It was the exile of the Jews into Assyria and Babylon that led to further developments in education. When they returned and their land became part of the Greek empire, there were still further developments. The Assyrian kings collected thousands of clay tablets into a library at Nineveh. They contain every kind of knowledge–botany,

geometry,chemistry,astronomy,medicine,mathematics,law,religion-and give and indication of how far the Assyrian education system had developed. Daniel 1 tells how members of the Israelite hierarchy were educated in the Babylonian court. They were to learn the language for three years and then undertake an oral examination set by the king (Daniel 1:3-9,19-20). In order to preserve their identity as a nation it was necessary for the Jews in exile to become fully familiar with their own law. Therefore priestly and prophetic teachers seem to have taken this education in hand, and it continued when the Jews returned to their own land.


When they returned, Ezra, a priest and a scribe (an interpreter of the law), had a commission from the Persian emperor to teach the Jewish people the law (Ezra 7:12-26). Everyone who returned stood to listen to the law all one morning (Nehemiah 8:1-8). The teachers then moved among the crowd explaining it to them. As a result the scribes became important in the community as teachers of the law. A scribe also wrote letters for people and could be recognized by the inkpot that was stuck into his belt (Ezekiel 9:2). These men were looked upon like the earlier prophets and were called “men of the great synagogue.”

The synagogue itself seems to have come into being during the Exile as people gathered together (literally, “synagogued”) to learn the Torah and other sacred writings. When the Jews returned to their homeland they continued the practice of listening to the Scriptures being read and interpreted (Luke 4:16-22). The buildings where this took place became centres of worship as well.

Some of the scribes differed in their interpretations of the law. The school of Hill’el tended to adopt a lenient interpretation of the law (a woman could be divorced for a minor fault, for example), but the school of Shammai took a stricter line. The teachings of the scribes were built up into large collections and were eventually written down in the Mishnah.


Isaiah wrote that people complained about the way the prophet was teaching them, for it is “do and do . . . rule on rule . . . a little here, a little there.” it literally means, “s after s, q after q” and refers to the method of teaching by repetition. The master would say an s, and the scholars would have to repeat it. (Isaiah 28:9-10)


It was not long before the returned exiles came under the influence of Greek thought and culture under the alternate rule of their country by the Seleucids (in Syria) and the Egyptians. The wealthy and priestly families accepted the culture, using Greek language and literature and even allowing Greek games in Jerusalem. Like the Greeks they rejected traditional beliefs in angels, resurrection, and the providence of God, and they became known as Hellenists. There was a strong reaction against such views, particularly when the Greek games were introduced into the city. Some reacted so as the bring about a sense of national pride, but others, known as the Hasidim, were much more concerned to build a strong Jewish faith. Things climaxed when the Hellenists agreed to set up a Greek gymnasium (school) in Jerusalem in 175 BC, and many wealthy jews sent their sons to receive a Greek from of education.

The Greek child went to school at the age of seven if his parents could afford to pay the fees. He studied basic skills (reading, writing, counting), music (poetry, dance, musical instrument), and physical skills (wrestling, boxing, running, throwing the javelin and discus; see 1 Corinthians 9:24-27). At sixteen, he went on to the gymnasium to study literature, philosophy, and politics.

Interested adults who lived locally were invited to the classes for discussion. Outstanding teachers set up their own schools in the city of Athens, and those who wished to do so went to the city to learn from them. This was under the general supervision of an education committee called the Areopagus. Paul used the Athenian system, setting up his own school in the city (Acts 17:16-34). He therefore had to give an account of himself to the Areopagus (Acts 17:22). In Ephesus he used the lecture hall of a teacher called Tyrannus as a preaching base (Acts 19:9-10).


The Seleucid king responsible for the Greek school in Jerusalem was defeated in battle in 164 BC. The Hasidim, or Pharisees as they were beginning to be called, led by Simeon ben Shetah, insisted that from that time all Jewish boys should attend the “house of the book” to get a Jewish education. It was to be led by a teacher who was paid for by the synagogue. Teachers had to be married men of good character. Higher education was available at a “house of study.” Such a school was attached to the Jerusalem Temple, and it was here that Jesus was found when twelve years old (Luke 2:41-52).

Jesus would have gone to a house of the book at Nazareth when he was about six years old, sitting as part of a semicircle on the floor, facing the teacher, Much of the teaching was done by repetition, and the memorizing led to the common practice of reading aloud (Acts 8:30). Writing was done in was on a wooden tablet (Luke 1:63) or even on the ground (John 8:6). The only textbook was the Taanach: the Law, Prophets, and Writings that became the Christian Old Testament (2 Timothy 3:15).

The traditional law was taught from the age of ten to the age of fifteen, and Jewish law beyond that. That brightest of the boys, such as Paul, could go to Jerusalem to one of the law schools. They would sit at the feet of the great teachers (Acts 22:3) when they attended meetings of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews. Not until AD 65 was school made compulsory for all boys. The high priest Gamala ordered that boys six years old and above in every town should attend school; too many boys had been engaging in truancy under the voluntary system. The early Christian community was too poor to provide schools for its children.


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