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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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SCRIBES.—The Scribes were a class of learned Jews who devoted themselves to a scientific study of the Law, and made its exposition their professional occupation. The word which we translate ‘scribes’ is γραμματεῖς, ‘the learned,’ which corresponds to the Hebrew סוֹפִרִים. This is their usual appellation, but they are also called in the Gospels, especially in Lk., ‘lawyers’ (νομικοί) and ‘doctors of the law’ (νομοδιδάσκαλοι). See Lawyer. They are very frequently associated in the Synoptics with the Pharisees, and with the chief priests and elders, but there is no mention of ‘scribes’ in the Fourth Gospel at all, except in the special passage dealing with the woman taken in adultery (John 8:3).

1. Origin, development, and characteristics.—(1) After the return from the Exile the Jewish community was organized under Ezra and Nehemiah on the basis of the regulations of the so-called Mosaic Law. At a great gathering of the people, of which an account is given in Nehemiah 8-10, the Law was publicly read by Ezra, and a solemn covenant entered into for national obedience to it. Being thus established as the binding rule of both civil and religious life, it became necessary that the Law should be thoroughly studied and interpreted to the people, who otherwise could not reasonably be expected to comprehend fully its principles and their application. This duty at first fell naturally to the priests, who for a time continued the main teachers and guardians of the Law. But gradually there grew up an independent class of men, other than the priests, who devoted themselves to the study of the Law, and made acquaintance with it their profession. These were the Scribes. Possibly at first their chief duty was to make copies of the Law, but the higher function of interpretation was soon added; and as the supreme importance of the Law came more and more to be recognized, so the profession of a Scribe came to be held in higher estimation than even that of a priest.

(2) During the Grecian period of Jewish history, a strong feeling of opposition was developed between the Scribes and, at least, the higher order of the priests. Even in the time of Ezra a feud had arisen between those who held strictly by the Law—especially in the matter of foreign alliances—and those who, like the aristocratic high-priestly families, had sought to increase their influence by marriage with outsiders. And when, through the influence of Hellenic culture, the priestly aristocracy became infected with heathen ideas, and fell away from the laws and customs of Judaism, the duty of upholding the Law fell mainly upon the Scribes, who from that time forward became the real teachers of the people, and dominated their whole spiritual life. They were still, however, mainly religious students and teachers, and had taken little part in political agitation. Their ideal was not to engage in any political scheme for throwing off the foreign yoke, but to establish the Law of God in their own midst. The attempt of Antiochus Epiphanes to suppress the Jewish religion compelled them to change their character, and drove them into open rebellion. Among the most strenuous opponents of his endeavour to Hellenize the Jews were the Hasidaeans, or party of ‘the pious,’ who may be taken to represent the strictest adherents of the teaching of the Scribes, and who carried their ideas of the sanctity of the Law to the suicidal extent of refusing to defend themselves when attacked on the Sabbath. But it was only the maintenance of the Jewish religion for which they fought, and they had no objections to alien rule, provided they were allowed freedom of faith. This object they regarded as accomplished by the treaty with Lysias, which provided at once for their political subjection and for their religious freedom. When, therefore, it became clear that the Maccabaean party were aiming also at the political independence of the nation, the Hasidaeans separated from them, and in the time of John Hyrcanus we find the Pharisees—‘the separated’—who practically represented the same party as the Hasidaeans, in opposition to the Hasmonaean or Maccabaean dynasty. See Pharisees.

(3) From this time onward to the time of Christ the influence of the Scribes became more and more predominant. They were given seats in the Sanhedrin, and were held in very high respect by the people. They never, indeed, became the governing class, but in the councils of the nation their influence could always be depended upon to outweigh that of the priestly aristocracy, who held the high appointments. They were usually addressed as ‘Rabbi,’ i.e. ‘my master,’ an appellation which gradnally developed into a title, though not till after the time of Christ. The honour in which they were held by their pupils, and by others, was extraordinary, even exceeding the honour accorded to parents, and they were very particular in exacting it, claiming generally everywhere the first rank. Their scribal labours were understood to be gratuitous, and, if they had no private fortune, they had to provide for their livelihood by combining some secular business with their study of the Law; but the latter was always regarded as their most important occupation. It is questionable, however, if the theory of gratuitous instruction was always strictly adhered to.

From the earliest period there is evidence to show that they tended to associate themselves in guilds or families—an arrangement which would facilitate the interchange of opinion on difficult points in the study of the Law. Up till the destruction of Jerusalem the main seat of their activity was in Judaea, ‘the scribes from Jerusalem’ (Matthew 15:1, Mark 3:22) being spoken of as the most important and influential members of the party. But they were to be found elsewhere as well, in Galilee and among the Jews in other lands, wherever the Law and its precepts were held in esteem. As a rule, they may be said to have been Pharisees, although not exclusively. The Pharisees, indeed, were those whose professed object it was to regulate their lives in strict accordance with the Law, written and oral, as that was expounded by its best accredited interpreters. Hence there was a natural affinity between them and the Scribes, whose profession it was to interpret the Law. But it is extremely probable that there were also Scribes who were Sadducees, for the Sadducees also adhered to the written Law, and doubtless had their Scribes to interpret it. Support is lent to this view by the expressions in Mark 2:16 ‘the scribes of the Pharisees,’ and in Luke 5:30 ‘the Pharisees and their scribes,’ which seem to indicate that there were other Scribes than those of the Pharisees. In the time of Christ the great mass of the Scribes was divided into two schools, named after the famous leaders, Hillel and Shammai, about whom little is certainly known. The School of Hillel was distinguished for its mildness in the interpretation of the Law, and that of Shammai for its strictness, corresponding to the traditional characters of the respective founders; but the points of difference between them concerned only the trivial minutiae, and never touched the weightier matters of the Law.

2. Functions.—The functions of the Scribes are well summed up in the traditional saying ascribed to the ‘Men of the Great Synagogue.’ ‘These laid down three rules: Be careful in pronouncing judgment! bring up many pupils! and make a fence about the Law!’ The professional employment of the Scribes, therefore, fell under three heads:—(1) The study and development of the Law itself; (2) the teaching of it to their pupils; and (3) its practical administration in the Sanhedrin and other courts; that is to say, they acted as students, teachers, and judges.

(1) The study and development of the Law.—The Mosaic Law, as embodied in their sacred records, was definitely recognized by the Jews as the absolute rule of life. To direct his conduct in accordance with it in every minute detail was the ideal of the pious Jew. But there were many subjects upon which the Law, as recorded, gave no precise direction, and much of it, for popular apprehension, required interpretation and exposition. To interpret and expound it, and to till up what was lacking in the way of casuistic detail, was the business of the Scribes. They devoted themselves to a close and careful study of the Law, to the accumulation of precedents, to the working out of inferences and deductions, and to a general development of legal regulations so as to meet every possible circumstance which might occur in human life, and to keep the Law in harmony with the changing wants of the times. So diligently did they pursue this course, and so extensive and complicated did Jewish Law in consequence become, that only by the assiduous study of a lifetime could a man become an expert in its various branches. The difficulty of doing so was greatly increased by the fact that this mass of accumulated detail was not committed to writing, but was propagated entirely by oral tradition. It was called the Halacha, or Law of Custom, as distinct from the Torah, or Written Law, upon which it was understood to be based. See, further, art. Pharisees, p. 353 f.

But the Scribes did not confine their labours to the Law. They studied also the historical and didactic portions of Scripture, and elaborated with a very free hand the history and religious instruction contained therein. This elaboration was called the Haggadah. It ran into various extravagant forms—theosophic, eschatological, and Messianic. Imagination was given free play, so long as its products would fit in with the general framework of Jewish thought, and to its influence was largely due the circle of religious ideas existing in New Testament times.

(2) Teaching of the Law.—To teach the Law was also the professional business of the Scribes. In order that people should obey the Law, it was necessary that they should know it; and an elaborate system of rules such as was contained in the Jewish tradition could be learned only with the assistance of a teacher. None of these traditional rules having been written down, the teaching was of necessity entirely oral, and round the more famous of the Scribes there gathered large numbers of young men, eager for instruction as to the proper conduct of life. Of these, some in their turn would become Scribes and teachers of the Law. The chief requisite, for both pupil and teacher, was a capacious and accurate memory. The method of teaching was by a constant repetition of the precepts of the Law, as only by this means could its multitude of minute details be at all kept in remembrance. The disputational method was also followed. Concrete cases, real or imaginary, were brought before the pupils, and they were required to pronounce judgment upon them, which judgment the teacher would criticise. The pupils were also allowed to propose questions to the teacher, and to attend disputations amongst teachers over difficult problems. But the two all-important duties were these—first, to keep everything faithfully in memory; and, second, never to teach anything otherwise than it had been taught by the master. Not even the expressions of the teacher were allowed to be changed. Accuracy in the minutest detail was the most commendable achievement.

For purposes of teaching and of disputation there were special places set apart—‘houses of teaching,’ as they were called—where the teacher sat upon an elevated bench, and the pupils on the ground. In Jerusalem, lectures were delivered in the Temple, somewhere in the outer court. The ‘houses of teaching’ were distinct from the synagogues; but as it was through the influence of the Scribes that the synagogue service originated, so doubtless they availed themselves of the opportunities which the synagogues gave them of teaching the Law to the common people. The Scripture exposition, which usually formed part of the service, might, indeed, be given by any one qualified to speak; but ordinarily it fell to a Scribe, if any were present, as the one most competent to discharge the duty.

(3) The Scribes as judges.—To the Scribes, as specially skilled in knowledge of the Law, it also naturally fell to take a leading part in its practical administration. From the time of the Hasmonaeans they had formed a constituent element in the Sanhedrin, being associated in that body with the chief priests and elders, and it was usually the Scribes who exercised the greatest influence in its deliberations. In the local courts they were also naturally looked to for advice and judgment. Any one, indeed, who possessed the confidence of the community might be appointed a local judge, and probably for the most part the small local courts were presided over by unprofessional men. But whenever a Scribe—a skilled lawyer—was available, the choice of the community naturally fell upon him, as, in virtue of his qualifications, he was considered best fitted for the post.

3. Relations of the Scribes to Jesus.—The ministry of Jesus could not but excite interest amongst the Scribes. His first call, like that of the Baptist, was to repentance as a preparation for the Kingdom of God. With this they were bound to sympathize. They held that what the nation needed for its salvation was a stricter obedience to the Law, and they naturally thought that the new Teacher, who was calling to repentance for the past, would be calling also to a new and more rigid obedience for the future. There are not wanting indications that at first they were inclined to regard Him with favour. But they speedily discovered that His teaching was on very different lines from theirs, both in manner and in substance. In the exposition of Scripture their method was to give out a text, and then quote the various comments made on it by recognized authorities. Jesus followed a different plan. He had a message of His own, which He delivered with conviction and enthusiasm, not appealing to authorities, but speaking with the conscious authority of truth. And the substance of His teaching was also very different. He condemned the external, mechanical formalism which they encouraged, and declared that only the inward purity of the heart was of value in the sight of God. See, further, art. Pharisees, p. 355 f.

4. Later history.—Though it does not properly belong to our subject, it is interesting to note that after the fall of Jerusalem in a.d. 70, the authority of the Scribes increased in importance. Under much discouragement they undertook the difficult task of the reorganization of Judaism. Working on calmly and peacefully, they were able to avoid extremes, and were successful in keeping what was left of the nation faithful to the religion of their fathers, and in stimulating hope for the future. The ordinances of the Oral Law were at last written down, and to their careful preservation by the Scribes we are indebted for the Hebrew Scriptures we now possess.

Literature.—The literature on the subject is very extensive. Every History of the Jews, every Life of Christ, every Commentary on the Gospels, deals to some extent with the Scribes. Schürer’s HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] may be taken as a standard authority; Ewald, Kuenen, and Wellhausen are all important; so are Edersheim’s LT [Note: T Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah [Edersheim].] and W. R. Smith’s OTJC [Note: TJC The Old Test, in the Jewish Church] . A very full bibliography is given in Schürer. See also artt. in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible and in the EBi [Note: Bi Encyclopaedia Biblica.] .

Joseph Mitchell.

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Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

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

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