BACKGROUND TO THE NEW TESTAMENT #6
THE UPBRINGING OF JEWISH CHILDREN
THE tenderness of the bond which united Jewish parents to
their children appears even in the multiplicity and pictorialness
of the expressions by which the various stages of child-life are
designated in the Hebrew. Besides such general words as "ben"
and "bath" - "son" and "daughter" - we find no fewer than nine
different terms, each depicting a fresh stage of life. The
first of these simply designates the babe as the newly -"born"
-the "jeled," or, in the feminine, "jaldah" - as in Exod.ii.3,
6,8. But the use of this term throws a fresh light on the meaning
of some passages of Scripture. Thus we remember that it is
applied to our Lord in the prophecy of His birth (Isa.ix. 6):
"For a babe ('jeled') is born unto us, a son ('ben') is given to
us;" while in Isa.ii.6 its employment adds a new meaning to the
charge "They please themselves (or strike hands) with the 'jalde'
the 'babes' - of strangers - marking them, so to speak, as not
only the children of strangers, but as unholy from their very
birth. Compare also the pictorial, or else the poetical, use of
the word "jeled" in such passages as Isa.xxix. 23 lvii. 4; Jer.
xxxi. 20; Eccl.iv. 13; 1 Kings xii. 8; 2 Kings ii. 24; Gen.
xlii. 22; and others.
The next child-name, in point of time, is "jonek," which
means, literally, "a suckling," being also sometimes used
figuratively of plants, like our English "sucker," as in Isa.
liii. 2: "He shall grow up before Him as a sucker" - "jonek."
The word "jonek" occurs, for example, in Isa.xi. 8, and in Ps.
On the other hand, the expression in the latter passage,
rendered "babes" in our Authorised Version, marks a yet third
stage in the babe life. This appears from many passages. As the
word implies, the "olel " is still "sucking;" but it is no longer
satisfied with only this nourishment, and is "asking bread," as
in Lam.iv.4: "The tongue of the 'jonek' cleaves to the roof of
his mouth for thirst: the 'olalim' ask bread."
A fourth designation represents the child as the "gamul,"
or "weaned one" (Ps.cxxxi.2; Isa.xi.8; xxviii.9), from a
verb which primarily means to complete, and secondarily to wean.
As we know, the period of weaning among the Hebrews was generally
at the end of two years (Chethub. 60), and was celebrated by a
feast. After that the fond eye of the Hebrew parent seems to
watch the child as it is clinging to its mother - as it were.
ranging itself by her - whence the fifth designation, "taph"
(Esther iii. 13, "The 'taph' and the women in one day;" Jer.
The sixth period is marked by the word "elem" (in the
feminine, "almah," as in Isa.vii.14, of the virgin-mother), which
denotes becoming firm and strong. As one might expect, we have
next the "naar," or youth-literally, he who shakes off, or shakes
Lastly, we find the child designated as "bachur," or the
"ripened one;" a young warrior, as in Isa.xxxi.8; Jer.xviii.21;
xv.8, etc. Assuredly, those who so keenly watched child-life
as to give a pictorial designation to each advancing stage of its
existence, must have been fondly attached to their children.
There is a passage in the Mishnah (Aboth. v, 21), which
quaintly maps out and, as it-were, labels the different periods
of life according to their characteristics, It is worth repro-
ducing, if only to serve as introduction to what we shall have
to say on the upbringing of children. Rabbi Jehudah, son of Tema,
says: "At five years of age, reading of the Bible; at ten
years, learning the Mishnah; at thirteen years, bound to the
commandments; at fifteen years, the study of the Talmud; at
eighteen years, marriage; at twenty, the pursuit of trade or
business (active life); at thirty years, full vigour; at forty,
maturity of reason; at fifty, for counsel; at sixty,
commencement of agedness; at seventy, grey age; at eighty,
advanced old age; at ninety, bowed down; at a hundred, as if he
were dead and gone, and taken from the world."
In the passage just quoted the age of five is mentioned as
that when a child is expected to commence reading the Bible - of
course, in the original Hebrew. But different opinions also
prevailed. Generally speaking, such early instruction was
regarded as only safe in the case of very healthy and strong
children; while those of average constitution were not to be set
to regular work till six years old. There is both common sense
and sound experience in this Talmudical saying (Cheth. 50),
"If you set your child to regular study before it is six years
old, you shall always have to run after, and yet never get hold
of it." This chiefly has reference to the irreparable injury to
health caused by such early strain upon the mind. If, on the
other hand, we come upon an admonition to begin teaching a child
when it is three years old, this must refer to such early
instruction as that of certain passages of Scripture, or of small
isolated portions and prayers, which a parent would make his
child repeat from tenderest years. As wit, shall show in the
sequel, six or seven was the age at which a parent in Palestine
was legally bound to attend to the schooling of his son.
But, indeed, it would have been difficult to say when the
instruction of the Hebrew child really commenced. Looking back, a
man must have felt that the teaching which he most indeed, one
might almost say, which he exclusively-valued had mingled with
the first waking thoughts of his consciousness. Before the child
could speak - before it could almost understand what was taught,
in however elementary language--before it would even take in the
domestic rites of the recurring weekly festival, or those of the
annual feasts - it must have been attracted by the so-called
"Mesusah," which was fastened at the door-post of every "clean"
apartment,' and at the entrance of such houses as were inhabited
by Jews exclusively.
The "Mesusah" was a kind of phylactery for the house,
serving a purpose kindred to that of the phylactery for the
person, both being derived from a misunderstanding and
misapplication of the Divine direction (Deut.vi. 9; xi. 20),
taking in the letter what was meant for the spirit. But while we
gladly concede that the earlier Jewish practice was free from
some of the present almost semi-heathenish customs, and further,
that many houses in Palestine were without it, there can be
little doubt that, even at the time of Christ, this "Mesusah"
would be found wherever a family was at all Pharisaically
inclined. For, not to speak of what seems an allusion to it, so
early as in Isa.lvii. 8, we have the distinct testimony of
Josephus (Ant.iv. 8,13) and of the Mishnah to their use (Ber.
iii.3; Megill.i.8; Moed K.iii. 4; Men.iii. 7 - in the
last-mentioned place, even with superstitious additions).
Supposing the "Mesusah" to have been somewhat as at present, it
would have consisted of a small, longitudinally-folded parchment
square, on which, on twenty-two lines, these two passages were
written: Deut. vi. 4-9, and xi. 13-21. Inclosed in a shining
metal case, and affixed to the door-post, the child, when carried
in arms, would naturally put out its hand to it; the more so,
that it would see the father and all others, on going out or in,
reverently touch the case, and afterwards kiss the finger,
speaking at the same time a benediction. For, from early times,
the presence of the "Mesusah" was connected with the Divine
protection, this verse being specially applied to it: "The Lord
shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time
forth, and even for evermore" (Ps.cxxi. 8). Indeed, one of the
most interesting ancient literary monuments in existence
"Mechilta," a Jewish commentary on the book of Exodus, the
substance of which is older than the Mishnah itself, dating from
the beginning of the second century of our era, if not earlier -
argues the efficacy of the "Mesusah" from the fact "Sohar"
contains much that is little better than heathen superstition on
the supposed efficacy of the "Mesusah." Among later superstitions
connected with it, are the writing of the name "Cuso bemuchsas
cuso " (supposed to be that of Israel's watching angel), the
etymology of that name, etc. that, since the destroying angel
passed over the doors of Israel which bore the covenant-mark, a
much higher value must attach to the "Mesusah," which embodied
the name of the Lord no less than ten times, and was to be found
in the dwellings of Israel day and night through all their
generations. From this to the magical mysticism of the
"Kabbalah," and even to such modern superstitions as that, if
dust or dirt were kept within a cubit of the "Mesusah," no less a
host than three hundred and sixty-five demons would come, there
is a difference of degree rather than of kind.
But to return. As soon as the child had any knowledge, the
private and the united prayers of the family, and the domestic
rites, whether of the weekly Sabbath or of festive seasons, would
indelibly impress themselves upon his mind. It would be difficult
to say which of those feasts would have the most vivid effect
upon a child's imagination. There was "Chanukah," the feast of
the Dedication, with its illumination of each house, when (in
most cases) the first evening one candle would be lit for each
member of the household, the number increasing each night, till,
on the eighth, it was eight times that of the first. Then there
was "Purim," the feast of Esther, with the good cheer and
boisterous merriment which it brought; the feast of Tabernacles,
when the very youngest of the house had to live out in the booth;
and, chiefest of feasts, the week of the Passover, when, all
leaven being carefully purged out, every morsel of food, by its
difference from that ordinarily used, would show the child that
the season was a special one. From the moment a child was at all
capable of being instructed - still more, of his taking any part
in the services - the impression would deepen day by day.
Surely no one who had ever worshipped within the courts of
Jehovah's house at Jerusalem could ever have forgotten the scenes
he had witnessed, or the words he had heard. Standing in that
gorgeous, glorious building, and looking up its terraced
vista, the child would watch with solemn awe, not unmingled with
wonderment, as the great throng of white-robed priests busily
moved about, while the smoke of the sacrifice rose from the altar
of burnt offering. Then, amid the hushed silence of that vast
multitude, they had all fallen down to worship at the time of
incense. Again, on those steps that led up to the innermost
sanctuary the priests had lifted their hands and spoken over the
people the words of blessing; and then, while the drink-offering
was poured out, the Levites' chant of Psalms had risen and
swelled into a mighty volume; the exquisite treble of the Levite
children's voices being sustained by the rich round notes of the
men, and accompanied by instrumental music. The Jewish child knew
many of these words. They had been the earliest songs he had
heard - almost his first lesson when clinging as a "taph" to his
mother. But now, in those whitemarbled, gold-adorned halls,
under heaven's blue canopy, and with such surroundings, they
would fall upon his ear like sounds from another world, to which
the prolonged threefold blasts from the silver trumpets of the
priests would seem to waken him. And they were sounds from
another world; for, as his father would tell him, all that he saw
was after the exact pattern of heavenly things which God had
shown to Moses on Mount Sinai; all that he heard was God-uttered,
spoken by Jehovah Himself through the mouth of His servant David,
and of the other sweet singers of Israel. Nay, that place and
that house were God-chosen; and in the thick darkness of the Most
Holy Place - there afar off, where the high-priest himself
entered on one day of the year only, and in simple pure white
vesture, not in those splendid golden garments in which he was
ordinarily arrayed-had once stood the ark, with the veritable
tables of the law, hewn and graven by the very hand of God; and
between the cherubim had then throned in the cloud the visible
presence of Jehovah. Verily this Temple with its services was
heaven upon earth!
Nor would it have been easy to lose the impression of the
first Paschal Supper which a child had attended. There was that
about its symbols and services which appealed to every feeling,
even had it not been that the law expressly enjoined full
instruction to be given as to every part and rite of the service,
as well as to the great event recorded in that supper. For in
that night had Israel been born as a nation, and redeemed as the
"congregation " of the Lord. Then also, as in a mould, had their
future history been cast to all time; and there, as in type, had
its eternal meaning and import for all men been outlined, and
with it God's purpose of love and work of grace foreshadowed.
Indeed, at a certain part of the service it was expressly
ordained, that the youngest at the Paschal table should rise and
formally ask what was the meaning of all this service, and how
that night was distinguished from others; to which the father was
to reply, by relating, in language suited to the child's
capacity, the whole national history of Israel, from the calling
of Abraham down to the deliverance from Egypt and the giving of
the law; "and the more fully," it is added, "he explains it all,
the better." In view of all this, Philo might indeed, without
exaggeration, say that the Jews "were from their swaddling
clothes, even before being taught either the sacred laws or the
unwritten customs, trained by their parents, teachers, and
instructors to recognise God as Father and as maker of the world"
(Legat. ad Cajum, sec.16) and that, " having been taught the
knowledge (of the laws) from earliest youth, they bore in their
souls the same effect is the testimony of Josephus, that "from
their earliest consciousness" they had "learned the laws, so as
to have them, as it were, engraven upon the soul" (Ag. Apion, ii.
18); although, of course, we do not believe it, when, with his
usual boastful magniloquence, he declares that at the age of
fourteen he had been "frequently" consulted by "the high priests
and principal men of the city . . . about the accurate
understanding of points of the law" (Life, 2; compare also Ant.
iv. 8,12; Ag.Apion, i.12; ii.25).
But there is no need of such testimony. The Old Testament,
the Apocrypha, and the New Testament, leading us progressively
from century to century, indicate the same carefulness in the
upbringing of children. One of the earliest narratives of
Scripture records how God said to Abraham, "I know him, that he
will command his children, and his household after him, and they
shall keep the way of Jehovah, to do justice and judgment" (Gen.
xviii. i9) - a statement which, we may note by the way, implies
the distinction between the seed of Abraham after the flesh and
after the spirit. How thoroughly the spirit of this Divine
utterance was carried out under the law, appears from a
comparison of such passages as Ex.xii. 26; xiii. 8,14; Deut.iv.
9,10; vi.7,20; xi.19; xxxi.13; Ps.lxxviii.5,6. It is needless to
pursue the subject farther, or to show how even God's dealings
with His people were regarded as the basis and model of the
parental relationship. But the book in the Old Testament which
if, and perhaps so new to some readers, that a slight digression
may be allowed us.
Beyond the limits of the Holy Land, close by Dumah, lay the
land or district of Massa (Gen.xxv.I4), one of the original
seats of the Ishmaelites (I Chron. i.3o). From Isa. xxi. 11 we
gather that it must have been situate beyond Seir - that is, to
the south-east of Palestine, in Northern Arabia. Whether the
Ishmaelites of Massa had come to the knowledge of Jehovah, the
true God; whether Massa was occupied by a Jewish colony, which
there established the service of the Lord; or whether, through
the influence of Hebrew immigrants, such a religious change had
been brought about, certain it is, that the two last chapters of
the book of Proverbs introduce the royal family of Massa as
deeply imbued with the spiritual religion of the Old Testament,
and the queen-mother as training the heir to the throne in the
knowledge and fear of the Lord. Indeed, so much is this the
case, that the instruction of the queen of Massa, and the words
of her two royal sons, are inserted in the book of Proverbs as
part of the inspired records of the Old Testament. According to
the best criticism, Prov. xxx. i should be thus rendered: "The
words of Agur, the son of her whom Massa obeys. Spake the man
to God-with-me - God with me, and I was strong."
Then Prov. xxxi. embodies the words of Agur's royal brother,
even "the words of Lemuel, king of Massa, with which his mother
taught him." If the very names of these two princes-Agur,"
exile," and Lemuel, "for God," or "dedicated to God " - are
significant of her convictions, the teaching of that royal
mother, as recorded in Prov.xxxi. 2-9, is worthy of a "mother in
Israel." No wonder that the record of her teaching is followed
by an enthusiastic description of a godly woman's worth and work
(Prov.xxxi. 10-31), each verse beginning with a successive
letter of the Hebrew alphabet, like the various sections of Ps.
cxix.- a s it were, to let her praises ring through every letter
As might have been expected, the spirit of the Apocryphal
books is far different from that which breathes in the Old
Testament. Still, such a composition as Ecclesiasticus shows that
even in comparatively late and degenerate times the godly
upbringing of children occupied a most prominent place in
But it is when we approach the New Testament, that a fresh
halo of glory seems to surround woman. And here our attention is
directed to the spiritual influence of mothers rather than of
fathers. Not to mention "the mother of Zebedee's children," nor
the mother of John Mark, whose home at Jerusalem seems to have
been the meeting-place and the shelter of the early disciples,
and that in times of the most grievous persecution; nor yet
"the elect lady and her children," whom not only St.John, "but
also all they that know the truth," loved in truth (2 John 1),
and her similarly elect sister with her children (ver.13), two
notable instances will occur to the reader.
The first of these presents a most touching instance of a
mother's faith, and prayers, and labour of love, to which the
only parallel in later history is that of Monica, the mother of
St. Augustine. How Eunice, the daughter of the pious Lois, had
come to marry a heathen, we know as little as the circumstances
which may have originally led the family to settle at Lystra
(Acts xvi. 1; compare xiv. 6, etc.) a place where there was not
even a synagogue. At most then two or three Jewish families lived
in that heathen city. Perhaps Lois and Eunice were the only
worshippers of Jehovah there; for we do not even read of a
meeting-place for prayer, such as that by the river-side where
Paul first met Lydia. Yet in such adverse circumstances, and as
the wife of a Greek, Eunice proved one to whom royal Lemuel's
praise applied in the fullest sense: "Her children arise up and
call her blessed," and "Her works praise her in the gates" - of
the new Jerusalem. Not a truer nor more touching portraiture of
a pious Jewish home could have been drawn than in these words of
St.Paul: "I call to remembrance the unfeigned faith that is in
thee, which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother
Eunice;" and again, "From a child thou hast known the Holy
Scriptures" ii Tim.i.5; iii.15). There was, we repeat, no
synagogue in Lystra where Timothy might have heard every Sabbath,
and twice in the week, Moses and the Prophets read, and derived
other religious knowledge; there was, so far as we can see,
neither religious companionship nor means of instruction of any
kind, The language of the New Testament leads to the inference
that Timothy's father was not only by birth, but continued a
Greek-being not merely a heathen, but not even a Jewish
proselyte, nor religious example, not even from his father; but
all around quite the contrary. But there was one influence for
highest good-constant, unvarying, and most powerful. It
was that of a "mother in Israel." From the time that as a
"taph" he clung to her--even before that, when a "gamin," an
"olel," and a "jonek " - had Eunice trained Timothy in the
nurture and admonition of the Lord. To quote again the forcible
language of St.Paul, "From an infant" (or baby) "thou hast known
the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto
salvation, through faith which is in Christ Jesus."
From the Apocrypha, from Josephus, and from the Talmud we
know what means of instruction in the Scriptures were within
reach of a pious mother at that time. In a house like that of
Timothy's father there would, of course, be no phylacteries, with
the portions of Scripture which they contained, and probably no
"Mesusah," although, according to the Mishnah (Ber.iii. 3), the
latter duty was incumbent, not only upon men but upon women. The
Babylon Talmud (Ber.20 b) indeed gives a very unsatisfactory
reason for the latter provision. But may it not be that the
Jewish law had such cases in view as that of Eunice and her son,
without expressly saying so, from fear of lending a sanction to
mixed marriages? Be this as it may, we know that at the time of
the Syrian persecutions, just before the rising of the Maccabees,
the possession of portions or of the whole of the Old Testament
by private families was common in Israel. For, part of those
The Greek term means literally "a baby," and is so used, not
only by classical writers, but in all the passages in which it
occurs in the New Testament, which are as follows: Luke i. 41,44;
ii.12,16; xviii.15; Acts vii.19; 2 Tim. iii.5 ; and
1 Pet. ii.2.
persecutions consisted in making search for these Scriptures and
destroying them (i Mace.i. 57), as well as punishing their
possessors (Jos. Ant. xii. 5,4). Of course, during the period of
religious revival which followed the triumph of the Maccabees,
such copies of the Bible would have greatly multiplied. It is
by no means an exaggeration to say that, if perhaps only the
wealthy possessed a complete copy of the Old Testament, written
out on parchment or on Egyptian paper, there would scarcely be a
pious home, however humble, which did not cherish as its richest
treasure some portion of the Word of God - whether the five books
of the Law, or the Psalter, or a roll of one or more of the
Prophets. Besides, we know from the Talmud 1 that at a later
period, and probably at the time of Christ also, there were
little parchment rolls specially for the use of children,
containing such portions of Scripture as the "Shema"
(Deut.vi. 4-9; xi. 13-21; Num.xv. 37-41), the "Hallel" (Ps.
cxiii - cxviii.), the history of the Creation to that of the
Flood, and the first eight chapters of the book of Leviticus.
Such means of instruction there would be at the disposal of
Eunice in teaching her son.
And this leads us to mention, with due reverence, the other
and far greater New Testament instance of maternal influence in
Israel. It is none less than that of the mother of our blessed
Lord Himself. While the fact that Jesus became subject to His
parents, and grew in wisdom and in favour both with God and man,
forms part of the unfathomable mystery of His self-humiliation,
the influence exerted upon.
I Compare Herzfeld, Gesch. d. Volk. Jes. Vol. iii. p. 267, note.
2 The "Shema"-so called from the first word, "Shema" ("llear, O
Tsrael")- forms part of the regular prayers; as the section
called "Valid" ("praise") was appointed to be sung at certain
In the Jewish sense of the expression, or, to use their own
terms, as a "Bar Mizvah," or "son of the commandment," by which
the period was marked when religious obligations and privileges
devolved upon a youth, and be became a member of the
congregation. But the legal age for this was not twelve, but
thirteen (Ab. v. 21). On the other hand, the Rabbinical law
enjoined (Yoma, 82 a) that even before that - two years, or at
least one year - lads should be brought up to the Temple, and
made to observe the festive rites. Unquestionably, it was in
conformity with this universal custom that Jesus went on the
occasion named to the Temple. Again, we know that it was the
practice of the members of the various Sanhedrims--who, on
ordinary days sat as judicatories, from the close of the morning
to the time of the evening sacrifice (Sanh. 88 b)--to come out
upon the Sabbaths and feast-days on "the terrace of the Temple,"
and there publicly to teach and expound, the utmost liberty being
given of asking questions, discussing, objecting, and otherwise
taking intelligent partin these lectures. On the occassion of
Christ's presence, these discussions would, as usual, be carried
in during the "Moed Katon," oe minor festive days, interestingly
between the second and last day of the Paschal week.
Joseph and Mary on the other hand, had, as allowed by the
law, returned towards Nazareth on the third day of the nPaschal
week, while Jesus remained behind.
These circumstances also explain why His appearance in the
midst of the doctors, although very remarkable considering His
age, did not at once command universal attention. In point of
fact, the only qualification requisite, so far as learning was
week. while concerned, would be a thorough knowledge of the
Scriptures in the Hebrew, and a proper understanding of them.
What we have hitherto described will have conveyed to the
reader that the one branch of instruction aimed after or desired
by the Jews at the time of Christ was religious knowledge. What
wasunderstood by this, and how it was imparted - whether in the
family or in the public schoolsmust form the subject of special
1 Lightfoot (Home Hebr. in Lite.ii. 46) gives an entirely
fanciful and erroneous view of the matter, representing the
Saviour as either actually teaching or at least qualified to take
part in the regular discussions and instructions of the Rabbis.
The note of Wetstein (Nov. Tst.i. p.668) approximates more
nearly the correct view.
To be continued