n his account of the life of Jesus, Luke tells that Jesus, when He was “about 30 years of age” (3:23), was baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist. Immediately following His baptism, Jesus “was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, being forty days tempted of the devil” (4:1-2). After His temptation, Jesus returned to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit . . . and he taught in their synagogues” (vv. 14-15). Thus, Jesus began His public ministry in Galilee soon after His 30th birthday. Why did He wait so long to get started with the public proclamation of His mission?
- A Logical Answer
One could assume Jesus did not begin His public ministry until He was 30 simply because this was God’s plan for His life (and, no doubt, it was). However, if we look for a logical reason for Jesus delaying the beginning of His public ministry until then, it seems it was because He was a bona fide rabbi. By custom, rabbis were not regarded as mature enough to begin their public ministry until age 30.
This custom was suggested by the law of Moses, which stipulated that priests could not begin their public ministry in full until they were 30 years old (Num. 4:2-3, 22-23, 29-30). In contrast to that rule, Numbers 8:24 says the Levites (who were not priestly descendants of Aaron) could begin their duties at age 25. However, Jewish teachers have interpreted this to mean that between ages 25 and 30 the Levites served as assistants, “and only at age 30 [were] counted as full-fledged members of the work force” (The Jewish Study Bible).
According to the church fathers Origen (AD 185-254) and Jerome (AD 342-420), no Jew was allowed to read the Song of Solomon until attaining 30 years of age. This, too, indicates the Jews regarded 30 as the age at which a devout and learned Jew could arrive at a state of spiritual and moral maturity sufficient to teach and lead others.
- Was Jesus a Rabbi?
Jesus is frequently described by preachers and teachers as an “itinerant preacher.” What does this mean? By strict definition, this means Jesus was a preacher who traveled about from place to place. However, the connotation of itinerant preacher, when applied to Jesus, is often intended to mean He had no education or training for His ministry; and He conducted His ministry of preaching and teaching without any official sanction from the Jewish religious establishment. While Jesus was opposed by many Jewish religious leaders (but not all), the evidence within the Gospels is that He was a bona fide rabbi who taught freely in the synagogues and in the Temple at Jerusalem (John 18:19-20).
Jesus was called “Rabbi,” especially so by His own disciples, and by others. In the Greek of the New Testament, the English word rabbi comes from rabbei (“my master”), from the root word rab (“master”). In the King James Version, only in John’s Gospel is the Greek word rabbei translated “Rabbi” (addressed to John the Baptist and Jesus). However, rabbei, addressed to Jesus, occurs nine times in Matthew, Mark, and Luke; but in each of these instances, in the KJV, it is translated “Master.” In the NKJV and NIV, in each of these instances, it is translated (correctly) “Rabbi.” In addition to these texts in the Gospels where Jesus is called “Rabbi,” 44 times in the four Gospels He is called “Master,” with the title Master (Greek: didaskalos) being used as synonymous with the title Rabbi.
- The Role of Bona Fide Rabbis
In Jesus’ time, rabbis were not the official clergy of Judaism. The official clergy, as established by the law of Moses, were the priests, the descendants of Aaron of the tribe of Levi. Their ministry was vitally related to the Temple at Jerusalem, and they were regarded as the official religious teachers and leaders of the Jews.
Among the priests, there were rabbis (notable teachers), and the title Rabboni (“my Great Master”) was ascribed to high priests who were descendants of the renowned priest and teacher Hillel. (Mary Magdalene greeted her resurrected Lord Jesus with the title Rabboni, John 20:16.) However, most rabbis were not priests but lay teachers, noted for their piety, knowledge, and wisdom. While these rabbis were not official clergymen, they were greatly respected by the common people who depended on them for moral direction and judicial decisions (Luke 12:13). These rabbis often had a following, a group of disciples, who were devoted to learning from them. This was the basic pattern of Jesus’ rabbinical ministry, but with some distinctive differences from the usual rabbi-disciple relationship in His time.
To become a bona fide rabbi, there was a generally accepted regimen of education and practical experience a person had to obtain. In Jesus’ time, all Jewish children
were expected to begin their public education in a synagogue school at age 5, and all, both boys and girls, were educated to 10 or 12 years of age. After this, only boys continued with their formal education in the synagogues until they were 20 years of age (considered to be the age of adulthood).
There is much regarding the religious education of adult Jews in Jesus’ time about which we cannot be certain. However, the general pattern for that education seems to have been something like this. If a young man (at 20 years of age) held promise of becoming a religious teacher, and desired to continue his education for that purpose, he would serve an apprenticeship in a synagogue until he was 30. No doubt, Jesus served His apprenticeship in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:16), where there were no famous rabbis; while Paul served his apprenticeship in Jerusalem at the feet of the eminent Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3; 5:34).
In the opinion of the official religious leaders of the Jews centered at Jerusalem, a rabbi from a synagogue in Galilee would have had almost no intellectual prestige
(John 7:15), compared with a rabbi like Paul who obtained his education and practical training to become a rabbi in Jerusalem from the great Gamaliel. (This was not unlike comparisons made today between ordained ministers with Bible college degrees and those with Ivy League seminary degrees.)
Still, Jesus was an authentic rabbi, certainly in the eyes of the common people in Galilee, and even in the opinion of a good number of the religious leaders of the Jews (John 12:42). Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews,” addressed Jesus as “Rabbi,” saying to Him, “We know that You are a teacher come from God” (3:1-2 NKJV).
To say Jesus was a bona fide rabbi in no way detracts from our belief in Him as the Messiah and Son of God. However, it does help us to understand the religious context in which He conducted His ministry, and the reason why He did not begin His public ministry until age 30.