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In the days before mechanical printing, copies of documents, letters, government records and sacred writings were handwritten by skilled secretaries known as scribes (1 Kings 4:3; 2 Kings 18:18; 2 Kings 22:8; Jeremiah 8:8; Jeremiah 38:18; Jeremiah 38:26-27). The religious importance of scribes developed during the period that followed the Jews’ return from captivity in 538 BC and the subsequent reconstruction of the Jewish nation. During the captivity there had been a renewal of interest in the law of Moses, and this increased after the return to Jerusalem. The result was a greater demand for copies of the law, and consequently greater prominence for the scribes (Nehemiah 8:1-4; Nehemiah 8:8; Nehemiah 9:3).

Because scribes had developed special skills in copying the details of the law exactly, people regarded them as experts on matters of the law (Ezra 7:6; Ezra 7:10). Although the priests were supposed to be the teachers in Israel (Deuteronomy 33:10; Malachi 2:7), people now went to the scribes, rather than the priests, when they had problems of the law that they wanted explained. During the centuries immediately before the Christian era, the scribes grew in power and prestige, and were the chiefly cause of the striking changes that came over the Jewish religion. They were also known as teachers of the law, lawyers and rabbis (Matthew 22:35; Matthew 23:2-7).

Power of the scribes

The increased interest in the law produced not only the scribes as a class of teachers, but also the synagogues as places of worship (see SYNAGOGUE). The scribes developed the structure for synagogue meetings, and controlled the synagogue teaching Matthew 23:2; Matthew 23:6; Luke 6:6-7; Luke 20:46). They also developed and promoted the midrash as a form of teaching. (A midrash was an explanation of the ‘deeper meaning’ of a portion of Scripture, or in some cases a practical sermon based on a portion of Scripture.)

There was, however, a great difference between Ezra’s explanations of the law and the expositions of the scribes of Jesus’ time. Over the intervening centuries, the scribes had produced a system of their own, which consisted of countless laws to surround the central law of Moses. These new laws may have grown out of legal cases that the scribes had judged or traditions that had been handed down. The scribes then forced the Jewish people to obey these laws, till the whole lawkeeping system became a heavy burden (Matthew 15:1-9; Matthew 23:2-4; see TRADITION).

As leaders in the synagogue and teachers of the people, the scribes enjoyed a respected status in the Jewish community (Matthew 23:6-7). Some were members of the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish Council (Matthew 26:57; see SANHEDRIN). In addition to controlling the synagogues, the scribes taught in the temple and established schools for the training of their disciples (Luke 2:46; Acts 22:3). They then sent these disciples to spread their teaching, till it became the chief force in the religious life of Israel (Matthew 23:15).

Most of the scribes belonged to the party of the Pharisees (one of two major groups within Judaism; see PHARISEES; SADDUCEES), and are often linked with them in the biblical narratives (Matthew 5:20; Matthew 12:38; Matthew 15:1; Matthew 23:2; Acts 5:34; Acts 22:3). They opposed Jesus throughout his ministry, helped to crucify him, and later persecuted his followers (Matthew 16:21; Matthew 21:15; Matthew 26:57; Acts 4:5-7; Acts 6:12).

Later influences

With the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, the Jewish temple rituals ceased; but the influence of the scribes lived on. By AD 200, the scribes (now better known as rabbis) had put into writing the oral traditions that earlier scribes had built up around the law. This document was called the Mishnah.

After the completion of the Mishnah, the rabbis added to it their own commentary. This commentary was put into writing between AD 400 and 500, and was known as the Gemara. The Mishnah and the Gemara together made up the Talmud, which has remained the authoritative law for orthodox Jews ever since.

Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Scribes'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​bbd/​s/scribes.html. 2004.
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