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Jesus & Jewish Education


During the so-called 'missing years' filled in by 4 gospels, Jesus undoubtedly received a Jewish education, perhaps along these lines:

Age Education
5 studying the written Torah
10 studying the Oral Torah
20 pursuing a vocation
30 entering one's full vigour

Interestingly, Jesus did just that, entering His ministry at about 30 years of age.

At 30 a Jewish father might publicly declare his son to be the inheritor of all that he had, or an adopted son in his place. The voice that spoke out of heaven at Jesus' baptism (Luke 3.22) was God declaring Jesus to be His true Son and Inheritor.

The Jews of Jesus' era were world innovators in comprehensive universal education. The majority, if not all, were taught to read and write. The philosopher Seneca remarked that the Jews were the only people who knew the reasons for their religious faith, something which the apostle Peter continued to commend (1 Peter 3.15).

We often reflect on how Christianity was the initiator behind much of our modern education system, yet that motivation derives from its Jewish educational foundations.

The remark of a contemporary Jewish Rabbi was that education began at the age of 6 and from then on, we "stuff him [with Scriptural teaching] like an ox".

Jesus only needed to hint at Scriptural verses for His hearers to recollect the whole contexts in their minds. Their minds worked like Strong's Concordances. The Scriptural knowledge of most Jewish children then would have surpassed that of most church leaders now, nevertheless it was faith, relationship and daily life application that God was looking for.

Lessons began with the book of Leviticus, at age 5 or 6 and progressed onward. Higher education began at 15 when one would embark on theological discussion with learned teachers or Rabbis.

By the age of 12, we know that Jesus was growing in understanding as He was found in the temple precincts "both listening and asking questions" (Luke 2.46).

The contemporary method of teaching included questioning to elicit intelligent responses, so Jesus' asking of questions may not have been just to obtain knowledge but also to teach it, indeed "they were astonished at His understanding and answers".

Memorization was the chief technique of learning. Hence, why Jesus' followers were able to reproduce His teachings so accurately because they were first written on their hearts before they were written down as our gospels. Given this fact, it means that we can have faith in the accurate transmission of Jesus' teachings.

We know from early church records that Matthew's was the earliest gospel and that it was written in Hebrew. Jesus Himself must have taught in Hebrew (as all rabbis did) as He says that "not one yodh or little horn shall pass away from the law" (Matthew 5.18) referring to the smallest Hebrew letter yodh and the small hook or serif on others. Our Greek gospels are translations themselves of Jesus' Hebrew teachings and possibly too of an original Hebrew gospel of Matthew.

The study of Greek in Israel in Jesus' day was not encouraged, although it was a necessity of daily life in the Diaspora lands outside of Israel. Greek philosophy was equally deprecated in Israel. Early church theologians were later to remark "what has Athens to do with Jerusalem" decrying Greek thinking synthesis with Christian doctrine. It is unfortunate in the least that even in the church, New Testament Greek is studied in preference to Hebrew and the Greek classics instead of Jewish writings such as the Talmud and Mishnah.

Two rabbinical stories give a flavour of the Hebrew attitude towards the Greek ways:

A Rabbi wrote "There were a 1000 pupils in my father's school, of whom 500 studied Torah and 500 studied Greek philosophy; and of the latter none are left but myself and my nephew" (Mishnah, Baba Kamma, 83a)

"A Rabbi asked 'since I have learnt the whole of Torah may I now study Greek philosophy?'", the reply came "'This book of Torah shall not depart out of your mouth but you shall meditate in it day and night (Joshua 1.8)', 'now go and search out at which hour it is neither day nor night and devote it to the study of Greek philosophy'" (Mishnah, Menachoth, 99b)

Access to copies of the Hebrew Scriptures was virtually universal via the synagogues and schools. In addition, every household might purchase one scroll or another according to their wealth. However, it was unlawful to make copies of small portions out of context through fear of transmission of error. Exceptions were made for certain passages though: Genesis 1-9 (the history of the world from creation to the flood); Leviticus 1-9; Numbers 1-10.35. Since Scripture was memorised from youth these manuscripts were luxuries rather than essential.

Given all of this we can see that Jesus did not have supernatural help in learning His Scripture but being a man He learnt it just like any other Jewish boy, as an example to us all. Recollect Timothy who had known the Scriptures (the Old Testament) from his childhood and which were able to make him wise for salvation (2 Timothy 3.15).