Philologos Religious Online Books
Sketches of Jewish Social Life
by Alfred Edersheim
If a faithful picture of society in ancient Greece or Rome were to be presented to view, it is not easy to believe that even they who now most oppose the Bible could wish their aims success. For this, at any rate, may be asserted, without fear of gainsaying, that no other religion than that of the Bible has proved competent to control an advanced, or even an advancing, state of civilisation. Every other bound has been successively passed and submerged by the rising tide; how deep only the student of history knows. Two things are here undeniable. In the case of heathenism every advance in civilisation has marked a progressive lowering of public morality, the earlier stages of national life always showing a far higher tone than the later. On the contrary, the religion of the Bible (under the old as under the new dispensation) has increasingly raised, if not uniformly the public morals, yet always the tone and standard of public morality; it has continued to exhibit a standard never yet attained, and it has proved its power to control public and social life, to influence and to mould it.
Strange as it may sound, it is strictly true that, beyond the boundaries of Israel, it would be scarcely possible to speak with any propriety of family life, or even of the family, as we understand these terms. It is significant, that the Roman historian Tacitus should mark it as something special among the Jews * they only shared with the ancient barbarian Germans they regarded it as a crime to kill their offspring!
* Tacitus, Hist. v. 5. In general this fifth book is most interesting, as showing the strange mixture of truth and error, and the intense hatred of the Jewish race even on the part of such men as Tacitus.
This is not the place to describe the exposure of children, or the various crimes by which ancient Greece and Rome, in the days of their highest culture, sought to rid themselves of what was regarded as superfluous population. Few of those who have learned to admire classical antiquity have a full conception of any one phase in its social life of the position of woman, the relation of the sexes, slavery, the education of children, their relation to their parents, or the state of public morality. Fewer still have combined all these features into one picture, and that not merely as exhibited by the lower orders, or even among the higher classes, but as fully owned and approved by those whose names have descended in the admiration of ages as the thinkers, the sages, the poets, the historians, and the statesmen of antiquity. Assuredly, St. Paul's description of the ancient world in the first and second chapters of his Epistle to the Romans must have appeared to those who lived in the midst of it as Divine even in its tenderness, delicacy, and charity; the full picture under bright sunlight would have been scarcely susceptible of exhibition. For such a world there was only one alternative the judgment of Sodom, or the mercy of the Gospel and the healing of the Cross. *
* Let it not be thought that we have been guilty of the slightest exaggeration. The difficulty here is to tell the truth and yet find moderate terms in which to express it. That Christianity should have laid its hold on such a society, found there its brightest martyrs and truest followers, and finally subdued and transformed it, is quite as great a miracle as that of the breaking down of the middle wall of partition among the Jews, or their spiritual transformation of mind and heart from self-righteousness and externalism. In either case, to the student of history the miracle will seem greater than if "one rose from the dead."
When we pass from the heathen world into the homes of Israel, even the excess of their exclusiveness seems for the moment a relief. It is as if we turned from enervating, withering, tropical heat into a darkened room, whose grateful coolness makes us for the moment forget that its gloom is excessive, and cannot continue as the day declines. And this shutting out of all from without, this exclusiveness, applied not only to what concerned their religion, their social and family life, but also to their knowledge. In the days of Christ the pious Jew had no other knowledge, neither sought nor cared for any other fact, denounced it that of the law of God. At the outset, let it be remembered that, in heathenism, theology, or rather mythology, had no influence whatever on thinking or life literally submerged under their waves. To the pious Jew, on the contrary, the knowledge of God was everything; and to prepare for or impart that knowledge was the sum total, the sole object of his education. This was the life of his soul better, and only true life, to which all else as well as the life of the body were merely subservient, as means towards an end. His religion consisted of two things: knowledge of God, which by a series of inferences, one from the other, ultimately resolved itself into theology, as they understood it; and service, which again consisted of the proper observance of all that was prescribed by God, and of works of charity towards men latter, indeed, going beyond the bound of what was strictly due (the Chovoth) into special merit or "righteousness" (Zedakah). But as service presupposed knowledge, theology was again at the foundation of all, and also the crown of all, which conferred the greatest merit. This is expressed or implied in almost innumerable passages of Jewish writings. Let one suffice, not only because it sounds more rationalistic, but because it is to this day repeated each morning in his prayers by every Jew: "These are the things of which a man eats the fruit in this world, but their possession continueth for the next world: to honour father and mother, pious works, peacemaking between man and man, and the study of the law, which is equivalent to them all" (Peah. i. 1).
And literally "equivalent to them all" was such study to the Jew. The circumstances of the times forced him to learn Greek, perhaps also Latin, so much as was necessary for intercourse; and to tolerate at least the Greek translation of the Scriptures, and the use of any language in the daily prayers of the Shema, of the eighteen benedictions, and of the grace after meat (these are the oldest elements of the Jewish liturgy). But the blessing of the priests might not be spoken, nor the phylacteries nor the Mesusah written, in other than the Hebrew language (Megil. i. 8; Sotah, vii. 1, 2); while heathen science and literature were absolutely prohibited. To this, and not to the mere learning of Greek, which must have been almost necessary for daily life, refer such prohibitions as that traced to the time of Titus (Sotah, ix. 14), forbidding a man to teach his son Greek. The Talmud itself (Men. 99 b) furnishes a clever illustration of this, when, in reply to the question of a younger Rabbi, whether, since he knew the whole "Thorah" (the law), he might be allowed to study "Greek wisdom," his uncle reminded him of the words (Josh 1:8), "Thou shalt meditate therein day and night." "Go, then, and consider," said the older Rabbi, "which is the hour that is neither of the day nor of the night, and in it thou mayest study Grecian wisdom." This, then, was one source of danger averted. Then, as for the occupations of ordinary life, it was indeed quite true that every Jew was bound to learn some trade or business. But this was not to divert him from study; quite the contrary. It was regarded as a profanation at least declared such make use of one's learning for secular purposes, whether of gain or of honour. The great Hillel had it (Ab. i. 13): "He who serves himself by the crown (the 'Thorah') shall fade away." To this Rabbi Zadok added the warning, "Make study neither a crown by which to shine, nor yet a spade with which to dig" Mishnah inferring that such attempts would only lead to the shortening of life (Ab. iv. 5). All was to be merely subsidiary to the one grand object; the one was of time, the other of eternity; the one of the body, the other of the soul; and its use was only to sustain the body, so as to give free scope to the soul on its upward path. Every science also merged in theology. Some were not so much sciences as means of livelihood, such as medicine and surgery; others were merely handmaidens to theology. Jurisprudence was in reality a kind of canon law; mathematics and astronomy were subservient to the computations of the Jewish calendar; literature existed not outside theological pursuits; and as for history, geography, or natural studies, although we mark, in reference to the latter, a keenness of observation which often led instinctively to truth, we meet with so much ignorance, and with so many gross mistakes and fables, as almost to shake the belief of the student in the trustworthiness of any Rabbinical testimony.
From what has been stated, three inferences will be gathered, all of most material bearing on the study of the New Testament. It will be seen how a mere knowledge of the law came to hold such place of almost exclusive importance that its successful prosecution seemed to be well-nigh all in all. Again, it is easy now to understand why students and teachers of theology enjoyed such exceptional honour (Matt 23:6,7: Mark 12:38,39: Luke 11:43, 20:46). In this respect the testimonies of Onkelos, in his paraphrastic rendering of the Scriptures, of the oldest "Targumim," or paraphrastic commentaries, of the Mishnah, and of the two Talmuds, are not only unanimous, but most extravagant. Not only are miracles supposed to be performed in attestation of certain Rabbis, but such a story is actually ventured upon (Bab. Mes. 86 a), as that on the occasion of a discussion in the academy of heaven, when the Almighty and His angels were of different opinions in regard to a special point of law, a Rabbi famed for his knowledge of that subject was summoned up by the angel of death to decide the matter between them! The story is altogether too blasphemous for details, and indeed the whole subject is too wide for treatment in this connection. If such was the exalted position of a Rabbi, this direction of the Mishnah seems quite natural, that in case of loss, of difficulties, or of captivity, a teacher was to be cared for before a father, since to the latter we owed only our existence in this world, but to the former the life of the world to come (Bab. Mez. ii. 11). It is curious how in this respect also Roman Catholicism and Pharisaism arrive at the same ultimate results. Witness this saying of the celebrated Rabbi, who flourished in the thirteenth century, and whose authority is almost absolute among the Jews. The following is his glossary on Deuteronomy 17:11: "Even if a Rabbi were to teach that your left hand was the right, and your right hand the left, you are bound to obey."
The third inference which the reader will draw is as to the influence which such views must have exercised upon education, alike at home and in schools. It is no doubt only the echo of the most ancient mode of congratulating a parent when to this day those who are present at a circumcision, and also the priest when the first-born is redeemed from him, utter this: "As this child has been joined to the covenant" (or, as the case may be, "attained this redemption"), "so may it also be to him in reference to the 'thorah,' the 'chuppah' (the marriage-baldacchino, under which the regular marriage ceremony is performed), and to good works." The wish marks with twofold emphasis the life that is to come, as compared with the life that now is. This quite agrees with the account of Josephus, who contrasts the heathen festivals at the birth of children with the Jewish enactments by which children were from their very infancy nourished up in the laws of God (Ag. Apion, i, 38-68, ii, 173-205).
There can be no question that, according to the law of Moses, the early education of a child devolved upon the father; of course, always bearing in mind that his first training would be the mother's (Deu 11:19, and many other passages). If the father were not capable of elementary teaching, a stranger would be employed. Passing over the Old Testament period, we may take it that, in the days of Christ, home-teaching ordinarily began when the child was about three years old. There is reason for believing that, even before this, that careful training of the memory commenced, which has ever since been one of the mental characteristics of the Jewish nation. Verses of Scripture, benedictions, wise sayings, etc., were impressed on the child, and mnemonic rules devised to facilitate the retention of what was so acquired. We can understand the reason of this from the religious importance attaching to the exact preservation of the very words of tradition. 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 escape. Indeed, 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"; the reference here being to Deuteronomy 4:9 (Ab. iii. 10). And so we may attach some credit even to Josephus' boast about his "wonderful memory" (Life, ii, 8).
In teaching to read, the alphabet was to be imparted by drawing the letters on a board, till the child became familiar with them. Next, the teacher would point in the copy read with his finger, or, still better, with a style, to keep up the attention of the pupil. None but well-corrected manuscripts were to be used, since, as was rightly said, mistakes impressed upon the young mind were afterwards not easily corrected. To acquire fluency, the child should be made to read aloud. Special care was to be bestowed on the choice of good language, in which respect, as we know, the inhabitants of Judaea far excelled those of Galilee, who failed not only in elegance of diction, but even in their pronunciation. At five years of age the Hebrew Bible was to be begun; commencing, however, not with the book of Genesis, but with that of Leviticus. This not to teach the child his guilt, and the need of justification, but rather because Leviticus contained those ordinances which it behoved a Jew to know as early as possible. The history of Israel would probably have been long before imparted orally, as it was continually repeated on all festive occasions, as well as in the synagogue.
It has been stated in a former chapter that writing was not so common an accomplishment as reading. Undoubtedly, the Israelites were familiar with it from the very earliest period of their history, whether or not they had generally acquired the art in Egypt. We read of the graving of words on the gems of the high-priest's breastplate, of the record of the various genealogies of the tribes, etc; while such passages as Deuteronomy 6:9, 11:20, 24:1, 3, imply that the art was not confined to the priesthood (Num 5:23), but was known to the people generally. Then we are told of copies of the law (Deu 17:18, 28:58, etc.), while in Joshua 10:13 we have a reference to a work called "the book of Jasher." In Joshua 18:9 we find mention of a description of Palestine "in a book," and in 24:26 of what Joshua "wrote in the book of the law of God." From Judges 8:14 (margin) it would appear that in the time of Gideon the art of writing was very generally known. After that, instances occur so frequently and applied to so many relationships, that the reader of the Old Testament can have no difficulty in tracing the progress of the art. This is not the place to follow the subject farther, nor to describe the various materials employed at that time, nor the mode of lettering. At a much later period the common mention of "scribes" indicates the popular need of such a class. We can readily understand that the Oriental mind would delight in writing enigmatically, that is, conveying by certain expressions a meaning to the initiated which the ordinary reader would miss, or which, at any rate, would leave the explanation to the exercise of ingenuity. Partially in the same class we might reckon the custom of designating a word by its initial letter. All theses were very early in practice, and the subject has points of considerable interest. Another matter deserves more serious attention. It will scarcely be credited how general the falsification of signatures and documents had become. Josephus mentions it (Ant. xvi, 317-319); and we know that St. Paul was obliged to warn the Thessalonians against it (2 Thess 2:2), and at last to adopt the device of signing every letter which came from himself. There are scarcely any ancient Rabbinical documents which have not been interpolated by later writers, or, as we might euphemistically call it, been recast and re-edited. In general, it is not difficult to discover such additions; although the vigilance and acuteness of the critical scholar are specially required in this direction to guard against rash and unwarrantable inferences. But without entering on such points, it may interest the reader to know what writing materials were employed in New Testament times. In Egypt red ink seems to have been used; but assuredly the ink mentioned in the New Testament was black, as even the term indicates ("melan," 2 Cor 3:3; 2 John 12; 3 John 13). Josephus speaks of writing in gold letters (Ant. xii, 324-329); and in the Mishnah (Meg. ii. 2) we read 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 the use of a penknife would of course be indispensable. Paper (from the Egyptian "papyrus") is mentioned in 2 John 12; parchment in 2 Timothy 4:13. Of this there were three kinds, according as the skin was used either whole, or else split up into an outer and an inner skin. The latter was used for the Mesusah. Shorter memoranda were made on tablets, which in the Mishnah (Shab. xii. 4) bear the same names as in Luke 1:63.
Before passing to an account of elementary schools, it may be well, once and for all, to say that the Rabbis did not approve of the same amount of instruction being given to girls as to boys. More particularly they disapproved of their engaging in legal studies because they considered woman's mission and duties as lying in other directions, partly because the subjects were necessarily not always suitable for the other sex, partly because of the familiar intercourse between the sexes to which such occupations would have necessarily led, and finally we say it? the Rabbis regarded woman's mind as not adapted for such investigations. The unkindest thing, perhaps, which they said on this score was, "Women are of a light mind"; though in its oft repetition the saying almost reads like a semi-jocular way of cutting short a subject on which discussion is disagreeable. However, instances of Rabbinically learned women do occur. What their Biblical knowledge and what their religious influence was, we learn not only from the Rabbis, but from the New Testament. Their attendance at all public and domestic festivals, and in the synagogues, and the circumstance that certain injunctions and observances of Rabbinic origin devolved upon them also, prove that, though not learned in the law, there must have been among them not a few who, like Lois and Eunice, could train a child in the knowledge of the Scripture, or, like Priscilla, be qualified to explain even to an Apollos the way of God more perfectly.
Supposing, then, a child to be so far educated at home; suppose him, also, to be there continually taught the commandments and observances, and, as the Talmud expressly states, to be encouraged to repeat the prayers aloud, so as to accustom him to it. At six years of age he would be sent to school; not to an academy, or "beth hammedrash," which he would only attend if he proved apt and promising; far less to the class-room of a great Rabbi, or the discussions of the Sanhedrim, which marked a very advanced stage of study. We are here speaking only of primary or elementary schools, such as even in the time of our Lord were attached to every synagogue in the land. Passing over the supposed or real Biblical notices of schools, and confining our attention strictly to the period ending with the destruction of the Temple, we have first a notice in the Talmud (Bab. B. 21 b), ascribing to Ezra an ordinance, that as many schoolmasters as chose should be allowed to establish themselves in any place, and that those who had formerly been settled there might not interfere with them. In all likelihood this notice should not be taken in its literal sense, but as an indication that the encouragement of schools and of education engaged the attention of Ezra and of his successors. Of the Grecianised academies which the wicked high-priest Jason tried to introduce in Jerusalem (2 Macc iv. 12,13) we do not speak, because they were anti-Jewish in their spirit, and that to such extent, that the Rabbis, in order to "make a hedge," forbade all gymnastic exercises. The farther history and progress of Jewish schools are traced in the following passage of the Talmud (Bab. B. 21 a): "If any one has merit, and deserves that his name should be kept in remembrance, it is Joshua, the son of Gamaliel. Without him the law would have fallen into oblivion in Israel. For they used to rest on this saying of the law (Deu 11:19), 'Ye shall teach them.' Afterwards it was ordained that masters be appointed at Jerusalem for the instruction of youth, as it is written (Isa 2:3), 'Out of Zion shall go forth the law.' But even so the remedy was not effectual, only those who had fathers being sent to school, and the rest being neglected. Hence it was arranged that Rabbis should be appointed in every district, and that lads of sixteen or seventeen years should be sent to their academies. But this institution failed, since every lad ran away if he was chastised by his master. At last Joshua the son of Gamaliel arranged, that in every province and in every town schoolmasters be appointed, who should take charge of all boys from six or seven years of age." We may add at once, that the Joshua here spoken of was probably the high-priest of that name who flourished before the destruction of the Temple, and that unquestionably this farther organisation implied at least the existence of elementary schools at an earlier period.
Every place, then, which numbered twenty-five boys of a suitable age, or, according to Maimonides, one hundred and twenty families, was bound to appoint a schoolmaster. More than twenty-five pupils or thereabouts he was not allowed to teach in a class. If there were forty, he had to employ an assistant; if fifty, the synagogue authorities appointed two teachers. This will enable us to understand the statement, no doubt greatly exaggerated, that at the destruction of Jerusalem there were no fewer than four hundred and eighty schools in the metropolis. From another passage, which ascribes the fall of the Jewish state to the neglect of the education of children, we may infer what importance popular opinion attached to it. But indeed, to the Jew, child-life was something peculiarly holy, and the duty of filling it with thoughts of God specially sacred. It almost seems as if the people generally had retained among them the echo of our Lord's saying, that their angels continually behold the face of our Father which is in heaven. Hence the religious care connected with education. The grand object of the teacher was moral as well as intellectual training. 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 are some of the rules laid down. A teacher was not even to promise a child anything which he did not mean to perform, lest its mind be familiarised 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 understood not readily, but rather make the lesson more plain. He might, indeed, and he should, punish when necessary, and, as one of the Rabbis put it, treat the child like a young heifer whose burden was daily increased. But excessive severity was to be avoided; and we are told of one teacher who was actually dismissed from office for this reason. Where possible, try kindness; and if punishment was to be administered, let the child be beaten with a strap, but never with a rod. At ten the child began to study the Mishnah; at fifteen 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, thence 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 part being devoted to the Bible, the other two to the Mishnah and the Talmud. Every parent was also advised to have his child taught swimming.
It has already been stated that in general the school was held in the synagogue. Commonly its teacher was the "chazan," or "minister" (Luke 4:20); by which expression we are to understand not a spiritual office, but something like that of a beadle. This officer was salaried by the congregation; nor was he allowed to receive fees from his pupils, lest he should show favour to the rich. 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. The number of hours during which the junior classes were kept in school was limited. As the close air of the school-room might prove injurious during the heat of the day, lessons were intermitted between ten a.m. and three p.m. For similar reasons, only four hours were allowed for instruction between the seventeenth of Thamuz and the ninth of Ab (about July and August), and teachers were forbidden to chastise their pupils during these months. The highest honour and distinction attached to the office of a teacher, if worthily discharged. Want of knowledge or of method was regarded as sufficient cause for removing a teacher; but experience was always deemed a better qualification than mere acquirements. 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 very beautiful trait was the care bestowed on the children of the poor and on orphans. In the Temple there was a special receptacle "of the secret" contributions, which were privately applied for the education of the children of the pious poor. To adopt and bring up an orphan was regarded as specially a "good work." This reminds us of the apostolic description of a "widow indeed," as one "well reported for good works"; who "had brought up children, lodged strangers, washed the saints' feet, relieved the afflicted, diligently followed every good work" (1 Tim 5:10). Indeed, orphans were the special charge of the whole congregation thrust into poor-houses, the parochial authorities were even bound to provide a fixed dowry for female orphans.
Such were the surroundings, and such the atmosphere, in which Jesus of Nazareth moved while tabernacling among men.