School is heading back to session around the world for the fall and Israel is no different. Students generally get a little over two months off in the Summer, ranging from mid-June to late-August. Education has long been an important factor in Israel’s culture, back to the ancient days. What was education in ancient Israel like?
It’s first to recognize the education in ancient Israel may not be as easily defined then as it is now. We think of education as simply the time students are sitting in chairs in a formal setting receiving instruction, but education in ancient Israel was much more varied than that.
If you know that rabbi means “teacher”, it won’t surprise you that rabbis did a lot of the formal education in ancient Israel. The primary reason to be educated in the day was to understand the Law. Rabbis were not solely teachers. It was expected that they would have an occupation aside from teaching and then teach for free. Teaching was considered the a great honor, and one’s honor and integrity was more valued than their own education.
During that time of Jesus, it is thought the literacy level in Israel was higher than virtually anywhere, at around 3%. That being said, males and females were educated until the age of twelve, though much of it was through repetition and memorization of the Torah. The schools were affiliated with the synagogues, and learning the Torah was of the utmost importance. At the time reading and writing was less of a necessary skill and the history and faith was taught and passed down by oral tradition.
There were not dedicated school houses as we think of now, but instead they were educated around the town and area and in some cases inside of the synagogue, which was essentially the town hall. You can see two of these synagogues in Magdala, where two of the oldest synagogues in Israel are located.
When students reached the age of twelve, they then returned home to learn the skills associated with their families’ trade and help the household. Exceptional students may be kept as a student of the Rabbi and continue learning underneath them and eventually sharing that teaching further. Some may go to more intense training and schooling. Paul, for example, learned beneath Gamaliel, a great Pharisee of the Law. He is spoken of in Acts 5 and 22.
Other very well trained students became scribes, who would record serve as record keepers and make copies of the Torah. They were considered to be some of the Holiest men in the the time, having not only the ability to read and write, but had to underwent and know the Law like none other. Parchments at the time were extremely valuable, so there was no delete or white out! They had to be perfect in the writing.
You can see some of the work of scribes who had education in ancient Israel in the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are found.