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Education in Bible Times
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology
Education is essential to the survival of any social group, since a community secures its continued existence and development only through the transmission of its accumulated knowledge, derived power, and ideological aims to the next generation. Education may be simply (and narrowly) defined as the process of teaching and learning, the imparting and acquisition of knowledge and skill(s).
The need for education was no less true for the Israelites than for any of the peoples of the ancient world. In fact, the Old Testament record indicates repeatedly that the success of the Hebrew community and the continuity of its culture were conditioned by the knowledge of and obedience to God's revealed law (Joshua 1:6-8 ). Thus, to ensure their prosperity, growth, and longevity as the people of Yahweh, Israel's mandate was one of educationdiligently teaching their children to love God, and to know and obey his statues and ordinances (Deuteronomy 6:1-9 ). Likewise, the New Testament record links the success of the church of Jesus Christ, as a worshiping community of "salt and light" reaching out to a dark world, to the teaching of sound doctrine (John 13:34-35; Ephesians 4:14; 1 Timothy 1:10; Titus 2:1 ).
Education in the Ancient Near East . Since education is basic to the existence of any community or society it is only natural that certain foundational ideals, methods, and principles of education are shared properties among diverse people groups. The case is no different when we study the educational practices of the Israelites within the context of education in world of the ancient Near East.
Education in the ancient world was rooted in religious tradition and theological ideals. The goal of education was the transmission of that religious tradition, along with community mores and values, and vocational and technical skills. The by-product of this kind of education was a model citizen, loyal to family, gods, and king, upright in character, and productive in community life. More than liberally educated "free-thinkers, " the important outcome of the educational system for the ancients was utilitarianequipping people to be functional members of family and society.
For the most part the teaching method was based upon rote learning. This memorization of the curricular materials was accomplished by both oral and written recitation. Disciplined learning characterized educational instruction, with lessons taught at fixed times during the day and often for a set number of days in a month. In addition to being teachers and drill masters, parents (in the home) and tutors (in the formal schools) also functioned as mentors and role-models, teaching by example and lifestyle.
The primary agency of education in both ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia was the home. Parents and elders of the clan or extended family were responsible for the education of children. The invention of writing systems and the increasing shift toward urbanization gave rise to specialized schools associated with the major institutions of the ancient worldthe temple and the palace. Whereas education in the home focused on vocational training and moral development, the temple and palace schools were designed to produce literate, informed, and capable religious and sociopolitical leaders and administrators.
However, more striking than these similarities are the difference between the educational ideals and practices of the Hebrews and those of their ancient counterparts. It is important to note that these educational distinctives of the Israelites are directly related to singular aspects of Hebrew religion. Five specific characteristics were not common to the religions of the ancient Near East.
First, the emphasis upon individual personality in Hebrew faith meant that education must respect the individual and seek to develop the whole person.
Second, the emphasis on the fatherhood of God in Israelite religion brought a sense of intimacy to the Creator-creature relationship and a sense of purpose and urgency to human history. Thus Hebrew education stressed the importance of recognizing and remembering Acts and events of divine providence in history.
Third, the idea of indeterminism or personal freedom in Hebrew religion gave man and woman dignity as free moral agents in creation; likewise Hebrew education stressed the responsibility individuals have toward God and others, accountability of human behavior, and the need for disciplined training in making "right" choices.
Fourth, the notion of the Israelites as a divinely chosen people encouraged fierce nationalistic overtones in Hebrew religion and education; religiously the Israelites were obligated to the demands of God's holiness in order to remain his special possession, while educationally they were obligated to instruct all nations in divine holiness and redemption as Yahweh's instrument of light to the nations.
Fifth, the doctrine of human sin and sinfulness stamps both Hebrew religion and education; this introduced the concept of mediation in Israelite religiona requirement for bridging the gap between a righteous God and his fallen creation; educationally this meant human knowledge and wisdom were flawed and limited and that divine illumination was necessary for grasping certain truths and divine enablement was necessary for doing right.
Education in Old Testament Times . Hebrew education was both objective (external and content oriented) and subjective (internal and personally oriented), cognitive (emphasis on the intellect) and affective (emphasis on the will and emotions), and both active (investigative and participatory) and passive (rote and reflective). Specifically the teaching-learning process involved disciplined repetition in observation, experiential learning (doing), listening, reciting, and imitating. On occasion special guidance (directed study) as well as correction and warning were a part of the educational experience. And finally, critical thinking skills were an important educational outcome because learning had application to daily living.
Aims . The aim or purpose of Old Testament education is encapsulated within the revelation given to Abraham concerning the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Here God bids Abraham to direct his children in "the way of the Lord." This divine directive embodies the very essence of Hebrew education in the Old Testament, affirming the primacy of parental instruction. In addition, the verse identifies the desired goal or outcome of education: a lifestyle of doing justice and righteousness. There was also an attendant benefit attached to this "behavior modification in Yahwistic moral values"the possession of the land of covenant promise for those Israelites who followed through on the charge to educate their children in the way of the Lord.
Content . Genesis 18:19 cryptically describes the content of Hebrew education as "the way of the Lord." What is meant by this phrase and how does it relate to the religious content of education in the Old Testament?
Generally speaking, "the way of the Lord" refers to knowledge of and obedience to the will of God as revealed through act and word in Old Testament history. The way or will of God for humanity reflects his personal character and attributes. As human beings love their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 19:18 ), practice righteousness and justice (Genesis 18:19 ), and pursue holiness (Leviticus 11:44 ) they walk in the way of the Lord in that they mirror God's character.
More specifically, "the way of the Lord" denotes the particular content of the series of covenant agreements or treaties Yahweh made with his people Israel. These covenants formed the basis of Israel's relationship to Yahweh and were characterized by a stylized literary pattern that included legislation or stipulations necessary for maintaining that relationship. Often the covenant or treaty concluded with the promise of blessings or curses conditioned by Israel's obedience (or lack thereof) to the specific covenant stipulations.
Thus, Hebrew education was essentially instruction in covenant obedience or "keeping the way of the Lord" (Genesis 18:19 ). Moses summarized the basic components of this covenant obedience in his farewell address to the Israelites as loving God, walking in his ways, and keeping his commandments, statutes, and ordinances (Deuteronomy 30:16 ). Later, the psalmist condensed this covenant content of Old Testament education into the phrase "the law of the Lord" (Psalm 119:1 ).
Naturally, the content of Hebrew education expanded as God continued to reveal himself and his redemptive plan to the Israelites through the centuries of Old Testament history. For example, the details of Yahweh's covenant with Abraham fills but three chapters in Genesis (12,15, 17). By contrast, the details of the Mosaic covenant dominate the greater portions of the biblical literature found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
Since the Israelites recognized Yahweh as the God of history, providentially active in the course of human events, history too became part of the content or curriculum of Hebrew education. The recitation and festal remembrance of divine Acts in human history were instructive as to the nature of God and his purposes in creation. Of course, the primary example of this historical trajectory in Hebrew education is the Passover feast and exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:24-27; 13:11-16 ).
In time, the Hebrew poetic and wisdom traditions and the prophetic tradition were included in the covenant content of Old Testament education. The wisdom tradition served as a practical commentary on the law or covenant legislation, while the prophetic tradition functioned as a theological commentary on Old Testament law. Like the legal tradition associated with the covenants, both wisdom and prophecy were rooted in the behavioral outcomes of loving God and doing righteousness and justice (Proverbs 1:3,2:9; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:8 ).
The Practice of Education . Until a child was about five years old informal education in the home was largely the responsibility of the mother, a nurse, or a male guardian. A youth between the ages of five and twenty usually worked with his father as an apprentice learning a vocation. No doubt parental instruction in the ways of the Lord continued through these years, reinforced by association with the extended family and involvement in the ritual of community worship. In later Judaism, male children between the ages of five and twenty usually attended synagogue schools and were trained in the Torah, the Mishnah, and the Talmud. At age twenty a young man was ready for marriage and independent full-time employment, and at age thirty he might assume an official position of responsibility.
Young women were educated in the way of the Lord and culturally acceptable domestic skills by their mothers or other women of some standing. Several professions were open to women, including those of nurse and midwife, cook, weaver, perfumer, singer, mourner, and servant. In certain cases women assumed prominent positions of leadership, like the prophet-judge Deborah (Judges 4:4-5 ) and the prophetess-sage Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-15 ). It seems likely that women of royal standing in Jerusalem received some kind of formal schooling similar to that of their male counterparts since they were part of the official political system and queen rule was a possibility in the ancient Near Eastern world. Of course, common and cultic prostitution remained a source of employment for women in ancient society.
Outcomes . Theologically, the practice of education as outlined in Old Testament revelation resulted in God's covenant blessing for the Hebrew people. These divine blessings included political autonomy and security, and agricultural and economic prosperity (Leviticus 26:1-8 ). Sociologically, the practice of education facilitated assimilation into the community of faith and ensured the stabilization of that community because the principle of "doing justice" permeated society (Leviticus 19:15,18 ). Religiously, the practice of education sustained covenant relationship with God through obedience and proper ritual, which prompted God's favor and presence with Israel (Leviticus 26:9-12 ).
The Agencies of Education . There were basically three agencies or institutions responsible for the education of youth in Old Testament times: the home or family, the community, and formal centers of learning. Here it is important to remember that the process of education described in Scripture was predominantly informal (home and community), not the formal education of learned institutions.
The home was the primary agency for instruction in Hebrew society. While the Old Testament emphasizes the role of the father as teacher, both parents are given charge to train their children (Proverbs 1:8,6:20; 31:26 ). Since ancient Israel was largely a clan society, extended family members like grandparents, aunts and uncles, and even cousins might also participate in the educational process within the home. The "home school" curriculum was both religious and vocational, as parents and other family members tutored children in "the fear of the Lord" (Proverbs 2:5 ) and a trade or professional skillmost often that of the father.
Since all Israelites were bonded together in covenant relationship as the people of God before Yahweh, the religious community also played an important role in the education of the Hebrew youth. Again, community instruction was essentially religious in nature and purpose and took the form of didactic and historical meditation, moral training, sign and symbol, memorization and catechism, festival and sacrificial liturgy, ritual enactment, and priestly role modeling. Specific examples of community education include: the three great pilgrimage festivals (Unleavened Bread, Weeks, and Tabernacles Deuteronomy 16:16; cf. Exodus 12:14-28 ), the public reading of the Mosaic law every seventh year (Deuteronomy 31:12-13 ), the covenant renewal enactments (Deuteronomy 29-30; Joshua 23-24 ), the annual national festivals/fasts, sabbath worship, historical teaching memorials, tabernacle/temple architecture and furnishings, the sacrificial system, and priestly dress and liturgical function.
Although the Old Testament lacks specific documentation, it is assumed by analogy to known practices in the rest of the ancient Near East that formal learning centers or schools existed in ancient Israel. Hints of these organized schools for particular training are scattered throughout the Old Testament, especially in the company of the prophets associated with Elisha (2 Kings 2:3,5; 6:1-2; cf. 1 Samuel 19:20 ), the wisdom tradition of the Book of Proverbs, the Jerusalem temple conservatory of music (cf. 1 Chronicles 25:8 ), and the office of sage or counselor associated with Israelite kingship (cf. 1 Kings 4:5-6; 12:6,10; Jeremiah 18:18 ).
In addition to formal learning centers, the Old Testament indicates specialized training took place in organized labor guilds of various sorts. This instruction for vocational, technical, and professional service to society (and especially palace and temple) included military training, arts and crafts (smiths, artisans, weavers, potters), music, royal officials (scribes, historians, overseers), temple personnel (priests, levites, gatekeepers, treasurers, judges), and domestic servants (midwives, cooks, bakers, perfumers).
Education in Later Judaism . Important developments in education during this period included the rise of the synagogue as both a religious and educational institution; the emergence of scribal schools for copying, studying, and interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures; and the establishment of "schools" or academies for the study of the Torah under the tutelage of well-known rabbis or teachers. However, three items deserve mention in the development of the educational process in Judaism because of their theological significance for the New Testament and Christianity.
First, the formative period of Judaism (roughly from the reforms of Ezra to the time of Maccabees) witnessed the expansion of the religious content or curriculum of Jewish education. This new material, known as the Mishnah, was accumulated oral tradition supplementing the Mosaic law. The Mishnah, along with analysis and commentary, was eventually codified in the Talmud, the final written form of this earlier oral tradition. The Talmud was accorded equal standing with the Old Testament Scriptures in the Jewish rabbinic schools. In part, this led to the rift between Jesus and his religious Jewish counterparts because he rejected the authority of the oral tradition, decrying a religion that neglected the law of God to cling to the traditions of men (Mark 7:1-9 ).
Second, the emphasis on law keeping or obedience to God's commands eventually led to a pharisaical legalism that tithed spice seeds with ruthless calculation (Matthew 23:23 ). Regrettably, devotion to the law of God displaced devotion to God himself so that certain circles of Judaism now ignored the very essence of Torahfaith, justice, and mercy. Ironically, this was the intended educational outcome of that original mandate for instruction in the way of the Lord given to Abraham (Genesis 18:19 ).
Third, the idea of biblical study (and study in general) as worship emerges during this time period. The precedent for understanding study as an act of worship stems from the Old Testament, where the psalmist remarked that all those who delight in the works of God study (or "worshipfully investigate") them (Psalm 111:2 ).
Education in New Testament Times . Much of the New Testament understanding of education is simply assumed from the practice of the Old Testament and Judaism. For example, the family remains the primary context for education, with prominence also given to the church as the extended family or community of faith. Likewise, the goal of educating the whole person, mind and character, carries over from Hebrew practice in the Old Testament. Even the methodology of both instilling information and drawing out or developing the innate talents and abilities of the student finds its antecedent in the Old Testament.
The New Testament focuses its attention on educating the whole person (intellect, emotions, and will), educating through personal relationship (i.e., the mentoring relationship of teacher and disciple), the process of both instilling knowledge and encouraging learning through discovery, and educating through experiential learning. Especially important theologically are the truths of educating the whole person (so that intellectual knowledge is applied to personal behavior James 1:25; 1 John 2:2-6 ); and the work of God's Spirit in illuminating the learner as he or she is instructed in the faith (John 16:5-15; 1 John 2:26-27 ).
The Teacher Come from God . According to the Gospel records, much of Jesus' public ministry was spent teaching his disciples, as well as the crowds. Jesus was recognized and acknowledged as a teacher (or rabbi) by his disciples, the general public, and contemporary Jewish religious leaders, including Nicodemus who identified Jesus as "a teacher who has come from God" (John 3:2 ). Indeed, Jesus even referred to himself as teacher on several occasions (Mark 14:14; John 13:13 ).
The Gospels consistently report that people were astonished or amazed at the teaching of Jesus (Mark 1:22; 11:18; Luke 4:32 ). What made Jesus a "master teacher"? Granted he was God incarnatea unique human being as the Son of Man. And yet, the approach, method, and content utilized by Jesus in his teaching continue to be paradigmatic for Christian education.
By way of approach, for instance, Jesus sometimes initiated the teaching moment (e.g., the Samaritan woman in John 4 ), but many times the learner(s) actually engaged Jesus in a teaching moment (Nicodemus in John 3 ). Jesus also had the ability to teach effectively informal educational settings (Mark 12:35 ), or more spontaneously as the need arose or circumstance dictated (Mark 9:33-37 ). Jesus was not afraid to hide the truth from some (those who were not seeking the truth or those who in their pride thought they already possessed it) so others find the truth (Matthew 13:10-17 ).
Perhaps the best word for describing the method of Jesus' teaching is "varied." Whether by object lesson or alternative speech forms (parable, rhetorical question, personal conversation, or public discourse), Jesus arrested and held the attention of the learner. His knowledge of human personality and behavior and his sensitivity to human need enabled him to meet the learner on his or her terms and turf.
Finally, Jesus amazed his audiences because he taught with authority. Not only was he forceful, persuasive, and dynamic in his presentation, but the content of his teaching was rooted in the message of the Old Testament Scripturesthe word of God. More important, he knew well the curriculum he taught and owned it personallyhis life mirrored his teachingmuch to the chagrin of the hypocrites who challenged him.
The Apostles' Teaching . Religious education or instruction in the Christian faith served another important purpose in the New Testament: exposing false teachers and their subversive doctrines. The teaching of sound biblical doctrine prevented the individual Christian and the Christian church(es) from being duped by "strange teachings" (Ephesians 4:14; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; Hebrews 13:9 ). Also, the teaching of apostolic doctrine both fostered Christian discernment of false teachers and their lies (1 Timothy 1:3-7 ) and authenticated the veracity of the Christian message (1 Timothy 6:1-5; 1 Peter 5:12 ). So much so that Paul reminded Titus that sound teaching shames the critics of Christianity because the doctrine of God is adorned by the lifestyle of "model citizens"believers in Christ trained in godliness (2:6-10).
Catechism . Teaching, along with prophecy and revelation, are identified as those activities that will prove most beneficial for the building up of the church (1 Corinthians 14:6,12 ). Teaching was integral to the apostolic mission as Jesus charged his disciples to take the gospel of the kingdom of God to the nations (Matthew 28:20 ). Early on this teaching consisted of systematic instruction in the apostles' doctrine (informally? cf. Acts 2:42 ), and the public reading and teaching of Scripture in corporate worship (1 Timothy 4:13 ). Later, catechism or oral instruction in Christian doctrine became a necessary prelude to baptism in early church practice. Only through sound teaching could people come to know the truth and escape the snare of the evil one (2 Timothy 2:24-26 ).
Since teaching was vital to Christian faith, life, and growth, Christ endowed his church with spiritual gifts including the office of pastor-teacher (Ephesians 4:11 ) and the gift of teaching (Romans 12:7; 1Col 14:6,26). Teachers were distinguished as leaders in the church, along with apostles and prophets, from the earliest days of church history (cf. Acts 13:1 ). In addition, one of the requirements for the office of bishop or elder in the church was the ability to teach (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 2:24; Titus 2:9 ). The basic purpose of Christian teaching according to Paul was godlinessinstruction leading to maturity in Christ (Colossians 1:28 ).
The New Testament teaches us several important pedagogical and theological lessons appropriate for application in contemporary Christian education. First, education attends to the whole personmind and body, emotions and will. Second, the New Testament understands education as a process of both instilling (imparting information to the pupil) and extracting (drawing out learning from the pupil or self-discovery). Third, effective education is rooted in a mentoring relationship (note Jesus with his disciples or the apostles training others to follow their lead). Fourth, the content of Jesus' and the apostles' teaching was essentially ethical; being or character and doing or practice are vitally connected with knowing.
Ultimately, biblical education is instruction in a lifestyle. For this reason, the apostle Paul reminded his pupil Timothy, "you know all about my teaching, my way of life continue in what you learned" (2 Timothy 3:10,14 ). Not only is biblical education a lifestyleit is a lifetime!
Andrew E. Hill
Bibliography . J. Adelson, ed., Handbook of Adolescent Psychology; W. Barclay, Educational Ideals in the Ancient World; S. Benko and J. J. O'Rourke, eds., The Catacombs and the Colosseum; S. F. Bonner, Education in Ancient Rome from the Elder Cato to the Younger Pliny; W. Brueggemann, The Creative Word: Canon as Model for Biblical Education; R. P. Chadwick, Teaching and Learning; M. L. Clarke, Higher Education in the Ancient World; N. Drazin, History of Jewish Education from 515 B.C.E. to 220 C.E.; J. Elias, ed., Psychology and Religious Education; T. H. Groome, Christian Religious Education; M. Haran, VTSup 40 (1988): 81-95; ISBE, 2:21-27; S. N. Kramer, The Sumerians; H. I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity; F. Mayer, A History of Educational Thought; G. F. Moore, Judaism; I. A. Muirhead, Education in the New Testament; R. N. Whybray, The Intellectual Tradition in the Old Testament; M. Wilson, Our Father Abraham; R. Zuck, Teaching as Jesus Taught .
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
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Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Education in Bible Times'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​bed/​e/education-in-bible-times.html. 1996.