In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Schools in Ancient Israel

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Scribal Practice
  • Orality and the School Tradition
  • Wisdom Literature and Schools
  • The Deuteronomic School
  • Epigraphic Evidence
  • Comparative Evidence
  • Hebrew Bible as Product of a School Tradition

Biblical Studies Schools in Ancient Israel
William Schniedewind
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0222


No direct evidence—either literary or archaeological—exists for schools in ancient Israel, but indirect evidence does exist beginning with the corpus of biblical literature. The topic of schools must reflect upon education, curriculum, scribes, and scribal practice as well as the evidence from schools and writing. The writing of the Bible as well as the variety of inscriptional material from ancient Palestine testifies to a robust scribal culture that must have existed to create these textual artifacts. The Bible itself, however, speaks very little about the schools that created it nor does the archaeological and epigraphic record preserve much direct evidence for schools, education, or curriculum. In contrast to Mesopotamia, where curriculum and texts for schools has been found, little direct evidence has been found for the precise curriculum of an early Israelite school tradition. Israel’s school tradition, however, is often thought to have been based on wisdom literature (which plays an important role in Mesopotamia and Egypt). The best unambiguous evidence for schools in ancient Israel comes from a few abecedaries and accounting practice texts found at sites such as Izbet Sarta, Tel Zayit, Kadesh Barnea, and Kuntillet ʿAjrud. Therefore, the discussion about schools has focused on either the ancient Near Eastern context for the early Israelite school tradition or the later Hellenistic context for the formation and canonization of the Bible.

General Overviews

The Akkadian word for school is edubba (from Sumerian), but there is no word for school in ancient Hebrew. There were probably no schools in the traditional sense but rather an apprenticeship system located in the family. Later, in the Persian period, scribes such as Ezra trained in a more Aramaic chancellery system that had a legacy in the more developed school system of ancient Mesopotamia. Works such as Davies 1998 have focused on the Persian context for Hebrew schools, but this has been critiqued on the basis of inscriptional and archaeological evidence in Schniedewind 2004. The approach to schools in ancient Israel usually begins with wisdom literature, as emphasized in Heaton 1994. This approach can begin either with biblical wisdom literature itself—an approach suggested by comparative ancient Near East evidence, as with van der Toorn 2007 and Carr 2009—or it can rely on the accounts of scribes and writing in the biblical narratives, as in Lemaire 1981 and Demsky 2007. Another approach is to focus on comparative method, as in van der Toorn 2007. Archaeological and epigraphic data can also be harnessed, as in Lemaire 1981 and Schniedewind 2004.

  • Assmann, Jan. Fünf Stufen auf dem Wege zum Kanon: Tradition und Schriftkultur im frühen Judentum und seiner Umwelt. Vortrag anlässlich der Promotion zum D. Theol. ehrenhalber vor der Evangelisch-Theologischen Fakultät der Westfälischen Wilhelms-Universität Münster am 12. Januar 1998. Mit einer laudatio von H.-P. Müller. Münstersche Theologische Vorträge 1. Münster, Germany: LIT Verlag, 1999.

    Assman describes the cultural context that catalyzes the need (or desire) for a canon of culturally central texts. In the case of ancient Israel, he attributes the desire to create a canon of scripture to the loss of territory, political autonomy, and the ensuing cultural disorientation of the exilic experience.

  • Carr, David M. Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    A monumental work that offers a comprehensive discussion of orality and literacy in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean. It discusses the presence of official scribal “schools” and, also, the more pervasive education that took place in a family setting. Proposes that the oral and textual transmission of traditions worked in tandem to create and preserve Israelite religious literature.

  • Davies, Graham. “Were There Schools in Ancient Israel?” In Wisdom in Ancient Israel: Essays in Honor of J. A. Emerton. Edited by John Day, Robert P. Gordon, and H. G. M. Williamson. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    Summarizes the arguments for and against the presence of schools in ancient Israel and adopts a middle ground. Sees scribal schools at urban centers, yet they were not as extensive as Lemaire 1981 proposes. Allows for the oral transmission of culture by which wisdom traditions spread.

  • Davies, Philip R. Scribes and Schools: The Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1998.

    A discussion of the canonization of the Hebrew Bible and the role of scribes throughout this process. This work places special emphasis on the formation of biblical literature during the post-exilic period.

  • Demsky, Aaron. “Education in the Biblical Period.” In Encyclopedia Judaica. Vol. 6. Edited by Fred Skolnik, 381–398. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007.

    An outstanding overview of scribal schools and education in ancient Israel.

  • Heaton, E. W. The School Tradition of the Old Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    DOI: 10.1093/0198263627.001.0001

    Heaton argues that the wisdom tradition was not produced by a group on the margins of Israelite society but was the work of Israel’s scribal schools and quite central to its scribal enterprise. Reexamines the wisdom tradition, which tends to be poorly defined in scholarship. Attempts to redefine and recontextualize this stream of tradition.

  • Lang, B. “Schule und Unterricht im alten Israel.” In La sagesse de l’Ancien Testament. Edited by M. Gilbert, 186–201. BETL 51. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 1979.

    Lang discusses scribal education in ancient Israel, citing the relative lack of errors in Iron Age inscriptions as evidence for a standardized scribal education. Drawing upon the epigraphic evidence, Lang attempts to reconstruct this scribal curriculum.

  • Lemaire, André. Les écoles et la formation de la Bible dans l’ancien Israel. OBO 39. Fribourg, Switzerland: Éditions Universitaires, 1981.

    The classic work that reconstructs the early development of schools in ancient Israel and its role in the formation of the Bible especially during the Iron Age.

  • Schniedewind, William M. How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511499135

    Locates the formative period for the writing of biblical literature in the late Judean monarchy. Highlights the archaeological and epigraphic evidence as well as linguistic anthropological study of writing, scribes, and schools.

  • van der Toorn, Karel. Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

    A broad and important overview of the Near Eastern parallels (especially Mesopotamian, but also Egyptian) as a background for the Hebrew Bible.

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