A NEW MILESTONE OF EDUCATION - From Greco-Roman and Jewish Education to Church Education

Luke Cheung
Wilson Chow Professor (Biblical Studies)
Vice President

 

In the Greco-Roman society of the first century, formal education was not popular at all; even formal public education funded by the government was very limited. At that time, education was mainly provided in private schools or through private tutoring. However, the poor peasant families generally could not afford to send their children to school. The responsibility therefore rested with the family, as the parents and the relatives took charge of teaching their children the skill set needed for work and developing their moral characters. It was also quite common to see the teaching of skills conducted in a master-apprentice model in many job markets.

Generally speaking, the education system of the Greco-Roman society could be divided into three levels at that time: The elementary level focused on the teaching of language and mathematics, where students needed to learn the Greek alphabets, basic reading skills, recitation and arithmetic. Once in middle school, the focus would be put on grammar, copying, expressive reading and analysis of poetry, and writing training. The works of the poet Homer was the primary texts of their study during this stage. The university stage focused on the study of rhetoric, law, philosophy or a science topic.1 A student who completed this final stage would be regarded as an educated cultivated man. But of course, many people would also see this as a way for high positions in the government.2

In the Jewish society of the first century, the home provided the primary source of education for children. The synagogue served as the social center of the Jewish community, providing basic education for their children. Their teaching placed a heavy emphasis on Torah in order that the children knew how to obey God’s law. In a Jewish society, the priests, the Levites, the teachers of the law and the rabbis all played a role in education.3

Nevertheless, whether it is the Greco- Roman or the Jewish society, the educator still has the most significant influence on their students. Teachers possess a wealth of knowledge and wisdom that is passed on to the next generation to help them overcome challenges and doubts. In the area of ethics and morality, family education plays the most important role. As parents place an immense emphasis on the development and maturity of their children’s character, they essentially are the educators who deeply influence their own children.

Learning about self and world affairs in the community of truth

In the letter to Titus, Paul gives him guidelines on how to educate believers, stressing how believers of different ages and genders (older men [2:2], older women [2:3], younger women [2:4], young men [2:6]) and those who are slaves should remain in proper order. These teachings are very similar to the household codes being used by the Greco-Roman families at the time. The main difference, however, is that Christians build their lives on the foundation of God’s “trustworthy message”, meaning the “good” doctrine (1:9, 13; 2:1, 3).

The development of believers’ life in church is inseparable from how they live at home. This fully demonstrates that education well received and knowledge obtained can indeed create and establish a community, in which cultivation and continuous nurture are necessary.

Paul further urges Titus to be faithful in teaching the believers, and stay true to what he teaches (2:1, 6, 15). This is because Paul is well aware that example is better than precept - an educator who teaches by example has a profound and long-lasting impact on the lives of his students.

In his book “To Know as We Are Known”, American educator Parker J. Palmer points out that the purpose of education is to create a sacred space in which the community of truth is practiced (page xii). Truth in itself is not objective and outward, but relevant to oneself and others. For example, when it comes to “critical thinking”, it can be used as a model for civic participation. On the other hand, the topic of “tolerance of ambiguity” can be taught as a way to listen to others without losing one’s own voice (page xvii). It is only through knowing ourselves in the truth that we can see and hear the real picture of this world (page 60).4 This is the proper philosophy and practice of education the church groups and Christian schools should adopt.

Titus 2:11-12 says, “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” The saving grace of God has brought about a brand new era of education. This encompasses repentance and conversion, and a thoroughly new way of life based on three fundamental attitudes.

Cultivating and practicing a new life attitude under grace

First of all, we need to live a disciplined life. The term “discipline” (σωφρόνως) appears 16 times in the original text of the New Testament with the same root word. Of these, 10 are used in the epistles. The term refers to one’s ability to exert self-control and do things sensibly with proper caution. According to a study by contemporary educator Paul Tough, character building (rather than intelligence!) is actually the most important factor of a child’s future development and one’s success in the society.5 Grit and self-control top the list of the key character traits of students who succeed.

Secondly, we need to seek a life of justice - conduct ourselves with equality and justice, while treating others with impartiality and integrity. As defined by the famous modern educator and psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg in his study of moral development, moral growth can be divided into six stages. The last stage of these is Principled Conscience.6 To Paul, the measuring rod of justice comes from the sound doctrine of God’s Word, which is used to educate our conscience and guide our daily behavior. It is noteworthy that both of the above aspects need to be cultivated through the nurture of a community.

The last aspect is to live a godly life. The term “godly” appears 15 times in the New Testament, 10 of which are in the pastoral epistles. In the contemporary Greco-Roman world, the concept of godliness did not only refer to our attitude toward God, but also to our obligations toward family members. And this further extends to the attitude of respect and sincerity that we should adopt towards each other. Therefore, a godly lifestyle is what a person should seek in one’s relationship with God and others.

Paul advises us to exercise self-discipline, to do justice, and to respect God and people. As we live under the grace of God and remain nurtured in the Christian community, let us continue to grow in maturity while living out the truth and bearing good testimony to our society.

 

 

  1. Refer to C. Hezser, “Private and Public Education,” in The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Roman Palestine, ed. C. Hezser (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 465–81. 
  2. R. Cribiore, Gymnastics of the Mind: Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001), 3.
  3. K. L. Yinger, “Jewish Education,” in The World of the New Testament, ed. J. B. Green and L. M. McDonald (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 325–29.
  4. (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993).
  5. Paul Tough, How Children Succeed (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).
  6. See Lawrence Kohlberg, The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice (New York: Harper & Row, 1981).

 

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