Jewish Education in the Time of Christ: The Synagogue-Rabbi System (1)

We live in an age in which science seems to advance with the speed of light.  Man has not only “aimed at the moon,” a phrase formerly denoting, derisively, a ridiculous and impossible aspiration, but he has actually hit it with radar beams, rockets and television cameras.  Next he confidently expects within a decade to land human being on earth’s primordial satellite.  Not only has science enjoyed a meteoric advance, but so have the popular political ideologies.  Socialism and Communism are so fast gaining acceptance, that democracy to many begins to look wan and passé.  Also the growth of the false cults and the modernist false church in recent years has been phenomenal.  It may be true that every discerning man in history has felt that his was an age of skepticism, unbelief, apostasy, doctrinal indifference and anti-intellectualism.  But no age was more so than the present.  Men call this the Atomic Age, the Space Age, the Age of Science.  The church would call it “this present evil age” (Gal. 1:4), the Age of the Apostasy (The Falling Away), the age of the coming Antichrist.  It is by modern men called the Age of the New Morality (the old immorality behind a mere deceptive mask), and of the New Education.  Modern education, including religious education, is moving rapidly, but where is it going? It is moving so fast that it ought to be overtaking something, but what? One modern educator claims that it is running itself down headlong to catastrophe.1 Modern education informs us that primitive man lived according to the only education principle he then knew, the “survival of the fittest.” He had to learn out of fear and necessity.  But now, today, in the age of the “Mexican stand-off,” it has been scientifically proved that life and knowledge can no longer be sustained on the basis of the survival of the fittest, but rather on the basis of the survival of the most co-operative! By sly semantics we are maneuvered into presupposing the judgments of pacifistic liberalism.  In the age of the philosophers, the sages argued until the day they died as to how men ought to live.  They never came to any conclusions on the matter, and if they had, they never would have had time to put them into practice.  The friends of Socrates, given as they were to drunkenness and homosexuality, made him the educational ideal the way American teen-agers idolize some beatnik, guitar-strumming, androgynous creature.  Education was supposed originally to have been a defense-mechanism.  Now, Plato tells us, it became an amusement.  In the Dark Ages, the Scholastics wedded Jerusalem to Athens, the Church to the world, in an attempt to Christianize heathen philosophy.  Education became culture.  In the age of the renaissance, the world sleepily emerged from the gloom of the former era to revive the ancient Greek and Roman humanism.  Men were content to live in the past.  Education became research.  The age of reason was a revolt against dogma, a movement of free-thinking, skepticism and the beginning of dialectical materialism.  Education became an intellectual gymnastic.  In the age of the electronic computer, education becomes a stream-lined melting-pot, boiling and bubbling with a radio=active witches’ brew of the expedient, the utilitarian, the pragmatic, the sociological, the controlled, the regimented, the scientific.  Education has become a fairy’s wand.  A wave or two ought to usher in (not the Free, but) the Great Society.

But there is another age deserving of attention.  We might cal it the age of revelation.  Particularly are we concerned with Jewish education at the close of that age.  To the Jewish people, still at that time the chosen people of God, education was no mere secular process, nor simply a religious training.  It was a theological discipline in the highest sense of the term.  Religion was viewed according to its original meaning, the word itself coming from re, back, plus ligio, to bind, i.e., “to bind back,” to bind and fasten back to God! All instruction was to be related to God.  It proceeded from the fundamental principle that Jehovah is God alone, and that Jehovah Elohim is one, Education was therefore from the beginning of Old Testament times pre-adjusted to the later fully revealed New Testament truth of God triune.  Since God is the covenant God of Israel, all education in Israel was established on the basis of the covenant idea, “I will be a God unto you and to your seed after you, and ye shall be My people.” That education had a covenant foundation is plain from the entire Book of Deuteronomy.  For example, we read, “Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen…but teach them thy sons, and thy sons’ sons;…I will make them hear My words…that they may teach their children…Take heed unto yourselves, lest ye forget the covenant….For the Lord thy God is a merciful God, He will not forget thee, neither destroy thee, nor forget the covenant…Unto thee it was showed that thou mightiest know that the Lord He is God; there is none else beside Him.  Out of heaven He made thee to hear His voice, that He might instruct thee…And because He loved thy fathers, therefore He chose their seed after them..” (Deut. 4:9, 10, 23a, 31a, 35, 36a, 37a).  This covenant foundation of Israel’s educational system will give us some idea of Jewish Education in the Time of Christ.  That is the subject before us, and may be considered from a three-fold point of view:


I.  Its Elementary Education

II.  Its Educational Institutions

III. Its Studies and Texts


The Educational Ideal. Every nation in every age has given a prominent place among all its indispensable obligations to that of education.  But it was the Jews who formed an educational ideal before any other people of antiquity.  The record of Scripture itself informs us of this. “What nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the Lord our God is…? What nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this Law? (Dt. 4:7f). Neither the Greeks nor the Romans of ancient history had special education in religion. Only the religion of the Bible proved competent to furnish the ruling power of a high or an ascending civilization, the power to control, influence and mold all of life, public, social and religious.  In Israel, then, especially from the time of Solomon, the root principle of education was expressed in the maxim, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 1:7), and in “wisdom is the principal thing, therefore get wisdom” (4:7).  Since the return from the captivities, Israel no longer envisioned the preservation of its greatness by political power as especially manifested in the reigns of David and Solomon.  Rather there developed the new vision of preserving the nation by preserving its religion. This could be done only by way of education, which was a matter first of all, of a divine mission commanded by God.  The great teacher was the Lord God Himself. “Now therefore hearken, O Israel, unto the statues and unto the judgments, which I teach you” (Dt. 4:1), When Moses said “the Lord my God commanded me,” he meant that God taught me, for the word command means to teach, from a root meaning “to poke with an ox-goad.” A teacher in Israel was a malmed he was an ox-goad in the hands of the Lord to keep Israel in the way of God’s commandments.  The Lord Himself was the Teacher of Moses and Aaron. “I will teach thee what thou shalt say… I will teach you what ye shall do” (Ex. 4:12,15). The Lord speaks of Himself not as a disciplinarian, but as a teacher. “Who teacheth like Him?” (Job 36:22).  Greek and Roman schools believed that man’s mind discovered truth.  The Hebrews, in contrast, believed that all the truth comes from God through His written revelation.  This Jewish, really Hebrew, ideal of education was expressed in the Book of Proverbs, the oldest handbook of education.  From this book we learn that to the covenant people, life was education and that all the life the knowledge of the true God must be taught.  For Israel, religion was more than mere ceremonies, it was Scripture, creeds and the knowledge of God derived there from, which dominated and permeated every sphere of life.

Educational Responsibility. Schools as such were unknown in early Bible times because it was firmly believed that the education of the child was the responsibility of the family.  The family in Israel always was the fundamental educational institution.  This made education the duty of both parents.  “Ye shall command your children to observe to do all the words of this law” (Dt. 32:46 cf. Ex. 12:26f; 13:8, 14). Especially was it the duty of the fathers. “O God, our fathers have told us what work Thou didst in their days” (Ps. 44:1). “He commanded our fathers that they should make them known to their children, that the generation to come might know them” (78:5f). cf. Dt. 6:6; Josh. 4:6, 21.  The mothers, too, had an important place in the educational process.  “My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law (teaching) of thy mother” (Prov. 1:8; 6:20).  Education, of necessity began with the mother.  The covenant child was thought of as sucking righteousness from its mother’s breast.  The idea was that parents yearned to instruct their children in righteousness, so that more than the babe desires to suck, the mother desires to suckle.  In fact, the world was said to continue by the breath of school-children!2

The instruction of daughters in the family was done by the mothers at home.  They were taught “to fear God and keep His commandments,” to read, to write a little, to know the Torah, although not deeply.  Secular subjects were discouraged, emphasis instead being placed on “home economics,” on subjects such as baking (2 S. 13:8), spinning and weaving (Ex. 35:25f), dyeing (Acts 16:14), caring for flocks, guarding vineyards (Song 1:6), gathering harvests (Ru.2:3), grinding grain (Matt. 24:41), caring for children (2 Samuel 21:8) and managing slaves.  Placed before every Jewish daughter was the noble ideal of womanhood found in Prov. 31. “She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness, Her children arise up and call he blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her. Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all” (27-29).3 Godly women in Israel, as Lois and Eunice, did learn the Scriptures well enough to explain to an Apollos the way of God more perfectly.

It was the mother who would make one of the larger phylacteries, a box called a Mezuzah (literally, “Door-post”), containing a small folded parchment inscribed with the Shema, Dt. 6:4-9, and 11:13-21. On the outside of the parchment the name of the Most High God was written.  The Mezuzah was attached to the door-post of the house, and all who entered or left, reverently touched the name on the parchment encased within the phylactery, then kissed the fingers that had thus contacted the Holy Name.  Probably Jesus and Timothy as children wondered at the use of the Mezuzah and learned not only to understand its meaning, but perceived the true significance of the Scripture thus enshrined in some of the homes of Israel.  For the elect Israelites were not encumbered with Jewish superstitions.  Even the Jewish sect of the Keraim (Readers) adopted the same creed that the godly Jew was distinguished for in his faith: the inspiration and infallibility of the Scriptures, for his rejection of the unwritten tradition, and his denial of the binding authority of the Talmud.  He believed that as to a literal binding of Scripture on the door-posts, or on the arm, or the forehead, there was not a sign to be found in the Old Testament or in the Apocrypha, but that the real spiritual meaning of inscripturation upon the heart is everywhere inculcated throughout Scripture.

Compulsory Elementary Education. The elementary school was called Beth Ha-Sepher, the House of the Book, while the secondary school was later given the name of Beth Ha-Midrash, the House of Study, an academy intended for the promising student.  But it is difficult to determine exactly the age of the institution of the schoolhouse in Israel.  For, to begin with, there were no school houses.  Schools met originally in the open air.  The pupils sat on the ground, not on benches, as later, in a near-circle with the teacher sitting in the opening made, as prophet, priest and king, wearing his class as his crown.  When the education of orphans began to be a problem, an educational system was established by Simon ben Shetach, member of the Sanhedrin, in Jerusalem about 70 B.C., with attendance compulsory. The orphans were especially provided for, being made the charge of the whole congregation.  They were never put into poor-houses.  One hundred years later, about the time of Christ’s ministry, the high priest, Joshua ben Gamala (Gamaliel), grandson of the eminent Hillel, passed a law providing for the establishment of elementary schools for boys with compulsory attendance from the age of six.  This educational feat was regarded as being of such merit that it largely amounted to a sort of penance for the sin of his wife, Martha, in purchasing for him the office of high priest.  Eventually it came to pass that it was unlawful to live where there was no covenant school.  Every Jewish city had to have a school.  A city without a school was to be excommunicated or demolished.4 Indeed, in the immediately following period, the Talmudic Jew believed that “Jerusalem was destroyed because schools and school children ceased to be there.” But the truth is that Jerusalem, the temple and the schools were destroyed because the synagogues gradually displaced the temple and prepared the way for Israel’s rejection of Christ (Mt. 22:7) in preference to Pharisaism.

Children were to attend the schools in their own neighborhood.  They were not to attend schools in distant neighborhoods, by-passing their own, nor to attend a school in another town.  The Jews foresaw that such practices only led to unwholesome rivalry, and had a tendency to lower the general educational standard.5 Failing to see the wisdom of this policy, the current public schools in New York City will rue the day when they departed from such a commendable precedent.

According to Gamaliel’s law, each community had to provide a teacher for every 25 children, with an assistant, a pupil teacher, if the number rose to 40, and another teacher if the number reached 50.  How successful the system was may be illustrated in Josephus who tells us that at 14 he could expound the most abstruse questions of the law, and that consequently the high priest and principal men of the city frequently came together to him to confer with him on points of the law.6

Aim of the Elementary school. The duty of the teacher was to inculcate the law, according to the pupil’s capacity, with un-dying patience, the greatest earnestness, strictness tempered with kindness, discipline without undue severity, with judicious increase of study and work.  Overwork of pupils was studiously avoided.  School hours were therefore fixed, and attendance shortened during the summer.  Education was almost exclusively religious, i.e., scriptural, with but little instruction in nature and secular history.  The curriculum included reading.  One who could not read was deemed no true Jew.  Writing was included, also arithmetic, history and the songs of the Tehillim, the Psalms.  Some geography and general knowledge was also taught.  In class discussions, few limits were circumscribed, so that every field of knowledge could be touched on, including theology, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, geography, history, architecture, botany, animal anatomy, etiquette and manners.  There were no Jewish schools of music, architecture, sculpture, painting, arts or drama.  Most of these subjects were associated with and had their origin in the pagan religions.  So that the Jews never developed these art.  Nor did they have schools of philosophy, rightly regarding the same as humanistic enterprises.  The very nature of philosophy tends to deny the idea of divine revelation, the very basis of Hebrew education.  Therefore the cultural and educational advantages of Greece and Hellenized Rome not only did not much influence the Jews and their schools of this period, but were strictly excluded from their schools and their educational ideals.  The Jews saw that the road to ruin led downward from paganism to humanism to amalgamation to oblivion.

But it was never the calling of the teacher merely to inculcate information, nor to impart knowledge for the sake of intellectual development.  It was his duty to train the pupil in the fear of the Lord, and to fit him to be a true son of the covenant of Abraham.  The general aim of education in ancient Israel was (1) to transmit the knowledge of the history of God’s covenant with His people, and (2) to instruct in the spiritual-ethical application of the covenant to the whole life, according to the Book of the Covenant.  Every branch of knowledge was to be dominated by the doctrine of God, and to serve the cause of God and truth.

Relative to its educational institutions, consider, first, the Relation of the School to the Synagogue.  The synagogue, one of the oldest institutions of Judaism, probably had its origin in Babylonia during the captivity.  Its organization was a considerable departure from the government of the Old Testament church, which was a rule of elders, for it was completely congregational.  Although it had elders, the synagogue building itself was called Beth ha-Cheneseth, House of the Congregation; the members of the synagogue congregation were called Bene ha-Cheneseth, Sons of the Congregation, while the head of the synagogue was called Rosh ha-Cheneseth, the Head of the Congregation.  He himself could not read the Scriptures in the synagogue unless he was invited by others to do so.  Even a woman could on occasion read the Scripture in the public meeting.  The reading of the Scripture was done by the members of the congregation.7 A synagogue could only be formed wherever ten adult males were agreed to meet for study.  It became an institution of higher religious learning, and not, originally, one of worship.  Nor was it a school for children, who had their own separate institution.  It was, to begin with, the place for advanced adult study of the Torah.  This institution was the outstanding feature of the post-exilian period.  But the elementary school was the special feature of the period we are dealing with, which was Pre-Talmudic (75 B.C. to 70 A.D.) and came at the end of the so-called Scribal period (586 B.C. to 70 A.D.). This school existed in intimate relation to the synagogue.  The synagogue itself would provide classroom space for the school, or school was held in the teacher’s house.


1 Dr. Max Rafferty, Suffer, Little Children, New Amer. Library, Signet Book, N.Y.C.

2 B. Spiers, The School System of the Talmud, p.I, London, 1898.

3 Hastings Bible Dictionary, I, Education, Scribner’s, 646-651.

4 Edersheim, A., The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, I, 231. B. Spiers, “The School System of the Talmud,” p.2.

5 Edersheim, A., Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ, p. 137—Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan 1957.

6 Josephus’ Complete Works II, 129. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Abingdon, E-J. Education. A Edersheim’s “Sketches of Jewish Life…” (129-30).

7 HBD, vol 4 art., Synagogue.