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The Background to the New Testament #7

Schools and Education


From the book "SKETCHES OF JEWISH SOCIAL LIFE" by Alfred



     IF a faithful picture of society in ancient Greece or Rome
were to be presented to view, it is not easy to believe that even
they who now most oppose the Bible could wish their aims
success.  For this, at any rate, may be asserted, without fear of
gainsaying, that no other religion than that of the Bible has
proved competent to control an advanced, or even an advancing,
state of civilisation. Every other bound has been successively
passed and submerged by the rising tide; how deep only the
student of history knows. Two things are here undeniable. In the
case of heathenism every advance in civilisation has marked a
progressive lowering of public morality, the earlier stages of
national life always showing a far higher tone than the later.   
On the contrary, the religion of the Bible (under the old as
under the new dispensation) has increasingly raised, if not
uniformly the public morals, yet always the tone and standard of
public morality; it has continued to exhibit a standard never yet
attained, and it has proved its power to control public and
social life, to influence and to mould it.
     Strange as it may sound, it is strictly true that, beyond
the boundaries of Israel, it would be scarcely possible to speak
with any propriety of family life, or even of the family, as we
understand these terms. It is significant, that the Roman
historian Tacitus should mark it as something special among the
Jews 1 - which they only shared with the ancient barbarian
Germans 2 - that they regarded it as a crime to kill their
offspring ! This is not the place to describe the exposure of
children, or the various crimes by which ancient Greece and Rome,
in the days of their highest culture, sought to rid themselves of
what was regarded as superfluous population. Few of those who
have learned to admire classical antiquity have a full conception
of any one phase in its social lifewhether of the position of
woman, the relation of the sexes, slavery, the education of
children, their relation to their parents, or the state of public
morality. Fewer still have combined all these features into one
picture, and that not merely as exhibited by the lower orders, or
even among the higher classes, but as fully owned and approved by
those whose names have descended in the admiration of ages as the
thinkers, the sages, the poets, the historians, and the statesmen
of antiquity.  Assuredly, St. Paul's description of the ancient
world in the first and second chapters of his Epistle to the
Romans must have appeared to those who lived in the midst of it
as Divine even in its tenderness, delicacy, and charity


1 Tacitus, Hist. v.5. In general this fifth book is most
interesting, as showing the strange mixture of truth and error,
and the intense hatred of the Jewish race even on the part of
such men as Tacitus.
2 De Germania, xix.

the full picture under bright sunlight would have been scarcely
susceptible of exhibition. For such a world there was only one
alternative - either the judgment of Sodom, or the mercy of the
Gospel and the healing of the Cross.1

     When we pass from the heathen world into the homes of
Israel, even the excess of their exclusiveness seems for the
moment a relief. It is as if we turned from enervating,
withering, tropical heat into a darkened room, whose grateful
coolness makes us for the moment forget that its gloom is
excessive, and cannot continue as the day declines. And this
shutting out of all from without, this exclusiveness, applied not
only to what concerned their religion, their social and family
life, but also to their knowledge. In the days of Christ the
pious Jew had no other knowledge, neither sought nor cared for
any other--in fact, denounced it - than that of the law of God.  
     At the outset, let it be remembered that, in heathenism,
theology, or rather mythology, had no influence whatever on
thinking or life - was literally submerged under their waves.    
To the pious Jew, on the contrary, the knowledge of God was
everything; and to prepare for or impart that knowledge was the
sum total, the sole object of his education. This was the life of
his soul-the better, and

1 Let it not be thought that we have been guilty of the slightest
exaggeration. The difficulty here is to tell the truth and yet
find moderate terms in which to express it. That Christianity
should have laid its hold on such a society, found there its
brightest martyrs and truest followers, and finally subdued and
transformed it, is quite as great a miracle as that of the
breaking down of the middle wall of partition among the Jews, or
their spiritual transformation of mind and heart from
self-righteousness and externalism. In either case, to the
student of history the miracle will seem greater than if "one
rose from the dead." The general reader who wishes more details
about the state of heathenism is referred to the admirable work
of Dollinger, "Heidenthum u. Judenth" pp.679-728.

only true life, to which all else as well as the life of the body
were merely subservient, as means towards an end. His religion
consisted of two things: knowledge of God, which by a series of
inferences, one from the other, ultimately resolved itself into
theology, as they understood it; and service, which again
consisted of the proper observance of all that was prescribed by
God, and of works of charity towards men-the latter, indeed,
going beyond the bound of what was strictly due (the Chovoth)
into special merit or "righteousness" (Zedakah). But as service
presupposed knowledge, theology was again at the foundation of
all, and also the crown of all, which conferred the greatest
merit. This is expressed or implied in almost innumerable
passages of Jewish writings. Let one suffice, not only because it
sounds more rationalistic, but because it is to this day repeated
each morning in his prayers by every Jew: "These are the things
of which a man eats the fruit in this world, but their possession
1 continueth for the next world: to honour father and mother,
pious works, peacemaking between man and man, and the study of
the law, which is equivalent to them all" (Peak. i. 1 ).
     And literally "equivalent to them all" was such study to the
Jew. The circumstances of the times forced him to learn Greek,
perhaps also Latin, so much as was necessary for intercourse; and
to tolerate at least the Greek translation of the Scriptures, and
the use of any language in., the daily prayers of the Shema, of
the eighteen benedition and of the grace after meat. 2 But the
blessing of the priests might not be spoken, nor the phylacteries
nor the Mesusah written,

1 The capital sum, as it were.
2 These are the oldest elements of the Jewish liturgy.

in other than the Hebrew language (Megil, i.8; Sotah, vii. 1,2);
while heathen science and literature were absolutely prohibited.
To this, and not to the mere learning of Greek, which must have
been almost necessary for daily life, refer such prohibitions as
that traced to the time of Titus (Sotah, ix.14), forbidding a man
to teach his son Greek. The Talmud itself (Men.99 b) furnishes a
clever illustration of this, when, in reply to the question of a
younger Rabbi, whether, since he knew the whole "Thorah" (the
law), he might be allowed to study "Greek wisdom," his uncle
reminded him of the words (Josh. i.8), "Thou shalt meditate
therein day and night."  "Go, then, and consider," said the older
Rabbi, "which is the hour that is neither of the day nor of the
night, and in it thou mayest study Grecian wisdom."

     This, then, was one source of danger averted. Then, as for
the occupations of ordinary life, it was indeed quite true that
every Jew was bound to learn some trade or business. But this was
not to divert him from study; quite the contrary. It was regarded
as a profanation - or at least declared such 1 - to make use of
one's learning for secular purposes, whether of gain or of
honour. The great Hillel had it (A b. i.13): "He who serves
himself by the crown (the 'Thorah') shall fade away." To this
Rabbi Zadok added the warning, "Make study neither a crown by
which to shine, nor yet a spade with which to dig"--the Mishnah
inferring that such attempts would only lead to the shortening of
life (Ab. iv.5). All was to be merely subsidiary to the one grand
object; the one was of time, the other of eternity; the one of
the body, the other

1 Such, at any rate, was the profession; the practice, it is to
he feared, was often far different, as the reader of the New
Testament will infer from Mark xii.40; Luke xvi.14; xx.47.

of the soul;1 and its use was only to sustain the body, so as to
give free scope to the soul on its upward path. Every science
also merged in theology. Some were not so much sciences as means
of livelihood, such as medicine and surgery;  others were merely
handmaidens to theology. Jurisprudence was in reality a kind     
of canon law;  mathematics and  astronomy were subservient to the
computations of the Jewish calendar; literature existed not
outside theological pursuits - and as for history, geography, or
natural studies, although we mark, in reference to the latter, a
keenness of observation which often led instinctively to truth,
we meet with so much ignorance, and with so many gross mistakes
and fables, as almost to shake the belief of the student in the
trustworthiness of any Rabbinical testimony.

     From what has been stated, three inferences will be
gathered, all of most material bearing on the study of the New
Testament. It will be seen how a mere knowledge of the law came
to hold such place of almost exclusive importance that its
successful prosecution seemed to be well-nigh all in all. Again,
it is easy now to understand why students and teachers of
theology enjoyed such exceptional honour (Matt.xxiii.6,7; Mark
xii.38,39; Luke xi.43; xx.46). In this respect the testimonies of
Onkelos, in his paraphrastic rendering of the Scriptures, of the
oldest "Targumim," or paraphrastic commentaries, of the Mishnah,
and of the two Talmuds, are not only unanimous, but most
extravagant. Not only are miracles supposed to be performed in
attestation of certain Rabbis, but such a story is actually
ventured upon (Bab. Mez. 86 a), as that on the occasion of a
discussion in the academy of heaven, when the Almighty and His
angels were of

1 "There is here a most instructive passage in Kidd. iv.14.

different opinions in regard to a special point of law, a Rabbi
famed for his knowledge of that subject was summoned up by the
angel of death to decide the matter between them! The story is
altogether too blasphemous for details, and indeed the whole
subject is too wide for treatment in this connection. If such was
the exalted position of a Rabbi, this direction of the Mishnah
seems quite natural, that in case of loss, of difficulties, or of
captivity, a teacher was to be cared for before a father, since
to the latter we owed only our existence in this world, but to
the former the life of the world to come (Bab. Mez. ii. I1).     

     It is curious how in this respect also Roman Catholicism and
Pharisaism arrive at the same ultimate results. Witness this
saying of the celebrated Rabbi, who flourished in the thirteenth
century, and whose authority is almost absolute among the Jews.  
The following is his glossary on Deut. xvii.11: "Even if a Rabbi
were to teach that your left hand was the right, and your right
hand the left, you are bound to obey."

(SOME BLIND FAITH - so it has been even today with CULTS that
rule and dominate your whole life, with "do this, don't do that,
touch not, think not, we will do the thinking for you; we will
interpret the Bible for you; just leave your mind at the door
when you enter out establishment" - Keith Hunt)

     The third inference which the reader will draw is as to the
influence which such views must have exercised upon education,
alike at home and in schools. It is no doubt only the echo of the
most ancient mode of congratulating a parent when to this day
those who are present at a circumcision, and also the priest when
the first-born is redeemed from him, utter this: "As this child
has been joined to the covenant" (or, as the case may be,
"attained this redemption"), "so may it also be to him in
reference to the 'thorah,' the 'chuppah,' 1 and to good works."
The wish marks with twofold emphasis the life that is to come, as
compared with the life that now is.

1 The marriage-baldacchino, under which the regular marriage
ceremony is performed.

     This quite agrees with the account of Josephus, who
contrasts: the heathen festivals at the birth of children with
the Jewish enactments by which children were from their very
infancy nourished up in the laws of God (Ag. Apion, i.8,12; ii.


     There can be no question that, according to the law of
Moses, the early education of a child devolved upon the father;
of course, always bearing in mind that his first training would
be the mother's (Deut.xi. 19, and many other passages):  If the
father were not capable of elementary teaching, a stranger would
be employed. Passing over the Old Testament period, we may take
it that, in the days of Christ, home-teaching ordinarily began
when the child was about three years old. There is reason for
believing that, even before this, that careful training of the
memory commenced, has ever since been one of the mental
characteristics of the Jewish nation. 1  Verses of Scripture,
benedictions, wise ayings, etc., were impressed on the child, and
mnemonic rules devised to facilitate the retention of what was so
acquired. We can understand the reason of this from the religious
importance attaching to the exact preservation of the very words
of tradition. The Talmud describes the beau ideal of a student
when it compares him to a well-plastered cistern, which would not
let even a single drop escape. Indeed, according to the Mishnah,
he who from negligence "forgets any one thing in his study of the
Mishnah, Scripture imputes it to him as if he had forfeited his
life; "the reference here being to Deut.iv.9 (Ab. iii.10).  And
so we may attach some

1 Gfrorer, "Jahrh. d. Heils," vol.i.p.170, proposes as a curious
test that all copies of the Talmud should be destroyed, feeling
sure that any twelve learned Rabbis would be able to restore it
verbatim from memory!
credit even to Josephus' boast about his "wonderful memory"
(Life, 2).


     In teaching to read, the alphabet was to be imparted by
drawing the letters on a board, till the child became familiar
with them. Next, the teacher would point in the copy read with
his finger, or, still better, with a style, to keep up the
attention of the pupil. None but well-corrected manuscripts were
to be used, since, as was rightly said, mistakes impressed upon
the young mind were afterwards not easily corrected. To fluency,
the child should made to read aloud. Special care was to be
bestowed on the choice of good language, in which respect, as we
know, the inhabitants of Judaea far excelled those of Galilee,
who failed not only in elegance of diction, but even in their
pronunciation. At five years of age the Hebrew Bible was to be
begun; commencing, however, not with the book of Genesis, but
with that of Leviticus.  This not (as Altingius suggests in his
Academ. Dissert. p.335) to teach the child his guilt, and the
need of justification, but rather because Leviticus contained
those ordinances which it behoved a Jew to know as early as
possible. The history of Israel would probably have been long
before imparted orally, as it was continually repeated on all
festive occasions, as well as in the synagogue.


     It has been stated in a former chapter that writing was not
so common an accomplishment as reading. Undoubtedly, the
Israelites were familiar with it from the very earliest period of
their history, whether or not they had generally acquired the art
in Egypt. We read of the graving of words on the gems of the
high-priest's breastplate, of the record of the various
genealogies of the tribes, etc.; while such passages as
9; xi.20; xxiv.1,3, imply that the art was noT confined to the
priesthood (Num.v.23), but was known to the people generally.
Then we are told of copies of the law (Deut.xvii.18; xxviii.58,
etc.), while in josh.x.13 we have a reference to a work called
"the book of Jasher." In Josh.xviii.9 we find mention of a
description of Palestine "in a book," and in xxiv.26 of what
Joshua "wrote in the book of the law of God." From judges viii.
14 (margin) it would appear that in the time of Gideon the art of
writing was very generally known.  After that, instances occur so
frequently and applied to so many relationships, that the reader
of the Old Testament can have no difficulty in tracing the
progress of the art. This is not the place to follow the subject
farther, nor to describe the various materials employed at that
time, nor the mode of lettering. At a much later period the
common mention of "scribes" indicates the popular need of such a
class. We can readily understand that the Oriental mind would
delight in writing enigmatically, that is, conveying by certain
expressions a meaning to the initiated which the ordinary reader
would miss, or which, at any rate, would leave the explanation to
the exercise of ingenuity. Partially in the same class we might
reckon the custom of designating a word by its initial letter.
All these were very early in practice, and the subject has points
of considerable interest. 


Another matter deserves more serious attention. It will scarcely
be credited how general the falsification of signatures and
documents had become. Josephus mentions it (Ant.xvi.10,4); and we
know that St.Paul was obliged to warn the Thessalonians against
it (2 Thess.ii.2), and at last to adopt the device of signing
every letter which came from himself. There are scarcely any
ancient Rabbinical documents which have not been interpolated by
later writers, or, as we might euphemistically call it, been
recast and re-edited. In general, it is not difficult to discover
such additions; although the vigilance and acuteness of the
critical scholar are specially required in this direction to
guard against rash and unwarrantable inferences. But without
entering on such points, it may interest the reader to know what
writing materials were employed in New Testament times. In Egypt
red ink seems to have been used; but assuredly the ink mentioned
in the New Testament was black, as even the term indicates 
("melan," 2 Cor.iii.3; 2 John 12; 3 John 13). Josephus speaks of
writing in gold letters (Ant.xii.2,11); and in the Mishnah (Meg.
ii.2) we read of mixed colours, of red, of sympathetic ink, and
of certain chemical compositions.  Reed quills are mentioned in 3
John 13.  The best of these came from Egypt; and the use of a
penknife would of course be indispensable. Paper (from the
Egyptian "papyrus") is mentioned in 2 John 12; parchment in 2
Tim.iv.13. Of this there were three kinds, according as the skin
was used either whole, or else split up into an outer and an
inner skin. The latter was used for the Mesusah.  Shorter
memoranda were made on tablets, which in the Mishnah (Shab.xii.
4) bear the same name as in Luke i.63.


     Before passing to an account of elementary schools, it may
be well, once and, for all, to say that the Rabbis did not
approve of the same amount of instruction being given to girls as
to boys. More particularly they disapproved of their engaging in
legal studies - partly because they considered woman's mission
and duties as lying in other directions, partly because the
subjects were necessarily not always suitable for the other sex,
partly because of the familiar intercourse between the sexes to
which such occupations would have necessarily led, and finally -
shall we say it? - because the Rabbis regarded woman's mind as
not adapted for such investigations. The unkindest thing,
perhaps, which they said on this score was, "Women are of a light
mind;" though in its oft repetition the saying almost reads like
a semi-jocular way of cutting short a subject on which discussion
is disagreeable. However, instances of Rabbinically learned women
do occur. What their Biblical knowledge and what their religious
influence was, we learn not only from the Rabbis, but from the
New Testament. Their attendance at all public and domestic
festivals, and in the synagogues, and the circumstance that
certain injunctions and observances of Rabbinic origin devolved
upon them also, prove that, though not learned in the law, there
must have been among them not a few who, like Lois and Eunice,
could train a child in the knowledge of the Scripture, or, like
Priscilla, be qualified to explain even to an Apollos the way of
God more perfectly.

     Supposing, then, a child to be so far educated at home;
suppose him, also, to be there continually taught the
commandments and observances, and, as the Talmud expressly
states, to be encouraged to repeat the prayers aloud, so as to
accustom him to it. At six years of age he would be sent to
school; not to an academy, or "beth hammedrash," which he would
only attend if he proved apt and promising; far less to the
class-room of a great Rabbi, or the discussions of the Sanhedrim,
which marked a very advanced stage of study. We are here speaking
only of primary or elementary schools, such as even in the time
of our Lord were attached to every synagogue in the land.   
Passing over the supposed or real Biblical notices of schools,
and confining our attention strictly to the period ending with
the destruction of the Temple, we have first a notice in the
Talmud (Bab.B.21,b), ascribing to Ezra an ordinance, that as many
schoolmasters as chose should be allowed to establish themselves
in any place, and that those who had formerly been settled there
might not interfere with them. In all likelihood this notice
should not be taken in its literal sense, but as an indication
that the encouragement of schools and of education engaged the
attention of Ezra and of his successors. Of the Grecianised
academies which the wicked high-priest Jason tried to introduce
in Jerusalem (2 Macc.iv.12,13) we do not speak, because they were
anti-Jewish in their spirit, and that to such extent, that the
Rabbis, in order to "make a hedge," forbade all gymnastic
exercises. The farther history and progress of Jewish schools are
traced in the following passage of the Talmud (Bab.B.21,a): "If
any one has merit, and deserves that his name should be kept in
remembrance, it is Joshua, the son of Gamaliel. Without him the
law would have fallen into oblivion in Israel. For they used to
rest on this saying of the law (Deut.xi.19), 'Ye shall teach
them.' Afterwards it was ordained that masters be appointed at
Jerusalem for the instruction of youth, as it is written (Isa.
ii.3), 'Out of Zion shall go forth the law.' But even so the
remedy was not effectual, only those who had fathers being sent
to school, and the rest being neglected. Hence it was arranged
that Rabbis should be appointed in every district, and that lads
of sixteen or seventeen years should be sent to their academies.
But this institution failed, since every lad ran away if he was
chastised by his master. At last Joshua the son of Gamaliel
arranged, that in every province and in every town schoolmasters
be appointed, who should take charge of all boys from six or
seven years of age." 

     We may add at once, that the Joshua here spoken of was
probably the high-priest of that name who flourished before the
destruction of the Temple, and that unquestionably this farther
organisation implied at least the existence of elementary schools
at an earlier period.
     Every place, then, which numbered twenty-five boys of a
suitable age, or, according to Maimonides, one hundred and twenty
families, was bound to appoint a schoolmaster. More than
twenty-five pupils or thereabouts he was not allowed to teach in
a class. If there were forty, he had to employ an assistant; if
fifty, the synagogue authorities appointed two teachers. This
will enable us to understand the statement, no doubt greatly
exaggerated, that at the destruction of Jerusalem there were no
fewer than four hundred and eighty schools in the metropolis.
     From another passage, which ascribes the fall of the Jewish
state to the neglect of the education of children, we may infer
what importance popular opinion attached to it. But indeed, to
the Jew, child-life was something peculiarly holy, and the duty
of filling it with thoughts of God specially sacred. It almost
seems as if the people generally had retained among them the echo
of our Lord's saying, that their angels continually behold the
face of our Father which is in heaven.  Hence the religious care
connected with education. The grand object of the teacher was
moral as well as intellectual training  To keep children from all
intercourse with the vicious; to suppress all feelings of
bitterness, even though wrong had been done to one's parents; 1
to punish all real wrong-doing; not to prefer one child to
another; rather to show sin in its repulsiveness than

1 To this day there is this beautiful prayer in the Jewish
liturgy: " I regard to those who curse, let my soul be silent;
yea, let my soul be like the dust towards all."

to predict what punishment would follow, either in this or the
next world, so as not to "discourage" the child - such are some
of the rules laid down. 1  A teacher was not even to promise a
child anything which he did not mean to perform, lest its mind be
familiarised with falsehood. Everything that might call up
disagreeable or indelicate thoughts was to be carefully avoided. 
     The teacher must not lose patience if his pupil understood
not readily, but rather make the lesson more plain. He might,
indeed, and he should, punish when necessary, and, as one of the
Rabbis put it, treat the child like a young heifer whose burden
was daily increased. But excessive severity was to be avoided;
and we are told of one teacher who was actually dismissed from
office for this reason. Where possible, try kindness; and if
punishment was to be administered, let the child be beaten with a
strap, but never with a rod. 

     At ten the child began to study the Mishnah at fifteen he
must be ready for the Talmud, which would be explained to him in
a more advanced academy. If after three, or at most five, years
of tuition the child had not made decided progress, there was
little hope of his attaining to eminence. 

     In the study of the Bible the pupil was to proceed from the
book of Leviticus to the rest of the Pentateuch, thence to the
Prophets, and lastly to the Hagiographa. This regulation was in
accordance with the degree of value which the Rabbis attached to
these divisions of the Bible. 2  In the case of advanced pupils
the day was portioned out - one part being devoted to the Bible,
the other two to the Mishnah and the

1 The references here are too numerous to be given. In general,
compare hamburger, Real. Enc.vol.i.p 340; my "History of the
Jewish Nation," p.298; and the pamphlet by Ehrmann, "Beitr. zur
Gesch. d. Schulen."
2 The full explanation of this must be reserved to a larger work.

Talmud. Every parent was also advised to have his child taught


     It has already been stated that in general the school was
held in the synagogue. Commonly its teacher was the "chazan," or
"minister" (Luke iv.20); by which expression we are to understand
not a spiritual office, but something like that of a beadle.     
     This officer was salaried by the congregation; nor was he
allowed to receive fees from his pupils, lest he should show
favour to the rich. The expenses were met by voluntary and
charitable contributions; and in case of deficiency the most
distinguished Rabbis did not hesitate to go about and collect aid
from the wealthy. The number of hours during which the junior
classes were kept in school was limited. As the close air of the
school-room might prove injurious during the heat of the day,
lessons were intermitted between ten A.M. and three P.M. For
similar reasons, only four hours were allowed for instruction
between the seventeenth of Thamuz and the ninth of Ab (about July
and August), and teachers were forbidden to chastise their pupils
during these months. The highest honour and distinction attached
to the office of a teacher, if worthily discharged. Want of
knowledge or of method was regarded as sufficient cause for
removing a teacher; but experience was always deemed a better
qualification than mere acquirements. No teacher was employed who
was not a married man. To discourage unwholesome rivalry, and to
raise the general educational standard, parents were prohibited
from sending their children to other than the schools of their
own towns.


     A very beautiful trait was the care bestowed on the children
of the poor and on orphans. In the Temple there was a special
receptacle - that "of the secret"--for contributions, which were
privately applied for the education of the children of the pious
poor. To adopt and bring up an orphan was regarded as specially a
"good work." This reminds us of the apostolic description of a
"widow indeed," as one "well reported for good works;" who "had
brought up children, lodged strangers, washed the saints' feet,
relieved the afflicted, diligently followed every good work" (1
Tim.v.10). Indeed, orphans were the special charge of the whole
congregationnot thrust into poor-houses, and the parochial
authorities were even bound to provide a fixed dowry for female

     Such were the surroundings, and such the atmosphere, in
which Jesus of Nazareth moved while tabernacling among men.


To be continued

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