trying to force a camel to crawl?

No. Somebody made the whole thing up, and it got passed on as good teaching.

So, about Jesus the rabbi. I’m willing to accept it as far as it goes. They did call him rabbi, and he did accept the title. But as for the other things, and how important they are to understand Jesus message correctly, I’d beware, lest we take a nice idea for an illustration and mistake it for hard thinking interpretation.

Author: KB French

Formerly many things, including theology student, mime, jr. high Latin teacher, and Army logistics officer. Currently in the National Guard, and employed as a civilian... somewhere

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