August 28, 2009

The Nazareth Synagogue - 7

According to John's Gospel, the Jerusalem Jews knew (or could tell somehow) that Jesus had never been trained in any of their schools and Jesus' response confirmed their opinion. Trusting John, we take this as historical fact. It is less clear, however, whether this statement also implies that Jesus had never been trained elsewhere.

Of course, I'm not suggesting anything that required travel. The Gospels give us no reason to think Jesus went to Qumram, Alexandria, Rome or any other exotic location. In fact, from what the Gospels do tell us, the conclusion that Jesus had no formal training in Jerusalem should almost certainly rule out formal training anywhere else, outside of Nazareth. In other words, there is no better reason to put him with the Essenes in Transjordan than there is to make Jesus a Pharisee in Jerusalem. And so as far as the evidence goes, and chiefly according to scripture, if Jesus had no formal training in Jersualem, then his educational options are all to be found at the Nazareth Synagogue.

Now, the overall picture we've built to this point does suggest there was no formal training in Nazareth either, but we ought to consider this carefully. John may actually mean to imply Jesus had never been trained formally anywhere, but John happens to offer this statement as the opinion of Jerusalemites. If that is a historically accurate source for the opinion [as part of a reconstructed or representative conversation] then it's unclear how the Jerusalemites might know for sure whether Jesus had undergone formal schooling in Nazareth. Besides, we have already seen that Jesus' response could include hearing the Law read on the Sabbath. Therefore, John 7:15-16 does not rule out further training in Jesus' hometown.

When we think carefully about Jesus' second homecoming in Matthew 13 & Mark 6, we also find a bit of ambiguity in the response of the Nazarene Jews. We observed (two posts ago) that they were astonished to find that he could teach, especially to teach as he did. We observed that they sound as if his only proficient vocational skills, to their knowledge, were in woodworking. They evidently never learned about his age 12 sagacity.

By all this, we are sound in concluding that Jesus had never demonstrated such teaching ability, during his three decades among them. He had certainly not done so in that same way, and it is difficult to imagine him "teaching" far below his own level, from age 13 on. Most likely, he had never done any significant teaching at all, before his baptism.

However, evidence that he had never taught there is far from the same thing as evidence that he had never learned there. Even if we imagine Jesus sitting in every teaching session the Synagogue offered, we have already noted (since five posts ago) that he never spoke up in any remarkable or memorable way. Therefore, it's conceivable he went through as much education as the Nazareth Synagogue could have provided, but simply failed to display any reflective or didactic aptitude in the presence of his teachers and fellow students.

This is only to say what might be possible. The truth is probably somewhere between the two extremes. It was definitely Jesus' custom to attend Sabbath meetings in Nazareth, by which he both honored his earthly parents and grew in favor with the local community. Beyond that, Jesus may or may not have attended educational programs during the week, at the Nazareth Synagogue.

To make a more precise estimate about this, we need to consider the Nazarene response one more time, in the light of what little we know about Synagogue education before 70 AD.

To be continued...

Series Update: The Nazareth Synagogue
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

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