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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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EDUCATION . In the importance which they attached to the education of the young, it may fairly be claimed that the Hebrews were facile princeps among the nations of antiquity. Indeed, if the ultimate aim of education be the formation of character, the Hebrew ideals and methods will bear comparison with the best even of modern times. In character Hebrew education was predominantly, one might almost say exclusively, religious and ethical. Its fundamental principle may be expressed in the familiar words: ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge’ ( Proverbs 1:7 ). Yet it recognized that conduct was the true test of character; in the words of Simeon, the son of Gamaliel, that ‘not learning but doing is the chief thing.’

As to the educational attainments of the Hebrews before the conquest of Canaan, it is useless to speculate. On their settlement in Canaan, however, they were brought into contact with a civilization which for two thousand years or more had been under the influence of Babylonia and in a less degree of Egypt. The language of Babylonia, with its complicated system of wedge-writing, had for long been the medium of communication not only between the rulers of the petty states of Canaan and the great powers outside its borders, but even, as we now know from Sellin’s discoveries at Taanach, between these rulers themselves. This implies the existence of some provision for instruction in reading and writing the difficult Babylonian script. Although in this early period such accomplishments were probably confined to a limited number of high officials and professional scribes, the incident in Gideon’s experience, Judges 8:14 (where we must render with RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ‘wrote down’), warns us against unduly restricting the number of those able to read and write in the somewhat later period of the Judges. The more stable political conditions under the monarchy, and in particular the development of the administration and the growth of commerce under Solomon, must undoubtedly have furthered the spread of education among all classes.

Of schools and schoolmasters, however, there is no evidence till after the Exile, for the expression ‘schools of the prophets’ has no Scripture warrant. Only once, indeed, is the word ‘school’ to be found even in NT ( Acts 19:9 ), and then only of the lecture-room of a Greek teacher in Ephesus. The explanation of this silence is found in the fact that the Hebrew child received his education in the home, with his parents as his only instructors. Although he grew up ignorant of much that ‘every school-boy’ knows to-day, he must not on that account be set down as uneducated. He had been instructed, first of all, in the truths of his ancestral religion (see Deuteronomy 6:20-25 and elsewhere); and in the ritual of the recurring festivals there was provided for him object-lessons in history and religion ( Exodus 12:26 f., Exodus 13:8; Exodus 13:14 ). In the traditions of his family and race some of which are still preserved in the older parts of OT he had a unique storehouse of the highest ideals of faith and conduct, and these after all are the things that matter.

Descending the stream of history, we reach an epoch-making event in the history of education, not less than of religion, among the Jews, in the assembly convened by Ezra and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 8:1 ff.), at which the people pledged themselves to accept ‘the book of the law of Moses’ as the norm of their life in all its relations. Henceforward the Jews were pre-eminently, in Mohammed’s phrase, ‘the people of the Book.’ But if the Jewish community was henceforth to regulate its whole life, not according to the living word of priest and prophet, but according to the requirements of a written law, it was indispensable that provision should be made for the instruction of all classes in this law. To this practical necessity is due the origin of the synagogue (wh. see), which, from the Jewish point of view, was essentially a meeting-place for religious instruction, and, indeed, is expressly so named by Philo. In NT also the preacher or expounder in the synagogue is invariably said to ‘teach’ ( Matthew 4:23 , Mark 1:21 , and passim ), and the education of youth continues to the last to be associated with the synagogue (see below). The situation created by this new zeal for the Law has been admirably described by Wellhausen: ‘The Bible became the spelling-book, the community a school.… Piety and education were inseparable; whoever could not read was no true Jew. We may say that in this way were created the beginnings of popular education.’

This new educational movement was under the guidance of a body of students and teachers of the Law known as the Sôpherim (lit. ‘book-men’) or scribes , of whom Ezra is the typical example ( Ezra 7:6 ). Alongside these, if not identical with them, as many hold, we find an influential class of religious and moral teachers, known as the Sages or the Wise, whose activity culminates in the century preceding the fall of the Persian empire (b.c. 430 330). The arguments for the identity in all important respects of the early scribes and the sages are given by the present writer in Hastings’ DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] i. 648; but even if the two classes were originally distinct, there can be no doubt that by the time of Jesus hen Sira, the author of Ecclesiasticus ( cir . b.c. 180 170), himself a scribe and the last of the sages, they had become merged in one.

To appreciate the religious and ethical teaching of the sages, we have only to open the Book of Proverbs. Here life is pictured as a discipline, the Hebrew word for which is found thirty times in this book. ‘The whole of life,’ it has been said, ‘is here considered from the view-point of a pædagogic institution. God educates men, and men educate each other’ (O. Holtzmann).

With the coming of the Greeks a new educational force in the shape of Hellenistic culture entered Palestine a force which made itself felt in many directions in the pre-Maccabean age. From a reference in Josephus ( Ant . XII. iv. 6) it may be inferred that schools on the Greek model had been established in Jerusalem itself before b.c. 220. It was somewhere in this period, too, that the preacher could say: ‘Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh’ ( Ecclesiastes 12:12 ) reflexions which necessarily presuppose a wide-spread interest in intellectual pursuits. The edict of Antiochus Epiphanes at a later date ( 1Ma 1:57 ) equally implies a considerable circulation of the Torah among the people, with the ability to profit by its study.

Passing now, as this brief sketch requires, to the period of Jewish history that lies between the triumph of the Maccabees and the end of the Jewish State in a.d. 70, we find a tradition there is no valid reason for rejecting it as untrustworthy which illustrates the extent to which elementary education, at least, was fostered under the later Maccabean princes. A famous scribe of the period ( cir . b.c. 75), Simon ben-Shetach, brother of Queen Alexandra, is said to have got a law passed ordaining that ‘the children shall attend the elementary school.’ This we understand on various grounds to mean, not that these schools were first instituted, but that attendance at them was henceforth to be compulsory. The elementary school, termed ‘the house of the Book’ ( i.e. Scripture), in opposition to ‘the house of study’ or college of the scribes (see below), was always closely associated with the synagogue. In the smaller places, indeed, the same building served for both.

The elementary teachers , as we may call them, formed the lowest rank in the powerful guild of the scribes. They are ‘the doctors (lit. teachers) of the law,’ who, in our Lord’s day, were to be found in ‘every village of Galilee and Judæa’ ( Luke 5:17 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ), and who figure so frequently in the Gospels. Attendance at the elementary school began at the age of six. Already the boy had learned to repeat the Shema (‘Hear, O Israel,’ etc., Deuteronomy 6:4 ), selected proverbs and verses from the Psalms. He now began to learn to read. His only textbooks were the rolls of the sacred Scriptures, especially the roll of the Law, the opening chapters of Leviticus being usually the first to be taken in hand. After the letters were mastered, the teacher copied a verse which the child had already learned by heart, and taught him to identify the individual words. The chief feature of the teaching was learning by rote, and that audibly, for the Jewish teachers were thorough believers in the Latin maxim, repetitio mater studiorum . The pupils sat on the floor at the teacher’s feet, as did Saul at the feet of Gamaliel ( Acts 22:3 ).

The subjects taught were ‘the three R [Note: Redactor.] ’s’ reading, writing, and arithmetic, the last in a very elementary form. The child’s first attempts at writing were probably done, as in the Greek schools of the period, on sherds of pottery; from these he would be promoted to a wax tablet (Luke 1:63 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ), on which he wrote ‘with a pointed style or metal instrument, very much as if one wrote on thickly buttered bread with a small stiletto.’ Only after considerable progress had been made would he finally reach the dignity of papyrus.

For the mass of young Jews of the male sex, for whom alone public provision was made, the girls being still restricted to the tuition of the home, the teaching of the primary school sufficed. Those, however, who wished to be themselves teachers, or otherwise to devote themselves to the professional study of the Law, passed on to the higher schools or colleges above mentioned. At the beginning of our era the two most important of these colleges were taught by the famous ‘doctors of the law,’ Hillel and Shammai. It was a grandson of the former, Gamaliel I., who, thirty years later, numbered Saul of Tarsus among his students (Acts 22:3 ). In the Beth hammidrash (house of study) the exclusive subjects of study were the interpretation of the OT, and the art of applying the regulations of the Torah, by means of certain exegetical canons, to the minutest details of the life of the time.

A. R. S. Kennedy.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Education'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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