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Encyclopedia of The Bible – Scribe, Scribes
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Scribe, Scribes

SCRIBE, SCRIBES (סֹפְרִימ׃֙; LXX and NT γραμματεῖς, skilled in the art of writing).

1. OT usage. In ancient Israel the scribal craft was principally confined to certain clans who doubtless preserved the trade as a family guild profession, passing the knowledge of this essential skill from father to son. Among the Kenites were “families of scribes” dwelling at Jabez (1 Chron 2:55). The connection between Moses’ father-in-law, who was a priest (Exod 3:1), and the Kenites (Judg 1:16; 4:11) is an indicator that the art of writing was never far removed from the priesthood.

During the united and later Judean monarchies a substantial number of scribes came from the Levites. The point of contact between the ritual and scribal functions derives from the demand for fiscal organization of temple operations (e.g., in Mesopotamia and Egypt most of the earliest writings are associated with temple records). A Levite recorded the priestly assignments (1 Chron 24:6), and the royal scribe helped in counting the public funds collected for the repair of the Temple (2 Kings 12:10, 11; 2 Chron 14:11). Since the furnishing of written copies of the law was a (scribal) Levitical responsibility (Deut 17:18), the reforms of Jehoshaphat (cf. 2 Chron 17) cannot be disassociated from the scribal function. Although the extent of literacy within Israelite society is a complex question, at least one “writing prophet” found it convenient, if not necessary, to employ an amanuensis (Jer 36:26, 32), which strongly suggests that others did the same.

The scribal function of composing private legal documents is widely attested in Mesopotamia and Egypt before, during, and after the Biblical period. Although it is not stated that the scribe composed the text of a deed of sale (Jer 32:10-12), this may be implied since the document was entrusted to Baruch before witnesses.

Most important of all were the scribes who served in the government. They may have served as counselors (e.g., 1 Chron 27:32), or have borne the responsibility for mustering the army (2 Kings 25:19). The highest ranking government scribe was that of the king. His position in the cabinet is difficult to judge, since ministerial lists may not be given in sequence of rank. If, however David’s cabinet is listed in sequence (2 Sam 8:16-18; cf. 1 Chron 18:15-17), the royal scribe ranked below the military commander, the “recorder” and high priest(s) but above the “palace priests,” whether they were “sons of David” (2 Sam 8:18) or some other persons (2 Sam 20:25; note the different order in 2 Sam 20:23-26). The list of Solomon’s officers may then be given in ascending order (1 Kings 4:2-6); Azariah was prob. the “palace priest” since he appears nowhere else. Next are listed two scribes, sons of David’s scribe Shisha (Sheva, cf. above; two different forms of the same Sem. name); then are listed the “recorder” and the new commander of the army, along with the two high priests serving jointly. A new official, the one “in charge of the palace,” surely ranked above the scribe. During the united monarchy at least, therefore, the scribe ranked below the “recorder.” This may not have been the case during the divided monarchies, since the scribe is twice listed between the “recorder” and the master of the palace (2 Kings 18:18, 37; cf. Isa 36:3, 22); here he served as one of three ministers appointed to negotiate with Sennacherib, who demanded the surrender of Jerusalem. Moreover, by Josiah’s reign, the scribe precedes the “recorder” (as well as the “Governor of the City”; 2 Kings 22:3-13; 2 Chron 34:8-21), suggesting that the relationship between scribe and “recorder” had been reversed since David’s era. The high status of the family of this scribe, Shaphan, is evident from the careers of his son Ahikam and grandsons Gedaliah and Micaiah, son of Gemariah. Gedaliah became “master of the palace” and was later appointed governor of Judah under the Babylonians; Micaiah served the chief ministers of state under Jehoiakim (Jer 36:11). Such royal scribes had offices (36:12), evidently located in the building complex of the royal Judean palace, serving to illustrate the high standing of the king’s scribe in the Judean government. The prophets were aware also of an Akkad. counterpart to the royal scribe, with equally high standing (cf. Nah 3:17) and military functions (cf. Jer 52:25). The multilingual, pluralistic character of the Pers. period likewise demanded administrative specialists (Esth 3:12; 8:9), and provincial commanders also had scribes as seconds in command (Ezra 4:8, 9, 17, 23).

2. Ezra and the intertestamental period. Ezra marked the watershed for the later development of the understanding of “scribe.” Indeed, the transition is already suggested in the Book of Ezra: in the royal decree (7:12-26) “scribe” is used in an administrative sense, but in the narrative (7:6, 11) the term already refers to Ezra as a scribe who, by reason of his learning, is capable of interpreting the law for the common people. Moreover, by his priestly lineage (7:6) he symbolized the close connection between the priesthood and this official interpretation of the law which existed prob. until the 2nd cent. b.c. This connection appears to be the continuation of the association between scribal and cultic functions of an earlier day. By Pers. royal decree, the law of Moses was made civilly binding on Jews living “Beyond the River” (i.e., W of the Euphrates, 7:25ff.). The essential task of interpreting Moses’ law so that it could function in this new civil capacity was given to the priesthood (Ezra) and the Levites (cf. Neh 8:6-9).

The sources for the next several centuries are almost exclusively later rabbinic lit. However, the priestly hegemony over the correct legal interpretation of the law can hardly be doubted. During the Pers. and most of the Ptolemaic periods, the high priest was the most important local official of the government and a ranking member of the local aristocracy. He was the logical choice to receive Alexander the Great (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 69a; Jos. Antiq. XI. viii. 4, 5), being escorted by nobles, and clearly was expected to function as the highest local official under Ptolemaic rule (Jos. Antiq. XII. iv. 1). As late as the reign of Antiochus III over Pal., the high priest was clearly the chief local official (2 Macc 3:1-4), and priests and Levites dominated the roles of the specially privileged in Antiochus’ letter of tax exemptions (Jos. Antiq. XII. iii. 3). Significantly, “scribes of the Temple” were included among those exempted from certain taxes.

The precise role of the “scribe” is still somewhat difficult to assess, however, for lack of source material. According to one rabbinic tradition (Pirke Aboth 1:1), the oral law (which according to rabbinic theology was also given to Moses on Sinai) was mediated from the prophets to the generation of Simeon “the Just” (the identification is disputed; either the high priest c. 300 b.c. or his grandson, c. 210 b.c.) by “the Great Assembly.” When this tradition is compared with the rules cited in rabbinic lit. as given from “the scribes,” it seems quite probable that “scribes” of the Persian and Ptolemaic periods were identical with (or at least participant in) this body of formulators of the oral law.

The rules and practices established by the scribes acquired a binding authority, particularly with the specially orthodox of later (NT) times. One tradition ascribes greater authority to their teachings than to the written law (MSanh. 11:3), and a proselyte was required to follow the scribal traditions as well as the simply interpreted written law (Siphra on Lev 19:34). The scribes were essentially Biblical interpreters, for occasional scribal rules not based on Scripture caused later rabbis considerable consternation (Kelim 13:7). This situation fits very well with the enactments of a body or class of interpreters functioning during the Persian and Ptolemaic periods.

From the 2nd cent. b.c. are two additional sources of information on the scribes. In the book of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus), whose author clearly considered himself to be in the scribal tradition, is an “ode” to the “perfect scribe” (38:24-39:11). This ode confirms the picture of a scribe as one schooled in the law and religious wisdom, understanding the implications of both the written law and oral traditions. As a result of his learning, he enjoyed a prominence in public assemblies, and both understood and exercised justice among the people. Moreover, he was considered particularly pious by virtue of his knowledge of the revealed will of God, a feature of rabbinic understanding of piety. If Ecclesiasticus is Sadducean in origin (or more appropriately proto-Sadducean), then we are faced with one more point of connection between the established priesthood and the class of scribes. Also, during the Maccabean revolt a company of scribes “sought justice” from the Seleucid-appointed high priest, Alcimus, in the confidence that since he was “a priest of the line of Aaron” (1 Macc 7:12ff.) they had nothing to fear. Although their confidence was short-lived, the fact of it reflects and abiding cooperation between the scribes and the established priesthood. The cooperation between the “pious” (Chasidim) and the scribes, however, hints at the later development, when the priestly Sadducees opposed those who descended from the scribes: the rabbis and Pharisees. At the time of the Maccabean revolt, however, the “party lines” had in all probability not yet been drawn.

3. NT usage. The NT is the last witness to the usage of “scribe” as a scholar and authority on the law. “Scribes” are found in connection both with the priestly (Sadducean) party (e.g., Matt 2:4; 21:15) and the Pharisaic party (cf. Matt 23). The scholars of this latter party were the leaders of what was to become rabbinic Judaism, known subsequently, however, as “sages” (or, “wise”) and still later as rabbis. But the scribes (scholars) of both parties challenged Jesus principally on His disobedience to traditional practice under the law (e.g., eating with those obviously unobservant of these traditions [Mark 2:16], and eating without ritually cleansing the hands, referring to the disciples [Matt 15:2; Mark 7:5]). Matthew 23, which parallels Luke 11, is a classic condemnation of the scribal approach to the will of God. The scholars of both parties in all probability took part in whatever Jewish legal proceedings were initiated against Jesus during the week of His passion, but the very complex questions of the legality of such proceedings (under Rom. rule) makes further conclusions very tenuous. Paul clearly understood the scribe as a dialectician (1 Cor 1:20-25), who was a scholar on the written and oral law; in Paul’s view such dialectics were foolishness in the face of God’s saving work in Christ. However, at least in certain segments of the Early Church, the function of the scribe as a Christian scholar and instructor in legal responsibility was preserved (Matt 8:19, esp. 13:52 and 23:34), so that the Mosaic law was not abolished, but reapplied for the needs of the Christian Church. The only mention of “scribes” in John’s gospel is in the passage judged unauthentic on both textual and linguistic grounds (John 7:53-8:11).

After the period of the NT, “scribe” came to describe a teacher of children and composer of legal documents; the names “wise” and then “rabbi” being used for the scholar of the law.

Bibliography R. H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the OT in English, I (1913), 282-288; J. Jeremias, “γραμματεῦς,” TWNT I, 740ff.; R. de Vaux, AIs, 131f.; A. Rainey, “The Soldier Script in Papyrus Anastasi I,” JNES XXV (1966), 58ff.