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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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LEARNING.—To what extent did learning prevail in Palestine in the time of Christ? and is it correct to say that He Himself and His Apostles and disciples were illiterate?

Higher education existed at least in the collegiate institutions of the capital. From the restoration following the epoch of the Exile there was a class of men who are known to us as ‘scribes’ (sôphěrîm). Their point of union was their knowledge of the Law, and Scriptures, and Traditions. So far they are parallel to the shastris, who are the authorities on Hindu literature. Ezra, the second founder of the theocracy and a man of priestly birth, is designated a scribe (Ezra 7:6). From his date measures were taken, directed to the establishment and maintenance of the sacred authority of the Law. The scribe was an interpreter to the people. The period of higher inspiration was giving place to an age of didactic literature. And a succession of able scribes arose who expounded the sacred books, cherished and enlarged tradition, determined the details of religious observance, and wrote the Law in its exclusiveness on the minds of the people. They were at their best in the 4th or 3rd cent. b.c.; but they continued for many centuries. Pharisaism was a development of them, and they are also connected with the later books of Wisdom, while in the post-Christian period their chief men are the Rabbis. Part of their work consisted in the training of young scribes, and for this end schools or colleges were formed. In these the Scriptures formed a literary and theological basis, the Law, traditions, and national history were expounded, and judgment was given on the problems and practical questions of the time. This education was professional, and contained no secular culture; and it was intensely national or Jewish. Yet here as elsewhere there were varieties of opinion and diverging tendencies. The schools of Hillel and Shammai were rival institutions in the years preceding the birth of our Lord. A generation later Hillel was succeeded by his perhaps more liberal grandson, Gamaliel, to whose classroom St. Paul came from Asia Minor to be trained in the Law.

Other schools less exclusively religious, more akin to Greek institutions, are known to have existed in Jerusalem and other towns, where especially the sons of men not opposed to the Roman occupation might be trained for public life. Jews of the Dispersion were at home in the Greek language, and had more immediate access to Greek literature. About the time of Christ several of the later apocryphal books were written. Culture was widespread, and at least two Jews belong to general literature: Philo the philosopher of Alexandria, who endeavoured to reconcile Hellenism and Judaism; and Josephus the historian, who was brought up in Jerusalem.

But the work of the scribes was not confined to ‘higher education.’ In every village they had planted a synagogue, and in connexion with every synagogue an elementary school was ultimately opened. For many centuries the training of the young was a duty enjoined upon parents. About b.c. 75, Simon ben Shetach, a scribe and Pharisee, is said to have carried a law requiring boys to attend ‘the elementary school.’ Probably before that date a lower school system (such as was known to exist in the Greek world) was tentatively tried in all leading centres. Now education was made compulsory. The schoolroom, known as the ‘house of the book,’ was either part of the synagogue or of the teacher’s house. The teacher, or hazzan, belonged to a humble rank of the fraternity of scribes. Lk (Luke 5:7) refers to a gathering of teachers of the law (νομοδιδάσκαλοι) from every city and village of the land. Whether or not school-masters are included, the reference implies a wide diffusion of education.

The instruction given in these schools is considered by Ramsay (Education of Christ) supérior to that of Greece or any other ancient land. The subjects of study and methods of teaching were calculated to call forth and develop the best mental faculties of the boys. In the choice of subjects the theoretical and practical were successfully combined; and pupils were taught both to think and to act, while maxims of duty were graven on their memories. The standard of average intelligence was therefore high. And while in most cases no regular secondary education followed, it is to be remembered that the synagogue remained a place of instruction rather than of formal worship, and also that talented young men could carry reading and study farther than public provision was made for. Whether any of the leading disciples were educated in Jerusalem cannot be definitely known. But they were not ignorant. On the contrary, they were men of keen intelligence and ardent spirit, who had been cherishing the Messianic hope and found in Jesus the realization of their dreams.

Ancient literature was mainly religious; and learning is founded on literature. But though the circle of learning had religion as its centre, it included some study of all the obvious phenomena of nature. Modern discovery is proving that not only famous countries such as Egypt or Babylonia, but also peoples whose very names were formerly unknown, had a developed civilization and system of thought. Amongst the Israelites Moses and Solomon are credited (Acts 7:22, 1 Kings 4:29-34) with all the knowledge the world then possessed; and to the latter are attributed not only poetry and philosophy, but also an exhaustive knowledge of Natural History. The people were skilled in music and in works of architecture. But while Israel was producing its prophets, the imaginative genius of Greece was creating a secular literature and founding sciences. Gradually Greek influence extended to all lands. It was felt in Jerusalem even in the days of greatest exclusiveness. Greek was the language of the Hellenistic Jews, and the Septuagint was their Bible. Greek ideas were thus diffused over the surface of Hebraic religion, and helped to enrich the thought and life of the planters of Christianity. Of the NT writings it may confidently be said that they are not the work of unlearned men. St. Paul was probably much more learned than his letters show (Acts 26:3; Acts 26:24). The Johannine writings are artistically conceived, and studded with gems of thought and expression. The Epistles to the Hebrews and Ephesians show an imaginative scope and a rhetorical power scarcely surpassed. St. Luke had a literary faculty rare amongst physicians. It is true that Peter and John are styled ‘unlearned’ (Acts 4:13); yet this is but the technical description (ἀγράμματοι καὶ ἰδιῶται) of men who had not graduated in the colleges of the scribes. If not many noble were called (1 Corinthians 1:26), there were at least some who combined spiritual insight with literary culture, and who were able to express the new ideas in forms whose beauty is partially hidden by their Divineness.

Of Jesus Himself His enemies asked (John 7:15), ‘How knoweth this man letters (γράμματα), having never learned?’ No doubt it was true that He had never studied Jewish theology at any of the great Rabbinical schools. But not only did He have a thorough knowledge of the letter of the OT, as He repeatedly showed (see, e.g., Matthew 5:21-43; Matthew 12:3 ff., Matthew 12:40 ff., Matthew 13:14 f., Matthew 15:4; Matthew 15:7 f., Matthew 19:4 ff., Matthew 19:17 ff., Matthew 21:13; Matthew 21:16; Matthew 21:42; Matthew 22:32; Matthew 22:37 ff., Matthew 22:43 ff., Matthew 24:15; Matthew 24:37 ff., Matthew 26:54; Matthew 27:46), but He revealed an insight into Scripture and an expository skill (and this was what the Jews specially meant by His ‘knowing letters’) at which they were compelled to marvel (John 7:15 a). This ‘learning’ of Jesus, for γράμματα in Gr. (like Lat. literae, English ‘letters’) is synonymous with ‘learning,’ had its human side without doubt. His education in Scripture would begin in the family circle, and most probably be continued in a synagogue school. In early youth He showed His interest in the synagogal instruction (Luke 2:46), and ever afterwards it was His ‘custom’ to frequent those services of the synagogue at which Moses and the Prophets were read and explained (Luke 4:15). But His ‘learning’ and consequent ‘teaching,’ on the spiritual side, as He Himself declared, came from an inward and Divine spring (John 7:16-17), a saying which helps to explain the statement of two of the Synoptists (Matthew 7:29 || Mark 1:22), ‘He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes’ (γραμματεῖς). See also art. Education.

Literature.—Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , art. ‘Education’; Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. i. 323–350, ii. 47–52; Edershelm, Life and Times, i. 228–234; Stalker, Imago Christi, pp. 147–164.

R. Scott.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Learning'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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