Jesus was often called rabbi by His peers in the stories of the New Testament. In fact, the Gospels record that Jesus was called, ”Rabbi” on sixteen different occasions. What was a rabbi and how did you become one? In our first segment we began our discussion of the Jewish educational system. We learned that the heart of that system were the principles taught at home by the family and especially the father. The father was responsible to teach his son Torah and to teach him a craft as well as almost everything else in life. When the child became old enough to attend a formal school setting, he went to the school that was attached to the local synagogue. There were four levels of school available to the children of the Galilee in Jesus’ day. Let’s take a look at these.
- Bet Sepher – literally means “The House of the Book” (Torah). This was for boys and girls both and was from age 5-10. Children would be trained by the local Torah teacher. The class always began with the Book of Leviticus and the students began to memorize the Torah and incorporate math and other subjects all centered around “The Book”. Other passages of Scripture that were studied were the “Shema” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Deuteronomy 11:13-21) and the creation story in Genesis 1-5. By the age of 10, most students had all or huge parts of the first five books of the Bible committed to memory. Remember that they had no text books. Usually there was only one copy of each book of the Bible available in the synagogue. Memorization was done by orally repeating the word over and over, with the teacher leading the recitation. Girls only completed this level of learning. From this age on, they would be training to be a housewife and would be married shortly after. A wonderful tradition that was practiced a little bit later in Jewish history graphically shows the importance the parents placed on this first stage of learning. On the first day of school, when the student went to meet his new teacher and classmates, the parents would wrap their child in a prayer shawl like a scroll.
- Bet Talmud – literally means, “House of Learning”. If a young man had done well on his memorization of the Torah in Bet Sepher, he would be able to move on to this level. He would expand his Torah study and begin to study the other Old Testament Books. Also, they began studying the Oral Law (Mishnah) at this age. It is interesting to note that before 70 A.D. in Jerusalem alone, their were 480 synagogues that had both the Bet Sepher and Bet Talmud schools. This was usually the last level that most young men would complete. By the age of fourteen or fifteen, they would begin to learn a trade from their father. Most of Jesus’ disciples had finished this level and were now learning a trade (e.g. in Matthew 4:18-22, James and John were learning the fishing trade from their father, Zebedee. Peter and Andrew were also fishing in the same passage.) Only the best and brightest would be able to move on to the next level of learning.
- Bet Midrash – literally means “House of Study”. At approximately age fifteen, if you had demonstrated great ability in your previous studies, you could now begin to study under some of the great teachers of the law. Theses academies were conducted by the greatest teachers of the time such as Hillel, Shammai, Akeba, and Gamaliel. After completing this very advanced level, you could ask to be a student of and travel with one of these great teachers.
- Talmidim – literally means “disciple”. If you were accepted as a disciple of one of these rabbis, you were called one of his “Talmidim”. From this point on, you would travel with your wise teacher, desperately trying to become just like him. The idea was not to just know what your teacher knew, but to be what your teacher was. You would leave home and be gone for 30 days at a time. Talmidim that were married had to have written permission from their wives to travel for this length of time. While you were traveling out in the real world, you watched and imitated your rabbi and learned how to react in every situation. This training period usually lasted for fifteen years, after which you would then become a rabbi yourself and have your own Talmidim. During your apprenticeship, you were required to have a trade and weren’t allowed to be paid for any religious teaching. All the great rabbis were also woodcutters (Hillel), surveyors (Shammai), blacksmiths, etc. or leather workers, such as Paul (Acts 18:3).
When you think about the story of Jesus in the Gospels, his training probably fit into this pattern. Although the Bible doesn’t give us any specifics of his early life, it certainly gives us some hints. In Luke 2:40 it says that as Jesus grew up He was filled with wisdom. Also, in Luke 2:41-52, it tell the story of Jesus going as a young man to the Temple during the Passover Festival. Jesus went into the temple courts and sat among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone was amazed at His understanding and His questions and answers. Verse 52 says, “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and men.” In His human form, He was obviously one of the best and brightest. Also, He first appeared in His public ministry at age 30, which would suggest that he had completed His training as a talmidim and was now ready to make his own disciples. We also know that he was a “tekton” by trade (a craftsman who builds – NIV translates as “carpenter”).
From this educational training came the rabbinical system that Jesus was identified with. He was called rabbi in part because He had completed the training and was recognized as one of the very best in His knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures.
In our next lesson, we will look at the different levels or hierarchy of rabbis and the authority they carried in the community.