Ancient Jewish Education of Children and Use of Scripture


How did the Ancient Jews learn the Bible? From an early age the Jews were taught to learn Scripture “by heart.” That is, they memorized Scripture.

The Jewish educational system sought to isolate itself from other cultural influences. An anecdotal story show that the Jewish community and school were not interested in propagating outside cultures, influences or educational methods inside their educational system:

“…In the Talmud there is a story of a progressive young Rabbi who wished to study Greek on the grounds that he had mastered the Law. An older Rabbi reminded him of the worlds of Joshua: ‘This book of the Law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shall meditate therein day and night.’ ‘Go then and consider’ he said, ‘which is the hour which is neither of the day or of the night, and in it thou mayest study Greek wisdom.’”

Education a Priority

In the ancient Jewish community, education for children took a high priority. Barclay goes so far as to state, “It would not be wrong to say that for the Jew the child was the most important person in the community.” Examining the words of Josephus, Barclay may be correct. Josephus writes, “Our ground is good, and we work it to the utmost, but our chief ambition is for the education of our children…We take most pains of all with the instruction of children, and esteem the observation of the laws, and the piety corresponding with them, the most important affair of our whole life.”

This dedication to education in the Jewish community made them one of the most literate communities during the time period, “So widespread and far-reaching was this education in New Testament times, that A.C. Bouquet says that it was an ‘age of the widest literacy for eighteen hundred years to come.’”
Memory of Scripture

Because Scripture is the Divine revelation of God, the Jewish community put emphasis on learning the Scripture from an early age, “Philo writes: ‘Since Jews esteem their laws as divine revelations, and are instructed in the knowledge of them from their earliest youth, they bear the image of the Law in their souls…’” The preservation of the divine writing was to be established not only on scrolls, but in the memory of every Israelite. As noted, this remembrance began at youth, “The ideal of instruction is oral teaching, and the worthiest shrine of truths that must not die is the memory and heart of the faithful disciple.”

Scripture Learned at an Early Age

The ancient Jews began the education of their children at the age of five to seven. “There is a late addendum to the fifth book of the Sayings of the Fathers, which sets out the ages of man:

‘At five years old, Scripture; at ten years, Mishnah; at thirteen, the commandments; at fifteen, Talmud…’”

But the Rabbis felt that a child was never too young to begin hearing, learning and being impressed with the words of Scripture, and in fact recognized that this process of learning was most beneficial at an early age, “Rabbi Abujah said: ‘He who learns as a lad, to what is he like? To ink written on fresh paper. And he who learns when he is old, to what is he like? To ink written on paper that has already been used.’”

Religious Learning at Home

Even with their high value upon education in school, the true place of religious learning was to be the home. It was in the home that catechesis was to take place foremost with the father of the house teaching the children the Torah, “As soon as a child can speak (that is, after his third year) he is to be instructed in the Law by his father.” Barclay continues, “”From the fourth year it is the duty of the father to begin to initiate him into the great truths, for land and religion begin when the child can speak distinctly.”

Speaking Scripture

The first thing a Jewish child was taught, after he was old enough to speak, were two important texts from Scripture, “As for actual instruction, as soon as he could speak the child was taught to memorise and to say the two texts: ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord,’ and, ‘Moses commanded us a law, even the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.’”

In addition, when attending religious festivals, the father was to explain to his children the meaning behind the festivals and instruct them God’s graciousness as shown in history. They synagogue services were also an opportunity to learn, “The characteristic word in connection with the Synagogue in the New Testament is didaskein, to teach.”

Scripture Alone the Textbook

The backbone of all ancient Jewish education was Scripture alone, “It has always to be remembered that Jewish education was entirely religious education. There was no text-book except the Scriptures; all primary education was preparation for reading the Law; and all higher education was the reading and the study of it.” Barclay continues, “The Jews were ‘the people of the book’ not because each individual one of them possessed the book, but because the book was the container of the law of life, which was inserted into their minds, and graven upon their hearts, by oral teaching.” This exemplifies what has been stated above under the exegesis of Deuteronomy 18:18-21.

Scripture Learned by Toil

Of course the learning ‘by heart’ of Scripture was no easy task, and required dedication and hard work, “The Jew never pretended that this was easy. Such knowledge was only to be won at the cost of toil. A man cannot inherit his father’s knowledge, as he might his fortune…Rabbi Joses the Priest said: ‘Give thyself trouble to learn the Law, for it is not obtained by inheritance.’”