Friday, February 11, 2011

Jewish Implications for Discipleship, Part 2

A second immediate implication from the Old Testament and inter-biblical Judaism for our consideration of discipleship is the model of the rabbinical schools that emerged in the last two centuries before the birth of Jesus. We cannot understand these schools, however, without setting them in the larger context of their time.

While we obviously think of the Bible as a special book (though it is only one book among millions that are available to us), we often forget that the ability to read and the ownership of books was rare in the ancient world. Even when ancient societies had a written language, they primarily were oral societies. Written works were not broadly distributed, and we find no trace of a reading public until the end of the 5th Century B.C. Education was primarily oral, and the educator generally was an immediate family member or close acquaintance. Education focused on family and tribal traditions and on practical skills that directly related to daily life. Resources that contained a variety of viewpoints and a wider world-view were scarce. Interchanges with other cultures and societies were equally rare, and the interchanges that occurred frequently involved warlike conflict and efforts to protect the local status quo.

In the biblical world, things begin to change with the rise of powerful enemies like Assyria and Babylon; but more significant changes were beginning to take place that would have a much wider influence. Perhaps the greatest influence that led to cultural change was set in motion by a Greek philosopher named Socrates (469-399 BC), generally recognized in the West as the first thinker to turn people’s minds toward questions of morality and the conduct of life. While some might dispute that classification, we can argue that Socrates was the first to apply serious critical and philosophical thought to these questions. Additionally, Socrates emphasized the importance of examining systematically the fundamental assumptions from which philosophical debate could develop. Because each question was approached by examining what others had said about the topic, the preservation of views became an important part of intellectual inquiry. Recording and preserving these views gained in importance among the educated elite.

Although Socrates was accused and condemned to death for having subversive influence on the minds of the young men associated with him, he gathered a devoted circle of friends who were drawn by his intellectual ability and his genial temperament. Some of these followers founded philosophical schools and began to expound their own diverse views in the Socratic manner. These philosophical schools provided a model for future generations, including the Jewish schools that began to appear in the earlv 2nd century B.C.

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