The following post is a bulletin article by Chip Palmer.
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 he probably 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 ABCs 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. The student was to repeat what he heard, using the same words as his teacher. 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
When Jesus was around six years old, like every other little six-year-old Jewish boy he would have gone to a local synagogue school called a Bet Sefer. It means house of the book. From the days of Ezra until the Roman wars in Judea, a child usually attended a Bet Sefer from age 6 to age 10. This school would be attended five or six days a week. There would be a local synagogue teacher who would begin teaching the Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy; along with reading, writing and other subjects of a general basic education.
It is said that on the first day of class a rabbi would give each child some honey. He would then say, “Now class, There is nothing sweeter, than honey, taste the honey”. And as the students tasted, the teacher would say, “May the words of God be sweet to your taste, sweeter than honey to your mouth” (Psalm 119:103). May the words of God be the most pleasurable, the most enjoyable thing you could ever comprehend.
And so as a child you were introduced to the Scriptures as there was nothing more enjoyable in the entire universe than; tasting, receiving and fully learning the words of God and making them a part of your life. 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. The children learned to recite the Shema, the grace after meals, and other traditional blessings. Reading and recitation of prayers was done aloud.
This is how Jewish children were introduced to the Scriptures. From ages 6-10 they would be taught the entire five Books of Moses as well as the “ABCs” of reading writing and arithmetic and completed the Bet Sefer schooling. Roughly from ages 10-14 in Bet Talmud you would learn the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures all the way to Malachi.
Now, at the end of your study at Bet Talmud, when you were around 14-15 years old, you would proceed to learn a trade; or if you were interested in advanced religious studies you would go and seek out a respected and knowledgeable Rabbi to study with.
Responsibility of Education
The father was responsible to see that his son received such formal education until the age of 14-15. From that point onward, the boy no longer went to the synagogue school 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.”
We know who God will hold responsible for the education of children. What choice should we now make?