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Volume 7, Issue 4: Repairing the Ruins

Synagogue Schools

Douglas Wilson

When a child was born into a pious Jewish home of the first century, his education began with his circumcision. Covenant education, education in the love of God for His people, was carefully bestowed in the warmth of a believing home. Not surprisingly, as Edersheim puts it, "The first education was necessarily the mother's." For faithful Jews, knowledge of the Law was to be taken in at the mother's breast. Long before a child could attend school, he was nourished and fed with the Word of God.

We see the godly example of Lois and Eunice, grandmother and mother of Timothy. Paul reminds himself that Timothy's faith was inherited--"when I call to remembrance the genuine faith that is in you, which dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded is in you also" (2 Tim. 1:5). And the fine example of this family, while instructive, is still just a partial one because Timothy's father was a pagan Greek (Acts 16:1).
Still the educational impact of a godly mother in the early years was tremendous. "But as for you, continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 3:14- 15). The word Paul uses here for childhood is brephos, and has no other meaning than that of "infant" or "baby." Timothy was nourished in scriptural teaching from the breast and cradle. As an adult, an apostle exhorts him to remember his greatest teachers--his mother and grandmother.
Formal education was the task of the synagogue, and was begun in the fifth or sixth year, depending on the capacity of the child. Where a school existed, the children were was sent to that school. Not every location had a synagogue/school, but education was valued so highly by the Jews that some rabbis deemed it unlawful to live where there was no school. Jerusalem contained a "fabulous number of schools," and yet tradition had it that the city fell because they had neglected the education of children. And so they had, but it had more to do with their teaching false expectations about the Messiah than it did with the success or failure of their bond levies.
The Chazzan, an officer of the synagogue, was the schoolmaster of the institution. The functions of worship and education were so intertwined that a school was a synagogue, and a synagogue was a school. The Jews also called these schools Ischoli, the word apparently coming from the Greek schola. This same identification of school and synagogue continued for centuries more--mediaeval documents regularly described the synagogue as a schola, or school. This identification continues with the German term for synagogue--shool.
The instructor and students would either sit on the floor, with the students in a semicircle, or else they would all stand. The Old Testament was the exclusive textbook until the students were about ten years old. At that time, the study of the Mishnah, or traditional law, began and continued until the students were around fifteen. During this period of His education, Christ had an opportunity to astonish the national teachers of Israel. "Now so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers" (Luke 2:46-47). And of course, when He was grown, His teaching against the Pharisees made clear that He had taken strong objection to a number of things taught in this part of the curriculum.
Students who demonstrated such a great aptitude might continue on in their studies, and enter one of the higher Academies of the rabbis--as Saul did when he studied under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). While the knowledge Saul acquired there was later put to great use in the advancement of the kingdom, God saw fit in His wisdom to keep Christ away from these seminaries. "And the Jews marveled, saying, `How does this Man know letters, having never studied?'" (John 7:15).
The students who did not continue on to the Academies were educated for approximately nine years, from six to fifteen. The hours were fixed so that the students would not be unduly burdened, and during the summer, the school hours were cut back. The Word of God was at the heart of the early curriculum, but was tragically supplanted by the teachings of men in the upper grades. So when Israel fell under Christ's judgment in 70 A.D., the Jewish school system fell along with the nation.
The failure of this system of covenant education should stand as a warning to all who would embrace the name of biblical education without placing the Scriptures entirely at the center.

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