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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

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Scribonius Largus
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The word "scribe" (from Lat. scribere, to write) means generally a writer; but it has a more special application as the English term for the Jewish class called in Hebrew Sopherim (Gr. ypaµµareis). Both the Hebrew and the Greek word are used to denote something equivalent to secretary of state or town-clerk in general; and through the influence of the law, revealed through Moses, upon the Jewish nation conceived as a theocracy, both words denote in particular one learned in Scripture. Jeremiah (for example) knew of Scribes who made the law of the Lord falsehood (viii. 8), just as he knew of false prophets and profane priests (xxiii.). The function of writing belongs rather to the scribe or secretary in general than to the specifically Jewish scribe, whose primary business was to read and interpret the existing revelation of God's will, just as the town-clerk at Athens read public documents to the assembly (Thuc. vii. to). So Ezra, the most famous of the early Scribes, is referred to as "the scribe of the commandments of the Lord and of his statutes to Israel" (Ezra vii. 11), and again as "a ready scribe in the law of Moses which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given." As a Scribe he read the Law to the congregation of the children of Israel and the Levites recited a paraphrase to enable them to understand it (Nehemiah viii.). But even Jewish scribes were not only readers (as the old Greek version of i Esdras calls Ezra) but writers. Jeremiah (viii. 8) had a feud with the Scribes of his day, who wrote what they thought necessary as a compendium or supplement of the Law; but ben Sira, a Scribe himself, left such a book (Ecclesiasticus), which is reckoned Apocryphal, indeed, but is on its merits worthy to be "read for example of life and instruction of manners" (Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, vi.; following Jerome). The book contains the Scribes' ideal (xxxviii. 2 4 - xxxix. 11) as well as a typical performance. To be a Scribe requires a man's whole life; a ploughman (for example) has not leisure enough to acquire such wisdom - and here it is well to notice that experience taught the Jews the necessity of teaching all their children some handicraft, even if they were to be Scribes. But a Scribe must devote himself to the study of the law, the wisdom of the fathers and the prophets, i.e. the written law, and he must receive the oral tradition which will teach him to unlock its secrets. He must wander through the lands of the nations and explore things good and evil among men. So trained he will stand beside the rulers of his people because the law covers all the departments of their life. And he may be inspired to speak or write the wisdom he has gained. Ben Sira's grandson (natural or spiritual) in the prologue to the Greek version of this collection of such wisdom speaks of him as having been led forward to write it as an aid to the progressive fulfilment of God's law.

Such were the Scribes of the Jews, an order of learned theologians who practised applied theology, a succession of religious teachers and thinkers controlled in their speculations by their oral tradition to some extent and always by the principles of the law and the other scriptures so far as they accepted them and regarded them as consistent with the teaching of Moses. Their general aim was progress in knowledge of God's will, but apart from fundamental principles there were no tests or formularies to which their teaching must conform. Necessarily they differed from one another even in the same generation according to their different temperaments and their different experiences, especially of foreign lands. And different generations had to adapt themselves to different needs. In the time of Antiochus Epiphanes (for example) they had to face the problem, Was the law of the Sabbath to be broken, or was the whole nation to perish and leave none to keep the rest of the law and that part in happier days? A company of them decided with a unanimity rare in the history of the order that the Sabbath must be broken (1 Macc. ii. 40-42). Later these Hasidaeans deserted the Maccabean rebels, when some relief had been effected on the coming of a priest of the seed of Aaron (1 Macc. vii. 12-16). Their massacre, like the massacres which led to the suspension of the Sabbath law, was another fact to be assimilated for the guidance of posterity, and, as Scribes always did, they found and cited the prophecy which was thus fulfilled (Ps. lxxix. 2, 3; Macc. vii. 17).

Later they are represented as falling generally into two classes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, for it is obvious that the Sadducees needed doctors of the law to answer the Scribes of the Pharisees as long as they could, and as long as they dared to hold out against the Pharisaic tradition, backed as it was by the popularity of the Pharisees. But it must not be supposed that the Pharisees all held identical views or insisted upon all points in the tradition which accumulated and tended to crystallize as of equal importance. The Sadducean position was probably more definite and more commonly held by individual Sadducees because it was mainly based on negations. The rivals may be compared roughly to theists and atheists of the present day so far as their relative solidarity is concerned. As an example of the broad and conspicuous divergences among the Pharisees it is enough to point to the Zealots; they had isolated precursors before the final coalition of Pharisees, who thought that the time had come for the sword of Gideon as well as the sword of the Lord, with others who seemed to Josephus to love the bloodshed for its own sake. And the Talmud speaks of the Pairs of Scribes - e.g. Hillel and Shammai - as contending with one another.

In the Gospel according to St John, which is wholly, and the Gospel of St Luke, which is partially in touch with the life of the time of our Lord, the different receptions which different Scribes accorded to the new teachers is clearly recognized. St Paul was of course a Scribe, and helped St Luke, it may fairly be supposed, to resist Christian prejudice against the whole order - the mere name of Scribe - without any discrimination in favour of such men as Nathaniel, Nicodemus and Gamaliel. The Gospel associated with the name of St Matthew has at any rate something of the intolerance with which a tax-gatherer might well regard those of the Pharisees (i.e. the Zealots, to use the term handed down) who condemned them as breakers of God's law. But in respect of its wholesale denunciations of "Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites," it must be said that there were many Scribes and Pharisees who were not hypocrites, and were therefore entitled to say, "Let the galled jade wince, our withers are unwrung." It appears that the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican ended originally with a question, "Which went home justified" - the Pharisee who thanked God because he had been saved from the grosser sins, or the Publican who recognized that his calling was in itself sinful, and without venturing to pass beyond the Court of the Gentiles whom he served - without even promising to abandon their service - prayed for mercy to the God whom he feared? The official text of St Luke has answered the question in one way: Christian practice is, on the whole, in favour of the Pharisee.

Other views of the ancient Scribes are too notorious to need statement here. Broadly speaking they have no connexion with the real evidence, because they rest upon the denunciations of the First Gospel. If it is necessary to begin historical investigation at the wrong end, it is advisable to take into account the whole evidence available. The Scribes of the 1st century A.D. preserved Judaism in spite of the destruction of the Temple, and this fact is enough to refute the view too commonly taken of them by Christians in spite of St Luke and St John. The common view is as reasonable and just as an account of the Prophets based on Jeremiah's denunciations would be - or an estimate of the Church of England which consisted of summary accounts of its criminous clerks.

See Schi rer's History of the Jewish People, with full authorities.

(J. H. A. H.)

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Scribes'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​s/scribes.html. 1910.
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