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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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SCRIBES . Sometimes a phrase gives the key to a great history. Such is the case here. ‘The scribes of the Pharisees’ ( Mark 2:16 ) points us to the inseparable connexion between the Pharisees and the Scribes. In other places in the Gospels they are also grouped together ( Matthew 12:38 , Luke 6:7 , Mark 7:5 ). If we would understand the Scribe or Lawyer , we must set him against the background of Pharisaism (See art. Pharisees).

For every community that carves out for itself a great career the supreme problem is law and its administration. Now, after the Exile, the task being to hold together the parts of a nation widely scattered and lacking the unifying power of a common and sacred fatherland, the Mosaic Torah, the Divine Law for Israel, became, in course of time, the moral and spiritual constitution of Israel, its code of duty, the fabric of its right. The Torah is the informing principle of the community. To grasp this principle and apply it to the changing conditions and questions of the nation’s life was the supreme need of the time. This need was analogous to the similar need of any great State. And it always necessitates, as at Rome, a great body of lawyers. A fundamental need gives rise to an authoritative function, and the function creates for itself the agents to exercise it. So, in course of time, appears in Judaism a new type, the Scribe. There is, however, a peculiarity in the case of the Scribe that sets him apart from the Roman lawyer or the modern judge. The Torah which he interpreted and applied was a good many things in one. It was the text-book of a society which was both Church and State; it was at once the constitution and the catechism of the Jews. So the mastery and administration of it developed in the Scribe a variety of functions which with us are parcelled out among preacher, scholar, lawyer, and magistrate. It is easy to see that history owed him a fortune. He came to occupy a great position in the Jewish community. By the 1st cent. he had forced his way into that aristocratic body, the Sanhedrin (Gamaliel in Acts 5:1-42; Nicodemus in John 3:1-36; John 7:1-53 ). He sat in ‘Moses’ seat’ ( Matthew 23:1 ). He had the power of ‘binding and loosing,’ i.e. of publishing authoritative judgments upon the legality and illegality of actions.

We see here a situation which had the making of great men in it. To grasp and administer the Mosaic Law, to ‘sit in Moses’ seat’ and become the trustee of the supreme interests of a great people, there can be no better school. Naturally, there were many noble Scribes, men whose character and learning were commensurate with their task. Such were Hillel and Shammai, elder contemporaries of our Lord. Such also was the Gamaliel at whose feet St. Paul sat (Acts 22:3 ), and who spoke, with noble feeling, against the persecuting zeal of the Sadducees ( Acts 5:34 ff.). As a class, too, they had their noble side. Their work, both educational and judicial, was gratuitous. They were to receive no pay. Probably this rule grew out of the idea of an impartial judge ( Exodus 23:8 , Deuteronomy 16:19 ). Of course, there must have been many exceptions. Yet the mere idea was ennobling, and must have served to enkindle devotion. But, on the other hand, their position encouraged vast pride and vanity. They stood on their prerogatives as ‘Teachers.’ They loved the title of ‘Rabbi.’ So our Lord, when He bids His disciples refuse such title ( Matthew 23:7 f.), has the Scribes in mind.

This leads us to the deeper defect of the Scribes as a class. All their training went to unfit them for understanding our Lord. As we have seen, the situation of the Jews in the centuries after the Exile called for a new type of man. The prophet passed off the stage. The Scribe or Lawyer took his place. In the 1st cent. of our era be had become antipathetic to Prophetism. So be had no sympathy with John the Baptist, and to the meaning of the creative force in spiritual things brought into history by the Saviour he was totally blind. Hence our Lord’s fearful denunciation of the Scribes (Matthew 23:1-39 ). See also artt. Pharisees and Sadducees.

Henry S. Nash.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Scribes'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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