The Difference Between Greek and Hebrew Education

By Kathleen McCurdy

Many years ago people didn’t buy their clothes in Sears or Nordstrom. In my childhood, growing up in a third-world country, people hired a local seamstress who came and lived with the family for a few weeks while she made the family’s clothes for the year. The summer before I turned fifteen, my mother told me she had asked the seamstress to teach me how to sew my own clothes.

“But Mom!”  I exclaimed, “I already know how to sew. Just buy me a few yards of cloth and I’ll show you. I’ll make myself a dress.” She didn’t believe me, but we picked out the material and I made AND wore my new dress. But how? Ever since I was 5 or 6 years old I had watched my mother sew dresses for my sisters and me. And later, when the seamstress started coming, I would note how she did things, and maybe asked a question or two.

God created us with special brain cells which scientists call “mirror neurons”. They help us understand and copy what we see and aid us in comprehending what our eyes, ears, and other senses tell us. He also gave us a mind to think about what our eyes and ears communicate to us, and the ability to reason things out and draw conclusions.

In Jesus’ day, just as it is today, people thought one had to go to school and take special studies in order to be wise and intelligent, to be able to understand books and to be able to reason and discuss, and especially to be able to teach others. That is why, when Jesus began his ministry, “The people were amazed [marveled] and said, ‘This man has never studied in school. How did he learn so much?’” John 7:15 EXB. The Jews thought this because they had forgotten God’s way and had adopted the heathen ways of the Greeks.

Centuries before Roman times when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Greeks such as Socrates, Plato and others had conceived the idea that humans are perfectible. Long before Charles Darwin invented the theory of evolution, the Greeks had sown the seeds of that great lie. More than 300 years before Christ, Aristotle said that a child arrives as a blank book (tabula rasa), and, as if they were mere animals, must be trained in culture and warned against sophism. The philosophers would gather their disciples around them and impart the idea that they were chosen to be converted into special people, and that upon completion of their training they would be ready to impart to others the precious knowledge they had acquired. So for the Greeks, the most important thing was to find the best teacher.

But the Hebrew people did not think that way. They believed that each one was responsible before God, and like Abraham their father, they must draw near to Him and meditate on the testimonies found in nature and in the inspired writings in order to better understand, each one for himself, the will of God. Great discussions were held where each could share what he had come to understand about some aspect of Divinity. The ancient Jews took very seriously the proverbs of Solomon, who lived 600 years before Aristotle, and wrote: “Tune your ears to wisdom, and concentrate on understanding. Cry out for insight, and ask for understanding. Search for them as you would for silver; seek them like hidden treasures. Then you will understand what it means to fear the Lord, and you will gain knowledge of God. For the Lord grants wisdom! From his mouth come knowledge and understanding….Then you will understand what is right, just, and fair, and you will find the right way to go. For wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will fill you with joy. Wise choices will watch over you. Understanding will keep you safe. Wisdom will save you from evil people, from those whose words are twisted. These men turn from the right way to walk down dark paths.” Prov. 2:2-6; 9-13 NLT. It wasn’t about finding the right teacher to fill one’s brain with useless data, but rather one had to assume the responsibility for searching out wisdom itself.

So we see that there are two ways to learn. One is to plant yourself at the feet of a good teacher, or look for a good college, hoping thus to acquire knowledge and approbation. The second way is that which we use naturally as children, that is, to observe and think. The dictionary tells us that “observe” means “To regard with attention, especially so as to see or learn something” or “to watch carefully especially with attention to details or behavior for the purpose of arriving at a judgment.”Think” means “to employ one’s mind rationally and objectively in evaluating or dealing with a given situation” or “to exercise the powers of judgment, conception, or inference:  i.e. reason”. This is how great inventors, innovators and people of great wisdom learned. And it is the way Jesus taught his disciples. Let us compare these two forms of education.

Two forms of education

Greek education began when the child was seven years old. From that age forward a child was considered a ward of the State until death. Only boys were educated, except in Sparta where some of the girls were also given a bit of education. When the child turned seven, he had to leave home to go to school where he was taught to read. The children were expected to memorize many pages of literature. Then they were taught grammar, writing, mathematics, music (or the muses, which included art, sculpture, music and other branches of culture), and finally gymnasium and martial arts. This system was adopted by the Romans and later by the Church, and is today the foundation for the educational system in practically the whole world.

Hebrew education began virtually when the child began to talk. It took place within the family, and the parents were in charge of transmitting their traditions to their children. Believing they were God’s chosen people, the Hebrews taught their sons and daughters to live in accordance with the will of God and to keep the laws that were given to them by Moses. “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” Deuteronomy 6:6-9.

From their earliest years, Hebrew boys and girls had to memorize the law of God, with its commandments and precepts. They were taught to pray and sing, based on the Psalms, and they had to learn the holy history of their nation, including its geography and the history of the surrounding nations, their culture, their religious rites and their moral and civil laws. They also had to learn to read and write. Finally, as they entered adolescence, the young men were taught a profession. The girls were to learn how to manage the home. They were taught to spin and knit, to cook, care for the flocks, and to administer the family property (Proverbs 31).

But how were they to teach these things? God told them, through Moses: “Look, I now teach you these decrees and regulations just as the Lord my God commanded me…..  Obey them completely, and you will display your wisdom and intelligence among the surrounding nations. When they hear all these decrees, they will exclaim, ‘How wise and prudent are the people of this great nation!’  For what great nation has a god as near to them as the Lord our God is near to us whenever we call on him?  And what great nation has decrees and regulations as righteous and fair as this body of instructions that I am giving you today? “But watch out! Be careful never to forget what you yourself have seen. Do not let these memories escape from your mind as long as you live! And be sure to pass them on to your children and grandchildren.” Deuteronomy 4:5-9 Observe and then think, and pass it on.

Solomon, the wisest man, also observed and thought: I have observed something else under the sun. The fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time.” Ecclesiastes 9:11.

Another Biblical teaching device was the use of music. God said to Moses: ““So write down the words of this song, and teach it to the people of Israel. Help them learn it, so it may serve as a witness for me against them.  For I will bring them into the land I swore to give their ancestors—a land flowing with milk and honey. There they will become prosperous, eat all the food they want, and become fat. But they will begin to worship other gods; they will despise me and break my covenant.  And when great disasters come down on them, this song will stand as evidence against them, for it will never be forgotten by their descendants”. Many years later, Jesus had an encounter with the priests, who were complaining that the children were praising him in the Temple, saying, “Praise to the Son of David.” All these things made the priests and the teachers of the law very angry. They asked Jesus, “Do you hear the things these children are saying?” Jesus answered, “Yes. Haven’t you read in the Scriptures, ‘You have taught children and babies to sing praises’?” Matthew 21:15-16.NCV. In other words, they learned Scripture through song.

The first verses of Psalm 78 describe various methods we may use with our children to help them learn: My people, listen to my teaching; listen to what I say. I will speak using stories; I will tell secret things from long ago. We have heard them and known them by what our ancestors have told us. We will not keep them from our children; we will tell those who come later about the praises of the Lord. We will tell about his power and the miracles he has done.” So we have listening to parents and grandparents tell stories and ancient mysteries; eye-witness reports, with much repetition.

God instructed Joshua, that great leader who was chosen to finish the work of Moses, of a way he could make sure the children would not forget an important lesson. When the people had finished crossing the river Jordan, which had been miraculously detained so that they could cross over into the Promised Land, Joshua was told to choose 12 men, one from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. “He told them, “Go into the middle of the Jordan, in front of the Ark of the Lord your God. Each of you must pick up one stone and carry it out on your shoulder—twelve stones in all, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. We will use these stones to build a memorial. In the future your children will ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ Then you can tell them, ‘They remind us that the Jordan River stopped flowing when the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant went across.’ These stones will stand as a memorial among the people of Israel forever.” Joshua 4:5-7 NLT. So then, the monument would inspire questions which parents could answer by telling the story. And children remember the answers to their questions.

Jesus used this method when he cursed the fig tree. The story is found in Matthew 21:18-22 NLT. “In the morning, as Jesus was returning to Jerusalem, he was hungry, and he noticed a fig tree beside the road. He went over to see if there were any figs, but there were only leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” And immediately the fig tree withered up. The disciples were amazed when they saw this and asked, “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?”  Then Jesus told them, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and don’t doubt, you can do things like this and much more. You can even say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. You can pray for anything, and if you have faith, you will receive it.”

Why is observe and then think the best way to learn? According to scientists and psychologists that have studied this, the brain has the ability to discover and recognize the pattern of things. It does this by noting similarities and differences to that which we already know. For example, if we are familiar with a cat but then meet a dog, we will notice that while they both have four legs and a tail, the dog has a larger snout, a thicker tail, and other differences that identify it as something other than a cat. In the case of Joshua, no doubt there were other river crossings of the Jordan through the years, but only one had a monument made with twelve rocks taken out of the middle of the river. The process of learning can be defined as the extraction from confusion of meaningful patterns (Leslie A. Hart).

So, it is important to note that in order to extract a pattern, be it from a swatch of cloth or wallpaper, or the pattern of grammar or mathematics, one needs a fair amount to observe. Outside of school there is a huge amount of information and a great variety of knowledge. So it is much easier to discern the patterns or rules that bear on things, thus using the very method by which our brain was designed to learn: observing and thinking or reasoning.

The Scriptures do not leave us in doubt as to which is the preferred method of education. “Go to the ant, O lazy person. Watch and think about her ways, and be wise.” Proverbs 6:6 NLV. Jesus also wants us to observe and think. “Look at the ravens. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for God feeds them. And you are far more valuable to him than any birds!… Look at the lilies and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are.” Luke 12:24, 27 NLT. And Paul reminds his followers: “Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:9. And in 2 Timothy 3:16, 17, he adds: “All the Holy Writings are God-given and are made alive by Him. Man is helped when he is   God’s Word. It shows what is wrong. It changes the way of a man’s life. It shows him how to be right with God. 17 It gives the man who belongs to God everything he needs to work well for Him.” NLV

God rejects the Greek system

In order to leave things perfectly clear, God gave the prophet Zachariah a message for his people. The prophet wrote, citing the Lord: “Judah, you are my bow! Ephraim, you are my arrow! Both of you will be my sword, like the sword of a mighty soldier brandished against the sons of Greece.” Zechariah 9:13 TLB. Maybe because the children of Israel have a better education, God wants to use them against His enemies—the Greeks and all those who trust in their own perfectibility and fail to understand that the grace of Christ is our only hope of salvation. The Hebrew children learned to observe and think, while the sons of Greece only learned what they were taught by their teachers and to do what they were told. Sadly, today most of the sons of Zion attend schools of the Greek system. Let us remember that “the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, shining ever brighter until full daylight.  The way of the wicked is like darkness; they don’t even know what makes them stumble.” Proverbs 4:18-19 CJB.

The Greek system is that which prevails today and is reflected in nearly all the curriculum material that is available. This system first of all removes little children from their home and fixes their attention on teachers who only try to control them. Second, it requires them to memorize material that neither interests them nor will likely ever be useful to them. Third, students will never have time to delve into subjects that really do matter to them because the system does not respect the individual. Fourth, they will be filled with a sense of caste, the longer they remain in the system, the more privileges will be theirs, and they will be eternally examined, evaluated, but never found acceptable. Fifth, instead of feeling human dignity, they will feel like peons of the State—for life. Sixth, they will only know how to act, what to say, do and think, when someone tells them what and how. Seventh, their faith in God will be treated as superstition and they will have to make room for the lies upon which are based the theory of evolution, and which affects their sense of responsibility in matters of health, ecology, love to their fellow man, and much more.

Solomon, the wisest man, wrote: “My children, listen when your father corrects you. Pay attention and learn good judgment, for I am giving you good guidance. Don’t turn away from my instructions. For I, too, was once my father’s son, tenderly loved as my mother’s only child. My father taught me, “Take my words to heart. Follow my commands, and you will live. Get wisdom; develop good judgment. Don’t forget my words or turn away from them. Don’t turn your back on wisdom, for she will protect you. Love her, and she will guard you. Getting wisdom is the wisest thing you can do!” Proverbs 4:1-4. Then he wrote to his own son: “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching…. My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart.” Prov. 1:8 and 3:1 NIV

It seems that the best thing we can do to improve our parenting skills is to observe how God Himself treats His poor sinning children, and think about how we might imitate his example in our dealings with our own children. For example, in general God doesn’t interfere with the natural consequences of the decisions we make. But He is merciful and forgives and justifies us. God gives us the liberty to learn in our own way, even though for some of us that way is fraught with stumbling and making mistakes. And He gives us His Spirit to help us understand the lessons of life.

How did Jesus relate to children?

Perhaps one of the hardest lessons for parents to accept is the manner in which Jesus related to children. Parents try to get their children to do things: learn the multiplication tables, make their beds, behave themselves. But Jesus said, “Allow the little children, and don’t forbid them” Matthew 19:14 WEB. They have those wonderful mirror neurons, therefor we must exemplify all that we desire them to learn. Little children are naturally interested in the affairs of their parents, and when Jesus walked the earth the people were excited about the lowly teacher from Galilee. So they followed Him, they listened, and the children also wanted to see Him. So the mothers approached, but the disciples scolded them. When Jesus saw what was happening, he was angry with his disciples. He said to them, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them!”…  Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them. Mark 10:14, 16 NLT.

The disciples had misjudged. They thought the children were a bother; after all, Jesus was preaching! How could they dare to interrupt Him? But Jesus scolded the disciples, and thus demonstrated that He did not ascribe evil motives to the children, as the disciples had done (and as we parents often do). Jesus assured his listeners: “I tell you the truth, you must change and become like little children. Otherwise, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3 NCV.

And, how do little children learn? If we don’t interfere or forbid them, what will they do? They will learn to walk and talk—even though no one bothers to teach them. They learn to whistle or ride a bike, spending hours and hours practicing how to do it—even though no one asks them to. If they count the raisins before eating them, if they only want to read the comics instead of more serious literature, if they play with the bubbles while washing, or spend weeks on end practicing stunts on their skateboard or picking out chords on the guitar, if they write many pages in their diary but refuse to write a book report, … well, if children act like children—then let us learn from them, because otherwise we will not be allowed into the kingdom of heaven.

If all of us learned as children learn, we would focus on our abilities or gifts and wouldn’t waste time learning stuff just to gratify someone else who thought it might be important. The Lord Himself, when He was a youth of just twelve years, refused to follow his parents until He had finished the task that was most important to Him at the moment: discussing theology with the teachers of the law. It was precisely one of the important activities that would occupy Him during the rest of His life on earth.

The best we can do with our children is to encourage them to follow the Master’s example, showing them how by our own example of obedience. Jesus gave importance to the children. Then he put a little child among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not only me but also my Father who sent me.” Mark 9:36-37 NLT.

In conclusion

We see that there are two kinds of education. One makes us dependent on men and uplifts human wisdom, but devalues the individual and limits his responsibility. The other type of education depends on our desire and effort to understand the divine and to seek true wisdom. That wisdom is within the reach of all those who truly desire it. But if any of you lack wisdom, you should pray to God, who will give it to you; because God gives generously and graciously to all. James 1:5 GNT. The only texts we need are the Bible, the book of Nature that surrounds us, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. This type of education is what children need in order to learn naturally. It requires much liberty, much time to observe and think, and an abundance of daily experiences from which to discover the pattern (or rules) of things.

Jesus Himself expressed His admiration for this form of learning. The disciples were returning from their first missionary tour and, very enthusiastically, told their Master about all that they had experienced. They had learned many lessons about how to evangelize, how to heal the sick, how to discern the spirits. He rejoiced with them, and doubtless we will feel that same joy when our children tell us about their learning experiences. At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. Luke 10:21 NIV.