At the time of Jesus, Jews were noted for their deep desire for knowledge and the education of their children. Education was done in the local synagogue and, once the basic schooling was complete, fathers or mothers would continue the child's education, typically in the vocation of the parent. Much of the education was religious in nature teaching the children the tenets of the Judaic faith. Students that showed promise would be allowed to continue their education. As you can see from this brief explanation, education and vocation was closely related.
“That a person is improved through education and that individual betterment betters the nation is essentially Platonic. Their (Pharisees) attempt to systemize the Law and its observance is, in itself, more in keeping with the spirit of Hellenism than with the Old Testament.” [i] According to the Mishnah, a Jewish child was to attend Beth Sefer (elementary school) beginning at the age of five. The Jews stipulated that a synagogue in a town or village containing twenty-five boys of suitable age provide a schoolmaster and be responsible for the wages of the instructor. If there were more than forty students, the teacher would have an assistant, and if there were more than fifty students, a second instructor. The purpose of teaching was to provide intellectual and moral instruction. Education centered on the Pentateuch, the first five Old Testament books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Recitation and memorization were a large portion of the curriculum as was reading aloud. In the school environment, “writing was done in wax on a wooden table or even on the ground.” [ii]
At the end of approximately six years of formal education, the male child at the age of twelve would participate in his first Passover in Jerusalem. This corresponds with Scriptural accounts of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus travelling from Galilee to Jerusalem for the Passover. When the family was returning home, they found Jesus missing and after several days of searching, they found Him in the Temple. This event reveals that, even at the age of twelve, Jesus “must have been well schooled in order to fill the rabbis with 'amazement' at his knowledge.” [iii] For most children, formal education ended at this point. “If after three or at most five years of tuition the child had not made decided progress, there was little hope of his attaining to eminence.” [iv] The girls returned home to learn domestic duties, and boys were taught their father’s vocation or trade.
Those who demonstrated potential in Beth Sefer attended Beth Midrash (junior high school), also known as a rabbinical school or “House of Study” which were led by prominent rabbis, and the curriculum focused on The Prophets and The Writings. The Prophets were the historical books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings, the Major Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, along with the twelve Minor Prophets. The Writings were composed of Ruth, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, and Daniel. Also, students began to learn how to interpret and apply Scripture. This is somewhat similar to learning the Westminster Shorter Catechism with its 150 questions, answers, and Scriptural references. Memorization, as a learning tool, continued and was accomplished by reciting aloud and repetition. Two prominent schools of the first century were Hillel and Shamai. Another prominent school was that of the Pharisee Gamaliel, where the Apostle Paul received his education.
The education of the majority of young men did not advance beyond Beth Sefer, and they returned home to complete their education. As their fathers assumed the responsibility of training their sons, the fathers almost invariably trained their sons in the vocation, trade, or craft in which they were most proficient. In this way, skills and trades were passed down through the generations. Women also worked in addition to performing domestic duties. “They engaged in crafts that could be managed while caring for the children, such as basketry, spinning, and weaving tapestries and mats.” [v] While there were many vocations in first century Palestine, the two most often mentioned in the Gospels and the teachings of Jesus were farming and fishing. Another common line of work mentioned several times in the gospels was shepherding, be it goats, sheep, camels, or whatever animal required attention.
At the time of Jesus, most jobs were highly labor-intensive and close to the end product, meaning little multi-phase manufacturing in the sense that a product from one process would be incorporated into a second. The production of clothing represented the closest example of the modern manufacturing process. The wool or hair would be taken from the animal, spun into thread, converted into cloth, cleaned, prepared, and dyed, and finally cut and sewn together to make garments. A degree of structured technology was developed in large elaborate constructions such as the Jerusalem Temple and other structures built by Herod the Great and his sons. He employed various experts from stonemasons to artisans for the project and paid them from the royal treasury, but even in this scenario, finished products were not incorporated into other processes. Rather, they would apply a series of steps and following the contribution of the last person; the project was complete.
The typical way of life was of the family who grew crops on a parcel of land while dwelling in a nearby village. It was also the basic economic model of the time. As the nation was primarily agrarian with the majority of the population living in small villages, it should not be surprising that farming, or working the land, be the prevalent economic model. “The various geographical and topical divisions, together with the somewhat related variations in climate and rainfall, greatly influenced the lifestyles of the people who resided in each district, and gave rise to various types of agriculture and crops.” [vi] The primary areas of farming were the upper region of the Jordan Valley (Galilee), the northern coastal plain, and the hill region of the interior, although farming took place throughout the Jewish nation. “The two most important grains were wheat and barley, but millet was grown as well. Wheat grew in the coastal Philistine plain, the Jordan valley, and the valley of Jezreel. Barley could be grown on poorer soil and needed a shorter growing season, and it was less valued as a crop than wheat.” [vii] The city of Capernaum was known, incidentally, for the grain grown and harvested in the area. Another common crop in Galilee was flax that was grown to produce linen. The Jordan river was a primary source of water. Because the river flows south to the Dead Sea raising the level of salinity, barley gradually supplanted wheat as the preferred grain because barley is more tolerant of the salinity in the water.
In Samaria and Judea, farming was not as prevalent. Those that did farm worked small, terraced plots. Crops in the region were typically figs, grapes, and olives, all of which could be grown on terraces, hillsides, and in rocky soil. The soil in the central portion of the nation, because of the limestone composition, was well suited to grow olives. The olive tree, gnarled and standing about twenty feet tall, had a life span of hundreds of years and was productive for a majority of that time. Olive oil was one of those products, much like petroleum today, which affected virtually every aspect of life. It was found in ointments, salves, fuel for lamps, cosmetics, perfumes, and food preparation. Also grown in the region, but to a lesser degree, were grain and grapes. Another common product from Judea was timber. As might be expected, the lower regions were farmed while the higher elevations were devoted to grazing. Shepherds were common in the high country of this region tending their sheep and goats. Jesus noted this occupation in the illustration of The Lost Sheep. The region south of Judea, known as the Wilderness, was a hot, dry, and inhospitable land not suitable for farming or other agricultural endeavors. Largely uninhabited due to the harshness of the weather and lack of water, the only people to be found were the occasional shepherd and herdsman who watched over flocks of sheep, goats, and camels. Various by-products of sheep and goats, such as wool and hides for leather, came from this region.
For the farmer, the agricultural year had three basic periods: planting, harvesting, and vineyard tending. The Gezer calendar details the agricultural activities in the Jewish nation.
The first two months are olive harvest
The two months are planting grain
The two months are late planting
The month is harvesting flax
The month is harvesting barley
The month is harvest and feasting
The two months are vine-tending
The month is summer fruit
The reference to months means that this was the farmer's primary interest or focus during that period. Starting at the beginning of the calendar, the wind was usually from the west off the sea, although a hot summer wind also blew north from the desert. The regions further away from the sea received less rain as would be expected for any coastal region. The Jewish nation, being a subtropical climate, only had two dominant seasons: summer, when it was hot and dry, and winter, when it was wet and cool. The seasons of spring and fall were quite short and were more periods of transition between the two predominate seasons. The dry season lasted from May/June through August/September, and the wet season lasted from October/November through March/April. “Besides the differences in precipitation due to seasonal and geographical factors, there is also a variation in the concentration of rainfall. A high percentage of the rain which falls is concentrated in a limited number of days. Torrents of rain fall in brief periods, with extended dry periods in between.” [viii] The nature of the geography of the country was such that, even though sufficient rain fell, the threat of drought was always present.
Another food frequently grown throughout the Jewish nation was grapes. As wine was consumed at almost every meal, this was important to the life of the Jew. Vines were common on the steep hills throughout the country and could be grown where other crops were not feasible. Typically, vines were not trimmed or pruned and ran along the ground or the terraces. It would take five years before a vineyard could produce quality grapes, and because of this long maturation period, establishing a vineyard entailed considerable expense of paying for the facilities and the tenants as told in the parable of The Wicked Tenants. The existence of such businesses indicated a stable economic and political environment.
Fishing was another major industry in the Jewish nation, particularly around the Sea of Galilee, and several of the disciples were fishermen. During this period, individuals used nets, fish traps, pronged tridents, and the fishing pole to catch fish. Commercial fishing used seine nets to produce a larger catch. The seine net was “a band five hundred yards long and more, and twelve feet deep, with floaters above and sinkers below.” [ix] These large nets were positioned from shore to a boat going in a partial circle or between two boats in the open water. Once they made the catch, the fishermen would separate the fish discarding the undesirable fish. Another daily task for the fishermen was to wash, mend, and fold the net for the next effort. Fishing was a laborious vocation, and they typically would fish at night so as to bring in larger quantities of fish. Several cities were established around the Sea of Galilee just for the fishing trade. These included Bethsaida (the fishery), Magdala (the fish tower), and the Greek city of Tarichaeae. From the early days of the Old Testament, fishing was an important vocation in the region. Fish “was among the favorite articles of diet, in health and sickness, on week-days, and especially at the Sabbath meal. Many must have been employed in connection with this trade.” [x] That fish and fishing were prevalent at the time of Jesus are shown by the many references to fish such as the miracle of Jesus feeding the crowd from fish and loaves, the illustration of a son asking his father for fish, and several references to Jesus and the disciples eating a meal of fish. In good years, fish and fish products were an export helping correct the import/export imbalance caused by the lack of natural resources in the Jewish nation.
The production of textiles was the third most prevalent vocation at the time of Jesus. “Textiles were used for clothing, curtains, decorations, basketry, sackcloth, tents, rugs, wall hangings, shrouds, and other purposes.” [xi] Of all the trades, this industry employed the largest number of people at one location, although Daniel-Rops comments that this number was probably no more than fifty persons. The source material was typically wool from sheep or goats. Using a loom, a fuller would spin it into thread and convert it into cloth. Once the fuller made the cloth, he would rid the material of the oil and impurities washing the fabric in white clay, putrid urine, or nitrite to clean it. He put the material through many rinses of clean water and then place in the sun to dry. Once this was complete, the tailor would cut the fabric to produce garments.
The work of the craftsman was significant during the first century. As the nation developed, trades or vocations became more specialized so that individuals could gain a considerable proficiency and be compensated for his expertise. This was true in both the city and the village. Scripture refers to over twenty different crafts or trades, and a variety of crafts and trades were practiced at the time of Jesus. Some of the better known professions included the artisan, baker, butcher, carpenter, doctor, jeweler, smith, potter, stone worker, tailor, and water-seller. Other professions, such as fuller, tanner, dung collector, and copper-smelter, were deemed dishonorable which carried special provisions for worship, marriage, and restrictions on where they could work, but these professions were necessary for the society, so they were tolerated. Some professions could be found in both the city and the village because of the necessity of the goods and services provided. One such example was the blacksmith who could produce and repair implements for both the farmer and city dweller.