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Education in Biblical Times



The purpose of this study limits investigation to the development of education in Israel and the Early Church. But it will be necessary to say a few words about the background out of which Israel’s educational ideals developed. Educational systems had evolved as early as the 3rd millennium b.c. There are a number of school texts dating from about 2,500 b.c. From these documents we learn of numerous schools for scribes in ancient Sumer. In these schools literary works were copied and studied. The study was connected with the training for the needs of the Temple, palace courts and the administration of the empire. Education of this kind was voluntary and costly, and pupils were drawn from the upper class. Subjects studied were botany, zoology, geology, geography, mathematics, languages and other cultural studies. The schools were staffed by a professor and his assistants who gave regular classroom tuition. A teacher was referred to as “father” and he referred to his pupils as “sons.”

The profession of the scribes was highly regarded also in ancient Egypt. Other professions are compared unfavorably with it. Such was the prestige of this profession that a severe discipline and single-minded study could be required of those who intended to enter it. The scribal school was attached to the Temple and was called the “House of Life.” Study was divided into two sections, elementary education and higher education. The elementary education consisted of the learning of writing (NB calligraphy), the study of ancient lit. and the copying of these texts. At the end of the elementary education, students transferred either to the government administration or to the priesthood. If they transferred to the government administration they received a higher education in the duties of office, composition, geography, and natural science. If to the priesthood their study was in theology and medicine.

Three points of contact or similarity may be mentioned here.

First, observe the connection of education with the Tabernacle (Temple). At an early age, Samuel was dedicated to God’s service and was brought to the Tabernacle where he ministered to the Lord and was educated by Eli the priest. Samuel was not a Levite nor did he belong to the priestly class. The incident raises the question as to whether there was a school attached to the sanctuary, even in those early days. Many OT scholars now claim that around the cultic shrines in Israel there were schools of priests, who were responsible for the transmission of the law, both oral and written. If such was the case, it is a parallel situation to what took place in Egypt and the ancient Near E.

Third, notice contact with the background of the ancient world in the reference to teachers as “father” and the pupil as “my son” (Prov 2:1; etc.). It is probable that the scribes were the “wise” of Proverbs who collated the Wisdom Lit. of the OT and became the educators of Israel.

Jewish education in Old Testament times

The word “Jewish” is used in an ideological or theological sense to indicate those who are Jews by religion. Consequently, the discussion at this point excludes the contribution of the early Heb. Christians, which is found in the NT.

Origin and aims.

Educational ideas and practice begin with the birth of the nation. OT scholarship has long recognized a double origin for Israel: the first, beginning with the call of Abraham and the second, with Moses and the Exodus. The Israelites were called to understand themselves as the people of God and to come to know how they may serve the Lord who had called them. Thus the primary aim of all the educational activity was religious (Gen 18:19). The aim was to train the young to know and serve the Lord (Deut 6:7; Prov 1:7) so that throughout their life they would not depart from this way (Prov 22:6). Thus religious education centered its attention on the Torah and aimed at educating the Jews for living. It was not merely an education to make a living but was concerned with persons and character forming. Knowing was not divorced from being and doing, and good character was seen to result from a right relationship with God through the study of the Torah. The primacy of the Torah embraced the whole of life from the cradle to the grave. One was never too old or too young to learn. It embraced every aspect of life also. From the time of Ezra onward, the life of the Jews was Torahcentric. They became known as “the people of the Book.” It was this that separated them from all other people.

It may be said that the Jewish aims in education were exclusively religious, neglecting cultural development. In later Judaism, the preoccupation with the Torah developed into a legalistic system of hair splitting which led to absurdities, and in many instances to the hypocritical self-righteousness of the Jews as they often appear on the pages of the NT. In spite of this narrowness, Jewish educational aims succeeded where the systems of Sparta, Athens and Rome failed. These systems failed because of faulty aims. The system of Sparta may be said to have aimed at the obliteration of the individual in the service of the state. The aim in Athens may be said to be the training of the individual in the service of culture. In Rome, the training of the individual was in the service of the state. The aim in Israel was the training of the individual in the service of God. The aim in Rome, Sparta and Athens failed at a moral level. Their systems did not contain the faith capable of challenging indifference and superficiality. Therefore, they lost their sense of direction and failed. It has been said “the Graeco-Roman world was decaying and dying from the dearth of true educational ideals” (W. M. Ramsey, The Education of Christ, p. 66). Jewish education never lost its sense of direction. Its intention was not education in academic and technical knowledge, but education in holiness (Lev 19:2). Though the people of Israel often forgot the ideals, there were always priests, prophets, scribes, sages, rabbis and teachers to remind them. God and not man was the center; righteousness, not self-interest was the aim (Exod 19:6).


It is quite certain that some boys were taught to read and write and it is possible that there is still some evidence of their writing exercises. The rough scribbling known as the Gezer Calendar has been plausibly interpreted as a student’s effort, and in 1938 someone noticed the first five letters of the Heb. alphabet scratched in their conventional order on the vertical face of a step of the royal palace at Lachish. This inscr. has been dated in the early part of the 8th cent. b.c. It has been suggested that it was written by a boy who was just learning his alphabet. G. R. Driver has suggested that Isaiah 28:9, 10 “precept upon precept, line upon line” is a reference to a child’s spelling lesson. It also has been suggested that the Israelite teacher had his boys repeat, in turn, the letters of the alphabet, a suggestion which is perhaps confirmed by the word “alphabet” itself.

It seems likely that increasing numbers of Israelites became literate as time passed. Those who could not write, but needed to transact official business simply made their mark. This was done by placing one of the letters of the alphabet at the foot of the script (Job 31:35). Another method of signing a document was to seal it. Such evidence, as we have, would suggest that prior to the monarchy and during the monarchy, education of a formal nature was only for the few. Such teaching was done in Heb., in the homes by the parents. In the exilic and postexilic periods, education expanded its scope to many more individuals and was carried out in Aram. as well as Heb. Such teaching continued to be done in the home, but also in schools and by specialized individuals such as the scribes. With the coming of the Greeks in the 4th cent. b.c., the Gr. language also was used in Israelite education. Thus, we notice a development in Israelite education from teaching in the home to a developed school system. It should be noted that from the first, nurses or guardians or teachers in loco parentis were employed among the higher classes (see Ruth 4:16; 2 Sam 4:4; 2 Kings 10:5; Isa 49:23).


The most important characteristic of Jewish education was the whole religious ethos and intention of the system. Consequently, the Jewish education lacked scientific character, in fact it was pre-scientific. We find nothing of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and the other natural sciences. But the Hebrews knew many practical trades and skills, building, mining, metallurgy, wood and stone work (Exod 35:30ff.). The point of significance is this—there were no schools to teach these trades. The trades were learned in apprenticeships. As far as we know, there were no schools of music, architecture, sculpture, painting, arts or the theater, etc. The place that music plays in the worship in Israel suggests that at least this art must have been developed by systematic instruction, but there is no evidence for this. Most of the cultural arts here mentioned were associated with the heathen religions and were developed in Gr. and Rom. culture. Just as the Jewish educational system ignored the arts, so it ignored also the development of philosophy. Philosophic origins presuppose a culture alien to that of Israel. Philosophy originated in a humanistic society which believed in the power of man’s intellect. Such a presupposition is alien to the Jewish dependence on divine revelation. The whole of Israel’s religion, worship and educational practice was based on the firm belief that God had revealed Himself to Moses and to the prophets. It was this historical revelation that was to be communicated in the educational process.


Origin and development.

There is no account of the origin of the synagogue in the OT, the Apoc. or the NT. In spite of this lack of information, most scholars feel sure that the synagogue developed as an institution during the Exile in Babylon. In the OT, only in Psalm 74:8 is the Heb. word for “synagogue” (מוֹעֵד, H4595) used, though of course the LXX uses the Gr. word συναγωγή, G5252, on many occasions to refer to the assembly of Israel. These references should not be understood of the synagogue as an institution in Israel. Συναγωγή is used fifty-six times in the NT.

Although the origin of the synagogue is uncertain, its significance could not be clearer. Scholars have suggested that the importance of the synagogue for Judaism cannot be overestimated. It was this institution that gave Judaism its character. Prior to the Exile worship in Israel had been centered on the Temple and on the sacrificial cultus. With the destruction of the Temple this focal point was removed. For the exiles even worship at Jerusalem was an impossibility. It seems that the synagogue arose as a place for instruction in the Scriptures and prayer. There are scholars who consider that the Exile does not mark the origin of the synagogue but a modification in its functions, worship becoming from then on the principal, though far from the only, purpose, with administrative functions falling into the background. Other scholars have suggested that Ezekiel 14:1, “Then came certain of the elders of Israel to me, and sat before me” (cf. 20:1) provides a probable basis for the origin of the synagogue. Levertoff (“Synagogue” in ISBE) simply asserts “It must have come into being during the Babylonian exile.” After a.d. 70, Ezekiel 11:16, “Yet will I be to them as a little sanctuary” (KJV) was interpreted to mean that in the worldwide diaspora, Israel would have a synagogue in miniature to replace the lost Temple. One may conclude that from a shadowy origin the synagogue developed into the characteristic institution in Judaism by NT times.


In every place in the ancient world where there was a community of Jews, there was a synagogue. In the synagogue there was no altar. The reading of the Torah and prayer took the place of sacrifice. The synagogue became the center of a new social and religious life. The Temple had centered God’s presence in one place. Now there were synagogues throughout the Diaspora wherever ten adult male Jews were found, bringing God’s presence to the people wherever they were.

Worship, education and the government of the community, were the purposes which the synagogue fulfilled. The purposes of worship and education often were carried forward in one activity, because in the synagogue worship took on the character of instruction. Peritz has shown that the primary function of the synagogue assemblies was the popular instruction in the law (Encyclopaedia Biblica, 4 Vols. 1899-1903).

According to the Mishnah (Megillah 4:3), the service of the synagogue consisted of five parts: (a) the Shema was read, i.e. Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Numbers 15:37-41; (b) the synagogue prayers were recited, e.g. the eighteen benedictions, though this form of prayers may be later than the NT period. At the heart of these prayers is the theme of the restoration of Israel to the land of the fathers and return of the glory of God to the Temple, rebuilt in Jerusalem; (c) the reading of the law; (d) the reading from the prophets; (e) the benediction. Because many people could not understand Heb., a paraphrase of the lessons was given in Aram. and an exposition and exhortation drawn from it. This part of the service came after the reading in Heb. and preceded the benediction. It has been suggested that this is a later practice. Nehemiah (8:8) wrote “and they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” This seems to refer to this practice. The synagogue provided a mass system of adult education in which the Torah was studied weekly. With the destruction of the Temple in the 6th cent. b.c., the synagogue came into prominence and it became the most enduring and widespread institution in Israel after the Exile. Under its influence, all Jews became students of the law and without the synagogue the Jews would have perished.

Schools and academies.

The development of schools in the more formal sense is related to the growth of the synagogue. If there is some uncertainty as to the time of the origin of the synagogue, the same is true of the origin of the school system in Israel. It does not seem likely that the school system was in operation in the time of the Exile. More likely is the suggestion that the development took place under Hel. influence, therefore in the 4th cent. b.c. or later. During the second commonwealth, literacy was widespread, books of the law being found in many houses (see 1 Macc 1:56f.). Rabbinic lit. attributes a compulsory school system to the Pharisees during the 1st cent. b.c. The Pharisees were the popular party c. 76-67 b.c. Simon ben Shetach (75 b.c.) taught people systematically. He decreed that children should attend elementary school (בֵּת הַסֵּפֶר) the “house of the book.” The Book, of course, was the Torah, with the explanation and oral law.

The first elementary school was prob. in Jerusalem with the institution spreading to the urban centers at a later time. Joseph ben Gamala (c. a.d. 65) tried to make elementary education universal and compulsory by endeavoring to make provision for teachers in all provinces and allowing children to enter the school at the age of six or seven. Instruction was given in reading, and the Torah was studied both in its written and oral form. The curriculum in the elementary school was basically the Bible—the OT and the Apoc. The Pseudep. was not part of the formal education in school, though it had a widespread circulation. Scientific ideas were embedded incidentally in the OT—this is true also of political ideas. The OT was studied in Heb., except for a few passages in Aram., notably in Ezra and Daniel. Some apocryphal books were in Gr., but Heb. continued as the language for scholarly study. Popular readings were written down in Aram., the Targums and in Egypt, Asia Minor and Greece. Greek trs. became necessary and consequently the LXX was published to meet this need. In the elementary schools one would expect to have found study in Heb., Aram. and Gr., though the emphasis on the different languages would have differed from place to place. In the Jewish Diaspora there was more emphasis on the study of the Gr. language and hence more contact with Gr. culture. The difference between Palestinian Judaism and the Judaism of the Diaspora must not be overemphasized. Elementary education concluded about the age of fifteen, and promising students could then go on to secondary school. By NT times there was a strong attempt to make elementary education universal for all Jews wherever they were.

Academies of the rabbis were the secondary schools for promising students. The academy was called the “House of Study” (בֵּת הַמִּדְרָשׁ). It seems probable that the elementary schools studied the OT and the oral law, the Mishnah. In the secondary schools the rabbis conducted theological discussions, and these discussions now have been written down and constitute the Talmud. Each house of study was conducted by a great Pharisaic teacher (cf. Hillel and Shamai). These academies had more sanctity even than the synagogue (Megillah 26b-27a). Under the leadership of the rabbi, students discussed the interpretation of the Torah and its application. These discussions became the basis of normative Judaism. Paul was educated in the academy of the Pharisee Gamaliel, who was the grandson of Hillel and was prob. the leading teacher of the time. The first mention of “the House of Study” is in Ecclesiasticus 51:23. A mention of the men of the great assembly or the Great Synagogue in the Mishnah is prob. also a reference to the academies.

Under the wing of the synagogue, elementary and secondary schools grew up. The elementary school normally operated in or near the synagogue building, and the rule of the synagogue was normally the teacher’s. The secondary school or the academy normally operated apart from the synagogue in the Temple precincts or in the teacher’s own house. Through the influence of these three institutions, the synagogue, the elementary school and the academy, all Jews became students of the law and these institutions more than anything else made the Jews the people of the Book.



In the ancient world there was no such thing as a “secular culture.” God or gods were presupposed in Gr. and Rom. civilization just as much as in the Heb. civilization. Nevertheless, there were important differences between the Hebraic approach to knowledge and the Graeco-Roman approach. The Hebrews believed that all truth came from God the Creator, Judge and Redeemer who revealed to man the knowledge necessary for his own welfare. Man’s welfare was thought to be dependent on a satisfactory relationship to God. For the Greeks and Romans, man’s mind had the potential power for the discovery of truth. Therefore, they stressed the development of reason, and this led to the study of science and philosophy. The Heb. approach to education arose from their understanding of revelation. If man was to have knowledge, he was to have it only because God had revealed Himself to man. Consequently, God was the primary educating figure in Israel. He is called “the Teacher” (Isa 30:20ff.), and as such the prophet considers that people should consult Him for knowledge rather than idols or the dead (see Isa 8:19). As the Teacher, He calls on His people to listen to Him, “Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth!” (Ps 78:1ff.).

As the Teacher it is considered impertinent to ask who has taught God; “Will any teach God knowledge, seeing that he judges those that are on high?” (Job 21:22ff.). “Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord or as his counselor has instructed him? Whom did he consult for his enlightenment, and who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge and showed him the way of understanding?” (Isa 40:13ff.). The presupposed answer to these questions is “no one,” and this is meant to be self-evident. The content of this instruction given by the Lord is the Torah. Teaching the Torah also includes telling “to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders which he has wrought” (Ps 78:4). The psalmist asks, “Make me understand the way of thy precepts, and I will meditate on thy wondrous works” (Ps 119:27). The teaching of the Torah and God’s activity in history are inseparably linked together.

The family.

The place of Moses.

The priests.

It is possible that some priests combined scribal and teaching duties. If this is so, they were the ancestors of the scribes of the second commonwealth who were the custodians of the Torah and its interpreters. Our knowledge of Ezra, the priest, who was also a scribe, fits in with this theory (Ezra 7:6-11; Neh 8:4, 9, 13). From Ezra’s time, the scribes were a special class of Biblical scholars, exegetes, official teachers and spiritual leaders in Israel. The scribes were the predecessors of the doctors of the law from Maccabean times to about a.d. 200. The scribes and the doctors of the law adapted Biblical exegesis to meet the requirements of the time, and from their teaching the Mishnah developed. The aim of these teachers was to pass on their heritage to an ever increasing number of disciples. As Moses was the originator of the priesthood, so also the scribes looked back to Moses as “the great scribe of Israel.” With the coming of Ezra, the scribe, the priest began the development of the scribal schools, an institution which had more effect on Israelite education than any other.

The king.

The teaching function of the kings is often overlooked in thinking of education in Israel. David’s songs had a considerable instructional effect in Israel. The sons of David, the kings of Israel, were responsible for keeping the law as a condition for sitting on the throne of David (Ps 132:12). Jehoshaphat caused his princes to be sent throughout the land of Judah teaching the people in all the cities (2 Chron 17:7-9). The wisdom of Solomon became a proverb throughout the ancient world so that even the Queen of Sheba came to test his wisdom (1 Kings 10:1-13). The kings were not often competent for the teaching task. More often than not, they disregarded the law in their own lives and led the nation to sin against God.

The prophets.

The prophets were the critics of evil government, standing fearlessly before kings to declare to them the errors of their ways, as Elijah did before King Ahab (ch. 17, etc.). The prophets were also the friends of wise government seeking to strengthen the kings who sought to lead the people in the way of the Lord as Isaiah did with King Hezekiah (2 Kings 19). The prophets criticized injustice in the social behavior of the people (see Amos). They condemned the infidelity of Israel in forgetting Jehovah (see Hosea). They denied adamantly the false hope that because of Jerusalem and the Temple, Israel never would be enslaved by the enemy. The message of the prophets was one of judgment and doom on a nation that had strayed from the law of God. The message of judgment and doom was itself bound up with the message of the law (Deut 30). The message of the prophets was not one of ultimate doom because God in His covenant love would not permanently cast off His covenant people (see Hosea). Ultimately, He would find a way of redeeming them. In the new act of redemption, Israel would return to Him as their Lord. Consequently, an important aspect of the message of the prophets was one of returning unto the Lord, a message of repentance (Joel 2:12-14). The message of repentance was, itself, a message of hope (Isa 40, etc.). The message of the prophet involved an inspired interpretation of the law of Moses and of the historical situation in which they lived. During the first commonwealth, it was the prophets that kept the people true to their historical heritage. The prophets were to the first commonwealth what the scribes and the doctors of the law were to the second. Of course, there is a great difference in that the prophets were prepared to offer their critical judgment of the situation in terms of the word of the Lord to the people of the day, whereas the scribes and the doctors of the law of fered their words as interpretations and varying interpretations of the law of Moses.

The sages.

Moses is also the prototype of the wise man in the OT (Deut 4:5ff.). For the NT assessment of Moses as a wise man see Acts 7:22: “And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.” The class of wise men in Israel is related in its origin to the wise men of other nations.

When the prophets ceased to proclaim the word of the Lord in their inspired and penetrating manner the need arose for those who could give guidance in the everyday matters of life. It was in this area that the sages played their part in educating Israel. They applied the Torah to the practical, everyday matters of life. This practical wisdom appears in the Wisdom Lit. of Israel. Practical or worldly wisdom does not always harmonize with the economy of God. Consequently, there are occasions in the OT when the prophets came into conflict with the professional wise men (Isa 29:13, 14; Jer 8:8ff.). On these occasions, what was put forward as practical wisdom was evidently “worldly wisdom.”

Just as the prophets faced the problem of preaching a message to those who would not heed them (cf. the experience of Jeremiah), so also the wise men found that people were more ready to pursue a course of folly than to heed a course of wisdom (Prov 5:13). Although their wisdom was not always heeded, the sages were effective in building up a philosophy of education and a pedagogical system. Through them, education previously carried out with little planning or consistency was worked into a systematic whole.

The place and use of the law.

The Jews had one textbook, i.e. the Scriptures. The Scriptures were made up of the OT canonical books. The body of writings known as the Pseudep. had no official recognition in the schools though it had a wide circulation in private homes. One should recognize that the development of these written records was gradual and over a long period.

Oral law.

Scholars have debated the date of the origin of the written law. It has been suggested that in the initial stages of Israelite history, all law was in an oral form, only to be written down at a later date. Today, it would seem more likely that written and oral law developed side by side, later being crystallized into a full written tradition. The completion of the writing down of the law of the OT may not have taken place until after the Exile, and certainly the later books of the Apoc. must be dated in the Maccabean period or later. Further, the oral law developed from the time of the Maccabean period until about a.d. 220 when the Mishnah was completed in a written form. The Mishnah, of course, does not include any canonical writings of the OT but is the interpretation of those canonical writings by the rabbis. Thus, in considering the place of the law in Jewish education in Biblical times, one must take into account the development of oral law as well as written law. The Mishnah formed the earliest part of the Talmud, the more comprehensive written form of the sayings of the rabbis.

Written law.

The written Torah dates from the time of Moses and gradually developed into a greater body of writings. The word Torah, or law has a number of different senses. The word can be used to describe the Ten Commandments. This is the narrowest sense. In a broader sense, the Torah or law can describe the five books of Moses, the five books of the law. In a more general sense, Torah can describe the whole of the OT. Torah may even be used to include the oral Torah of the Mishnah and the Talmud. The most basic study concerned the written law and certain passages of it received special attention. Of these passages, the great Shema is the best known. The passage begins with the Heb. word שְׁמַ֖ע, “hear”—“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (Deut 6:4).

Torah has the sense of teaching, instruction. The commandments were instruction about the way to live. Torah in the wider sense was instruction concerning the meaning and implication of these commandments. The prophets’ message was Torah because they applied to their own day the meaning of the teaching of the law of Moses. By the end of the Biblical period the Jews had as their canonical writings the OT and as well as these writings they included, but gave lesser authority to, the books of the Apoc. For the most part it involved the teaching of the Pentateuch. In this, instruction in the formal matters of education, reading and writing were only a means to this end. Other subjects were incidental to the teaching of the law. Ideas of science, politics and medicine were embedded incidentally in the Torah. With this emphasis on teaching the Torah, education took the form of the culture and development of memory which is so important for the preservation of oral tradition.

The textbook for Judaism is the Scriptures, but the Scriptures came in varied languages. Although the OT was basically in Heb., there are certain Aram. passages, notably those in Ezra and Daniel. Some of the apocryphal books were written in Gr. The scholarly language for Biblical study continued to be Heb., but in postexilic times the ordinary people could no longer understand Heb. This brought about the need for Aram. trs. and paraphrases of the Scriptures i.e. the development, of the Targums (e.g., Neh 8:8).

The scattering of the Jews throughout the ancient world in the dispersion also brought about the need for the tr. of the Scriptures into Gr. This need may be viewed from two points of view. First of all, Jews who lived in the dispersion came under Hel. influence more strongly than their fellow countrymen in Pal. Many of them understood Gr. better than they did either Heb. or Aram. Second, the scattering of the Jews brought the Jewish faith to the people of the ancient world. By the early 3rd cent. b.c. there were trs. of certain books of the OT into Gr. The Letter of Aristeas (purporting to be written by a certain Aristeas to his brother Philocrates during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus [285-246 b.c.]) relates how Philadelphus appealed for a copy of the Heb. Scriptures for his royal library. The result was that the high priest at Jerusalem sent seventy-two elders to Alexandria with an official copy of the law. The seventy-two made independent Gr. trs. which miraculously corresponded to what we now know as the LXX. The story has accretions which are not accurate to the historical event, but it seems likely that the Pentateuch was tr. in Egypt in the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus. The remaining books were prob. tr. piecemeal at a later date, some time before 117 b.c. when the grandson of Sirach refers to the tr. of the whole OT. Subsequently the name LXX was extended to cover also all the books of the Apoc. (See A. Rahlfs Septuaginta Vol 1, pp. xxii ff.)

Educational symbols, principles, and methods.

Educational symbols. The feasts of the Jews served to solidify national consciousness in a manner which many other races are never able to achieve except in time of war. Festivals were national holy days as well as holidays. Through them the Jew realized his dependence on God in providing food and protection. In the time before Ezra when there were no schools, the festivals were most important for education and remained so, even after the beginning of schools. The law required a father to explain great festivals to his son (Exod 13:8; Deut 4:9; 6:20, 21). Through participation in the festivals, the children would learn their meaning, and in this way the festivals became a part of life indelibly etched upon their minds. The festivals were unique opportunities for teaching the young the great truths of the Jewish faith. They provided a dramatic, vivid and intrinsically interesting way of teaching. It was a far more effective means of teaching than by abstract ideas and philosophical principles. In this way, the dealings of God with His people were effectively brought to attention by religious ceremony. All festivals were colorful and intensely interesting. The child was always at the heart of each one. This is the genius of the Jewish people. They placed the child at the center of life and by the educational media they developed, insured that the Jewish history and Jewish religion was passed on to succeeding generations.

The most important of the holy days was the Sabbath. One reason for its importance was its frequent repetition, week by week. In ceasing from their labors, the Jews indicated by their action, their faith in God to supply all their needs. The Sabbath was a day in which faith was expressed, a day of rejoicing in the Lord, a day of meeting for worship, a day of learning, a day of instruction. In a sense, the whole of the covenant faith was gathered together and symbolized in the Sabbath observance.

The Tabernacle and later the Temple, embodied much educational symbolism. The structures themselves symbolized the place where God’s presence was to be located. Within the structures there were several items of notable symbolic value. First of all, one notices the geography of these buildings. The Holy of Holies in its separation from the meeting places of the people symbolizes the holiness of God in His separation from all sinfulness. The furniture of the Tabernacle and later the Temple, reminded the Jews of the Exodus history, and also of the problem of sin and the means of atonement. The Temple stood for the presence of God with His people made possible by the overcoming of sin by way of atonement.

The prophets used symbolical methods to emphasize the meaning of their message to the people. Such symbolism is described as the prophetic “sign” (אוֹת, H253). The method was to enact the meaning of the word declared. An instance of this is given in Isaiah 8:1ff. where the Lord tells Isaiah to take a large tablet and write upon it in common characters, and also when he is told to give his children certain names which bear out the prophetic message. Jeremiah is told to buy a linen waistcloth and cause it to be spoiled even before its first wash, to show how the Lord will spoil the pride of Judah (Jer 13:1-11). The prophet goes about with a wooden set of yoke bars on his neck to show how the people will be led into slavery by Nebuchadnezzar (28:13). When the false prophet Hananiah breaks the wooden yoke bars to show how the Lord would break the power of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, Jeremiah then took yoke bars of iron to reinforce the point that the people really would be led into bondage. The prophet Ezekiel is told “for I have made you a sign (אוֹת, H253) for the house of Israel” (Ezek 12:6). Ezekiel proclaimed his message of destruction and doom on Jerusalem by means of symbolic actions. He ate bread and drank water, trembling in fearfulness, symbolically portraying the destruction coming on Jerusalem and the fear that it would bring. He proclaimed the destruction of Jerusalem by drawing a picture of Jerusalem on a piece of clay, and shattering it in pieces to show how Jerusalem would be razed to the ground.

Other symbolical articles that were used at a more domestic level were the Zizith (Num 15:39-41; Deut 22:12), phylacteries (Exod 13:1-10; Deut 6:4-9; 11:13-21) and the Mezuzah (Deut 11:20).

Written instruction played an important part in Israelite education (Deut 31:19; Ps 119:18; Prov 22:20; Isa 30:8ff.). Even so, the written forms suggest the importance of the oral history of the teaching (Prov 1:8).

The importance of dramatic instruction via the various festivals and institutions already has been noted. The prophets evidently used symbolical methods also to emphasize the point of their message. They used proverb and parable (Jer 31:29; Ezek 12:22ff.; see also Mark 4 for the use of parables by Jesus, cf. Isa 28:23-29; Hos 12:10).

Instruction also was given in a catechetical form, i.e. by means of a question and answer. The use of rhetorical questions appears in Amos 3:3-8, etc. The question and answer form is found more fully in Jeremiah 15:11ff. (cf. Job), Deuteronomy 6:20; etc. Micah 6:6-8 is a catechism lesson, given in rhetorical form where the answer to the questions stated is implied. The climax comes in v. 8, “He has showed you O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Variation of method is used in the OT. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews (1:1), said, “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets.” God spoke to Moses face to face, He spoke to the prophets in visions and dreams, He spoke through omens and the casting of the lot, He spoke through nature and in the normal events of daily life. He spoke in the events of history, He spoke through the priest, the prophet and through others who were His servants. His voice was to be heard through conscience, and His will to be known through the law.

The Qumran sect.

Qumran is the name of the site on which the ruins of the community, which has now taken on the name of the site, were discovered in 1947. The community prob. took up residence in this situation in the 2nd cent b.c. Evidently the sect broke with orthodox Judaism over the question of a legitimate high priest. The interests of the sect were largely apocalyptic. They were concerned with the end time when God would destroy evil and reinstate His people. Their value judgments were puritanical and on the whole they were an inward-looking community. The purpose of the discussion of the sect at this point is to draw attention to the place of Scripture in the life of Judaism. At the heart of the buildings of the Qumran sect, there was a scriptorium, a building which was occupied for the purpose of copying and transmitting the sacred texts of Scripture. Almost all the texts are in Heb. though there are some Aram. and Gr. documents. Further, as well as canonical OT writings and Apoc. writings, there are some documents which are peculiar to the Qumran sect. There is the Manual of Discipline, the Hymn Scroll and various Biblical commentaries, as well as the already known Damascus Document. In these documents, the sect’s own peculiar teaching is put forward.

The diaspora.

The difference of the Judaism of the diaspora from that of Pal. is one of degree and not of kind. It is a mistake to think that the Judaism of Pal. wholly rejected Hel. influence. There is clear indication of Hel. influence, even in such a nationalistic group as the Qumran sect. Greek was a widely spoken language in Pal. The difference in degree is that some Jews in the dispersion lost touch altogether with their native Aram. and Heb. This also may have been true of Jews in Pal., but the difference in degree must be maintained. Many more Jews in Pal. were aware of the meaning of Aram. and Heb. than were the Jews of the dispersion. The Jews of the dispersion were more acutely aware of Hel. influence. Philo of Alexandria was aware of Hel. philosophical ideas and expressions. This is not to suggest that he was a proficient philosopher in his own time, but simply that he had contact with these areas of thought.

Conclusion and criticism.

Jewish education primarily was religious education, based on the belief that God had revealed Himself. It was education that presupposed revelation at every point. Thus philosophy played no real part in its system. As its educational system was exclusively religious, apart from elements of science and other studies which incidentally were taught in the process of teaching religious knowledge, Jewish education lacked scientific character, in fact, was pre-scientific. It neglected culture, but in spite of this Jewish education succeeded where Gr. and Rom. educational systems failed. In a sense, the Jewish system of education failed also, because it became legalistic and hair-splitting. The aim was the perfect application of the law. Paul gives a critique of the system as one who has been inside it, a student of the law at the feet of Gamaliel. He gives two lines of attack. First, he draws attention to the status of Christ in relationship to the law, a status of superseding the law. Second, he draws attention to the fact that the law could not achieve its aims anyway. The NT writers did not disparage the law itself and the high ideal of educational responsibility it inspired in Jewish minds (Rom 2:17-20). They were convinced that the covenant was fulfilled and that the perpetuation of a system of Judaism would be a case of arrested educational development, unnecessary to those who had graduated to God’s household. Further, pride in the law was an anachronism condemned because Gentile was as likely as Jew to live up to the ideals of the law, for the law sets up goals without the means of achieving them (2:14, 15; 7:13-24). The legalistic system encouraged contempt for others (2:17-24; James 1:26; 3:14-16). In the NT there are two concerns: the first is to find a means adequate for personal development, and the second is to show the success of this means by judging it with the test of “loving one another.” This test was not unique, but it was not conventional to make this test central.

Hellenistic education

By “Hellenistic” is meant the later Gr. empire beginning with Alexander and including the Graeco-Rom. empire. It has been said that the Greeks first learned culture themselves and then they taught the ancient world. Consequently, in the Graeco-Rom. period, Hel. culture was the culture of the then known world. Of course, there were variations from place to place according to the local traditions. Hellenism is to be described as a cultural, military and political phenomenon.

Origin, development and aims.

The educational system of Hellenism had its roots in the educational systems of Sparta and Athens. In Sparta, the aim of education may be described as the obliteration of the individual in the service of the state; in Athens, the training of the individual in the service of culture. From Sparta, the emphasis on the development of physical attributes and the training for warfare; and from Athens, the emphasis on the development of culture, carried over into Hel. education. The Greeks produced their philosophers of education and perhaps the most important of these was Plato. His book The Republic (one of his fifty-six books) gives a detailed account of the aims, ideals and methods of education. Plato was a student of Socrates, whom we know only through the writings of Plato. One of the most important students of Plato was Aristotle. With regard to the theory of knowledge, Aristotle rejected Plato’s approach and his reaction has been likened to “a colt that kicks his mother.” This saying is attributed to Plato. In spite of this, it seems that Aristotle and Plato continued on good terms. In due course, Aristotle became tutor in the court of Philip of Macedon. At this stage he began a relationship with Alexander the Great, then thirteen years old, a relationship that was to last about eight years. His influence on Alexander cannot be doubted. From Aristotle onward, the study of philosophy and the natural sciences went hand in hand.

The importance of Alexander in the spread of Hel. culture cannot be overemphasized. Alexander has been described as the apostle of Hellenism. Through his exploits, Hel. culture was spread throughout the then known world. Even when the Greeks finally bowed the knee to the strength of Rome, the Romans showed themselves to be the heirs of Greece, adopting and exploiting Hel. culture. In the Graeco-Rom. age, the spread of the Gr. language, religion, education and philosophy, continued throughout the ancient world.

In the early stages of Gr. education, education was for the aristocratic class only. The ideals which students sought to attain were those of strength, courage, skill with weapons and music. These were the Gr. virtues. Goodness was described in aesthetic rather than moral terms. The Gr. school system presupposed that every attribute of mind, body and soul, properly disciplined, is good and worthy. In Gr. thinking, in its pure form, there is no room for asceticism. The aim was the development of personality, and from this point of view it may be described in terms of humanism. The educational ideal required both intellectual and physical effort. The physical effort is not to be understood in terms of work and labor but in terms of athletic prowess. Work, in terms of labor, was for the servile class.

The Hel. educational system may be described as follows: girls received no education outside the home. For boys, the first five years of life were spent with their mothers. Elementary schools took up the years from six to fifteen. During these years, they undertook the basic learning programs. The years from sixteen to eighteen were spent in the gymnasium and activities were basically physical, music and dancing (naked) taking the main emphasis, though lit., the sciences and politics also were studied. The aim of the gymnasium was to prepare persons fit for citizenship. This kind of education was restricted to citizens who were native born. The years between nineteen and twenty were spent in military service by those who were eligible for this undertaking.

In cities which lost their citizenship (e.g. Athens), the original purpose and military nature of the organization died out in the gymnasiums. They became rather “liberal arts colleges” for the sons of aristocrats. The training became somewhat like that of a university. Athens, Tarsus and Alexandria were cities famous for their “universities.” In these “universities” the ultimate in study was either philosophy or rhetoric. By the NT period, philosophy had given way to rhetoric as the ultimate study.

In such cities as had lost their citizenship in the Rom. empire, schools were open to foreigners as well as natives. The aim which Plato had outlined of preparing scholars for citizenship was now lost. Instead, these universities or schools equipped a few wealthy unoccupied young men to enjoy their own leisure time. Education at this time had lost the lofty ideals of Plato, and in fact had lost any real direction.


Hellenistic education was characterized by the belief that man’s mind discovered truth. The system stressed the development of reason. This led to the study of science and philosophy. Dut to the scepticism of later philosophers and the recognition of the power of persuasive speech, philosophy gave way to rhetoric as the “queen of the sciences.” Aesthetic standards, beauty, symmetry were applied rather than moral standards such as those we find in Judaism.

Influence on Jewish education.

Scholars have recognized Hel. influence on the development of the Wisdom Lit. in Israel. This is not to say that Hel. influence is wholly responsible for the development of the Wisdom Lit. in Israel. Hellenistic influence did contribute to the later Wisdom Lit., to such an extent that it is doubtful whether there would have been a body of Wisdom Lit. had there been no Hel. influence. This influence brought about an interest in the more practical affairs of living and the development of a pedagogical system. It is doubtful whether the Jews would have developed their school system had Hellenism not suggested this system to them.

Second, there was an extensive development of writings in the Gr. language among the Jews. Notable among these is the LXX, the tr. of the OT and Apocryphal books into Gr. The need of such a tr. indicates the inroads which Hel. thought had made into Jewish ways of thinking (see C. H. Dodd, The Bible and the Greeks). Along the same line was the influence of Hel. thought in the writings of Philo of Alexandria (1st cent. a.d.). He shows himself to be one who is thoroughly acquainted with the popular ideas of Hellenism. It has been suggested that he was acquainted with the writings of Plato and other Gr. philosophers. Such is not necessarily true, as he may have learned what he had in common with Plato and other philosophers secondhand at a more popular level. Josephus, the Jewish historian, was acquainted with Hel. culture. Paul (Saul of Tarsus) also seems to have had contact with Hel. culture. It is possible that as a citizen of Tarsus, “no mean city,” Paul received a Hel. education. However, it is more likely from the evidence of the Acts of the Apostles that Paul received a traditionally Jewish, Pharisaic education at the feet of Gamaliel.


The education of Jesus

There is little knowledge of how Jesus was educated, but the following may be said with a great deal of certainty. It is apparent that Jesus was born to a God-fearing family. Joseph is described as a righteous man, Mary as a pious young woman. This family undoubtedly lived up to its responsibilities of teaching the young child Jesus the matters of the law and the prophets. The family, though a godly one, does not appear to belong to the Pharisaic party. Jesus’ education prob. consisted of what He was taught by His mother and father, supplemented by the teaching of the local synagogue school. What He knew of the Scriptures and the teaching therein He learned in these situations. He did not attend any of the academies of the great rabbis, as the question asked by the Jews, “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?” (John 7:15) indicates. While it is true that Jesus comes according to the flesh of the seed of David, the royal line, it is true at the same time that his family seems to have been poor, of the peasant class (Luke 2:24; cf. Lev 12:6, 8). Jesus learned a trade, that of a builder, following in the footsteps of Joseph. Jesus did make trips to Jerusalem with His family, attending the Temple, and on one occasion He astounded His elders with His learning (Luke 2:47). It was His custom to go to the synagogue (4:16).

Jesus’ education consisted of the teaching He received in the synagogue services, and also what he learned from those trips to Jerusalem on the great festival occasions. But all of this does not explain Jesus’ teaching and authority. Of course, one may assume that He meditated long on the Scriptures of the OT. When all this has been said, however, it should be recognized that the origin of His teaching is not to be found in the home, the synagogue, or the Temple. Again and again Jesus was to claim, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me” (John 7:16).

The education of the apostles

The Twelve.

None of the twelve apostles appear to have been learned men originally. Andrew, Peter, James and John were fishermen; Levi (Matthew) was a tax collector; some were zealots (religious nationalists), and others have unknown backgrounds. It seemed unlikely that any of these men would have had very good formal education. The best that can be expected would be that they were educated in their homes and sent to primary school, that they attended the synagogue and perhaps, on rare occasions, had trips up to Jerusalem to the Temple for the great festivals. They were, by and large, uneducated, common men. Having called these men to follow Him, Jesus taught them. They would have heard Jesus’ teaching to the multitudes. Above and beyond this, Jesus taught His own disciples, secretly, apart from the multitudes (Mark 4:10ff.). Thus one must take into account the effectiveness of Jesus, the great Teacher of men. The evidence suggests that His teaching had great effect, so that after Peter and John had been instrumental in the healing of the lame man at the Gate of the Temple and had occasion as a consequence to bear witness to Jesus, Luke records the following; “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they wondered; and they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). Of course it should not be forgotten that along with the effectiveness of Jesus’ teaching, there was the new power of the Holy Spirit, effective in and through the lives and teachings of Peter and John.


Paul grew up as a Pharisee receiving a full Pharisaic education. Though Paul was a Rom. citizen, born in Tarsus (Acts 16:37; 21:39; 22:25ff.), it seems almost certain that his real home was Jerusalem, where he sat at the feet of Rabbi Gamaliel, the doctor of the law and member of the Sanhedrin (22:3). Gamaliel represents the liberal wing of the Pharisees, the school of Hillel, as opposed to the more conservative group, the school of Shammai. Gamaliel intervened on behalf of the apostles with a persuasive speech at their trial (5:33-40). It is of significance that Paul, certainly the most prolific author of the NT, was educated by one of the leading (if not the leading Jewish teacher) of his time. It is ironic, to say the least, that the student, unlike his teacher, pursued a course of persecuting the Church (9:1ff.), only to be converted through an encounter with the living Christ. Of all the church leaders of the NT times, it seems probable that Paul was the most adequately equipped from an intellectual point of view. Paul compares himself with his contemporaries and says, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal 1:14).

Education in the Church in holiness and maturity

(a) The aim was the spiritual man (1 Cor 2:4; Gal 3:14). Christ in His ascension poured out His Spirit on all who believed (John 7:39). At the heart of the Church’s educating task was the need to keep the faith of Christ crucified and risen central. Those who drifted away from their faith in Christ could not hope to grow into the new man in Christ.

(b) The believer who had received the Spirit (and the Spirit’s gift of ministry) was to grow up, through the fellowship of the Church and the ministry it brought to him, into the mature man in Christ (Eph 4:13). This maturity was marked by a sharing in the fellowship of the Church and appreciation of its teaching. Such appreciation was not merely intellectual; which leads up to the third point.

(c) The ideal was the loving man. The mark of the Spirit in man and the sign of his growth and maturity is loving action. Consequently, it is evident that the Church rejects both the Gr. and the Heb. ideals. The goal is not simply private goodness in moral or aesthetic terms, but mutual service of the members of the body. The diversity of individual roles is recognized as the diversity of the gifts of the Spirit and co-operation in the power of the Spirit is emphasized. In this new body, the fellowship of the Church, there is the recognition that each believer is equipped by the Spirit and is responsible for ministering his gifts within the fellowship of the Church. Each member has an educational role in building up the body until it comes to full maturity. Each member is called to a “mutual responsibility in interdependence in the body of Christ.”


A. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus, the Messiah (1883); E. Schürer, The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (E. T. 1885), 6, 90; A. Compayrē, The History of Pedagogy (1909); F. H. Swift, Education in Ancient Israel to 70 A.D. (1919); T. Meek, Hebrew Origins (1936); J. Orr (Ed.) ISBE Vol. 2. (1939); N. Drazin, History of Jewish Education from 515 B.C.E. to 220 C.E. (1940); A. C. Bouquet, Everyday Life in New Testament Times (1956); E. W. Heaton, Everyday Life in Old Testament Times (1957); W. Barclay, Educational Ideals in the Ancient World (1959); E. A. Judge, “The Early Christians as a Scholastic Community” (Australian) Journal of Religious History, Vol. 1, No. 3, 130ff. (1961); J. Pederson, Israel, Its Life and Culture (1961); J. D. Douglas (Ed.), The New Bible Dictionary (1962); G. A. Buttrick (Ed.), Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (1962); M. C. Tenney (Ed.), The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary (1963); T. W. Manson, A Companion to the Bible 2nd Ed. (1963); G. von Rad, Theology of the Old Testament (1962 and 1965); G. H. Blackburn, Aims of Education in Ancient Israel (1966); E. A. Judge (Ed.) (Australian) Journal of Christian Education, various articles including: E. A. Judge, “The Conflict of Educational Aims in New Testament Thought” (1966), 32-45; P. W. Peters, “The Hebrew Attitude to Education in the Hellenistic Era” (1967), 39-51; B. E. Colless, “The Divine Teacher Figure in Biblical Theology” (1967).