It is certain that these free and public discussions of the Jews tended to create a high degree of general intelligence among the people. The students were trained there in a system of excellent dialectics and they learned to express themselves in a rapid and sententious style, often with much poetic feeling. They also acquired an admirable acquaintance with the words of the ancient Scriptures which would make anyone wise.
These "Assemblies of the Wise" were possibly a continuation of the "Schools of the Prophets," which are mentioned in the historical books of the Old Testament (1Samuel 10:5, 6, 19:20, 2Kings 2:3, 5, 4:38). Wherever the earlier meetings were held, whether at the gate of the city, or in some more secluded place, we read of no buildings for purposes of worship or instruction before the Captivity.
During that melancholy period, when the Jews mourned over their separation from the Temple, the necessity of assemblies must have been deeply felt, for united prayer and mutual exhortation, for the singing of the "Songs of Zion," and for remembering the "Word of the Lord." When they returned, the public reading of the law became a practice of universal interest: and from this period we must date the erection of Synagogues in the different towns of Palestine. To this later period the 74th Psalm may be referred, which laments over "the burning of all the synagogues of God in the land" (Psalm 24:8). These buildings are not mentioned by Josephus in any of the earlier passages of his history. But in the time of the Apostles we have the fullest evidence that they existed in all the small towns in Judea, and in all the principal cities where the Jews were dispersed abroad.
It seems that the synagogues often consisted of two apartments, one for prayer, preaching, and the offices of public worship; the other for the meetings of learned men, for discussions concerning questions of religion and discipline, and for purposes of wise education. Thus the Synagogues and the Schools cannot be considered as two separate subjects. No doubt a distinction must be drawn between the smaller schools of the country villages, and the great divinity schools of Jerusalem. The synagogue which was built by the Centurion at Capernaum (Luke 7:5) was unquestionably a far less important place than those synagogues in the Holy City, where "the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, with those of Asia and Cilicia" (Acts 6:9) rose up as one man, and disputed against Stephen's wisdom.
We have in Acts 6:9 five groups of foreign Jews. Two are from Africa, two from Western Asia, and one from Europe. There is no doubt that the Israelites of Syria, Babylonia, and the East were similarly represented. The Rabbinical writers say that there were 480 synagogues in Jerusalem; and though this must be an exaggeration, yet no doubt all shades of Hellenistic and Aramaic opinions found a home in the common metropolis. It is easy to see that an eager and enthusiastic student could have had no lack of excitements to stimulate his religious and intellectual activity, if he spent the years of his youth in that city "at the feet of Gamaliel."
Modes of Teaching
It has been contended, that when apostle Paul said he was "brought up" in Jerusalem "at the feet of Gamaliel," he meant that he had lived at the Rabban’s house, and eaten at his table. But the words evidently point to the customary posture of Jewish students at a school. There is a curious passage in the Talmud, where it is said, that "from the days of Moses to Rabban Gamaliel, they stood up to learn the law; but when Rabban Gamaliel died, sickness came into the world, and they sat down to learn the Law."
"To sit at the feet of a teacher" was a proverbial expression, as when Mary is said to have "sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word" (Luke 8:35, 10:39). But the proverbial expression must have arisen from a wellknown custom. The teacher was seated on an elevated platform, or on the ground, and the pupils around him on low seats or on the floor. Maimonides says the following.
"How do the masters teach? The doctor sits at the head, and the disciples surround him like a crown, that they may all see the doctor and hear his words. Nor is the doctor seated on a seat, and the disciples on the ground; but all are on seats, or all on the floor."
St. Ambrose says, in his Commentary on the 1st Epistle to the Corinthians, that "it is the tradition of the synagogue that they sit while they dispute; the elders in dignity on high chairs, those beneath them on low seats, and the last of all on mats upon the pavement." And again Philo says, that the children of the Essenes sat at the feet of the masters, who interpreted the law, and explained its figurative sense. And the same thing is expressed in that maxim of the Jews, "Place thyself in the dust at the feet of the wise."