By Elizabeth Prata
While He was in His incarnation, we often think of the Pharisees as the object of Jesus’ most fervent wrath. But the Sadducees and the Scribes also endured invective from our Savior. The scribes were themselves filled with sinful hate toward Jesus. Here are just a few examples:
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20).
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. (Matthew 23:1-3).
Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover. 2 And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to put him to death, for they feared the people. (Luke 22:1-2).
Jesus’s declaration in the first verse above Matthew 5:20 was a shocking message. The Scribes were supposed to be the incubators of righteousness, the guardians of truth, and the teachers and teachers of teachers of Israel. How did things get so out of whack? Why did Jesus condemn them?? What IS a scribe anyway?
Prior to the time of Ezra the Scribe, the scribes acted as secretaries of the state/king/pharaoh. (Esther 3:12). Baruch was scribe to Prophet Jeremiah. They prepared and issued decrees in the name of the king (2 Samuel 8:17; 20:25; 1 Chronicles 18:16; 24:6; 1 Kings 4:3; 2 Kings 12:9-11; 18:18-37, etc.). In one illustration of the Egyptian scribe, the scene depicts the scribe and his helpers counting severed hands.
The class of Scribe for our purposes today began at the time of Ezra and the return from Exile. Ezra was a priest and a scribe.
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. Source
The scribes taught the Law, and did so since Ezra the Scribe (who was also a priest) through to the time of Jesus and beyond to today.
The scribe’s job was to copy and recopy the scrolls, preserve them, and interpret them. When Jesus did the reading of the Old Testament at synagogue (Luke 4:16-17), He was handed a scroll. This had no doubt been copied by a scribe at some point. A copying scribe was meticulous in copying the letters perfectly, even counting the spaces between each word so it matched exactly to its original. His title was sofer, (sopher) which in Hebrew literally means, “counting,” as in letters.
In the Holman treasury of key Bible words, we read,
In New Testament times, the scribes were a class of scholars who taught, copied, and interpreted the Jewish Law for the people. They appear in the Gospels primarily as opponents of Jesus. They continually accused Him of violating the Law on numerous occasions: in forgiving sins (Matt. 9:1–3; Luke 5:17–26), in breaking their notion of Sabbath observance through work and healing (Luke 6:1–2, 6–11), in not following their accepted ceremonial washings (Mark 7:2–5), and in ignoring their practice of fasting (Luke 5:33–39). Not surprisingly, they especially disapproved of Jesus’ practice of mingling with the unclean and outcasts of Jewish society (Mark 2:16–17; Luke 15:1–2).
Being a scribe came with a high esteem, the people regarded them highly because of their literacy, their education, and their influence in the community. They performed several functions:
- Scribes studied and interpreted the Law
- Scribes taught the Law, especially to youth
- Scribes judged in the community, as well as wrote official documents such as marriage contracts etc.
- Scribes copied and preserved the scrolls.
A youth whose family designated him for the life of a scribe would send him to a school at about age 13. If he was accepted, his training would commence then and last until about age 30. Depending on which career track he wound up in, a day in the life of a scribe of any type would no doubt be inside, not as the dyers, tanners, or shepherds lived, out of doors at the mercy of the elements. He was a professional.
If he was a little more fortunate, his career track might take him to litigator or an arbiter or even an executor. (Luke 12:14). He might be appointed to the Sanhedrin or become an esteemed teacher at one of the schools. If he was a copying scribe, he would do his work at his home or an office, have adequate lighting, sit at a table with quill, ink, and parchment, and bend for hours over his papers. His days and weeks would look like this:
Several centuries ago the laws of the Soferim, called STaM, were unified to give consistency in writing Sefri Torahs. It generally takes one year to write a Torah. On an average each Torah will have 245 columns with 42 lines each with a consistent total 304,805 letters. A very rough estimate required for a Sofer’s time would be one sheet per week (average 52 sheets per Sefer Torah), one column per day, six lines per hour, and 3 letters per minute.
A scribe understood the Law, interpreted it, and debated fine points of the law with his clan, or in practical manner aided the community members in living it to the letter via the official documents such as wills or marriage contracts he drew up. It was a good profession and a lucrative one at that. The long years in apprenticeship and training were worth it. It was good work even at the lower rungs as copyist or executor in a small town. Sadly, over time the scribes began to add to the Law by oral tradition and precedent. Their esteem came to be so high that,
As time passed on the “words of the scribes” were honored above the law. It was a greater crime to offend against them than against the law. The first step was taken toward annulling the commandments of God for the sake of their own traditions. (Mark 7:13) …While the scribes repeated the traditions of the elders, Jesus “spake as one having authority,” “not as the scribes.” (Matthew 7:29). Source
So when the people said that Jesus spake as one having authority, not as one of the Scribes, this was a big deal. Equally, it was a big deal that the Scribes opposed Jesus and plotted to kill Him. (Luke 22:2). They had the money and influence to do it, and we know that they succeeded. They were active in obtaining Jesus’s death. (Matthew 26:3; Luke 23:10).
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (1 Corinthians 1:20 )
Some Scribes named in the Bible
Baruch (scribe to Jeremiah)
Ezra (Ezra 7:1-25)
Zadok (Nehemiah 13:13)
Shemaiah (1 Chronicles 24:6)
Jonathan, David’s uncle, was a counselor, being a man of understanding and a scribe (1 Chronicles 27:32)
Shimshai (Ezra 4:8)
1. Antiquity of. Jdj 5:14.
2. Wore an inkhorn at their girdles. Eze 9:2, 3.
3. Families celebrated for furnishing
a. Kenites. 1 Ch 2:55.
b. Zebulun. Jdj 5:14.
c. Levi. 1 Ch 24:6; 2 Ch 34:13.
4. Generally men of great wisdom. 1 Ch 27:32.
5. Often learned in the law. Ezr 7:6.
6. Were ready writers. Ps 45:1.
7. Acted as
a. Secretaries to kings. 2 Sa 8:17; 20:25; 2 Ki 12:10; Es 3:12.
b. Secretaries to prophets. Jer 36:5, 26.
c. Notaries in courts of justice. Jer 32:11, 12.
d. Religious teachers. Ne 8:2–6.
e. Writers of public documents. 1 Ch 24:6.
f. Keepers of the muster-rolls of the host. 2 Ki 25:19; 2 Ch 26:11; Jer 52:25.
a. Were doctors of the law. Mr 12:28; Mt 22:35.
b. Wore long robes and loved pre-eminence. Mr 12:38, 39.
c. Sat in Moses’ seat. Mt 23:2.
d. Were frequently Pharisees. Ac 23:9.
e. Esteemed wise and learned. 1 Co 1:20.
f. Regarded as interpreters of Scripture. Mt 2:4; 17:10; Mr 12:35.
g. Their manner of teaching contrasting with that of Christ. Mt 7:29; Mr 1:22.
h. Condemned by Christ for hypocrisy. Mt 23:15.
i. Often offended at out Lord’s conduct and teaching. Mt 21:15; Mr 2:6, 7, 16; 3:22.
j. Tempted our Lord. Joh 8:3.
k. Active in procuring our Lord’s death. Mt 26:3; Lu 23:10.
l. Persecuted the Christians. Ac 4:5; 18:21; 6:12.
9. Illustrated of well instructed ministers of the gospel. Mt 13:52.
Torrey, R. A. (2001). The new topical text book: A scriptural text book for the use of ministers, teachers, and all Christian workers. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Bible Software.