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V. The Arts in the Hellenistic World

St. Paul the Apostle
St. Paul, the “Apostle to the Gentiles”, was a master of the classical liberal arts, who spoke Greek and was a Roman citizen.  

Thus far in this course we have observed that the pursuit of wisdom (philosophy) has never been conducted apart from the classical liberal arts curriculum. We have seen the curriculum in its early stages in Ancient Israel and have watched the curriculum grow in stature and in favor with God and men through Greek and Roman times.

In this fifth lesson, we must do a bit of historical background work before looking at the perfection of the classical liberal arts curriculum by the Church Fathers. We will consider the inter-testamental history so as to rightly understand the relationship between classical liberal arts education and Jewish society around the time of the life of Our Lord.

The Six Models of Jewish Learning

In the history of Israel, there were six models for education: Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Daniel and Ezra.

Abraham, the ancient father of the Jews, was known for his exemplary role in domestic education. His fidelity to this duty was suggested as the purpose of his election (Gen 18:19):

“Indeed, I have singled him out that he may direct his sons and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord may carry into effect for Abraham the promises he made about him.”

This was the foundation for all Jewish education: passing down the way of the Lord to the next generation. The motivation for this was the belief that this was the primary way of securing God’s blessings.

Second, Moses, as we have already discussed, was a model for theological and judicial learning. It is for this reason that the role of the judge in Jewish society is referred to as “the seat of Moses”.

Third, David was the model of the Jewish man described in Psalm 1, devoted to the law of the Lord. His life of zealous worship and skill was a pattern for all Jewish men to imitate.

Fourth, Solomon was recognized as the model of the Jewish philosopher. His book of Proverbs was held to be an inspired guide to wisdom, as the introduction to the Proverbs makes plain:

“That men may appreciate wisdom and discipline, may understand words of intelligence; may receive training in wise conduct, in what is right, just and honest; that resourcefulness may be imparted to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion. A wise man by hearing them will advance in learning, an intelligent man will gain sound guidance; That he may comprehend proverb and parable, the words of the wise and their riddles.”

Fifth, Daniel was the model Jew in exile–faithful to God and winsome among the nations. We read in Daniel 1 that he was chosen to receive instruction in “the language and literature of the Chaldeans (Babylonians)”. However, rather than conforming to the Babylonian culture, he demonstrated the superiority of the wisdom of the Jews. Daniel exemplified the fearlessness with which the true Jew was to confront the ideas of the world and the confidence with which he was to enter upon his studies, knowing that all true wisdom was with God to give freely to those who love Him:

“To these four young men God gave knowledge and proficiency in all literature and science, and to Daniel the understanding of all visions and dreams…In any question of wisdom or prudence which the king put to them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his kingdom.”

Note: God gives wisdom in literature and science, not theology alone.

Lastly, Ezra was the model scribe or Jewish theologian. Upon returning from captivity in Babylon, the king of Persia set Ezra over all the Jews, acknowledging the divine wisdom he possessed. Upon returning to Israel, Ezra executed the office of a great Jewish scribe, where he,

“read plainly from the book of the law of God, interpreting it so that all could understand what was read.” (Neh. 8:8)

These models demonstrated the full range of wisdom which was to be sought by every educated Jew.

Content & Method of Jewish Learning

The content and method of education centered about of the Law of Moses, without which all was vanity. The core Jewish instruction was prescribed by Moses himself in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (read it slowly and attentively):

“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.”

Several things must be noted. First, this passage contains the Shema, which is the core expression of the Jewish faith, the shield against all idolatry and error:

“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!”

The following line is known as the V’ahavta and is the foundation for all true moral philosophy:

“Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”

In St. Mark 12, when Jesus is asked which is the greatest commandment, he answers with the words of the Shema and the V’ahavta. This was the essence of Judaism and that which was to be passed down by every man to his children.

Secondly, this passage contains the method of Jewish education. Jewish children were not to be sent off to school from 8am to 3pm to learn their lessons in the manner in which modern societies compartmentalize life. The instruction God required was to be performed always and everywhere, incorporated into every action of the day.

Thus, while we do not have a great supply of historical detail on Jewish education, we have enough to work on by reason that we may understand what education looked like in the the time of Christ.

The Liberal & Illiberal Arts

Practically, Jewish boys were also taught a trade. Jesus learned carpentry; St. Paul, tent-making; St. Peter, fishing, and so on. However, the common education received by Jewish children in the faith and in a trade was not the formal education where we might look for the classical liberal arts. We find examples of these wise men in the prophet Daniel and in Ezra the scribe.

In the book of Sirach, we find the classic Jewish division of the liberal and illiberal arts. The date of the book is commonly set somewhere in the 3rd or 2nd century BC.

“The scribe’s profession increases his wisdom; whoever is free from toil can become a wise man. How can he become learned who guides the plow, who thrills in wielding the goad like a lance, Who guides the ox and urges on the bullock, and whose every concern is for cattle? His care is for plowing furrows, and he keeps a watch on the beasts in the stalls. So with every engraver and designer who, laboring night and day, Fashions carved seals, and whose concern is to vary the pattern. His care is to produce a vivid impression, and he keeps watch till he finishes his design. So with the smith standing near his anvil, forging crude iron. The heat from the fire sears his flesh, yet he toils away in the furnace heat. The clang of the hammer deafens his ears, His eyes are fixed on the tool he is shaping. His care is to finish his work, and he keeps watch till he perfects it in detail. So with the potter sitting at his labor, revolving the wheel with his feet. He is always concerned for his products, and turns them out in quantity. With his hands he molds the clay, and with his feet softens it. His care is for proper coloring, and he keeps watch on the fire of his kiln. All these men are skilled with their hands, each one an expert at his own task; Without them no city could be lived in, and wherever they stay, they need not hunger. They do not occupy the judge’s bench, nor are they prominent in the assembly; They set forth no decisions or judgments, nor are they found among the rulers; Yet they maintain God’s ancient handiwork, and their concern is for exercise of their skill.

How different the man who devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High! He explores the wisdom of the men of old and occupies himself with the prophecies; He treasures the discourses of famous men, and goes to the heart of involved sayings; He studies obscure parables, and is busied with the hidden meanings of the sages. He is in attendance on the great, and has entrance to the ruler. He travels among the peoples of foreign lands to learn what is good and evil among men. His care is to seek the Lord, his Maker, to petition the Most High, To open his lips in prayer, to ask pardon for his sins. Then, if it pleases the Lord Almighty, he will be filled with the spirit of understanding.”

Here we find, in Israel, the conviction that to become a wise man, one must be free from the burdens of wage-earning. This distinction between the man of labor and the man of learning is in perfect harmony with the Greek explanation of the illiberal (practical) and liberal arts. The idea in Israel of “learning” is clearly philosophical learning and while every Jew received the basic instruction in the faith, only a select few chose the contemplative life of the scribe.

We find in this important passage that the studies of the scribe extend into all areas of learning. First, we learn the content. The scribe studies the Law and the Prophets. Yet just as the Catholic Church today possesses a depositum fidei composed of both written Scripture and oral tradition, the Jews possessed both the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and the Oral Torah, which consisted of an unwritten tradition of interpretation and commentary on the Scriptures, believed to have originated with Moses and to have been restored later by Ezra. It is to the teachers of this oral tradition that Sirach most likely refers as “famous men” and “sages”. This oral tradition and its study centered about the Temple in Jerusalem, which was the center of learning and culture in Jewish religious life.

However, the learning of the 3rd/2nd century scribe extends beyond the study of Jewish thought, to the universal learning we have seen in Moses and Daniel. Sirach tells us that beyond what we might consider the standard course of Jewish studies was the study of international philosophy, politics and culture. To access this information requires a bit of history.

The Hellenistic World

Christian circles today are all but unconscious of the Hellenistic world, which lasted from the time of Alexander the Great (c 330 BC) to shortly before the opening of the New Testament. Knowledge of this period provides an invaluable connection between the classical and Christian eras and must be a part of Catholic learning. Protestantism, by its omission of the Deuterocanonical books, has contributed immensely to this problem, leaving the reader of Scripture confused as the Old Testament closes under Persian rule and the New Testament opens with the Romans firmly in control. The ignorance of inter-testamental history leads to great errors in New Testament interpretation.

Let’s summarize this important history. Around 450 BC, the Jews were freed from their Babylonian captivity by the Persian king Cyrus. This history is narrated in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. It is important to note that it was during this time, between 399-387 BC that Plato was supposed to have become acquainted with Jewish philosophy at Alexandria–before returning to Athens and founding his famous Academy. The Jews enjoyed their freedom until around 320 BC when Alexander the Great, the famous pupil of Aristotle, conquered the world from Greece south to Egypt and east to India. The attempt by the Greeks to “Hellenize” Israel divided the Jews as many welcomed the new culture and others saw it as apostasy from the Law. This situation is narrated in detail in 1 Maccabees 1:

“In those days there appeared in Israel men who were breakers of the law, and they seduced many people, saying: “Let us go and make an alliance with the Gentiles all around us; since we separated from them, many evils have come upon us.” The proposal was agreeable; some from among the people promptly went to the king, and he authorized them to introduce the way of living of the Gentiles.”

Israel, through this controversy, was divided into two major divisions: those who admitted Hellenistic influences and those who opposed them. Among the opposing Jews, four major schools of thought emerged: the Pharisees who honored Jewish written and oral tradition; the Sadducees who denied the authority of oral tradition; the Zealots who favored violent opposition to foreign influence; and the Essenes who were devoted to spiritually-minded asceticism that removed them from the battles of the other three groups. Israel, thus divided, ultimately found itself in a state of civil war. In 63 BC, Pompey seized control of Palestine and the Jews found themselves under foreign control once again. It is during this Roman period that the New Testament opens.

The significance of all of this is that the Jews were not a group of religious people cut off from the rest of civilization. They had direct contact with Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman civilization throughout their history–all of which are recognized as the most learned of nations. It is improbable that the Jews mastered the Babylonian sciences, yet did not study Mathematics themselves, or that they knew of Alexander, but not of Aristotle. Did the Jews enjoy access to the Roman courts, yet not know of Cicero and Caesar? We must reason that the scribes of Israel were fully aware of and skilled in the learning of the nations, or the classical liberal arts.

Jewish Education in the Time of Christ

We learned above that the Jews studied both the written Scriptures and the oral tradition of Israel. We learned that the learned Jews were expert not only in the studies of their own nation and culture, but also that of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans–many of them either living among or corresponding with these nations. It would be more probable then, that the Jews were entirely familiar with the classical liberal arts not only because of their proximity to Greco-Roman culture, but also because of the examples found in men like Moses and Solomon, which we have discussed before.

In this context we find the Son of God, a rabbi in Israel. The term rabbi in Hebrew is equivalent to our use of the word “Reverend”. The rabbi was a religious teacher or sage, responsible for the religious instruction of a group of disciples. We would not expect to find in the rabbi teaching Logic or Rhetoric in a formal manner any more than we would expect such from a parish priest, for his aim was simply the exposition of the law and its observance. The disciples of Jesus received an elite rabbinical education, but that education was not to be considered as a replacement to the literary education pursued among the more academically oriented groups. It is for this reason that we find the Apostles referred to as “unlearned and ignorant men”. The word “unlearned” is agrammatoi, which is elsewhere translated “unlettered” or “illiterate”.

Here we must address a popular notion that the Apostles were a crowd of simpletons who might be looked at as the models of “true” Christian education. This silly notion neglects the aim of the education received by the disciples from Jesus. The disciples were called away from their trades for a specialized training that prepared them for their apostolic ministry. The education they received was not a model for all Christian education, but for that of a specific mission–a mission that would never be duplicated. What the Apostles learned was a more perfect interpretation and application of the Law, supplied by Jesus Himself, that would characterize Christianity and distinguish it from Judaism. Thus Christ did not “abolish the law”, nor to change it, but to provide the perfect interpretation of it. Christ’s teaching ministry challenged the Jewish oral tradition that was imperfect and established the true and perfect interpretation which would be passed down from that time on by the Catholic Church. It is this “tradition” that St. Paul defends in 2 Thessalonians 3:6 and it is this Apostolic tradition that the Catholic Church maintains to this day. However, the Apostolic tradition is not where we would expect to find the Church’s view on formal education generally.

In the next lesson, we will examine the Church’s early teaching on education, in which the classical liberal arts are brought yet closer to perfection.


In the first lesson, we considered the philosophical foundations of the classical liberal arts curriculum and tracked its earliest progress through Moses. In the second lesson, we considered the development of music and philosophy in ancient Israel in the lives of David and Solomon. In our study of the Greek philosophical tradition, we learned how the Greeks identified and arranged the classical liberal arts, and how Aristotle supplied us with the first deductive textbooks on Logic, Rhetoric, Poetry and the branches of Philosophy. In the last lesson, we have seen yet another wave of development among the Romans as they add to the classical liberal arts the language by which they will forever be communicated and the perfection of instruction in the art of Rhetoric. Here, we have established the historical background against which our next study will consider the educational philosophy of the early Christian Church.