Replica of First Century Galilee Boat

You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other.

Jesus as Rabbi:
Part 1: What is a Rabbi?
Part 2: Was Jesus a Rabbi?
Part 3: Jesus’ Miracles
Part 4: Jesus and other Rabbis
Part 5: Jesus and the Pharisees

In the next set of articles in this series, we will explore the relationship between the rabbi and his disciples.

As we’ve noted previously, one of the defining aspects of a “rabbi” prior to 70 A.D. was that they had disciples, talmidim, who followed them. Often, from a western standpoint we tend to equate “disciple” as being a “student”, and the “rabbi” as a “teacher”. This falls short of the cultural richness of this relationship, though:

A student wants to know that the teacher knows. A talmid wants to be what the rabbi is.

This cannot be overemphasized. (NOTE: In the case of Jesus, wanting to be what the rabbi is is a statement about Jesus’ human nature, not his divine nature.)

Educational System

As we’ve touched on before, the culture of the hasidim was highly educated, in comparison to their contemporaries, particularly regarding the knowledge and memorization of scripture.

From the age of about 4 to the age of 11 or 12, they participated in bet sefer, memorizing the books of Torah (for boys) and the Psalms (for girls). Even today, there are a number of Jewish communities that continue this practice, where it is not uncommon for all members of the community above the age of 12 to have Torah (Genesis – Deuteronomy) memorized. (From my own grade-school church experience, we seemed pretty satisfied having one verse memorized each week!)

At the completion of bet sefer, the children began to learn their family trade (boys) or home skills (girls), with the most talented boys continuing their Torah studies on top of this. This level of education, called bet midrash, included memorization the prophets and the writings, along with interpretation and application of Torah.

Choices, Choices

At this point in their education, the student would approach a s’mikah rabbi in an attempt to further their study. The students would approach such a rabbi, often based upon the rabbi’s area of focus and key methods, to see if the he would accept them as a talmid, a disciple.

The way they would do this is by approaching the rabbi and asking him, “can I be like you?”

The rabbi would then test the student thoroughly. Should the potential talmid not fully meet the expectations of the rabbi, the rabbi would likely suggest that the family profession best suits the student – a devastating blow. If the potential talmid met the mark, though, the rabbi would reply “yes, I believe you can become what I am”, and would accept the young man as his disciple.

Very few young men ever made it this far. In modern America, it would be the relative equivalent of a young football player making it into the NFL. Being the talmid of an authoritative rabbi was a big deal – an opportunity of great proportion.

However – history records that three of these authoritative rabbis altered this model: Hillel, Akiva and especially a certain Galilean, Yeshua. These three rabbis sought out and chose their own disciples rather than having the talmidim come to find them.

In Jesus’ case, we see him in each of the gospels coming out and choosing his talmidim:

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

When viewing this calling in its original context, it is no wonder that these young men immediately dropped everything to follow Yeshua! The fact that they were already practicing the family trade would indicate that they were not “good enough” students to make the cut after bet sefer or bet midrash (From the context of Acts 4:13, it is likely that Peter and John were not talented enough to have participated in bet midrash, though they undoubtedly would have participated in bet sefer with all of the other children.) Jesus’ disciples were the “C” students, but he chose them – which should speak to us as well, when we consider our own lack of qualifications.

Jesus even reiterates this to his talmidim:

You did not choose me, but I chose you

In the Hebrew view, this is often expressed as the “faith” of a rabbi in his talmidim – which is not a statement of divinity, but rather a statement of belief that his talmidim are fully capable of living in a way enough like his own to live out Torah correctly.

Footnote on Age

One interesting, though sometimes controversial, footnote to this rabbi/talmid relationship is that in the extra-biblical accounts of talmidim serving under rabbis, these talmidim are all between the ages of 12 and 30, primarily weighted toward the teen-age years.

In the Bible, we have no indication that Jesus’ talmidim were outside of this norm. In fact, at least one scripture seems to indicate that Jesus’ disciples, apart from Peter, were all in their teens:

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”

“Yes, he does,” he replied.


“But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”

The two-drachma temple tax was paid by ALL adult (over the age of 20) Jews, and in this passage, we see that Jesus pays the tax for only him and Peter, even though the text says that disciples were with Jesus. So – either Jesus paid for Peter and himself through miraculous providence, stiffing the others , or (more likely) Jesus and Peter were the only ones required (male and twenty years of age or older) to pay it.

Because of our cultural biases, we often “see” the disciples as being the same age as – if not older than – Jesus. Rather, it is far more likely that, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, John (the youngest) was likely 12 or 13 and Peter was probably 18 or 19.

Additionally, most talmidim served 12-16 years under a rabbi, but Jesus’ were only with him for three before he sent them out to make their own disciples! As you consider the age and level of “official” training of Jesus’ disciples, it is truly a statement to the his power and the simplicity of his teaching that he sent out a group of teen-age boys, and they, in turn, through him, changed the world by going out and making their own disciples – just like their rabbi.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 27th, 2008 at 5:45 pm and is filed under Devotional, Original Articles, Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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15 Comments(+Add)

1   Dave Muller
February 27th, 2008 at 7:52 pm

Thanks Chris, this was a great article! By far the most insightful from my view in what I’ve been wondering about the scriptures.

2   Christian P
February 27th, 2008 at 9:06 pm

Chris, you never cease to amaze me in your studies.

3   merry    
February 28th, 2008 at 2:26 pm

Are you telling me that Judas Iscariot might have been just a reckless 16-year-old boy? Man . . . I always imagined the disciples as rough, grumpy middle-aged men, lol! Very interesting. :)

4   Chris L
February 28th, 2008 at 4:51 pm

We don’t know a whole lot about Judas, other than it is likely that he was from a zealot background. Assuming he was more like Peter than John (from his seating at the last supper table, and from his role as a money-keeper), it is more likely he would have been 18 or 19 when he betrayed Jesus…

5   andy    
February 28th, 2008 at 5:15 pm

Wouldn’t some of them been a lot older Chris? How old were tax collector like Matthew and fishing men?

That Judas could of been a young man, is even more scary thought, considering what happened to him,makes me sympathetic to him if i dare say so..

6   Chris L
February 28th, 2008 at 5:52 pm


Note the passage on the Temple tax (which is consistent with disciples in their teens) above. You would need to argue that, for some reason, Jesus only provides the tax for himself and Peter – stiffing the remaining disciples.

Also, Peter is clearly treated in the way that the oldest talmid would have been treated (and has traditionally been taught to be the oldest of the disciples, with John being the youngest). Talmidim were never older than 30, in any setting.

How old were tax collector like Matthew and fishing men?

You started learning the family profession at the age of 12 or so. Since many boys were married between the ages of 13 and 16, there is no reason to correlate their working (fishing, collecting taxes – which often meant taxing the produce by taking a portion of it, not collecting coinage – , etc.) with being out of their teens.

Rather, there is no indication whatsoever in scripture that the disciples were in their twenties (or older), which would be far out of the norm. This is a case where we’ve taken our cultural norms (adult at 18, responsible in your 20’s) and placed them in a culture whose average lifespan was pretty short (some suggest late 30’s/early 40’s), and adult responsibility (via bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah) clearly was bestowed at an earlier age.

That Judas could of been a young man, is even more scary thought, considering what happened to him,makes me sympathetic to him if i dare say so..

I wouldn’t say ’sympathetic’. When you force children to take on adult roles earlier, they will step up to the plate. It just so happens that, in the west, we’ve delayed adulthood by treating kids like kids long past the age of puberty. Other cultures in the world, where adulthood is thrust upon kids at a younger age, show teenagers with more maturity than the soft Western world…

7   andy    
February 28th, 2008 at 6:01 pm

Hi Chris thks for the reply…That Judas makes the biggest mistake in history,and then i presume pays for it for eternity, and was only 19,very sobering

8   merry    
February 28th, 2008 at 9:15 pm

“When you force children to take on adult roles earlier, they will step up to the plate.”

That’s true, but the explanation of the disciples being teenagers makes sense as to why they sometimes didn’t seem to act very “mature”. Peter had a tendency to speak before thinking and said some hilarious, stupid things. And Judas . . . greedy Judas– when that woman poured the perfume on Jesus’ feet and dried it with her hair, and Judas made the comment of how all that money could have been used to “help the poor”, I can just imagine him, like some smart-alecky teenage boys I know, saying something like “That was so stupid–duh!!”

And John, the “disciple whom Jesus loved”, was the youngest and only 12 or 13? That’s so sweet, that Jesus looked out for him. John is my favorite of the 4 gospels.

9   merry    
February 28th, 2008 at 9:26 pm

Oh– and remember that story about when 3 of the disciples got into a stupid argument over who would sit on the left and right hand of Jesus in heaven, and the argument was so bad that their mothers came to talk to Jesus about it? I always laughed so hard at that story, imagining the disciples’ mothers coming to the defense of their darling little babies, but if they were teenagers, that makes more sense. It’s still hilarious, though. :)

10   TimB
February 28th, 2008 at 9:28 pm

Chris L,
I’ve really enjoyed this series. I think Judas has been treated very harshly by history. He played a role in the crucifixion. His suicide, to me, shows the magnitude of his treachery came crashing down on him. He seems more like a pathetic figure who let his greed get the better of him. Besides, every great story needs a villian.

11   andy    
February 29th, 2008 at 2:11 am

Exactly Tim and only around 19 to boot & then hell awaits ! (see u like Rainer excellent taste)

Great series Chris

12   Henry (Rick) Frueh
February 29th, 2008 at 7:21 am

In all seriousness, your scholarly research is so wonderful.

13   Dave Muller
February 29th, 2008 at 8:05 am

I’m going to post again, just to show how much I appreciate these series you do, Chris. With the time and effort you must put into it, they deserve all the comments of the other threads.

14   Henry (Rick) Frueh
February 29th, 2008 at 8:18 am

Actually Chris L. is a psuedo-name. These articles are written by someone named “Zan”. Wierd.

15   Chris L
February 29th, 2008 at 10:14 am

Thanks, guys – I really do appreciate it (though I don’t mind shorter comment threads if that means there’s less acrimony involved :)