Our concepts of the “academy” as a place of learning and the “academic” enterprise as the focus of education grew out of ancient Greek influences. Plato (427-347 B.C.), strongly influenced by Socrates and his approaches, was one of those who began the formal and continuous teaching that resulted in a “philosophical school” in Athens. Around 385 B.C., Plato developed a school about a mile outside of Athens near the grove of Academeus; thus, the derivation of our word “academy.” The influence of this school cannot be overstated. Plato’s academy continued in existence until A.D. 529—over 900 years.
Aristotle (384-322 BC), who entered Plato’s academy at the age of 17, founded his own school in Athens in 335 BC. While collecting manuscripts and building a library were important contributions Aristotle made, he also created an educational community with rules, common meals, monthly symposia, and a strong emphasis on scientific research. The foundations of discipleship had been laid.
These philosophical schools, I think, provide the background and context for teaching and disciplining followers in subsequent generations. The intellectual structures of philosophical inquiry were spread with the Hellenic influence embodied in the conquest of Alexander the Great (who had been tutored by Aristotle) and the centuries of influence exercised by Alexander’s Hellenistic successors. While the philosophical bent of the Western mind did not totally overwhelm the Oriental tendencies toward concrete thinking, the means of transmitting intellectual knowledge through intention, inquiry, and instruction cannot be over-emphasized. In addition, preserving historical insights and advances in manuscript form paved the way for the development of libraries and the wider dissemination of knowledge.
While the Hellenistic spirit exerted deep influence on the Jews, the confluence of influences took a particularly Jewish “bent” with the Maccabean revolt in 175-164 B.C. Many Hellenistic influences were incorporated into Jewish life without being stigmatized as a foreign influence. The Jewish synagogues with their focus on Scripture reflect the influence of the Hellenistic academic zeitgeist; but so do the rise of rabbinic teachers, rabbinic schools, and the preservation of rabbinic teachings. These new “institutions” began to replace the family as the hub for cultural training and instruction, and they gained an important status over the Temple by their accessibility to believers in every location where a synagogue could be founded. These settings provided the background and the models for Jesus’ own disciplining ministry.