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Scribes were employed as secretaries in Palestine, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Greco-Roman Empire. Court scribes would sometimes rise to positions of social prestige and considerable political influence, much as a secretary of state today.
There were schools for the training of such scribes. To master the difficult art of writing on clay probably required as much time then as it takes students now to develop the ability to read and write. Would-be scribes could either enter a regular school or work as an apprentice under a private teacher, though most of them apparently followed the latter procedure. Scribes who were willing to teach could be found everywhere, even in the smaller towns. In fact, most of the scribes had at least one apprentice, who was treated like a son while learning the profession. Such students learned not only from private tutoring but also from the example of their teacher. This kind of education was sufficient to equip young scribes for the normal commercial branches of the craft. They were fully prepared to handle the necessary formulas for the various kinds of legal and business documents, and they could easily take dictation for private correspondence.
For additional study and training, however, it was necessary to attend the regular schools. The schools were attached to temples, and only these schools had the proper facilities to teach the sciences (including mathematics) and literature, which the more advanced scribes had to master. There a budding scribe could study to become even a priest or a “scientist.” In the ruins of ancient cities, archaeologists have discovered “textbooks” used by the pupils. Excavators have also uncovered schoolrooms with benches on which the students sat. Some of the ancient Near Eastern texts that have been unearthed are nothing but schoolboy exercises or student copies of originals. These copies are usually not as beautiful or as legible as the originals, which were written by master scribes.
When the teacher wanted to give the students an assignment, he had available in the temple school virtually every type of text imaginable. For elementary work, he could have the students practice writing a list of cuneiform signs, much like our learning the letters of the alphabet—except that there were some 600 signs! Another simple assignment would have been to copy dictionaries containing lists of stones, cities, animals, and gods. After such preparatory work, the students could then move on to literary texts and, for example, accurately reproduce a portion of one of the great epics, a hymn, or a prayer. Through arduous study and a lengthy program of instruction and practice, a gifted student could become qualified for scribal service in almost any field.
Religious Scribe The scribe in Israel undertook a wide range of writing tasks. Often the scribe sat at the gate of the city or in an open area undertaking numerous kinds of writing tasks for illiterate citizens, correspondence, writing of receipts, and contracts. More officially, he kept records and wrote annals. Religious scribes copied the Scriptures. Several of these men are mentioned in the OT: Shebna (2 Kgs 18:18, 37), Shaphan (2 Kgs 22:8–12), Ezra (Ezr 7:6, 11; Neh 8:1, 9, 13; 12:26, 36), Baruch (Jer 36:26, 32), and Jonathan (Jer 37:15, 20).
Paul made use of secretaries or scribes (called amanuenses) when he composed his epistles. The usual procedure for a dictated epistle was for the amanuensis to take down the speaker’s words and produce a transcript, which the author would then review and edit. Taking the edited copy, the amanuensis would produce a final draft, which the author would sign in his own handwriting. Two NT epistles provide the name of an amanuensis: Tertius for Romans (Rom 16:22) and Silvanus for 1 Peter (1 Pt 5:12). Some of Paul’s epistles indicate that he provided the concluding salutation in his own handwriting: 1 Corinthians (1 Cor 16:21), Galatians (Gal 6:11), Colossians (Col 4:18), and 2 Thessalonians (2 Thes 3:17). This indicates that these epistles were penned by someone else—Paul’s amanuensis—prior to his signing off. By contrast, John penned his own epistles (1 Jn 1:4; 2:1, 7–8, 12–14; 2 Jn 1:12; 3 Jn 1:9, 13).
By Walter A. Elwell and Philip Wesley Comfort