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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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The scribes are mentioned very early in the sacred history, and many authors suppose that they were of two descriptions, the one ecclesiastical, the other civil. It is said, "Out of Zebulon come they that handle the pen of the writer," Judges 5:14; and the rabbins state, that the scribes were chiefly of the tribe of Simeon; but it is thought that only those of the tribe of Levi were allowed to transcribe the Holy Scriptures.

These scribes are very frequently called wise men, and counsellors; and those of them who were remarkable for writing well were held in great esteem. In the reign of David, Seraiah, 2 Samuel 8:17 , in the reign of Hezekiah, Shebna, 2 Kings 18:18 , and in the reign of Josiah, Shaphan, 2 Kings 22:3 , are called scribes, and are ranked with the chief officers of the kingdom; and Elishama the scribe, Jeremiah 36:12 , in the reign of Jehoiakim, is mentioned among the princes. We read also of the "principal scribe of the host," or army, Jeremiah 52:25; and it is probable that there were scribes in other departments of the state. Previous to the Babylonian captivity, the word scribe seems to have been applied to any person who was concerned in writing, in the same manner as the word secretary is with us. The civil scribes are not mentioned in the New Testament.

It appears that the office of the ecclesiastical scribes, if this distinction be allowed, was originally confined to writing copies of the law, as their name imports; but the knowledge, thus necessarily acquired, soon led them to become instructers of the people in the written law, which, it is believed, they publicly read. Baruch was an amanuensis or scribe to Jeremiah; and Ezra is called "a ready scribe in the law of Moses, having prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments," Ezra 7:6; Ezra 7:10; but there is no mention of the scribes being formed into a distinct body of men till after the cessation of prophecy. When, however, there were no inspired teachers in Israel, no divine oracle in the temple, the scribes presumed to interpret, expound, and comment, upon the law and the prophets in the schools and in the synagogues. Hence arose those numberless glosses, and interpretations, and opinions, which so much perplexed and perverted the text instead of explaining it; and hence arose that unauthorized maxim, which was the principal source of all the Jewish sects, that the oral or traditionary law was of Divine origin, as well as the written law of Moses. Ezra had examined the various traditions concerning the ancient and approved usages of the Jewish church, which had been in practice before the captivity, and were remembered by the chief and most aged of the elders of the people; and he had given to some of these traditionary customs and opinions the sanction of his authority. The scribes, therefore, who lived after the time of Simon the Just, in order to give weight to their various interpretations of the law, at first pretended that they also were founded upon tradition, and added them to the opinions which Ezra had established as authentic; and in process of time it came to be asserted, that when Moses was forty days on Mount Sinai, he received from God two laws, the one in writing, the other oral; that this oral law was communicated by Moses to Aaron and Joshua, and that it passed unimpaired and uncorrupted from generation to generation, by the tradition of the elders, or great national council, established in the time of Moses; and that this oral law was to be considered as supplemental and explanatory of the written law, which was represented as being in many places obscure, scanty, and defective. In some cases they were led to expound the law by the traditions, in direct opposition to its true intent and meaning; and it may be supposed that the intercourse of the Jews with the Greeks, after the death of Alexander, contributed much to increase those vain subtleties with which they had perplexed and burdened the doctrines of religion. During our Saviour's ministry, the scribes were those who made the law of Moses their particular study, and who were employed in instructing the people. Their reputed skill in the Scriptures induced Herod, Matthew 2:4 , to consult them concerning the time at which the Messiah was to be born. And our Saviour speaks of them as sitting in Moses's seat, Matthew 23:2 , which implies that they taught the law; and he foretold that he should be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, Matthew 16:21 , and that they should put him to death, which shows that they were men of great power and authority among the Jews. Scribes, doctors of law, and lawyers, were only different names for the same class of persons. Those who, in Luke 5, are called Pharisees and doctors of the law, are soon afterward called Pharisees and scribes; and he who, in Matthew 22:35 , is called a lawyer, is, in Mark 12:28 , called one of the scribes. They had scholars under their care, whom they taught the knowledge of the law, and who, in their schools, sat on low stools just beneath their seats; which explains St. Paul's expression that he was "brought up at the feet of Gamaliel,"

Acts 22:3 . We find that our Saviour's manner of teaching was contrasted with that of those vain disputers; for it is said, when he had ended his sermon upon the mount, "the people were astonished at his doctrine; for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes," Matthew 7:29 . By the time of our Saviour, the scribes had, indeed, in a manner, laid aside the written law, having no farther regard to that than as it agreed with their traditionary expositions of it; and thus, by their additions, corruptions, and misinterpretations, they had made "the word of God of none effect through their traditions," Matthew 15:6 . It may be observed, that this in a great measure accounts for the extreme blindness of the Jews with respect to their Messiah, whom they had been taught by these commentators upon the prophecies to expect as a temporal prince. Thus, when our Saviour asserts his divine nature, and appeals to "Moses and the prophets who spake of him, the people sought to slay him," John 5; and he expresses no surprise at their intention. But when he converses with Nicodemus, John 3, who appears to have been convinced by his miracles that he was "a teacher sent from God," when he came to Jesus by night," anxious to obtain farther information concerning his nature and his doctrine, our Lord, after intimating the necessity of laying aside all prejudices against the spiritual nature of his kingdom, asks, "Art thou a master in Israel, and knowest not these things?" that is, knowest not that Moses and the prophets describe the Messiah as the Son of God? and he then proceeds to explain in very clear language the dignity of his person and office, and the purpose for which he came into the world, referring to the predictions of the ancient Scriptures. And Stephen, Acts vii, just before his death, addresses the multitude by an appeal to the law and the prophets, and reprobates in the most severe terms the teachers who misled the people. Our Lord, when speaking of "them of old time," classed the "prophets, and wise men, and scribes," together, Matthew 23:34; but of the later scribes he uniformly speaks with censure, and indignation, and usually joins them with the Pharisees, to which sect they in general belonged. St. Paul asks, 1 Corinthians 1:20 , "Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world?" with evident contempt for such as, "professing themselves wise above what was written, became fools."

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Scribes'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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