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Scribes [Heb. sōp̱erîm; Gk. grammateís]. A class of literate professionals ranging from copiers, secretaries, and government officials in the earlier OT period to special scholars and teachers of the Torah in the postexilic and NT periods.
In the Preexilic Era
The importance of scribes (in the basic sense of those trained to read and write) goes back to the first use of writing in the ancient centers of civilization, Babylon and Egypt. Clearly, these skills automatically made the scribe both a necessary and a powerful member of society. The ruling class depended on the scribes for a great variety of practical matters, and gradually scribes evolved from mere copiers and recorders to influential members of the government and representatives of the king.
A statue of a Greek scribe writing on a tablet, found at Thebes in central Greece, 6th cent. B.C. (RMN/ARS, NY/SPADEM)
This increasing importance of the scribe is apparent in the early occurrences of the word in the OT. Scribes in the role of secretary of state are regularly listed among the cabinet members of the government (e.g., 2 S. 8:17; 20:25; 1 K. 4:3; Jer. 36:12). They continue to function practically as secretaries with a variety of responsibilities, such as keeping official financial records (2 K. 12:10; 2 Ch. 24:11) and mustering troops (2 K. 25:19; 2 Ch. 26:11). But they also assume considerable importance and authority as personal secretaries and counselors of the king (2 K. 18:18; 22:3; 1 Ch. 27:32; cf. Ps. 45:1 [MT 2]). Levite scribes mentioned in 1 Ch. 24:6 and 2 Ch. 34:13 foreshadow the later importance of priestly scribes. The reference to “the families of the scribes” in 1 Ch. 2:55 indicates the forming of guilds and the passing down of the scribal profession from father to son.
In a quite natural development, scribes came to be valued not simply for their technical skills but for the wisdom and understanding they frequently possessed (cf. 1 Ch. 27:32). The scribe thus came to be known as “the wise man” (cf. Isa. 33:18, LXX; 1 Cor. 1:20). In the viewpoint that was soon to emerge in all clarity, the scribe was considered a wise man particularly because of his expertise in the interpretation and application of the Torah. This close connection between scribes and the Torah is already hinted at in the reading of the book of the law by Shaphan, the scribe of King Josiah (2 K. 22:10; 2 Ch. 34:18).
In the Exilic and Postexilic Eras
The origin of the scribes as a professional class of Torah scholars is to be found in the exilic experience of Israel. During the Exile it was important to know specifically how the Law should be obeyed in a foreign context, and thus the initial elaborations of the Torah, later known as scribal tradition, came into existence. This scribal tradition, together with the synagogue, which developed under the same circumstances, came eventually to dominate Judaism after the destruction of Jerusalem.
A scribe of the exilic period who deserves mention is Baruch, Jeremiah’s secretary. Baruch is not identified as a Torah scholar; he is instead a scribe in the earlier sense of the word: he takes down the prophet’s dictation (Jer. 36:4, 18), he reads the words as Jeremiah’s representative (Jer. 36:6, 10, 15), and he collects and preserves these words (v 32). This points to the probability that one of the important early tasks of the scribes was the custody and transmission of Israel’s written scriptures. This work was indispensable to the gradual emergence of a distinct group of writings that came to be regarded as canonical.
The key figure of the early postexilic period is the paradigmatic scribe Ezra. Although Ezra is also a priest (Ezr. 7:11; Neh. 8:9; 12:26), it is in his role as scribe that he reestablishes the centrality of the Law for the people of Israel. When he is first introduced in the book of Ezra, it is as “a scribe skilled in the law of Moses which the Lord the God of Israel had given” (Ezr. 7:6) and “learned in matters of the commandments of the Lord and his statutes for Israel” (v 11). He is responsible not only for the reading of the Torah to the people (Neh. 8:1–8) but also for its study (v 13), the special province of the scribe. For these reasons Ezra stands at the head of the emerging class of scribes as Torah scholars.
A wonderful glimpse of the status and nature of the scribe ca 180 B.C. is provided by Ben Sira (Sir. 38:24–39:11). The passage begins with the words, “The wisdom of the scribe depends on the opportunity of leisure,” which point to the legitimacy of the scribal calling as a profession in its own right. Furthermore, while other professions are good and necessary, they are inferior to the scribe’s. Only the scribe attains “eminence in the public assembly” and is “sought out for the council of the people”; only the scribe can sit in judgment and “expound discipline” (38:33). The scribe “devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High”; he “will seek out the wisdom of all the ancients, and will be concerned with prophecies [a possible allusion to the threefold OT canon; cf. the prologue to Sirach]; he will preserve the discourse of notable men [i.e., maintain oral tradition] and penetrate the subtleties of parables” (39:1f.).
The scribe “will serve among great men and appear before rulers” as an ambassador (v 4). “He will be filled with the spirit of understanding; he will pour forth words of wisdom …” (v 6). “He will reveal instruction in his teaching, and will glory in the law of the Lord’s covenant” (v 8). “His memory will not disappear, and his name will live through all generations” (v 9).
According to Mish Aboth i.1, “Moses received the Torah on Sinai, and handed it down to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the Men of the Great Assembly [keneseṯ haggeḏōlâ]. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment; raise up many disciples; and make a fence around the Torah.” Jewish tradition identifies Ezra as the leader of the 120 men of the Great Assembly. The above description of the assembly’s goals is a quintessential definition of the scribes’ calling: they were responsible for making decisions in courts of law; they taught the Torah to their students; and they expounded the meaning and application of the Torah. As Jeremias stated, the scribes were the “possessors of divine esoteric knowledge” and, as such, “the immediate heirs and successors of the prophets” (Jerusalem, p. 241).
In their role of scholar-teachers the scribes, especially those of the Pharisees, gained enormous prestige among the people. They possessed considerable power (Jeremias described them as “a new upper class”), since they formed a significant portion of the seventy-one-member Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, the main governing body of Judaism. They were also members of the lesser judiciaries in their respective localities and frequently held office in the synagogue and civil affairs. They wore special, long robes like those of the nobility, were given seats of honor, and enjoyed reverential salutations (cf. Mt. 23:5–7). From the 1st cent. A.D. on they were referred to as “Rabbi” (“my great one”) and were to be accorded more esteem than even one’s parents (Mish Aboth iv.12).
According to the rabbinic literature, scribes were expected to have a practical vocation by which to support themselves. They were not allowed to earn their living by their scholarship (Mish Aboth iv.5; cf. ii.2; Bekhoroth iv.6). This stands in some tension with Ben Sira’s view that the scribe’s special calling demands leisure. According to Matthew, too, the message of the Kingdom is to be given “without pay” (Mt. 10:8), although the missionary is to receive his “food” for his labor (Mt. 10:10; in Lk. 10:7 this is broadened to “wages”). Paul, who was himself a scribe, earned his keep by tentmaking rather than by his preaching, even though he defended the right of missionaries to earn their living from the gospel (1 Cor. 9:3–14; cf. 1 Tim. 5:18).
All the parties within Judaism had their Torah scholars. Some scribes were priests, some were Sadducees, but the majority were Pharisees. The scribes of the Pharisees were responsible for maintaining and developing the oral tradition, and thus for promoting the study and practice of the Torah. The formal student of the Torah (a talmîḏ), after a number of years of undistracted study that included living with his Rabbi, and after demonstrating his expertise in case law, became a qualified scholar (a talmîḏ ḥāḵām); but according to the Talmud (T.B. Sotah 22b) he could not proceed to ordination (and the status of ḥāḵām, “wise man”) until the age of forty. The type of school (bêṯ hammiḏrāš) to which Ben Sira invites the unlearned (Sir. 51:23) was to become an institution in the rabbinic Judaism of the centuries following the destruction of Jerusalem. Before A.D. 70 the schools of Shammai and Hillel became famous for their vying opinions on certain topics. Later the term “scribes” was used only for the Torah scholars of the early period, and ḥaḵāmîm, “wise men,” came to be used for contemporary rabbis.
In the Gospels
The scribes of the NT are Torah scholars. They are referred to not only as Gk. grammateís but also as nomikoí (“lawyers,” i.e., those trained in the application of the Torah), e.g., in Mt. 22:35 (par Mk. 12:28 has grammateús) and Lk. 11:46, 52 (Mt. 23 refers to grammateís). The term nomodidáskaloi, “teachers of the Law,” occurs in Lk. 5:17 and Acts 5:34 (where it refers to Gamaliel).
The word grammateús occurs fifty-seven times in the Synoptic Gospels, but not once in John (except in the inferior text of Jn. 8:3). In more than a third of these instances the scribes are linked with the Pharisees. Clearly the scribes, as authoritative expositors of the Torah, were particularly important as the transmitters and developers of the oral tradition that was so central to Pharisaism. In the Gospels scribes are also linked with other powerful segments of Jewish society, such as chief priests and elders, most of whom were probably Sadducees. They are consistently presented as Torah or Scripture scholars (e.g., Mt. 2:4; Mk. 7:1 par; 9:11 par; 9:14), teachers (Mk. 1:22 par; 12:35), and guardians of orthodoxy/orthopraxy (Mk. 2:6 par; 2:16 par; 3:22; 11:27 par; Lk. 6:7; 15:2). On the darker side, they are among the main instigators of Jesus’ death (Mk. 8:31 par; 10:33 par; 11:18; 14:1 par, 43, 53 par; 15:1; Lk. 11:53; 20:19; 23:10).
Despite their acknowledged authority (Mt. 23:2) and the seriousness of their quest for righteousness (cf. 5:20), the scribes associated with the Pharisees receive harsh criticism, particularly in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus says that their tradition has canceled out the commandments of God (Mt. 15:3 par), and He castigates them for their hypocrisy (15:7f par). Six times in Mt. 23:13–33 (cf. parallel material in Lk. 11:39–52; 20:45f.; Mk. 12:38f) the blistering refrain occurs: “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” In a seventh woe they are described as “blind guides” (Mt. 23:16).
Behind this heated polemic lay the very real competition between Jesus and the scribes concerning the true interpretation of Moses. Jesus, whose authority in the interpretation of the Torah far exceeded that of the scribes (Mt. 7:29), was for the disciples the “one teacher,” the “one master” (23:8, 10). While this competition went back to Jesus’ ministry, it was perpetuated between the Church and the synagogue; this explains the importance and the especially harsh character of the Matthaean material. The criticisms of the scribes and the Pharisees in the Gospels are broad generalizations that need not have applied to all scribes and Pharisees; certainly they do not apply to scribism and Pharisaism in principle.
Matthew alone identifies as a scribe the man who volunteered to follow Jesus wherever He went (Mt. 8:19; cf. Lk. 9:57). According to Mt. 22:35 it was a “lawyer” (nomikós; a “scribe” in Mk. 12:28) who asked about “the great commandment in the law”; according to Mk. 12:34 Jesus told him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
The professional Torah scholars were charged with the very great responsibility of interpreting the Law. The scribes, following in the tradition of Ezra their forefather, made the study and teaching of the Law the center of their lives. When another scribe came into the picture teaching the dawning of the awaited Kingdom—a scribe neither formally trained nor ordained (cf. Jn. 7:15), who nonetheless spoke with a unique authority—a clash was inevitable. And yet, as much as Jesus had to oppose the scribes, in a real sense He Himself stood in continuity with their calling. As God had in the past sent scribes to Israel, so in the new era of the Kingdom He had sent the one teacher and master. Matthew, writing to Jewish Christians, continued to find significance for the calling of scribe—but now the Christian scribe, who is “trained for the kingdom of heaven” and likened to “a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Mt. 13:52). In keeping with this, Matthew alone recorded these words of Jesus: “Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town” (23:34). These words found their fulfillment in the early missionaries who, functioning as scribes, presented a Christian interpretation of the Scriptures and the true meaning of the Torah, based on the teaching originally given by their Lord.
By D. A. Hagner
Bibliography.— D. A. Hagner, “Scribes,” ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988), 359–361.; DNTT, III, 477–482; M. Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism (Eng. tr. 1974), I, 78–83, 131–38; HJP2, II, 322–336; J. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Eng. tr. 1969), pp. 233–245; G. F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, I (1927), 29–47; SB, I, 79–82, 691–95; TDNT, I, s.v. γραμματ̮εύς (J. Jeremias).