What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus and Education (What If– 9)

Our first historical account of the impact of Jesus on human history will explore the topic of education. In the Greco-Roman world (a term for the world of the Roman Empire in which Jesus was born, lived, died and rose again), education developed a number of elements that have influenced us today. But it was a fairly limited operation. For one thing, the ancient Greeks and Romans did not bother to educate girls. Their place was in the home where there would be no need for them to know philosophy, history, science or geopolitics (or so it was thought). Even with boys, it was only the sons of the elite that got an education. It is estimated that, at the most, only 10-15% of the population of the Empire could read. And the education offered by the Greeks and the Romans did not invite critical thinking, but focused more on memorization and conformity with previous opinions. Conformity and memorization are important values up to a point, but they would never have led to the advances in science, technology and health care that we enjoy today.

Then Jesus came. As a First-Century Jew He affirmed some fundamental teachings of the Old Testament that ran counter to the Greco-Roman standards and added some important wrinkles of His own. According to Genesis 1:27 all human beings, male and female, were created in the image of God. That implies high value and dignity for all human beings, who were designed in special ways to be like God and to continually grow into great knowledge of God and God’s creation. Jesus’ behavior toward the poor, the marginalized, and women was a living demonstration of His belief in that teaching. Deuteronomy 6:6-7 is also a foundation piece of Jewish education: “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” According to this passage, education is important and requires literacy. One must read the Bible in order to understand it. And it is important for all children all the time. But by Jesus’ day Jews, like their Gentile counterparts, were educating only male elites, which blunted the force of Moses’ teachings on education. They lost focus on the Mosaic mandate, Jesus came to restore and enhance it.

Jesus did not just come for Jews, for men, for elites, He came as the “Light of the world” (John 8:12) which “enlightens everyone” (John 1:9). The ideal education is one that has Jesus at the heart of it. He was both the greatest teacher and the greatest subject ever. And in case the “light of the world” concept was too subtle for His disciples, Jesus was explicit in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go and teach the whole world.” Education was for all nations. And it was for all people, including women. There is evidence in the gospels that Jesus had female disciples (Luke 8:1-3; 10:39-42; John 11:28). Jesus also taught that true education sets people free to reason and think critically (John 8:32). The Bible can be misunderstood (John 5:39-40), so it must be carefully studied. In contrast with the Greco-Roman world, Jesus encouraged people to think for themselves rather than simply conform their ideas to what has been taught before.

The impact of Jesus’ teaching and practice on the early church was dramatic. Acts 5:42 reports: “They did not cease teaching.” So Christian schools educated everybody from the first, including females and slaves. Literacy was a high value, so people could study the Scriptures for themselves. This phenomenon was revolutionary in the Greco-Roman world. After the first couple centuries, education was strongly located in monastic schools. But as Christianity went mainstream with Constantine, it was mandated that every major church or cathedral was expected to house a school. Wherever early Christian missionaries went, they introduced education for all classes of people in their own languages. So it is not surprising that Ulfilas (4th Century), the Christian missionary, created an alphabet for the Goth languages, so the Gothic peoples could become literate in the Bible. Cyril and Methodius (9th Century) did the same for the Slavic languages. In subtle ways, the teachings of Jesus transformed the world in very practical ways. Even today, the Wycliffe Bible translators are at the forefront of providing literacy to tribes that do not have written languages.

But as impactful as they were, the cathedral schools were still the equivalent of today’s K-12 education. As time went on, the need was felt to advance beyond the cathedral schools to create institutions of higher learning. By the year 1000, early developments in higher education were beginning to happen, particularly in the Benedictine monasteries. In the next blog, we will explore how Christian higher education ended up transforming the entire world.