Much confusion has occurred over these words. Christians claim that Rabbi means teacher and Jews know that the word for teacher in Hebrew is “moreh”. So, where does the confusion come from and what do these different words actually mean in their correct historical context?
First of all, these words have changed in meaning from pre-temple to post-temple times. What these words meant prior to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD is not what they meant after the destruction of the temple. Although I am no Hebrew expert, I will share the knowledge that I have learned from expert sources.
The word Rabbi (pronounced Rahb -bee) comes from the Hebrew word rav (rab), which in Biblical Hebrew meant “great.” The word Rabbi therefore means “my master” or “my great one”. This word was also used as a term of respect that was used by slaves when they were addressing their owners and it was sometimes used to refer to high government officials or army officers. In Yiddish the word is Rebbe. The title Rabbi was used primarily in Israel. In Babylon the term Rav was used instead of Rabbi.
The term Rabban was used to refer to the Rabbi who was over the Sanhedrin. According to Jewish sources, it was first used as a title for Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, who was over the Sanhedrin at the time of Jesus (Y'shua) and Paul. Gamaliel was the son of Hillel The Elder. After this it was used to refer to Rabban Simeon his son, and Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai. Everyone needs to study Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai as he was the Rabban that survived the destruction of the temple and was smuggled out in a coffin, by his disciples, and would go on to start a study center in Yavneh. It is from this that modern Rabbinic Judaism emerged. No one was called Rabban unless they were presidents over the Sanhedrin.
Rabboni comes from Rabbi and Rav. According to Jewish sources, Rabbi is greater than Rav; and Rabban is greater than Rabbi. The use of these words did not take place prior to the first century. For example, according to Jewish literature, Hillel The Elder was considered one of the greatest Rabbi's of all time, but he bore no title of respect. Hillel The Elder was from the lineage of David and flourished around 20 BC until about 10 AD. Y'shua had many teachings similar to those of Hillel.
It was only after the destruction of the temple that the term Rabbi became a FORMAL TITLE for a teacher of Torah. This title is used today in Judaism. To be a Rabbi one has to have the formal ordination and laying on of hands. The term could not technically be applied to Jesus as a learned teacher in His day but He would more appropriately have been called a sage. Again, the title Rabbi during Y'shua's day meant “great one” and was used as above; to refer to those highly regarded and respected, it did not mean teacher during that time period. So, Y'shua was a sage, a teacher, but He was also called by the term Rabbi which was a word showing great respect and high honor. Sages were considered teachers.
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1. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, Insights from His Jewish Context; Bivin, David; 2007
En-Gedi Resource Center, Inc.
2. Meet the Rabbis; Young, Brad H.; 2007 Baker Academic