Scribes of the Bible

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Reference in early OT times to those employed for their ability to transcribe information. After the exile, scribes are a class of scholars who teach, copy, and interpret the Jewish Law for the people. They appear in the Gospels primarily as opponents of Jesus.

Scribes in Preexilic Times. The ability to read and write was not very widespread in ancient Israel and professional secretaries were needed in the various aspects of public life. This appears to be the earliest biblical notion of the term scribe and has no particular religious connotation. Scribes were employed to keep accounts or transcribe legal information (Jer 32:12), military data (2 Chr 26:11), other public documents (Jgs 8:14; Is 50:1), or personal correspondence (Jer 36:18). These secretaries were essential to royal administrations, and there is frequent mention of a chief scribe who functioned as a court recorder (1 Kgs 4:3; 2 Chr 24:11), advisor (2 Sm 8:16, 17; 2 Kgs 18:18; 22:12; 1 Chr 27:32; Is 36:3), and financial overseer (2 Kgs 22:3, 4). Secretaries or scribes were associated with the priesthood as well, serving as recorders for temple affairs (1 Chr 24:6; 2 Chr 34:13, 15).

Scribes in Postexilic Times. With the restoration under Ezra-Nehemiah, the term scribe. begins to be associated more narrowly with those who gathered together, studied, and interpreted the Torah (Jewish Law). They became in essence a separate profession of teachers (although unpaid), able to preserve accurately the Law of Moses and interpret it to meet conditions in postexilic times. In this initial period, Ezra himself appears as the ideal scribe, “learned in matters of the commandments of the Lord and his statutes for Israel” (Ezr 7:11) because he had “set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach his statutes and ordinances to Israel” (v 10). In Ecclesiasticus 38:24, 33, and 39:1–11, the scribe is portrayed as one who, because of his diligent study of the Law, the prophets, and writings (38:34; 39:1), is able to penetrate the hidden meanings of texts (39:2, 3) and thus is able to serve as judge and counsel for the affairs of the people and state (38:33; 39:4–8). Because of his absolutely invaluable place in a society governed by the Torah, the scribe is worthy of praise and veneration throughout succeeding generations (39:9).

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By the 2nd century bc. the scribes were a fairly distinct class in Jewish society. They appear as such during the Maccabean wars, acting as a negotiating body with the rival Syrians (1 Mc 7:12). It is also significant that from this time forward, the history of the scribe in Jewish life is closely linked with the rise of the Pharisees. Although there were apparently some scribes affiliated with the rival Sadducean party, the lay party of the Pharisees with its absolute devotion to the Law (including the oral law) became the primary religio-political affiliation for the scribes (see the close connection in the NT, Mt 5:20; 12:38; 15:1; Mk 7:5; Lk 6:7).

Training and Status Within the Community. The training of scribes initially occurred within priestly family-based guilds which guaranteed the regulation and perpetuation of this now vital responsibility (1 Chr 2:55). Later, scribal training in the Law became open to members of all classes, with the eventual result, by Jesus’ time, of scribes from nonpriestly families being far more numerous and influential. Training in the Law began at an early age under the personal supervision of a teacher (rabbi), who instructed in all matters of the Law and its interpretation for present needs. Because the written Law of Moses could not possibly speak directly to conditions in postexilic times, the oral interpretation and application of the written law to meet such current needs was a significant contribution by the scribes. Such “oral law” promulgated by them was regarded as equal to the written and equally binding for those desiring to please God (see Mk 7:6–13).

This important function, lying at the very heart of Jewish life, accounts for the participation of the scribes in the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin, in order to make legal decisions in keeping with the Law, obviously needed the presence of those most knowledgeable about the minutest details of the Torah and the principles governing its application to new circumstances. The scribes, consequently, were the only members outside the aristocratic high priests and elders to be represented in this Jewish supreme court (Mt 26:57; Mk 14:43, 53; Lk 22:66; Acts 23:9).

Being the authoritative instructors of the Law both within the temple (Lk 2:46) and within the various synagogues of Judea and Galilee (Lk 5:17), as well as prominent members of the Sanhedrin, the scribes were greatly respected within the Jewish community. They wore special robes (Mk 12:38) with memorial fringes (Mt 23:5) at the bottom, pencases possibly from the girdle (Ez 9:2), and phylacteries or “prayer boxes” hanging from the arms (Mt 23:5). Such attire made their presence obvious and occasioned the rising or bowing of the common people when they passed (Mk 12:38).

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They were addressed with respect as “rabbi” or “master” (Mt 23:7) and were given the place of honor at worship as well as at social affairs (Mt 23:2; Mk 12:39; Lk 20:46). Indeed, the high regard the Jews held for their scribes is testified by the fact that such teachers of the Law were buried alongside the purported tombs of the patriarchs and prophets.

Jesus and the Scribes. The scribes appear predominantly in the ministry of Jesus as those concerned with the circumspectness of legal observance. Luke refers to the scribes as “lawyers,” describing their chief function as interpreters of the Jewish Law in a way readily comprehensible to his gentile audience. It is often found, therefore, that the scribes were critical members of Jesus’ audience, accusing him of violating the Law on numerous occasions: in forgiving sins (Mt 9:1–3; Lk 5:17–26), in breaking their notion of sabbath observance through work (Lk 6:1, 2) and healing (Lk 6:6–11), in not following their accepted ceremonial washings (Mk 7:2–5), and in ignoring their practice of fasting (Lk 5:33–39). Not surprisingly, they especially disapproved of Jesus’ practice of mixing with the unclean and outcasts of Jewish society (Mk 2:16, 17; Lk 15:1, 2). In a similar light, they are not unfrequently found posing questions concerning the Law for the purpose of tricking Jesus (Mk 7:1; 12:28, 35; Lk 11:53; Jn 8:3). In a similar fashion, they demanded that Jesus make his identity clear (Mt 12:38) and reveal the source of his authority to perform miracles (Mk 3:22; Lk 20:1–4).

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Although there is evidence that a minority of the scribes accepted Jesus (Mt 8:19; 13:52; Mk 12:32; Jn 3:1), their primary attitude toward Jesus was one of hostility. As previously suggested, this was partly due to Jesus’ differing expression of fidelity to the Mosaic law and his openness toward the outcasts. It was also partly due to the rising popularity of Jesus among the people, which posed a threat to their own authority (Mt 7:29) and to the safety of the city (21:15; Mk 11:18).

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Certainly another major contributing factor of their opposition to Jesus was his open exposure of their hypocrisy and corruption. In his rebukes of the scribes and the Pharisees, Jesus openly accused them of catering to public approval (Mt 23:5–7; Mk 12:38, 39; Lk 11:43) and, while appearing outwardly correct and holy, being inwardly utterly corrupt (Mt 23:25–28; Lk 11:39–41). Jesus also attacked the principle of oral law promulgated by the scribes, which they demanded the people to follow. Jesus charged that the oral law was a “heavy burden” which led the people astray and which the scribes themselves did not even bother to follow (Mt 23:2–4, 13–22; Lk 11:46). While emphasizing the minor points of the Law, the scribes were also guilty of ignoring the weightier concerns of justice, mercy, and faith (Mt 23:23, 24; Mk 12:40; Lk 11:42). Furthermore, contrary to being the descendants of the prophets, as the scribes held themselves to be, the scribes, Jesus claimed, would have killed the prophets if they had lived in their day (Mt 23:29–36; Lk 20:9–19). Those hoping to see the kingdom of heaven would, Jesus suggested, have to surpass this kind of “righteousness” practiced by the scribes (Mt 5:20).

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It is not surprising to find, therefore, the scribes anxious to get rid of Jesus (Mk 14:1; Lk 11:53). His more flexible interpretation of the Law posed a clear threat to their position and authority within the community. The scribes joined forces with their normal opponents (the high priesthood) to engineer Jesus’ arrest (Mk 14:43). When Jesus appeared before them and the rest of the Sanhedrin, they worked with the other leaders to construct a case against him worthy of death (Mt 26:57–66). When taking Jesus before Herod, they stood by and shouted their accusations with the others (Lk 23:10). Finally, they participated with other members of the Sanhedrin in mocking Jesus on the cross, demanding that Jesus save himself by coming down from the cross to “inspire their faith” (Mt 27:41–43).

Prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in ad 70, the scribes continued with the other elements of the Sanhedrin to oppose the early Christian church and brought about Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 6:12–14).[1]

[1] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Scribe,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1913–1915.

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