The New Testament gives us several hints of how a young Jewish child was educated. Paul tried to gain the confidence of an angry crowd in Jerusalem by telling them that he studied at the feet of Gamaliel, strictly according to “the law of our fathers” (Acts 22:3). He later wrote to Timothy, “From childhood you have known the sacred writings” (2 Tim. 3:15). Since Timothy’s father was not Jewish, we can assume that Timothy’s mother and grandmother, who were devout women (2 Tim. 1:5), either educated him in the Scriptures themselves or hired someone to do it.
We know almost nothing about Jesus’ actual education. We do know that he could read the Scriptures (Luke 4:16), and perhaps he also knew how to write (see John 8:6, 8), although writing was not part of the standard program. However, we do know enough about Jewish education at that time to paint a fairly full picture of the kind of training that Jesus must have received. Responsibility for the first level of formal education belonged to the father. As soon as the child was able to speak, he was to be taught some Bible verses. The learning of the Hebrew alef-bet began at about age three. The focus at the start was to train the memory, and the letters were learned both forwards and backwards. Since written documents were rare and accessible to only a few, memory was in many ways more important than the ability to read. The ideal student was compared to a cistern which does not lose a drop, and of one who forgot something he had learned it was said that he was like one who had forfeited his life (Avot 3.10). The student was to repeat what he heard, using the same words as his teacher. It should be no surprise, then, that some of Jesus’ sayings sound very much like sayings of other teachers around that time. This method of learning also helps us to understand why Jesus sometimes quoted only part of a Scripture: he knew that his audience would fill in the rest in their minds.
Rules of Education
Only at about age five did the child begin to learn to read the letters so that he could study the Torah. It is possible that girls were also given some rudimentary education in the Scriptures. However, generally it was ruled that girls were not to continue with such study, for several reasons: their duties were said to lie elsewhere; some subjects were considered unsuitable for females; if the girls studied, it could cause too much mixing with the boys and consequent familiarity; and, finally, it was claimed that a woman’s mind was not really adaptable to study.
In the generation before the destruction of the Second Temple, Joshua ben Gamliel instituted rules regulating schools. It is probable that much of what he formalized was already in existence in Jesus’ generation. At age 6 or 7 all boys were to go to school, which was attached to the local synagogue. The teacher, who was usually the chazzan of the synagogue, taught reading by drawing letters on a board. When Jesus referred to the tittle (kotz, Matt. 5:18), it is clear that he meant the newer square script, not the ancient script, which did not contain the little pointed addition on some of the letters.
A child’s first reading was done in the book of Leviticus, because it contained some of the rules which were necessary for daily living. Besides, the stories which comprise most of the first two books of the Torah would already be familiar to the child. During the course of study, all of the books of the Torah and the Prophets were studied, including even those passages (like the story of Amnon and Tamar)which were not given a public Aramaic translation (targum) during the reading of Scripture in the synagogue. Naturally enough, the teaching of the Scripture was interspersed with many of the traditions of the Jewish people, and the children learned to recite the Shema, the grace after meals, and other traditional blessings. Reading and recitation of prayers was done aloud.
Responsibility of Education
It was the responsibility of the teacher to train the children also in areas of behavior and values. Thus, for example, they should learn to avoid having dealings with violent people, to suppress all feelings of bitterness, and to avoid favoritism. All wrong-doing was to be punished, but the teacher should first of all convey the idea that sin is repulsive, rather than just emphasize its punishment. There was, of course, also physical punishment in the school, but it should never be too severe. The preferred instrument of punishment was a strap, never a rod.
The father was responsible to see that his son received such formal education until the age of 13. From that point onward, the boy no longer went to the bet sefer but was responsible to study on his own with other adults. However, the responsibility of the father did not stop there. He was required to teach his son a trade, usually the same one he himself had. It was said that “if you do not teach your son a trade, you make him a robber.”