“Master” is a word which, in English, carries a great variety of freight, both positive and negative.
One may said to have “mastered” a task, or a field of study, and even be granted a “master’s degree.”
A “master carpenter”, plumber, or other tradesman, is admired and rewarded for his expertise.
British English uses the word “master” as a synonym for “teacher”.
The owner of an animal pet is called its “master”, and is responsible for its welfare, and its behavior!
A “master” may be the captain of a ship, the supervisor of a task, or, in a less admirable situation, the owner of slaves or the director of their labor.
It is the height of irresponsibility, therefore, for a translator not to distinguish among these ideas!
Small wonder, therefore, that confusion arises when references to Jesus as “Master”, as he was frequently addressed or described, are interpreted as either dire threats or glowing promises, depending upon the theological perspective of the speaker, preacher, or other expositor, without regard to the actual reference of the word!
English translators have compounded this confusion by using this single, ambiguous word to represent no less than six very different Greek words!
Although some of these have appeared in earlier studies, kurios, usually rendered “Lord”, in #4, and “rabbi”, the Hebrew term which John translated as didaskalos, “teacher”, in his gospel narrative (1:38), in #46, we will revisit them briefly to make clear the contrast in their usage. All six represent quite sharp distinctions which should have been differentiated by responsible translators.
I think it will be most helpful to look at these terms in two groups: those concerned with authority and power over others: despotes, epistrates, and kurios, and those more concerned with teaching: didaskalos, kathegetes, and rabbi.
It is interesting to note that Jesus himself never used either despotes or epistrates. But then, he never was one to throw his weight around.
Although despotes was also used classically of the master of a household, both classical and New Testament writers used it primarily to refer to political rulers, and there, it implies absolute ownership and uncontrolled power (L/S) over persons or property. It appears only 10x in the New Testament, and was arbitrarily translated “master” 5x : I Tim.6:1,2; II Tim.2:21; Titus 2:9, and I Pet.2:18, all in the context of slavery except the II Tim. passage, which refers to the master of a household.
The same word was translated “Lord” 5x: Lk.2:29, Ac.4:24, II Pet.2:1, Jude 4, Rv.6:10, usually in the submissive address of a prayer, although Jude and Peter use it to level charges against deviants who “deny” Jesus, their rightful sovereign.
Epistates, appearing only in Luke’s gospel (5:5, 8:24, 45; 9:33, 9:41, 17:13), is uniformly addressed directly to Jesus, although it appears classically (L/S) referring to a military chief or commander, a magistrate, emperor, or governor. It is clearly a title of deep respect.
The inclusion in this group of the most common word, kurios, which appears more than 700 times in the New Testament, is highly significant. Trench’s work on Greek synonyms distinguishes only between despotes, which he characterizes as the required submission of slaves, and kurios, as denoting the protection and care of a family (this, despite its use as the required oath of allegiance to Caesar!). He sees no room for tyrannical oversight in the term kurios.
Paul, in Eph.6:5-9 and Col.3:22-4:1, uses kurios exclusively, although he chooses despotes in I Tim.6:1,2 and II Tim 2:21, and Titus 2:9. Bear in mind, however, that slavery per se would soon cease to exist if the instructions in those passages were followed!!!
Classically, kurios referred to any person exercising authority over others. The reference is to legitimate authority: that of a guardian of a household or the trustee of an estate: there is no reference to anything coercive.
Elsewhere, the word was simply a form of polite address: in both masculine and feminine forms, it was used when speaking to any person of social standing, from their mid-teens, as speakers of English would use “sir” or “madam”. Only by the context can one determine whether reverence or simple politeness is intended. Perhaps even the speaker was not always sure!
The other group of words, in which didaskalos predominates (57x), most often occurs as direct address to Jesus. I was surprised to find that only once (!) does the combination didaskalos kai kurios – literally translated “teacher and lord”, but more often quoted as “Lord and Master” – appear! I suspect that the phrasing “Lord and master” is due to the British understanding of “master” as “teacher”. The word evokes the image of Socrates, Plato, and their cohorts from the 5th and 6th centuries BC, walking or sitting around with their “disciples”, disputing all sorts of philosophical ideas. This was not rare in the first century, either. The didaskalos was a learned man, the proprietor of a school, a teacher or trainer of “disciples” (students). In most contexts, the polite address of “teacher” would be the best translation. Do not forget, however, Jesus’ admonition (Mt.10:24-25) that the goal of a genuine disciple is to become “like his teacher” (didaskalos) and a servant (slave?) to become “like his Lord (kurios)! The use of these terms together has significance that serious “disciples” should explore together!
Kathetes, a guide, teacher, or professor (L/S), was frequently used of Aristotle. It only appears in Mt.23:8,10, which has similarities, if not strict parallels, to Mt.20:24-28, Mk.10:41-45, and Lk.22:24-27, all of which flatly forbid positions or titles of honor to all faithful disciples. These also forbid the honorific title “Rabbi”, although it is used in direct reference to Jesus, 9x rendered as “master” and 8x as “teacher”. Please refer to study #46 for more detail on teaching in the New Testament church.
So where does this leave us?
In the former group, the predominance of the most benign term, kurios, would seem to reflect Jesus’ rejection of the despotic aspects of “mastery” (note that the English word “despot” is a direct transliteration of the political term), although the fact of the occasional inclusion of those terms probably bears testimony to his rightful position of authority.
Kurios was also the most frequent choice for address to God in the LXX, being used to translate adonai, El, eloh, elohim, jah, jehovah, and shaddai – whether used singly or in combinations.
Despotes , on the other hand, occurs only 12x in the LXX, out of which 3 refer to human masters, 8 are paired with kurios, and one stands alone in Jeremiah’s prayer.
Of the latter group, neither kathetes nor rabbi appears at all in the LXX, and didaskalos only once, although there are admonitions to “teach” (the verb form). Some historians suggest that the office of “rabbi” was an artifact of the exile, when there was limited or no access to other priestly hierarchy. Much more significantly, in the New Testament, Jesus’ own teaching and that of faithful disciples is integral to the dissemination of his Kingdom!
But this is NOT the province of a hierarchical structure! Jesus flatly forbade the assumption of titles such as “teacher”, “Rabbi”, “leader”, “father”, (see Mt.23 cited above), even though in his final instructions (Mt.28:20), teaching is central! The difference is, his people, as brother Paul points out (Col.3:16 and elsewhere) are now charged to teach each other. Teachers are among the Master Teacher’s gracious gifts to his Body (Eph.4:11-12), but remember always, “You have (only) one Master/Teacher, and you are all brethren!”
Thanks be to God!