Isaiah 49:6 ... I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.




Written by David Bivin

More articles by David Bivin can be read at

Jerusalem Perspective  

A careful reading of the New Testament suggests that Jesus was a scholar learned in the Scriptures and religious literature of the period, which was vast and varied. Yet the popular view of Jesus is that he was a simple, uneducated character from the provinces. This misunderstanding is due in part to a number of disparaging statements made about Nazareth and the Galilee such as, "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" (Jn. 1:46), and "Utterly amazed, they asked: 'Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?'" (Acts 2:7).
These statements may reflect a Judean bias against Galileans. Some Judeans may have seen themselves as cultured and cosmopolitan. To them, the Galileans were provincials whose accent seemed coarse and unrefined.

Actually, however, the reverse may have been true: the Galileans were the more exposed to the outside world while the Judeans, living in the interior of the land, were partially sheltered from contact with foreign nations. The Galilee also was more urban, with many developed villages. Judea, by contrast, was generally more rural in character.

No doubt this same disdain toward Galileans prompted the assumption, preserved in John 7:15, that Jesus had no education: "The Jews were amazed and asked, 'How did this man get such learning without having studied?'"

Conservative Galileans
Such passages have given rise to the idea that Jesus and his disciples were uneducated simply because they came from Galilee. Surprisingly, however, the standard of education and religious training in Galilee surpassed that of Judea.

According to Shmuel Safrai, Hebrew University Professor of Jewish History of the Mishnaic and Talmudic Periods, not only do the number of first-century Galilean sages exceed the number of Judean sages, but the moral and ethical quality of their teaching is still considered more highly than that of their Judean counterparts. Such first-century Galilean sages as Yohanan ben Zakkai, Hanina ben Dosa, Abba Yose Holikofri of Tiv'on, Zadok and Jesus of Nazareth helped impart a deep understanding of the Torah to the residents of Galilee.

In addition to their high level of knowledge of and reverence for Scripture, the Galileans could be seen as the religious conservatives of the period. Jewish messianic nationalism flourished in the Galilee. Judah the Galilean, for example, was the founder of the "Zealots" movement, and it was in Galilee, not Judea, that the great revolt against Rome broke out in 66 A.D.

Early Training
The New Testament says almost nothing about Jesus' life from after his birth until he appeared in the temple at age twelve, and from then until he began his public ministry at about the age of thirty. Yet a good indication of what a young Jewish man in Jesus' day would have been doing may be found in Avot 5:21, a tractate from a collection of rabbinic sayings called the Mishnah, which states:

At five years of age, one is ready for the study of the Written Torah, at ten years of age for the study of the Oral Torah, at thirteen for bar mitzvah [the religious coming-of-age ceremony], at fifteen for the study of halachot [rabbinic legal decisions], at eighteen for marriage, at twenty for pursuing a vocation, at thirty for entering one's full vigor...
Although this statement cannot be dated with certainty, and may come some 100 years after the time of Jesus, there are many other passages in rabbinic works that indicate the importance placed upon the education of children and provide some insight into how the young Jesus was probably spending his time.

Certainly education was highly valued in Jewish society. In his apology for Judaism, Against Apion, written to counter anti-Semitism, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus states:

Above all we pride ourselves on the education of our children, and regard as the most essential task in life the observance of our laws and of the pious practices based thereupon, which we have inherited. (Against Apion 1:60, Loeb ed.)
The Talmud even suggests the preferred class size:

The maximum number of elementary pupils that should be placed under one teacher is twenty-five; if there are fifty, an additional teacher must be provided; if there are forty, a senior student should be engaged to assist the teacher. (Bava Batra 21a)
High Standard of Education
A synagogue in the first century usually had its own bet SE·fer (elementary school) and bet mid·RASH (secondary school) in which children and adults studied Torah and the oral traditions. Formal education ended at the age of twelve or thirteen when most children went to work. The more gifted students who so desired could continue their studies at the bet mid·RASH together with adults who studied in their spare time.

A few of the most outstanding bet mid·RASH students eventually left home to study with a famous sage, being encouraged and sometimes supported by their families. Only the very promising students were urged to continue studying since their assistance was usually needed in agricultural work at home (Shmuel Safrai, "Education and the Study of Torah," The Jewish People in the First Century 2:953).

One might assume that the synagogue, as the place of worship, would be considered more important or more sacred than the schools, but this was not the case. To this day the bet mid·RASH is given more prominence than the synagogue — not because education is valued more highly than worship, but because Judaism does not make a distinction between the two. Indeed, Judaism has always held that study of Torah is one of the highest forms of worship (cf. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 30a).

Diligent Study
Jewish tradition contains many statements enjoining continued and diligent study, such as the Mishnah passage, "Discipline yourself to study Torah, for you do not acquire it by inheritance" (Avot 2:12). This point of view is echoed throughout the New Testament in such passages as the following:

[The Jews of Berea] were more noble…examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:1)
Do your best to win God's approval as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, because he knows how to interpret the word of truth correctly. (2 Tim. 2:15)
Make every effort to add to your faith goodness, and to goodness, knowledge.... (2 Pet. 1:5)
Although scrolls were used for reading and study and the practice of writing was highly developed, written material was expensive because all manuscripts had to be hand-copied by trained scribes. Scrolls, therefore, were relatively scarce, and even though in Jesus' time every Jewish home had at least one of the approximately twenty biblical scrolls, few people had immediate access to more than a very small part of the entire library of sacred literature. Learning, consequently, involved a great deal of memorization. Professor Safrai has written concerning educational methods of the period:

Individual and group study of the Bible, repetition of the passages, etc., were often done by chanting them aloud. There is the frequent expression, "the chirping of children," which was heard by people passing close by a synagogue as the children were reciting a verse. Adults too, in individual and group study, often read aloud; for it was frequently advised not to learn in a whisper, but aloud. This was the only way to overcome the danger of forgetting. (The Jewish People in the First Century 2:953)
In the eyes of the sages, repetition was the key to learning, as these passages illustrate:

A person who repeats his lesson a hundred times is not to be compared with him who repeats it a hundred and one times. (Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 9b)
If [the student] learns Torah and does not go over it again and again, he is like a man who sows without reaping. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 99a)
Many methods were used to assist the student in memorizing his lessons, and one passage in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 104a) even describes in detail the mnemonic devices employed to teach small children the Hebrew alphabet. Elementary school students, who studied seven days a week, were given no new material on the Sabbath, but rather used that time to memorize material learned earlier in the week (The Jewish People in the First Century 2:954).

Students enjoyed memorizing their lessons while strolling outdoors, but they were tempted to shift their attention to the surrounding scenery. The Mishnah specifically warns against this:

A person walking along the road repeating his lessons who interrupts his memorization and exclaims: "What a beautiful tree!" or "What a beautiful field!" it is imputed to him as if he were guilty of a crime punishable by death. (Avot 3:8)
Such peripatetic memorization is still practiced today in the Middle East, and is the foundation of the Muslim system of education. In the Arab world one frequently can see young men walking back and forth along the roads at the outskirts of villages and towns, apparently talking to themselves. They actually are repeating and memorizing their lessons.

Jesus' Contemporaries
From accounts found in Jewish sources such as those referred to above, one can form a reasonably accurate picture of what Jesus was doing in his childhood and adolescence. He was studying, committing to memory large amounts of material — Scripture and commentary on Scripture — all the available sacred literature of the day.

This was exactly what most of the other Jewish boys of Jesus' day were doing. The memorization of Written and Oral Torah was such a large part of Jewish education that most contemporaries of Jesus had large portions of this material — at the least almost all of the Scriptures — firmly committed to memory. As Professor Safrai has stated:

The Scriptures were known almost by heart by everyone. From quite early in the Second Temple period, one could hardly find a little boy in the street who didn't know the Scriptures. According to Jerome (342-420 A.D.) who lived in Bethlehem and learned Hebrew from local Jewish residents in order to translate the Scriptures into Latin [producing the Vulgate Bible]: "There doesn't exist any Jewish child who doesn't know by heart the history from Adam to Zerubbabel [i.e., from the beginning to the end of the Bible]." Perhaps this was a bit of an exaggeration on Jerome's part, but in most cases his reports have proved reliable. (Safrai, lecture on June 5, 1985)

Used with permission. Courtesy of Jerusalem Perspective Online.

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