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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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Judaism was a religious system which regulated the lives of its adherents in the minutest particulars. The necessary regulations were contained partly in a written Law, partly in a mass of oral tradition and authoritative precedents. Hence a class was needful who should make it their business to preserve and expound these. This class was the scribes.

1. Functions.-(a) Their primary function has just been indicated. It involved the making of accurate copies of the Scriptures, and the laborious memorizing of tradition. (b) In the synagogue a scribe acted as the expounder of Scripture to the people. (c) The scribe was a lawyer who had to decide all legal disputes. (d) To meet new cases for which there was no regulation written or oral, and no precedent to guide, he had to determine what the law should be. Hence the mass of traditions and precedents assumed overwhelming proportions. (e) The education of the young in schools was the charge of the scribe. As the Law was regulative of all human activities, the knowledge of the scribe was encyclopaedic. In his person were combined the offices now distributed among clergymen, doctors, lawyers, and teachers.

2. Training.-The period of training for such a profession was naturally long. When it was finished and he had been called to a particular post, the scribe was ordained, and received the title Rabbi (see Doctor).

3. Schools.-Scribes were divided into various schools. While doubtless the majority were Pharisees, the Sadducees had their scribes also (implied in Acts 23:9). Further, the Pharisee scribes were divided into two great schools, the followers of Hillel and of Shammai. It was only on points of detail, and on no fundamental principle, that they divided. On the whole, the school of Shammai was the more rigid.

4. Influence.-The influence of the scribes was naturally very great, and they were highly esteemed. After the fall of Jerusalem, they became more important than ever. Temple and priesthood disappeared. The synagogue became the sole centre of Jewish religious and national life, and the scribe the most important official (see under Pharisees).

5. Relation to the early Church.-In the early history of Christianity we have only three references to the scribes. (1) Gamaliel, a scribe and the teacher of St. Paul (Acts 22:3), on the occasion of the trial of St. Peter and his associates counselled toleration, and his advice was accepted (Acts 5:34 ff.). (2) When St. Paul was on his trial, the Pharisaic scribes repeated Gamaliel’s advice (Acts 23:9). (3) On the other hand, Acts 6:12 mentions scribes among those who proceeded against Stephen. Probably we should regard them as Sadducees. But in nearly all cases of Jews rising against Christians, especially outside Jerusalem, we may be sure that the scribes, the recognized leaders of the people, were the instigators.

Literature.-articles ‘Scribe’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) , Dict. of Christ and the Gospels , Encyclopaedia Biblica , Jewish Encyclopedia ; E Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People (Eng. tr. of GJV).] II. i. [Edinburgh, 1885] 312 ff.; W. Bousset, Die Religion des Judentums im neutest. Zeitalter, Berlin, 1903, p. 139 ff.; W. O. E. Cesterley, The Books of the Apocrypha, their Origin, Teaching and Contents, London, 1914, p. 113 ff.

W. D. Niven.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Scribe'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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