What’s Up With the Word “Teacher”?

One of the verses in the gospels that puzzles me is in Matthew 23. Here, Jesus instructs His disciples not to call anyone Rabbi, Father, or Teacher. However, Paul later refers to people as teachers in his epistles. I don’t think he would have so blatantly contradicted a command straight from Jesus (that is, I think, one of the chief principals to keep in mind when trying to interpret Paul’s writings). Maybe Paul knew something about this instruction that isn’t readily apparent to us. Let’s start by looking at the context for Jesus’s remarks.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by people, for they make their phylacteries wide and their tassels long. They love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces, and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’ But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher and you are all brothers. And call no one your ‘father’ on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant.  And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Matthew 23:1-12, NET

Reading this, we see the context is instructing us to avoide self-exaltation and not take on yourself titles/honors meant for God the Father and Jesus Christ alone. You are not to be called Rabbi (G4461, rhabbi, the Hebrew word used to refer to Jewish teachers) because Jesus is our Teacher (G2519, kathegetes, master, guide, teacher). You’re not to be called Father (G3962, pater, male ancestor, originator) because God is our Father (this would likely be an interesting study as well, but today we’ll just focus on “teacher”). Then the next verse warns against being called Teacher (kathegetes) again. Finally, this conversation wraps up with a warning against pride and an instruction to humble the self and serve.

Image of two people across from each other at a table with books, overlaid with text from 2 Timothy 2:24-25, NET version:  “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth”
Image by Claudine Chaussé from Lightstock

What Type of Teacher Ought You To Be?

Matthew 23 is the only place the word kathegetes appears in scripture. Rabbi doesn’t appear outside the gospel accounts. When we see other writers talking about teachers in the New Testament church, they use a different word. It seems that the New Testament writers were careful about this warning not to be called “rabbi” or “teacher” even though that’s not apparent in the English translations.

The word Paul uses for “teacher” is didaskalos (G1320). It’s a more widely used, general term for “instructor, master, teacher” (Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary, entry G2519). While it is listed as a synonym for kathegetes, that word for teacher, master, or guide seems to have more to do with authority; Zodhiates also lists kathegetes as a synonym for lord, master, and overseer (entry G2519).

Both didaskalos and kathegetes are used as a synonym/translation for rhabbi (didaskalos in John 1:38 and kathegetes in Matt. 23:8) (Zodhiates entry G4461). It may be that using “rabbi” as a general Hebrew word for teacher is okay in modern use because it could be synonymous with either of these Greek words. However, Spiros Zodhiates thinks the didaskalos teacher would more commonly be seen in the NT times as an equivalent role to Jewish scribes, who are “acquainted with and interpreters of God’s salvation.” He also considers pastors a sub-set of teachers, and says that teaching can be a gift or an office within the church (entry G1320).

Didaskalos is a role linked with apostles, prophets, pastors, and other roles in the church (Acts 13:1; 1 Cor. 12:28-29; Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11). Hebrews implies that all mature Christians should be teachers, though James warns it’s a great deal of responsibility and is paired with stricter judgement (Heb. 5:12; James 3:1). There’s also a very specific focus to this version of teacher and related roles, which links back to Jesus’s warning.

And he himself gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God—a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature

Ephesians 4:11-13, NET

Remember that when Jesus warned not to be called teachers (kathegetes), it was in the context of not exalting the self or taking His titles for yourself. Here, the role of teachers (didaskalos) has to do with serving and building up the whole body/church. I think that Jesus’s warning in Matthew 23 and the choice of NT writers to use didaskalos to describe their roles has to do with the way authority is supposed to work in the church of God.

Image of an open Bible with the blog's title text and the words, Why does Paul talk about the role of "teachers" in the church when Jesus said not to be called "teacher"?
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A dispute also started among them over which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. So Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ Not so with you; instead the one who is greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is seated at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

Luke 22:24-27, NET

Jesus didn’t want His followers lording it over people the way that the corrupt Jewish religious authorities did. That’s the main point in Matthew 23–their teachings were solid when they came from the Law of God, but many of the scribes, experts in the law, and Pharisees had a heart issue. They were not right with God and kept the letter rather than the spirit of the law (see the rest of Matt. 23). In contrast, teachers under the authority of Jesus serve the people they teach with humility.

We don’t have different words for “teacher” with different nuances of meaning in our English translations of the Bible. But I think we all have enough experience with people to know the difference between teachers who want recognition and power, and teachers who want their students to learn and thrive. We don’t need to obsess about not calling someone “teacher” (particularly since English doesn’t have two words like we saw in Greek), but we do need to be careful which teachers we listen to and even more careful about the types of teachers we are.

Featured image by Inbetween from Lightstock

Thoughts on Sharing the Gospel

I came down with a flu last week and just did not have the mental focus to do much of anything for the first few days. Which threw-off my typical Bible study routine and therefore my blog post plans. I did, however, feel good enough to read. As I perused my bookshelves, I realized I’d never actually read The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel translated by G. Ronald Murphy, which I’d been very excited about when I discovered it existed a few years ago.

The Heliand is an Old Saxon epic poem from the ninth-century A.D. The author is unknown, but based on clues in the text itself Murphey’s introduction suggests that we can assume the author thought a cultural translation of the gospel into a form Saxons could identify with would be a better conversion tool than Charlemagne’s forcible Christianization. This resulted in a gospel account that’s more of a retelling than a direct translation, with some interesting results.

For example, when Gabriel announces John the Baptist’s birth in The Heliand he says the All-Ruler sent him to say “your child will be a warrior-companion of the King of Heaven. He said that you and your wife should care for him well and bring him up on loyalty” (Song 2). Murphey’s footnote points out this is the “earliest known blending of Germanic warrior virtue with Christian religion,” and a likely origin for Medieval notions of knighthood.

In this version, all the disciples are called Christ’s warrior-companions. On the one hand, this is an inaccurate translation. It misses the Hebrew concept of a learner following a teacher and modeling his behavior. On the other hand, it’s not wrong to describe the original 12 disciples as “a picked group … for a special expedition or mission” (footnote on Song 14) or to say that we can also join Christ’s chosen warrior-companions. So maybe it’s not a mistranslation so much as a choice to emphasize a different Biblical aspect of following Jesus that will connect better with the audience. Then, after they’re interested in learning more, you could talk with them about what else it means to be a disciple.

What Makes A Good Translation?

As I think about The Heliand, I remember another book I read that talked about modern challenges with translating the Bible for some cultures today. There are still many languages in our modern world that don’t yet have a Bible translation. That’s something I don’t think we often think about as English-speaking Christians. The Bible has been available in English for over 400 years at this point and there are a dizzying array of translations available. At times, it can almost feel like the Bible has always been in English or has always been part of Western religious tradition.

I also get the sense from many American Christians that we expect what we read in our English Bibles to accurately reflect what’s in the Greek and Hebrew versions. I spend a lot of time looking at Greek and Hebrew words when I’m studying, so it always surprises me when I hear someone teaching from the Bible or writing an article about a Bible topic focus on one of the English words in a verse. For example, it might be helpful to know “disciple” comes from the Latin word for “learner” and it’s related to the word “discipline,” but the same link isn’t there between the Greek words manthanō and paideia so that tells us more about the translators than the New Testament writers.

Many of us opt for “literal” translations that are word-for-word, or as close to it as possible, like the New King James. “Dynamic” translations that aim to be thought-for-thought, like the New International Version, are also popular. The “free” or “paraphrase” translations like The Message are typically viewed with more suspicion (and rightly so, I think, since there’s more risk that the author’s opinion and modern culture will influence the text). (Click here for more on the different options with English translations.) However, despite the cautions with paraphrase translations, sometimes there might not be the option to translate word-for-word, or even thought-for-thought, depending on the language.

I think the other book I remember reading that talked about some of the challenges translating the Bible today was Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus by Lois Tverberg but I don’t remember for certain and I don’t have a copy here to check so I’ll need to reference it from memory.

In many cases, translators begin with the New Testament when translating since that seems like the most relevant for new Christians. That choice can, however, have some drawbacks. One of the stories I remember is that some well-meaning translators working on the gospel accounts left out all that boring genealogy information at the beginning. It wouldn’t mean anything to the people reading it anyway; they had never read a translation of the Old Testament in their language so they wouldn’t know who Abraham, David, and all those other people were. But then later, when the people they were working with found out about the genealogies, they said something like, “Oh! You mean Jesus was a real person? We thought he was made-up because he didn’t have a family.” In this case, the thing English-speaking readers thought was boring was essential for this non-Western audience. A literal translation was better.

The other story I remember involved the challenge of translating Paul’s letters into a language that didn’t have abstract nouns. How do you translate 1 Corinthians 13 into a language where love is always an action, not a concept to discuss? A direct translation is impossible; you’d have to paraphrase or introduce an entirely new concept to the target language. Obviously, it would be much easier to say, “when you’re loving, you’re also being patient and kind” than to try and explain abstract nouns. This is similar to what the author of The Heliand chose to do. He probably could have done a closer to literal translation from Greek into Old Saxon, but he evidently thought a paraphrase would make a whole lot more sense.

Cautions and Tips from the Word

When Jesus told His disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations,” He didn’t tell them precisely how they were to translate when “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20, NET). But we do know that when He filled those same disciples and others with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, “a crowd gathered and was in confusion, because each one heard them speaking in his own language” (Acts 2: 6, NET). God is perfectly fine with translations. And one of His most accomplished servants, Paul, modeled the importance of becoming relatable to people when preaching to them (1 Cor. 9:19-23).

Yet there are also cautions. James has this line, which ought to keep any of us teaching up at night: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1, NET). In addition, we have very strict cautions not to add to or take away from the things which God delivers to us (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Rev. 22:18-19). In other words, don’t take out the “boring” or uncomfortable bits, and don’t add things to make it more palatable either.

There’s a difference, though, between adding/taking away and making strategic decisions on what to emphasize first. If you’re writing an epic to be sung in Saxon mead halls, it makes sense to emphasize the fact that God is a warrior before talking about Him as a shepherd. If you’re translating into a culture that’s collective and family-oriented, you focus on God’s work building His family before talking about an individual relationship with God (actually, this is probably an easier translation than making it clear to individualistic Western readers that God sees His church as a whole collective).

There’s a lot to think about when considering how to translate God’s word, how to use the translations we have, and how to share the gospel across cultures. It’s even an increasingly relevant concern right here in the United States, where we can no longer assume people we talk with have any background in Christianity. Maybe there’s something we can learn from The Heliand about how to talk with people who may only have seen Christianity as something hostile to them. Maybe considering how the Bible is translated and taught cross-culturally can help us figure out how to speak with people who don’t have Christian backgrounds in our own cultures.

I am finally feeling better, so hopefully we’ll be back to a more typical sort of blog post next week. I hope you got something out of my musings on The Heliand this week, thought. If it made you think of any stories you’ve heard or experiences you’ve had sharing the gospel cross-culturally, I’d love to hear them.

Featured image by Peter H from Pixabay

“Song” Recommendation: It’s not sung in this version, but the reading by Dr. Shell gives us an idea of what The Heliand sounded like.

Writing (Like Life) Is an Individual Growth Process

I started graduate school last week! It’s a Master’s program of Rhetoric and Writing, and it means I suddenly have less time for blogging than I did before. But it also means I’ve been reading a number of books and scholarly articles that are prompting me to think more deeply on topics related to teaching and the writing process.

That might not sound, at first glance, like something that has to do with “finding our true selves in the people God created us to be.” However, I’m struck by similarities between best practices for teaching students to improve as writers and what I know about personal growth. We don’t all follow the exact same patterns for personal growth, nor do we all grow at the same pace and in the same way. Similarly, one-size-fits-all is not a great approach to teaching writing. There are, of course, certain things we look for in “good writing” — a strong thesis, structure that supports the thesis, integration of quotes and examples, etc. But to a certain extent, whether or not something is “good writing” also depends on the individual writer. Read more

The Importance of Accepting Correction

I think, in theory at least, we can agree that being able to accept correction is a valuable skill. We might even be able to say we appreciate feedback and constructive criticism, or modestly say that we’re big enough to acknowledge our faults and change when needed.

But even though we can learn to appreciate criticism and correction that helps us improve, hearing such things isn’t always easy. In fact, I’m not sure it ever gets “easy,” though it can become easier. Most of us have a tendency to get defensive and feel some degree of resentment when people offer a critique or dare correct us. This is especially true if we haven’t asked for feedback but they offer it anyway. Such criticism might also pull us toward depression or make us feel like giving up.

As Christians, though, we’re suppose to be open to correction. Primarily, we have a duty to listen to correction from God, which comes through His word and His spirit. Godly correction can also come through people who are guided by the Lord. This sort of correction is often harder for us to hear because we might feel like other people haven’t any right to judge us.

Correction From The Lord

Before we get back to the topic of people correcting us, let’s talk about correction from God. If anyone has a right to tell us how to live our lives, it’s the one who created us, the universe, and the Laws that govern both. When we commit to following Him, we also commit to living our lives the way He tells us to and changing when/if He points out that we’re doing something wrong. Read more

Preparing For The Bridegroom To Come Back

In Christ’s day, a Jewish bride-to-be had to be ready for her bridegroom to arrive at any moment. She prepared herself, and listened for the trumpet blasts and shouts signaling his eminent arrival. Jesus’ first coming followed a similar pattern, with a “friend of the bridegroom” telling people he was on His way. Scripture indicates His return will also follow a pattern like this.

As we approach the fall holy days of Yom Teruah (Feast of Trumpets), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), and Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), my mind has been on Jesus’ return. These days picture parts of God’s plan that have not yet been fulfilled, including Messiah’s second coming.

Here on this blog, we’ve often talked about how Jesus’ relationship with the church is like that of a Jewish bridegroom with his bride (you can read more about this in my posts “The Bridegroom’s Pledge” and “The Bridegroom Cometh!“). After the betrothal, the bride wouldn’t know exactly when the groom was going to come back for the wedding. She had to be ready, listening for the trumpet blasts and shouts signaling his eminent arrival. In much the same way, we don’t know when Christ will return and it’s very important that we get ready and keep watching for Him to come back. Read more

Putting On Our Teacher’s Mind: How Christians Learn To Be Like Jesus

When we go to school or a lecture or seminar, we’re typically looking to find out what the teacher knows. And it’s rare for most of us to have a continuing relationship with a single teacher, unless you’re in an apprenticeship situation. We tend to think of teachers as people you get information from, not necessarily someone you mimic or have a relationship with (though it’s great when that does happen).

These assumptions color how we respond to the Bible’s description of Jesus as Teacher or Rabbi (Matt. 19:16; John 1:38, for example). Being a student of this type of teacher goes beyond just listening to what he has to say. The relationship between a rabbi and their disciples, or talmidim in Hebrew, went deeper.

those who leave family to study and follow the ways of their teacher [rabbi].  They study not only to learn what their teacher knows but to become the type of man their teacher is.” (Psalm 11918.org)

Being taught in this sense isn’t just about taking in knowledge. It’s about changing who you are and how you think.

Putting On Our Teacher's Mind: How Christians Learn To Be Like Jesus | marissabaker.wordpress.com
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Our Two Great Teachers

We’re not just pulling this idea that disciples of Jesus should become like Him out of Jewish tradition. It comes straight out of the Bible. Jesus said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40, WEB). That’s our goal — to become exactly like our Teacher. And while this title is usually applied to Christ, it also includes God the Father.

It is written in the prophets, ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Therefore everyone who hears from the Father, and has learned, comes to me. (John 6:45, WEB)

Both member of the God-family are closely involved with teaching us. And as we learn from them, we’re to become like them. The idea that we can become like God is so incredible it’s almost unbelievable, but that really is our ultimate goal (1 John 3:1-2). They mean for us to become part of their family and even share in their oneness (John 17:20-23).

Patterned After God

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul talks about how we need God’s spirit in us to learn the things God gives us. God’s truths don’t make sense to “the natural man … because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:9-15, WEB). We need God’s spirit to unlock our minds and transform them. And this process results in us developing “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16, KJV).

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus (Phil. 2:5, KJV) Read more