Rabbi, Pharisee, teacher of the law


The word ‘rabbi’ means ‘my master’, and is used by students to address teachers of the Jewish Torah. In the New Testament it describes the community religious teachers of that time, who helped people understand the scriptures. Rabbis would gather a group of adherents around them and teach by example as much as by discourse. Their disciples lived alongside each rabbi, devoting themselves to the rabbi’s teaching and were guided by them as they worked out rabbinical teachings in practice, much as an apprentice learns by doing what their mentor does.

There was kudos attached to the title (Matthew 23:7), as rabbis provided respected voices of authority. Jesus is addressed as rabbi (e.g. John 3:1-2), as was John the Baptist before him John 3:26. When Mary Magdalene addresses the risen Jesus as ‘rabboni’, the extended form of the word expresses deeper respect John 20:16-18, as well as indicating that Jesus’ teacher/disciple relationship was not exclusive to his male followers.

Pharisees, scribes and teachers of the law

In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were a party within the ruling class of first century Judaism. Their name derives from the Hebrew and Aramaic for ‘one who is separated’. They were devoted to studying scripture and believed that strict adherence to laws and tradition was vital in order to maintain Jewish identity under Roman occupation. Another group associated with teaching were the scribes, so-called because of their role in copying scripture to preserve and disseminate it.


Jesus was harshly critical of the Pharisees and scribes, frequently calling them hypocrites, as many imposed harsh rules on ordinary worshippers yet got around the law themselves (e.g.Matthew 15:1-9). Jesus repeats his condemnation so frequently (e.g. chapter 23 of Matthew’s Gospel) that the term ‘Pharisee’ has become a byword for religious hypocrisy in Western culture.

Most Pharisees and scribes sought to discredit Jesus’ ministry, ascribing his miracles to the devil (e.g. Matthew 12:22-24) and criticising Jesus’ association with ‘sinners’ (e.g.Luke 15:2). Enjoying prestige themselves (Mark 12:38), they were threatened by Jesus’ popularity (John 11:47-48) and offended by his authority to forgive sin, which they regarded as blasphemy (Luke 5:21).

Wanting to assert their superior religious knowledge and make Jesus incriminate himself, the scribes and Pharisees frequently tried to trick him with loaded questions such as in Luke 20:19-26. Ultimately they were complicit in Jesus’ arrest (John 11:53) and sentencing to death (Matthew 20:18).

Not all of the teachers and rulers were hostile to Jesus, but those who respected him, such as Nicodemus the Pharisee John 3:1-2 and Joseph of Arimathea, a council member Mark 15:43; Matthew 27:57-58 did so secretly, in order to avoid judgment and suspicion.

Rabbis, Pharisees and teachers of the law in literature

  • Mr. Brocklehurst, the clergyman-schoolmaster of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), is an archetypal ‘religious hypocrite’. He justifies the deprivation and harsh treatment of his pupils with quotes from scripture whilst he and his family live comfortably
  • In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Joseph is described as ‘the wearisomest self-righteous Pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake the promises to himself and fling the curses to his neighbours.’
  • Thomas Hughes’ 1857 novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays affectionately remembers Dr. Arnold, the real Rugby School headmaster whose teaching and godly example has a profound impact on the spiritual life of the fictional protagonist
  • Wise Blood (Flannery O’Connor, 1952) charts an unsettling rivalry between an ‘anti-religion evangelist’ and a hypocritical street preacher who pretends to be blind
  • Amos Starkadder in Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm (1932) is an itinerant ‘hell fire’ preacher.


  • A rabbi to the Coen Brothers in their youth was apparently the inspiration for their 2009 black comedy A Serious Man. The film’s desperate protagonist has some interesting, bewil-dering exchanges with his own rabbis during his quest to make sense of life.
  • The BBC Eastenders soap character, Dot Cotton, likes to quote the Bible and often seems to be passing self-righteous judgment on her neighbours.

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