Where the world comes to study the Bible

The Scribes

The scribes make up another group of individuals who enjoyed the authority of leadership in Israel. In the New Testament they are associated with the Pharisees and the High Priests as opponents of Jesus. In the Mishnah they are presented as pre-rabbinic teachers with authority, as well as copyists and teachers.1 Josephus does not list them as a distinct group.

The scribes have a notable history. All ancient peoples had large numbers of scribes for the transmission of religious texts and other legal and historical documents. In the Old Testament the best-known scribe is Ezra; because he was both a scribe and a priest, he was a very powerful religious leader (Ez. 7:6).

If there had not been copyists and interpreters, there would have been no transmission of the biblical text. Those who did the work very quickly became authorities on the text. Most of them were probably priests, or linked with priestly groups. With so many complicated materials involved with the transmission of the holy writings, professional, well-trained scribes were absolutely essential.2

Under the influence of the Greek world, non-priests were added to the scribal class in greater numbers. Moreover, more specialized activities were included; the scribes were also philosophers, sophists, councilors, and teachers.3 In the Book of Deuteronomy we are told that the Levites were the teachers of the Law; but from the Hellenistic period on this task was shared by scribes who may or may not have been connected to the priestly or Levitical heritage--they took their place beside the priests.4

In the Maccabean period the scribes were prominent leaders of society; they were now an institution. "Scribe" became a title for a learned guardian of the Law. According to Ben Sira a scribe was also a wise man who had comprehensive knowledge.5 And Ben Sirais an important witness; his primary calling was as a biblical scholar, a teacher of the Law, and a representative of the class of soferim.6

According to Josephus, scribes were officials at all levels of government. Saldarini concludes that in the New Testament they could be mid-level officials serving the king (p. 261). But there were also Temple scribes who occupied themselves recording, teaching, and ruling on points of law.

The scribes do not seem to be a coherent social group with membership. They were basically bureaucrats, experts on Jewish life and law. They might be lower level scribes who served the villages as village scribes, making contracts, documents, and serving as government officials. But they mostly lived in Jerusalem and associated with the priests: they were expert in judicial procedures, helpful in the enforcement of Jewish law and custom, and even joined the governing class and served on the Sanhedrin. Because they depended on the wealthy for their training and their positions, they were loyal to the chief priests and leaders.7

In Rabbinic literature they are the early authoritative teachers to whom a large number of rulings and legal interpretations are attributed.8 They were influential in Judaism, to be sure; the Mishnah circumscribes but does not condemn their authority.9 At this period they were credited with less authority than they seem to have in the Bible. In the Talmudic period the roles of the scribe and the wise were assimilated into the title Rabbi.10

In the New Testament period the scribes were learned teachers and authoritative leaders, who were drawn from the priests and Levites, as well as the common people. Mark portrays them as high officials, advisors to the chief priests, and teachers of the Law. As such they were part of many types of officials opposed to Jesus. Matthew presents them as the learned of Judaism, leaders of the community. Luke portrays them as an appendage of the Pharisees, learned men who were protecting Judaism, and leaders who were associated with the Chief Priests. It is clear from the many witnesses that the scribes had authority because they had knowledge. And whatever level of government they served, they sought to preserve Judaism against opponents like Jesus.

In Christianity the "learned" have always been influential; and with that influence comes authority. This can be very good. The Church desperately needs spiritual leaders who are biblical scholars. Unfortunately, such learning can be more of a hindrance than a help. Biblical scholarship can be weak and ineffectual; it can also be dishonest and destructive. And it is not uncommon to see scholars, buoyed by popularity, seize the authority and set themselves over generations of biblical authorities. And if they have little or no faith, or if they follow faulty presuppositions, their learning will not contribute to the spiritual growth of the believing community. More often than not the learned work to impress their peers, and in such academic arenas modern criticism and political correctness are the ways to acceptance and advancement. Traditional beliefs, especially the supernatural, are all too often considered to be obscurantist. And it is not merely because a good deal of conservative scholarship has been shoddy. Much of the Christian faith is simply an embarrassment to many. The world of biblical scholarship is filled with theological cowards. One can only wonder how the modern scholars would compare to the ancient scribes' opposition to Jesus and His claims.


1 Saldarini, p. 241.

2 Ibid., p. 249.

3 Saldarini, p. 249.

4 Moore, I:41, 42.

5 Ibid., p. 254.

6 Moore, I, 39.

7 Saldarini, pp. 266,267.

8 In the tannaitic literature the scholars are not called "scribes"; they are the "sages" (hakamim).

9 Ibid., p. 268.

10 Ibid., p. 273.

Related Topics: Christology