In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Education in the Hebrew Bible

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Biblical Studies Education in the Hebrew Bible
William Schniedewind, Elizabeth VanDyke
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0267


Education is a wide-ranging topic concerning the variety of ways in which people acquire knowledge, skills, and behaviors. As a key facet of culture, one might expect education and instruction to appear frequently within the Hebrew Bible, yet biblical literature actually provides little direct evidence as to how the ancient Israelites learned. This is true both for traditional vocations, such as the production of pottery or soldiering, and for more scholastic pursuits, such as reading or accounting. Biblical scholarship has particularly focused on scribal education, with less attention to the broader questions of enculturation. Several passages, particularly Isaiah 28, Proverbs 22–23, and Ben Sira 51, refer to education and have engendered numerous discussions. Increasingly, though, scholars have turned to extra-biblical sources in order to understand scribal culture. Studies on scribalism in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Ugarit feature prominently in many overviews of Hebrew learning. In some cases, scholars posit that these foreign scribal systems directly influenced Israelite scribes. The New Kingdom administration of Egypt left its vestiges on the Late Bronze Levant, and the empires of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia also had a lasting impact on scribal curriculum and tradition. These contextual studies can also be used for comparison, helping scholars model what a scribal community in Israel may have looked like. Epigraphic material from the Levant has supplemented this picture. Archaeologists have excavated a number of school texts and seals that attest to the exercises and extent of Israelite education. However, the interpretation of the biblical, comparative, and epigraphic material remains fiercely contested among scholars. Scribal education had an immediate impact on the composition of the biblical corpus, and inquiries into Hebrew education often become intertwined with theories regarding the history of biblical literature. Furthermore, discussions of scribal culture are often divorced from questions of how the society as a whole transmitted skills and knowledge. The ancient Israelite scribe is thus decontextualized from his original setting. In sum, many questions regarding education in ancient Israel remain unanswered, tantalizing, and crucial to the field as a whole.

General Overviews

The role of the family has been a focal point for the study of education in ancient Israel. Some works, such as Demsky 1971, discuss how older generations passed down craft knowledge, domestic abilities, and wisdom within Israelite society according to broad categories. However, the field in general has always focused more narrowly on the nature of scribal education. Early scholars such as August Klostermann and Fletcher Swift examined biblical texts exclusively for evidence of schooling (see Klostermann 1908 and Swift 1919). Because the biblical witness to education is both scant and equivocal, scholars have turned to epigraphic (see especially Lemaire 1981) and comparative evidence (see Demsky 2012, Carr 2005) for schooling in ancient Israel. Treatments of scribal education are also often closely tied to discussions of the transmission of wisdom traditions (Crenshaw 1998) or the composition of biblical literature (e.g., Schniedewind 2004, van der Toorn 2007). A general outline of the state of the field is provided in Quick 2014.

  • Carr, David M. Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    An important study of the process of scribal education as one of enculturation. Carr provides a sweeping and insightful engagement with the scribal traditions of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Israel, and Second Temple Judaism. This work demonstrates how orality and textuality influenced the creation, development, and canonization of the biblical text.

  • Crenshaw, James L. Education in Ancient Israel: Across the Deadening Silence. New York: Doubleday, 1998.

    A standard work that provides a helpful summary of previous scholarship on schooling in the Hebrew Bible. Crenshaw especially focuses on the role of wisdom and wisdom literature in the student’s experience and training.

  • Demsky, Aaron. “Education in the Biblical Period.” In Encyclopedia Judaica. Vol. 6. Edited by Fred Skolnik, 381–398. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1971.

    This encyclopedia article offers a brief but thorough overview of education throughout the biblical period from a maximalist standpoint. Demsky treats learning in a variety of spheres, including religious life, craftsmanship, guilds, woman’s life, and scribal culture.

  • Demsky, Aaron. Literacy in Ancient Israel. Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 2012.

    A wide-ranging and exhaustive monograph that addresses the problem of whether or not Israel became a literate society. It discusses biblical, contextual, and epigraphic evidence for widespread literacy and spans Israel’s early history to the Persian period. In Hebrew.

  • Klostermann, August. Schulwesen Im Alten Israel. Leipzig: Georg Böhme, 1908.

    A classic early foray into the question of schooling in ancient Israel. Klostermann focuses on evidence within biblical literature. This study especially relies on Isaiah 28, Isaiah 50, and Proverbs 22 to prove the existence of schools. The role of a father as teacher was also given special attention. Klostermann’s work has since been criticized for providing evidence for education but not formalized schools.

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

    A classic treatment of the epigraphic evidence for schools in ancient Israel. From the inscriptional record, Lemaire suggests a tentative course for Israelite scribal curriculum and posits a tiered education system centered at Jerusalem with regional and local expressions.

  • Quick, Laura. “Recent Research on Ancient Israelite Education: A Bibliographic Essay.” Currents in Biblical Research 13.1 (2014): 9–33.

    DOI: 10.1177/1476993X13498044

    A survey of recent literature that focuses on scribal education. Does not deal with education outside of scribal training.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511499135

    Schniedewind shows how changes in Israelite society and scribal culture affected the composition of biblical literature. Relying especially on archaeology and inscriptions, the monograph traces how the shift to a more literate society impacted religious texts, how these texts were increasingly reverenced, and how they were subsequently considered scripture. Argues for the importance of the state, bureaucracy, and economy for textualization in ancient Israel.

  • Swift, Fletcher. Education in Ancient Israel: From Earliest Times to 70 A.D. Chicago: Open Court, 1919.

    One of the earliest treatments of education in the Hebrew Bible. Swift considers knowledge acquisition from childhood on in ancient Israel, including some speculation on how individuals learned their crafts, as well as music and dance. A signification portion of the text focuses on priestly and prophetic classes which taught the public. In general, this book is severely outdated, but it asks questions worthy of further scrutiny.

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

    This is one of the more important studies on the formation of the Hebrew Bible, and it takes as its basis scribal education and curriculum. Van der Toorn argues that elite scribal culture within the postexilic period formed the Hebrew Bible, citing the best comparative evidence as coming from cuneiform literature. The influence of the Levites within the process of the canon’s creation is especially brought out, as is the significance of wisdom traditions and literature.

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