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Education in Bible Times

Holman Bible Dictionary

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While the word “school” occurs in the Bible only once (Acts 19:9 ), there are numerous references to teachers and teaching in both Testaments. There are many references in the Old Testament to the importance of religious training but there is no Mosaic legislation requiring the establishment of schools for formal religious instruction.

Education in Old Testament Times The primary purpose of education among the Jews was the learning of and obedience to the law of God, the Torah. Whereas the word torah can be used to refer to all Jewish beliefs, it generally refers to the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

The secondary purpose in education was to teach about the practical aspects of everyday life: a trade for the boy and the care of the house, application of dietary laws and how to be a good wife for the girl.

The home was considered the first and most effective agency in the education process, and parents were considered the first and most effective teachers of their children. This responsibility is expressed in Genesis 18:19 where God states his expectation that Abraham will train his children and his household to walk in the ways of the Lord. Proverbs 22:6 is another familiar exhortation for parents to teach their children according to the way of the Lord.

Deuteronomy 6:7 gives an interesting insight into how parents were to teach their children about God: “And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.” The parent was to use the various ordinary activities of life as avenues to teach about God. All of life was permeated by religious meaning and teaching about God should flow naturally from its activities.

Primary ways of imparting religious knowledge to children were example, imitation, conversation and stories. Parents could utilize the interest aroused in their children by actual life observances such as Sabbath or Passover to teach about God.

Training in the Torah began very early. The father had an obligation to teach his children the Law by words and example. A child could observe his father binding the phylacteries on his arm and head. The natural question, “What are you doing?”, could be used to teach the child that it was everyone's duty to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5 ).

When the son reached the age of twelve, the Jews believed his education in the Torah was complete enough to help him know the Law and keep it. He was then known as a “son of the Law.” As a symbol of this attainment, the father would fasten the phylacteries upon the arm and forehead of his son. The box placed on the forehead indicated that the laws must be memorized. The other box was placed on the left arm so that it would press against the heart when the arms were folded or the hands were clasped in prayer. The box pressed against the heart would symbolize that the laws were to be loved and obeyed.

Girls received their education at home. A girl's mother taught her what she needed to know to be a good wife and mother.

She learned about such things as dietary laws which had to do with the family's devotion to God. Girls learned the practical side of the laws the boys studied.

A girl learned how to make the home ready for special holidays and Sabbath. In such preparation she learned the manning of the customs and history behind the events. This heritage she would be able to pass on to her own children in their very early years.

The girl would learn a variety of skills such as weaving, spinning, and treating illnesses. She might also learn to sing and dance and play a musical instrument such as a flute or harp.

The Jewish people had opportunity to receive religious education from priests and Levites (Leviticus 10:10-11 ). The priests and Levites were to be supported by the offerings of the people and were to be the religious teachers of the nation. Apparently the educational function of their work was not well maintained. During the revival under King Jehoshaphat, the teaching function of Priests and Levites was resumed and the people were taught the ordinances of the Law. (2 Chronicles 17:7-9 ).

The ineffective work of the priests was supplemented by the teaching of the prophets. The first of these prophets, Samuel, attempted to make his reform permanent by instituting a school of the prophets in Ramah (1 Samuel 19:19-20 ). Later other schools of the prophets were begun at other places. The main study at these centers was the Law and its interpretation. Not all of the students of these schools had predictive gifts nor were all the prophets students in such schools. Amos is a notable example of a prophet who was not educated in one of these schools (Amos 7:14-15 ).

Education in New Testament Times. The synagogue apparently came into existence during the Babylonian captivity when the Jews were deprived of the services of the Temple. During captivity they began meeting in small groups for prayer and Scripture reading. When they returned to Israel the synagogue spread rapidly and developed into an important educational institution. Synagogue services made an important educational contribution to the religious life of the community. The elementary school system among the Jews developed in connection with the synagogue. Even before the days of Jesus, schools for the young were located in practically every important Jewish community.

The teacher was generally the synagogue “attendant.” An assistant was provided if there were more than twenty-five students. The primary aim of education at the synagogue school was religious. The Old Testament was the subject matter for this instruction. Reading, writing and arithmetic were also taught. Memorization, drill and review were used as approaches to teaching.

Boys usually began formal schooling at the “house of the book” at age five. He would spend at least a half day, six days a week for about five years, studying at the synagogue. Parents brought their son at daybreak and came for him at midday. While not at school the boy was usually learning a trade, such as farming or carpentry.

If a boy wanted training beyond that given in a synagogue, he would go to a scholarly scribe. Saul of Tarsus received such advanced theological training “at the feet of Gamaliel” in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3 ).

No formal educational approach is described in the New Testament. However, Jesus is pictured as teaching large crowds (Mark 4:1-2 ). While Jesus was much more than a teacher, he was recognized as a teacher by his contemporaries. He was a God-sent teacher who taught with an authority and challenge which held his audiences captive.

Jesus was also a trainer of teachers. He selected the twelve and taught them how to teach others.

As risen Lord, Jesus commissioned his followers to carry their evangelism and teaching ministry into all the world (Matthew 28:19-20 ). As seen in Acts 2:42 , Acts 4:1-2; Acts 5:21 ,Acts 5:21,5:28 , teaching became an important work in the early church in Jerusalem.

The New Testament places importance on the teaching function of the church. Teaching is regarded as a primary function of the pastor (1 Timothy 3:2 ). Volunteer teachers are also important to the work of the church (James 3:1 ).

In New Testament times churches met in the homes of members and Christian teaching was done there (Romans 16:3-5 ).

While the synagogue school still existed, the home was still considered a primary place of education for children. Timothy is a notable example of a child who had been educated in the Scriptures in the home (2 Timothy 1:5 ).

Cos Davis

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Education in Bible Times'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hbd/​e/education-in-bible-times.html. 1991.
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