To understand the full significance of Jesus being addressed “teacher,” one must know what a Jewish teacher of the first century was and how he functioned in society.
Origin of “Rabbi”
The term “rabbi” is derived from the Hebrew word רַב (rav), which in biblical Hebrew meant “much,” “many,” “numerous” and “great.” The word also was sometimes used to refer to high government officials or army officers (see, for example, Jer. 39:3, 13).
In Jesus’ day, רַב (rav) was used to refer to the master of a slave or of a disciple. Thus, רַבִּי (rabi) literally meant “my master” (a form of address like “sir” in English), and was a term of respect used by slaves in addressing their owners and by disciples in addressing their teachers.
It was only after 70 A.D. that רַבִּי (rabi) became a formal title for a teacher (see Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ [175 B.C.-A.D. 135] [ed. Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar and Matthew Black; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1979], 2:325-26), and thus cannot correctly be applied to Jesus. Nonetheless, the designation “rabbi” may still be more helpful than any other in conveying a correct image of Jesus to the average Christian reader. If this designation suggests that Jesus was recognized as a teacher in his day and that he was famous enough to draw students to himself, then “rabbi,” although anachronistic, perhaps serves a useful purpose.