An interesting guy visited our church yesterday. He’s a GP and sports doctor, from a Jewish family, and presented a thesis that Jesus, far from being a poor and uneducated man, was likely to have been through the Rabbinic schools in Jerusalem and to be on an educational par with the scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees he debated. Even his background as a carpenter (Gk τεκτων), the son of a carpenter, may well indicate high social status and even a family background of theological training.
As is often the case with (us) non-specialists, I felt he overstated his case – in particular by projecting rabbinic customs dating from after the fall of Jerusalem back to Jesus’s time. But looking at some of the material available online and on my bookshelf, he’s not alone in that – and indeed many or most of his points have, it seems, been made and disputed within the scholarly literature.
So much so, in fact, that it is pretty clear that we simply don’t know enough about Israel in the first century to settle such issues finally – some say most Jewish people were illiterate, whilst others cite Josephus to say that primary education was a mandatory duty of the synagogues. With such a basic matter uncertain, dogmatic statements on the precise range of meaning of Greek words applied to Jewish practices in the Gospels are likely to be wrong.
But there is enough in the evidence to suggest that our common assumptions about Jesus may be mistaken – quite apart from the things we read into the Bible text, such as Jesus’s working in Joseph’s humble workshop until he was thirty, which is nowhere stated. It’s hard to forget the universal image of Mary and Joseph walking to Bethlehem with one scrawny donkey between them, though the text is equally compatible with travelling in relative comfort with a family group and, perhaps, some household servants.
Jesus was addressed by nearly all the categories of people he encountered as “Rabbi“. In post-destruction Israel, “rabbi” had a technical and legal meaning implying education of the most promising and pious children in the temple schools. It implied the highest level of theological education available. Maybe it didn’t have that connotation earlier, in Jesus’s time. Yet whatever standards “teachers” had then, Jesus clearly was considered to meet them, for even his enemies addressed him respectfully. He came from Nazareth, but then Paul came from Tarsus in Asia and still trained as a rabbi in Jerusalem under Gamaliel.
It’s easy to forget in these days of minimum school-leaving ages and widespread university training, free libraries, the internet and so on, that “self-education” really wasn’t an option for Jesus. As a private citizen he couldn’t even have obtained a complete Bible text. Instead, his discussion of marriage betrays acquaintance with the dispute between the schools of Hillel and Shammai (both contemporaries of his and, in all likelihood, amongst those he disputed in the Temple at the age of twelve). You don’t get that kind of insight hanging around the local synagogue, any more than most churchgoers are aware of the New Perspective on Paul or similar modern contentions. In rabbinic times, training continued in the Temple until the age of thirty before public teaching was permitted … which is at least an alternative possibility to Jesus making deckchairs in Nazareth until that age.
So either Jesus’s teaching insights were entirely miraculous, on a par with a dustman from Tower Hamlets discussing Romans with Tom Wright (and trouncing him), or he had more education than we often assume. There are no grounds for calling him a “peasant”, as some serious scholars have done, for whatever “τεκτων” means it’s a skilled trade, not a mere labouring job. In fact, it’s notable that the famous sage Shammai, who headed the Sanhedrin until Gamaliel took over in AD30, was also a τεκτων by trade – as Hillel was a woodcutter, and Saul a tentmaker – all tending to confim that the later stipulation that rabbis must earn their own keep was true in New Testament times too.
What was remarkable about Jesus, as my speaker pointed out, was not that he was educated, but that he wasn’t the disciple of any particular teacher, and took his teaching directly from a thorough, direct, understanding of Scripture – that is “he taught with authority, and not as the scribes”. Perhaps even more remarkably, he gave teaching authority to his apostles independent of the usual academic pathways, so that Peter and John in the Temple were, in that wonderful Greek phrase, recognised to be “agrammatoi idiotes”.
Consideration of such a Jewish educational context makes much of the content of the disputes in the Gospels more comprehensible – for example, as David Instone-Brewer points out in his excellent discussion of divorce, only the contemporaneous rabbinical debate makes full sense of Jesus’s own teaching on the matter. Such consideration also places Jesus in the centre, rather than on the fringes, of the Jewish nation and culture to which God desired to present the Gospel, which is a good counter to the “obscure sect” criticisms of both atheistic and Jewish opponents of Christianity.
Anyway, you can judge the merits of, at least, my medical colleague’s case because it can be downloaded pretty cheaply for Kindle from Amazon.