Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might…And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children… - Moses

If you ask what is the good of education in general, the answer is easy; that education makes good men, and that good men act nobly. -Plato

The three most influential models of education in the early church were the Hebrew, Athenian, and Roman schools. Below I provide brief summaries of each of these models, my intention in this post is not to evaluate the underlying educational philosophies but first to simply state the methods/curricula and some observations.

Jewish Education

The primary means of schooling and instruction among the ancient Hebrews was the family, and then the community. The starting point for most family instruction can be seen in the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) and would be memorized by children at an early age. Parents were to teach by example, through discussion, visual aids (monuments/markers) and through participating in religious festivals and ceremonies during the year. Education took place organically through everyday life, parents would intentionally weave instructional overtones throughout the entire experience of the child’s development. This means that even vocational training was integrated with religious instruction. Daughters would learn to become homemakers and sons would be apprenticed from a young age in their father’s career.

Outside of the home, the Israelites were shaped by the instruction of the Levitical priests, judges, prophets, and the monarchy. During the Babylonian Captivity around the 6th Century B.C., synagogues were built as places of prayer, worship, fasting, and teaching of the Torah. After returning to Israel, the Jewish people began to use synagogues to develop an educational system for children as well. The Mosaic Law was the basis of the curriculum, young boys were required to memorize large portions of Scripture. Children were taught mathematics, reading, writing, and an emphasis was placed on preserving the Hebrew language. Boys generally attended school between the ages of 5-13, after which a boy would celebrate his bar mitzvah, becoming a “son of the commandments.” Young men might continue formal religious training under prominent scribes who led rabbinical schools. “Schools of the prophets” were also developed to train and equip men in the prophetic service. These schools were known to be rigorous in their curriculum and instructional methodologies.

Athenian Education

From ages 0-6 Athenian Children remained at home with no formal education, they would have likely learned through play, fairytales, nursery rhymes and myths. Elementary school was available for students between ages 6-13 where they would learn reading, writing, music, art, counting, geometry, and physical education (likely through play). At age 14 the many children would have completed formal education and returned home to learn a trade. The student would most likely become an apprentice under his father or a family relative. Wealthier families could send their children ages 14-18 to secondary school. Secondary school might be itinerant teachers hired by parents for specific classes/skills or it might take place at a residential school such as Plato’s Academy. Itinerant teachers, likely Sophists, would teach specific classes in mathematics, astronomy, geometry, advanced literature and music theory. Residential schools admitted students for four years of study in the seven liberal arts (consisting of the trivium’s grammar, logic, rhetoric and quadrivium’s geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music) as well as physical education. Young men could then attend higher education where they would learn advanced studies in medicine, law, music, or science. There was also the opportunity for students to attend military academy where they would be instructed in formal gymnastics and military training. The leading Athenian philosophers and heads of their own academies, Plato and Aristotle, both had an emphasis on public education and training children for the service of the state.

Roman Education

Roman education prioritized the role of the family. Fathers were seen as the teacher, lawgiver, and priest of the family, and elders were respected as common parents to the community. In the early years of the Roman Republic, parents would educate their children from ages 0-16. From birth to age 7, children would remain under the care of their mother. Ages 7 to 16, daughters would learn to be homemakers and sons would be educated by their fathers to become citizens of Rome, and learn his trade.

While Rome’s educational system evolved throughout its history, the four levels of schooling which grew from the Roman perspective were home, elementary, grammar, and rhetoric. From ages 0-6 children were instructed in duties related to home, girls primarily in homemaking, and boys in character and moral development. Leaving the home for education in elementary school, students ages 7-11 began learning reading, writing, and arithmetic. Grammar school for ages 12-15 consisted of instruction of the seven liberal arts. Ages 16-18 would attend Schools of Rhetoric which consisted of more grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Mature men could attend the University of Rome and be instructed in law, medicine, philosophy, architecture, mathematics, and rhetoric.


The most obvious distinction is that Jewish education prioritized love and knowledge of the Lord God as understood through His special revelation. The Greek and Roman schools more explicitly emphasize the importance of developing a citizenry able to serve and preserve the state when discussing education. This makes sense seeing as they were a democracy(Athens) and a republic (Rome); without special revelation from God as the head of their people, they relied on civic religion. Certainly, the Jews understood the importance of wisdom and virtue in their citizenry, and Old Testament speaks much about civil law, yet loving the Lord with all of one’s heart, soul, and strength was always prioritized.

What is consistent with each of the methods is an emphasis on the family in the early years of education, on memorization, and the cultivation of virtue. Another similarity between the three is how vocational skills were part of the everyday learning experience, yet they were never the ultimate goal of education (something very different from today’s “educational” system). What I find particularly unique about these approaches is the intentional use of liturgy. Children do not only learn cognitive knowledge but they are shaped by repetitious outward influences which are consistent within their family, community, and nation (think daily prayers, respectful greetings to elders, religious festivals, and regular sacrifices at temples). Further investigation of the use of liturgy in shaping humans is worthy of its own discussion in the future.

Because the religious/biblical distinction of Jewish education is most clear, next post we will look at the differing emphases between the Greeks and Romans which were less obvious from my summaries.

Resources and Further Reading:

A Passion for Learning: A History of Christian Thought on Education by D. Bruce Lockerbie

Exploring the History & Philosophy of Christian Education: Principles for the 21st Century by Michael J. Anthony and Warren S. Benson

Philosophy & Education: An Introduction in Christian Perspective by George R. Knight

Trained in the Fear of God: Family Ministry in Theological, Historical, and Practical Perspective edited by Randy Stinson and Timothy Paul Jones