taking the words of Jesus seriously

“Yehoshua the Rabbi”, An excerpt from A God Named Josh, chapter 4, pages 45-47

It is important to note that Yehoshua—Jesus’ given Hebrew name—was not a Christian, nor a pastor.

Indeed, Christians weren’t even called Christians until years after Yehoshua’s assassination. Acts 24:5 suggests some were known as “Nazarenes.” It was at Antioch in what is now Antakya in southern Turkey—then the Roman Empire’s third most important city and the second most mentioned city in the book of Acts—that followers of The Way were first called Christianos. As for pastor, the word and position as we now conceive it appears nowhere in the Bible, and local churches in the New Testament simply did not have full-time paid ministers.

So, if Yehoshua wasn’t a Christian nor a pastor, then what was he?

The gospels make it clear: Yehoshua was born a Jew, raised as a Jew, lived as a Jew, preached to Jews, and died as a Jew. When asked to recite the greatest commandment, he quotes Jewish Scripture. Many of his last words on the cross are from Jewish Scripture. His twelve closest disciples were all Jews. The only writer in the Bible who wasn’t a Jew is Luke. And one simply cannot be the Jewish Messiah if one does not keep Jewish law. Accordingly, everything Yehoshua says and does must be viewed through the lens of a first-century Jew. This is an extremely difficult task, considering the vast religious, cultural, political, philosophic, socioeconomic, cultural, and linguistic spans between us.

Yehoshua is not only Jewish, but he has a distinctly Jewish job: He is a rabbi. He is called “teacher” forty-five times in the gospels, and “rabbi” fourteen times. The title rabbi, or even teacher, didn’t mean then what it means now. Before the age of commercialized credentialing, rabbi referred to anyone knowledgeable in Jewish law who could attract a following. Such was the case with John the Baptizer, and John 3:26 says his disciples called him by the honorific. If the ideal Roman was a powerful soldier, the ideal Jew was a learned scholar. Yehoshua certainly falls into the latter category, and several named people in the gospels called him rabbi, including Mary Magdalene, Peter, Nathanael, Judas, Nicodemus, two of John the Baptizer’s disciples, and a crowd in Capernaum.

Technically speaking, the rabbinic era of Judaism didn’t get into full swing until after the destruction of the second temple in AD 70, when it became a formalized professional distinction like reverend. Yehoshua is more of a hasid, a sort of forerunner to the rabbinical tradition. So it perhaps makes more sense to simply call him a teacher or master. John, who penned his gospel after AD 70, affirms this distinction twice (John 1:38; 20:16). Regardless, Yehoshua couldn’t be bothered with titles and instructs his disciples to avoid the term (Matthew 23:8), seeing rabbi and reverend as yet another set of pride-puffing status symbols.

That said, the position was already formalizing enough to require some sort of bona fides. Many rabbis bragged about their ancestry, or who trained them (even Paul does so in Acts 22:3). On one of his trips to the temple in Jerusalem, Yehoshua is cornered by some of the chief priests, who ask in Mark 11:28, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” In other words: Show us your papers. Yehoshua, of course, carries no earthly stamp of approval. He is an unauthorized rabbi with an unwelcome following, and it’s only a matter of time before they seek to silence this rogue “blasphemer.”

All rabbis have one core job: to attract and train disciples. Some rabbis are spectacularly bad at their job, and some are astoundingly good. Rabbi Tarfon marries 300 women during a famine to make them eligible to receive poor tithes. Rabbi Akiva has more than 12,000 disciples and is unsurprisingly executed by the Romans. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai essentially creates the Mishnah that has since trained tens of millions of Jews.

The period in which Yehoshua ministered is now referred to as late Second Temple Judaism. Within a handful of decades, this second temple would be razed by the Romans, never to be rebuilt in the generations since. The Judaism of the late Second Temple period was about an inch short of anarchy. There was no Pope or lead denomination to instruct Jews on how to obey the Torah. Everyone jostled for power and lobbied for their personal interpretation to be the de facto Temple stance.

The two big rabbis in Yehoshua’s day were Hillel and Shammai, both Pharisees. Their Torah academies both sought an answer to the question “What does it mean to be a good Jew?” This is no easy question, especially when your nation lives under the boot of a tyrannical overlord like Rome. Within the Pharisaical party, these two rabbis battled for the hearts and minds of the Jewish people. One prioritized people, the other prioritized principles. One was liberal and graceful in his interpretations of the Torah, the other was a hardline literalist. One said anyone could study Torah, the other allowed in only “worthy” disciples. In the words of one commentator, “Hillel was known for teaching the Spirit of the Law and Shammai was known for teaching the letter of the Law.”

Unsurprisingly, The School of Shammai is the dominant religious party and will play a role in turning over Yehoshua to the Romans for execution (though not as big a role as most churchgoers think). They later sided with the Zealots in their war against the Romans, which ended disastrously for most everyone except the pacifist House of Hillel, which survived for fourteen generations and nearly four hundred years.

Hillel’s grandson Gamaliel not only trains Saul of Tarsus as a Pharisee (Acts 22:3) but later defends John and Peter before the synedrion (Acts 5:34). Yehoshua is obviously familiar with Hillel’s work, as their teachings align nearly perfectly, including Christ’s seeming aversion to the death penalty (John 8:2–11). Their biggest point of disagreement is on divorce, where Yehoshua is even more strict than Shammai.

That Yehoshua is familiar with Hillel’s beliefs is certain, especially considering Yehoshua builds on one of Hillel’s most famous teachings. From the Talmud: “On another occasion a certain Gentile came to Shammai and said to him, “Make me into a Jewish convert, but teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Immediately Shammai drove him away with the measuring stick which was in his hand. When the same Gentile went before Hillel with the same proposition, Hillel said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary on it. Now go and study it.””

Let us first note the heavy-handed response of Shammai, but then quickly turn to the Silver Rule. Don’t do what you don’t want people to do to you. Yehoshua takes Hillel’s excellent (albeit negatively framed) advice and flips it to the positive in Matthew 7:12: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” In saying so, Yehoshua marks his place in first-century rabbinical Judaism: He is a Hillel rabbi in a sea of Shammai Pharisees.

Hillel says do no harm, Yehoshua says do good, and Shammai beats strangers with a stick.

Content from A God Named Josh by Jared Brock, provided by Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Copyright 2023. Used by permission.

About The Author


Jared Brock is an award-winning author and director of several films including PBS's acclaimed Redeeming Uncle Tom with Danny Glover. His writing has appeared in Christianity Today, The Guardian, Smithsonian, USA Today, Huffington Post, Relevant, and TIME. He has traveled to more than forty countries, including North Korea, Transnistria, and the Vatican. Learn more at jaredbrock.com.

Related Posts

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.


Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
    Check which Newsletter(s) you'd like to receive:    

You have Successfully Subscribed!