There is no question that the early education of a child devolved upon the father, although, the first training while a very small child would belong to the mother. If the father was not capable of elementary teaching, a stranger would be employed.
In the days of Christ, home teaching began when a child was about 3 years old. There is reason to believe, though, that even before this age a child had careful memory training. For centuries this has been one of the mental characteristics of the Jewish nation. Verses of scripture, benedictions, wise sayings, etc., were impressed upon the child, and their own special rules were applied to help the child remember all these different things. These rules were applied to generation after generation, and the truths that they learned deviated very little from hundreds of years because of their memory retention devices. Their traditions have been preserved almost exactly.
The Talmud describes the beau ideal of a student when it compares him to a well-plastered cistern which would not let even a single drop of water escape. According to the Mishnah, “he who from negligence forgets any one thing in his study of the Mishnah, Scripture imputes it to him as if he had forfeited his life”. Even the Jewish historian Josephus boasted about his wonderful memory.
In teaching a child to read, the teacher would draw the letters on a board till the child became familiar with them. Next, the teacher would point out each word or letter to the child, and eventually the child would be made to read the letters or words aloud.
None but well-corrected manuscripts could ever be used, because they believed that mistakes impressed upon the young mind were afterwards not easily corrected. There was also special care given to the choice of speaking correct language, and some areas were much better in teaching this than others – such as the inhabitants of Judaea far excelled those of Galilee, who were rough fishermen and other tradesmen.
At 5 years of age, the Hebrew Bible was to be begun. They started with the book of Leviticus instead of Genesis. This was because Leviticus contained the laws that a Jew needed to be learning from an early age. Actually, a child of 5 would probably have already heard a lot of the teachings because they were continually repeated on all festive occasions as well as every time the child went to the synagogue.
Writing was not as common an accomplishment as reading. The Israelites must have been very familiar with it because from the earliest times there have been many different things recorded about it. Examples are: engraving words on the gems of the high priest’s breastplate, the record of the various genealogies of the tribes, written copies of the law, etc. Even though writing was known about, it was not regarded as for the common man in every era of the Jewish people. During Gideon’s time, it seems to have been very generally known, while at other times only the Scribes and learned people were privy to learning this art. This may have been due to the long process of making parchment and the fact that they did not have an abundant supply of things to write on as we do today.
We do have some knowledge of some of the writing materials that were employed during the New Testament times. In Egypt red ink was used, while it is thought that the ink mentioned in the New Testament was black. Josephus speaks of writing in gold letters; and in the Mishnah it talks of mixed colours, of red, of sympathetic ink, and of certain chemical compositions. Reed quills are mentioned in 3 John 13. The best of these came from Egypt, and one would probably have to have a penknife to keep it sharpened.
They used parchment for writing, which was a long process of drying out animal skins and making them useable. They also wrote on stone tablets. I’m sure that before they went to all this trouble, they wanted to make sure that what they had to say was very good.
The Rabbis did not approve of the same amount of education being given to girls as to boys. They certainly objected to any girl trying to participate in any kind of legal studies, mostly because they considered that a woman’s mission and duties lay in other directions. The studies were also not always suitable for girls, and mostly because the Rabbis did not think that a woman’s mind could understand the complex laws and regulations. In fact the Rabbis had a saying about the women of their time: “Women are of a light mind.” There must have been a few women who were learned in the Scriptures because the Bible mentions some of them: Lois and Eunice who trained Timothy, and Priscilla, who explained the Scriptures more thoroughly to Apollos. Generally, though, women were not even considered to be knowledgeable enough to compete with a man in any sort of way.
If the parents had fulfilled their duties in early training, then at age 6 the child would be sent to school. Generally the child would start to the classroom of a Rabbi. At the time of Jesus, there were generally primary or elementary schools that were attached to every synagogue. Then if a student showed great promise, he could be sent to a special academy or even advance to being taught by the Sanhedrin.
Every place which numbered 25 boys of a suitable age, or at least 120 families, was bound to appoint a schoolmaster. There could not be more than 25 boys in each teacher’s class, or they had to appoint more teachers accordingly, because learning was very important to them and they didn’t want to skimp on teaching their children the right way to live.
To the Jew, children were considered as holy and the parents considered it their sacred duty to teach the child in the way that he should go. The grand object of the teacher was moral as well as intellectual training.
The object of the training was:
to keep children from all intercourse with the vicious
to suppress all feelings of bitterness, even though wrong had been done to one’s parents;
to punish all real wrong-doing
not to prefer one child to another
rather to show sin in its repulsiveness than to predict what punishment would follow, either in this or the next world, so as not to “discourage” the child.
A teacher was not even to promise a child anything which he did not mean to perform, lest its mind be familiarized with falsehood. Everything that might call up disagreeable or indelicate thoughts was to be carefully avoided. The teacher must not lose patience if his pupil did not understood easily, but rather make the lesson more plain. He could punish when necessary, but excessive severity was to be avoided. Antiquities records one teacher who was dismissed from his office for being too severe.
The teacher was to, when possible, try kindness. If punishment had to be administered, then the child was to be beaten with a strap, and never a rod.
At 10 the child began to study the Mishnah; at 15 he must be ready for the Talmud, which would be explained to him in a more advanced academy. If after three, or at most five, years of tuition the child had not made decided progress, there was little hope of his attaining to eminence.
In the study of the Bible the pupil was to proceed from the book of Leviticus to the rest of the Pentateuch, then to the Prophets, and lastly to the Hagiographa. This regulation was in accordance with the degree of value which the Rabbis attached to these divisions of the Bible.
In the case of advanced pupils the day was portioned out with one part being devoted to the Bible, and the other two to the Mishnah and the Talmud. Every parent was also advised to have his child taught swimming.
Even though the school was part of the Synagogue, the office was not a spiritual one. He was salaried by the congregation and was not allowed to receive fees from his pupils, because he might show favor to the ones who could pay him more money. The expenses were met by voluntary and charitable contributions; and in case of deficiency the most distinguished Rabbis did not hesitate to go about and collect aid from the wealthy to meet the expenses of the school.
Because of the heat, lessons were given between the hours of 10 A. M. and 3 P. M. For the same reasons, during the months of July and August only 4 hours of instruction was given to the students. Also the teachers were forbidden to chastise their students during these months.
There was a high honor and distinction that was attached to the office of teacher. If one did not have the knowledge to carry on his duties or did not have a good method of teaching, it was sufficient cause for removal. Experience was always deemed a better qualification than just mere book knowledge only. No teacher was employed who was not a married man. To discourage unwholesome rivalry, and to raise the general educational standard, parents were prohibited from sending their children to other than the schools of their own towns.
A wonderful trait of the Jews was the care bestowed on the children of the poor and on orphans. In the Temple there was a special receptacle for contributions that were deemed for this thing especially. Parents who were poor privately applied for this money to help them with their children’s education.
If a person adopted and brought up an orphan, he was considered as doing a “good work”. Orphans were the special charge of the whole congregation and not just thrust into poor-houses. The parochial authorities were even bound to provide a fixed dowry when female orphans got married.
This was the way a Jewish child was brought up in the time that Jesus lived and ministered here on earth.