Jewish Religious Education in the Meridian of Time
October 1987

“Jewish Religious Education in the Meridian of Time,” Ensign, Oct. 1987, 60

New Testament

Jewish Religious Education in the Meridian of Time

Josephus, a Jewish historian and near contemporary of Christ, observed that religious devotion was the motivation for everything that the Jews did.1 The Gospels reflect this extensive nature of Jewish religious training and tradition, which likely would have affected the Savior’s life.

The piety of Joseph and Mary is shown in several details. Jesus was circumcised and named, in accordance with Jewish custom, on the eighth day following his birth. (See Luke 2:21.) The importance of this rite in Jewish history can hardly be overestimated. Antiochus Epiphanes, who ruled Syria and Palestine during the early second century B.C., issued an order prohibiting circumcision and other religious practices among the Jews. (See 1 Maccabees 1:41–50.) A number of Jewish mothers chose to be killed rather than to refrain from keeping their sons from the covenant. (See 1 Maccabees 1:63–64.) According to the pseudepigraphic book of Jubilees, not to be circumcised was equivalent to belonging “not to the children of the covenant that the Lord made with Abraham, but to the children of destruction.” (Jubilees 15:26.)

Following Jesus’ birth, Mary went to the temple to present a purification offering in obedience to the Levitical precept that required “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” (Luke 2:22–24.) The total period of uncleanness for the mother of a male child was forty days and for the mother of a female child, eighty days.

During this time, she could “touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled.” When the days of her purifying were fulfilled, she was to “bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtledove, for a sin offering, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, unto the priest.” The scripture says that if she was not able to bring a lamb, then she could bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons. (See Lev. 12:1–8.) This arrangement enabled even the poor to still participate fully in the temple rites.

The visit of twelve-year-old Jesus and his parents to the temple in Jerusalem was made in connection with the Passover festival, called the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This was one of three festivals (the other two were the Feast of Tabernacles and the Feast of Weeks) to which all Israelite men were commanded to appear, presenting themselves at the temple before the Lord. (See Luke 2:42–51; Deut. 16:16.) Joseph and Jesus would have made the trip many times.

Women were permitted to accompany the male members of their family while the men performed their duties at the temple, but they were observers rather than participants. The fact that Mary accompanied her family during Passover on their visit to the temple is a significant witness to Mary’s religious devotion.

Josephus writes of the temple that “it had four surrounding courts, each with its special statutory restrictions. The outer court was open to all, foreigners included; women during their time of impurity were alone refused admission. To the second court all Jews were permitted and, when uncontaminated by any defilement, their wives; to the third, male Jews, if clean and purified; and to the fourth, the priests robed in their priestly vestments.”2 When women entered the second, or women’s, court, they may have been in a gallery above the floor.

From a contemporary perspective, many of the customs differentiating between the sexes in Jewish society seem discriminatory. But in the context of ancient Near Eastern culture, these biblically-based traditions were quite advanced. In the religious ritual of the home, women had several responsibilities. They were to light the lamps that ushered in the weekly Sabbath observance and were to bake the two loaves of bread required for the meal on Sabbath eve. They could also teach the scriptures to their children.

Although girls were excluded from formally attending school, their fathers were expected to teach them the basic precepts of the Torah (law). It appears that Mary was well acquainted with the scriptures, for we see many biblical echoes in the Magnificat—the beautiful words that arose spontaneously from her heart about the joy of being the mother of the Messiah. (See Luke 1:46–55.) The scriptures contain other examples of Jewish women who were devoted and conscientious mothers. For instance, Paul reminded Timothy of his exemplary mother and grandmother, who had taught Timothy the holy scriptures since his youth. (See 2 Tim. 1:5; 2 Tim. 3:14–15.)

A father was clearly responsible for his children’s education. In addition to teaching his trade to his sons, a father would be highly concerned with their moral and religious education, since a father’s duty was to teach his children the commandments. (See Ps. 78:5.) A father was also required by law to teach his children the meaning and purpose behind the great feasts and the customs associated with them. (See Ex. 13:6–8.)

Simon ben-Shetach, the brother of Queen Alexandra (who reigned over Judea from 76 to 67 B.C.), enacted that “children shall attend the elementary school.”3 There is some uncertainty that this was universally observed, but this enactment indicates the value that the Jewish people at the time of Christ placed on education. It is likely that many young boys did in fact enjoy some formal education. We do not know whether Jesus received any formal education, particularly in light of JST Matthew 3:24–26 [JST, Matt. 3:24–26], in which we learn that Jesus “spake not as other men, neither could he be taught; for he needed not that any man should teach him.”

The education of Jewish boys focused on certain passages of scripture that each boy was expected to know4:

  1. The Shema. (Deut. 6:4–9; Deut. 11:13–21; Num. 15:37–41.) Shema, which means hear, is the name for the three passages of scripture. It derived from the first word of Deuteronomy 6:4 [Deut. 6:4]: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.” This verse is the foundation of the Jewish creed and the sentence with which every morning service in the synagogue still begins. In addition, every devout Jew must recite it every morning and evening. Jesus himself named verses 4 and 5 as the foremost of all the commandments. (See Mark 12:29.)

  2. The Hallel. (Ps. 113–18.) Hallel, which means “Praise [God]!” is the series of psalms of praise that were recited at all new moons and festivals and that also had an important place in the Passover ritual. The hymn that Jesus and the Apostles sang at the Last Supper may have been one or more of these psalms. (See Matt. 26:30.)5 Many concepts and phrases from Psalm 118 are woven throughout the Lord’s teachings. (See, for example, Ps. 118:17 and John 11:26; Ps. 118:22–23 and Mark 12:10–11; Ps. 118:26 and Matt. 23:39.)

  3. The story of the Creation and the Fall. (Gen. 1–5.)

  4. The basic elements of the Levitical Law. (Lev. 1–8.) These chapters concentrate on the purpose, performance, and types of offerings and sacrifice. As the foundation of the law, they are part of what the Lord referred to when he declared: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” (Matt. 5:17.)

The central site of formal education at the time of Christ was the synagogue, which served as a place of both worship and study. This use of the synagogue contrasts with that of the temple, which served as a place of ritual performance and worship but not of formal study.

Besides teaching young boys the four basic passages of scripture, teachers would have included some instruction in reading the Hebrew of the Old Testament, since the men of the congregation were expected to read sections of the Hebrew scriptures in the course of synagogue service. In accordance with this custom, Jesus read several verses of scripture to the congregation, after which he commented on them. (See Luke 4:16–29.)

Aramaic—a language closely related to Hebrew—may also have been taught in the synagogue schools. Not only was it the native tongue of most Jews living in Palestine, but it was also the language of the Targums, revered translations and interpretations of the Old Testament. In any event, the script of Hebrew and Aramaic are the same, so practice in reading Hebrew provides immediate entry into literacy in Aramaic.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus demonstrates a mastery of Hebrew and Aramaic. He may also have known Greek, though the scriptures are unclear on this point. (See John 12:20–23.) The study of Greek was not an important component in the education of Jewish boys, but since so many of the sizable non-Jewish minority in Palestine spoke only Greek, many Jews, for business or communication, learned at least some Greek on their own.

Josephus excuses himself for his occasional infelicities in Greek with this remark about Jewish education: “Our people do not favor those persons who have mastered the speech of many nations. … They give credit for wisdom to those alone who have an exact knowledge of the law and who are capable of interpreting the meaning of the Holy Scriptures.”6

That exact knowledge of the law and the ability to interpret the scriptures was the goal of education among the Jews. Though we may not know the details of how Jesus was educated, we do know that he fulfilled the goal of Jewish education better than any other person who ever lived.


  1. Against Apion 2:171, in Josephus, tr. H. St. J. Thackeray, Louis Feldman, et al., 9 vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1926), 1:361.

  2. Ibid. 2:102–3; in Josephus, 1:333, 335.

  3. William Barclay, Educational Ideals in the Ancient World (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1980), pp. 32–33.

  4. Ibid., p. 42.

  5. See also Madeleine S. and J. Lane Miller, “Hallelujah,” Harper’s Bible Dictionary, 8th ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1973,) p. 242.

  6. Jewish Antiquities 20:263–64, in Josephus, 9:527, 529.

  • Stephen Ricks is an associate professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages at Brigham Young University. Shirley Smith Ricks recently completed a Ph.D. in Family Studies at BYU. They are members of the Edgemont Fifth Ward, Provo Utah Edgemont South Stake. Brother and Sister Ricks lived in Israel for nearly three years.

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