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SCRIBE (Heb. sōpēr; Gk. grammateus). The grammateus of a Greek state was not the mere writer but the keeper and registrar of public documents (Thucydides 4.118; 7.10; so in Acts 19:35, “town clerk”). The name of Kiriath-sepher (Josh. 15:15; Judg. 1:12) may possibly connect itself with some early use of the title. In the song of Deborah (Judg. 5:14) the word in the original Heb. appears to point to military functions of some kind. Thus the NASB replaces KJV “pen of the writer” with “staff of office,” marg., “the staff of the scribe,” and the NIV reads “commander’s staff.” The Heb. expression probably refers to the rod or scepter of the commander numbering or marshaling his troops. Three men are mentioned as successively filling the office of “secretary” or scribe under David and Solomon (2 Sam. 8:17; 20:25; 1 Kings 4:3). We may think of them as the king’s secretaries, writing his letters, drawing up his decrees, managing his finances (2 Kings 12:10). At a later period, the word again connects itself with the act of numbering the military forces of the country (Jer. 52:25, and probably Isa. 33:18). Other associations, however, began to gather around it at about the same period. The zeal of Hezekiah led him to foster the growth of a body of men whose work it was to transcribe old records or to put in writing what had been handed down orally (Prov. 25:1). To this period, accordingly, belongs the new significance of the title. It no longer designates only an officer of the king’s court, but a class, students and interpreters of the law, boasting of their wisdom (Jer. 8:8). See Scribes; Writing.
SCRIBES, JEWISH. Heb. and Gk. as above; also Gk. nomikos, “lawyer,” i.e., expert in the Mosaic law (Matt. 22:35; Luke 7:30; 10:25; 11:45, 52; 14:3); nomodidaskalos, “teacher of the law” (5:17; Acts 5:34).
Institution. The period of the Sopherim, scribes, began with the return of the Jews from captivity. The law read by Ezra (Neh. 8–10) was the Pentateuch in essentially the same form as we have it now; and from that time it was acknowledged by Israel as the binding rule of life, i.e.:
Canonical. Obedience to it was the condition of membership among the chosen people and a share in the promises given to them. The entire Pentateuch came to be regarded as dictated by God, even to the last eight verses, containing the account of Moses’ death. From insisting upon divine dictation the next step was to declare that the law had been handed to Moses by God, the only question being whether it was all delivered at once or in volumes. As an addition to the law the writing of the prophets and preexilic history of Israel attained to similar authority. At a still later period there was added to this body of the “prophets” a third collection of writings, which gradually entered into the same category of canonical Scriptures. In proportion as the law became comprehensive and complicated there arose the necessity of its scientific study and of a professional acquaintance with it. Its many details and the application of its several enactments to everyday life necessarily involved patient study. In the time of Ezra and long after this was chiefly the concern of priests, Ezra himself being both priest and scribe. This was naturally the case, as the Pentateuch related largely to priestly functions and privileges. The higher the law rose in the estimation of the people, the more did its study and exposition become an independent business; and an independent class of “biblical scholars or scribes,” i.e., of men who made acquaintance with the law a profession, was formed, besides the priests. When under Greek influence the priests, at least those of the higher strata, often applied themselves to pagan culture and more or less neglected the law, the scribes appeared as the zealous guardians of the law. From this time on they were the teachers of the people, over whose life they bore complete sway. In NT times, the scribes formed a finely compacted class, holding undisputed supremacy over the people. Everywhere they appear as the mouthpiece and representative of the people; the scribe pushes to the front, the crowd respectfully giving way and eagerly hanging on his utterances as those of a recognized authority. The great respect paid them is expressed by the title of honor bestowed upon them, “my master” (Heb. rabbı̂; Gk. hrabbi, Matt. 23:7; etc.). From this respectful address the title rabbi was gradually formed; but its use cannot be proved before the time of Christ.
Respect. The rabbis required from their pupils absolute reverence, surpassing even the honor felt for parents. Thus it was taught that “respect to a teacher should exceed respect for a father, for both father and son owe respect to a teacher” (Kerithoth 6.9, fin.). The practical application of this principle was: “If a man’s father and teacher have lost anything, the teacher’s loss should have the precedence—i.e., he must first be assisted in recovering it—the burden of a teacher is to be born in preference to that of a father, a teacher must be ransomed from captivity before one’s own father.” The rabbis in general everywhere claimed the first rank (Matt. 23:6–7; Mark 12:38–39; Luke 11:43; 20:46).
Employment. This referred, if not exclusively, yet first and chiefly, to the law and the administration of justice.
As jurists. As such the task of the scribe was threefold: The theoretic development of the law. The scribes developed with careful casuistry the general precepts of the law; and where the written law made no direct provision they created a compensation, either by establishing a precedent or by inference from other valid legal decisions. In this way, during the last centuries before Christ, Jewish law became gradually an extensive and complicated science. This law was unwritten and propagated by oral tradition; intense study was necessary to obtain even a general acquaintance with it. In addition to having an acquaintance with the law, the scribes assumed that it was their special province to develop what was already binding into more and more subtle casuistic details. In order to settle a system of law binding upon all, it was necessary to come as near as possible to a general consensus of opinion. Hence the whole process of systematizing the law was carried on by oral discussion; the acknowledged authorities instructed their pupils in the law and debated legal questions with each other. This made it necessary that the heads at least of the body should dwell in certain central localities, although many would be scattered about the country to give instruction and render legal decisions. The central point till a.d. 70 was Jerusalem; after that at other places, such as Jamnia and Tiberias. Gradually the theories of the scribes became valid law; hence, the maxims developed by the scribes were recognized in practice as soon as the schools were agreed about them. The scribes were, in fact, though not by formal appointment, legislators, especially after the destruction of the Temple; for since there was then no longer a civil court of justice like the Sanhedrin, the judgment of the rabbinical scribes determined what was valid law. In case of doubt the matter was brought “before the learned,” who pronounced an authoritative decision.
Teaching the Law. This was the second chief task of the scribes. The ideal of legal Judaism was that every Israelite should have a professional acquaintance with the law; if this was impracticable, then the greatest possible number. As a consequence the famous rabbis gathered about them large numbers of pupils. Because the oral law was never committed to writing, constant repetition was necessary in order to fix it in the minds of the students. Thus, in rabbinic diction, “to repeat” means exactly the same as “to teach.” Questions were propounded to pupils for their decision, and pupils asked questions of the teachers. As all knowledge of the law was strictly traditional, a pupil had only two duties—to keep everything faithfully in memory and to teach only what had been delivered to him. For such instruction there were special localities, called “houses of teaching,” often mentioned in connection with synagogues as places that in legal respects enjoyed certain privileges. In Jerusalem the catechetical lectures were held “in the temple” (Matt. 21:23; 26:55; Mark 14:49; Luke 2:46; 20:1; John 18:20), i.e., in the colonnades or some other space of the outer court.
Judicial. A third duty of the scribes was passing sentence in the court of justice; for so far as men were learned in the law they would be called to the office of judge. With respect to the great Sanhedrin it is expressly stated in the NT that scribes were among its members. After the fall of the Jewish state, a.d. 70, the scribes, being recognized as independent legislators, were also regarded as independent judges. Their sentences were voluntarily acquiesced in, whether they gave judgment collectively or as individuals. Being learned in the law and the elaboration of the historical and didactic portions of Scripture, the scribes were specially qualified for delivering lectures and exhortations in the synagogues. They also had the care of the text of Scripture as such.
Literature. In the developing and establishment of the law there was evolved a law of custom, besides the written Torah (law), called the Halachah (Heb. hălākâ, “that which is current and customary”). The manipulation of the historical and didactic portions of the Holy Scriptures produced an abundant variety of historical and didactic notions, usually comprised under the name of the Haggadah (Heb. hăggādâ, “narrative, legend”).
The Halachah. The Halachah contained “either simply the laws laid down in Scripture, or else derived from or traced to it by some ingenious and artificial method of exegesis; or added to it, by way of amplification and for safety’s sake; or, finally, legalized customs. They provided for every possible and impossible case, entered into every detail of private, family, and public life; and with iron logic, unbending rigor, and most minute analysis pursued and dominated man, turn whither he might, laying on him a yoke which was truly unbearable. The return which it offered was the pleasure and distinction of knowledge, the acquisition of righteousness and the final attainment of rewards” (Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus, 1:98).
The Haggadah. The Haggadah was “an amplification and remodeling of what was originally given, according to the views and necessities of later times. It is true that here also the given text forms the point of departure, and that a similar treatment to that employed in passages from the law takes place in the first instance. The history is worked up by combining the different statements in the text with each other, completing one by another, settling the chronology, etc. Or the religious and ethical parts are manipulated by formulating dogmatic propositions from isolated prophetic utterances, by bringing these into relation to each other, and thus obtaining a kind of dogmatic system. A canonical book of the Old Testament (Book of Chronicles) furnishes a very instructive example of the historical Midrash (i.e., exposition, exegesis). A comparison of its narrative with the parallel portions of the older historical books (Kings and Samuel) will strike even the cursory observer with the fact that the chronicler has enlarged the history of the Jewish kings by a whole class of narratives, of which the older documents have as good as nothing” (Schürer, History of the Jewish People, div. 2, 1:339ff.).
History. This is properly divided into five periods, indicated by the appellations given to the scribes in successive times:
The Sopherim (see above), or “scribes,” properly so called, lasting from the return from Babylon and ending with the death of Simon the Just, c. 458–300 b.c., about 160 years.
The Tanaim (“repeaters,” i.e., “teachers” of the law), in NT times, “teachers of the law” (Luke 5:17; Acts 5:34).
The Amoraim, or later doctors of the law (Heb., to “expound”), “wise men” and “doctors of the law,” who alone constituted the authorized recorders and expositors of the Halachah (a.d. 220—completion of the Babylonian Talmud, about a.d. 500).
The Saboraim, or teachers of the law after the conclusion of the Talmud (Heb. to “think, discern”), who determined the law from a careful examination of all the pros and cons urged by the Amoraim in their controversies on divine, legal, and ritual questions contained in the Talmud, a.d. 500–657.
The Gaonim, the last doctors of the law in the rabbinic succession. The period of the Gaonim extends from a.d. 657 to 1034 in Sora, and to 1038 in Pumbaditha (Schürer, History of the Jewish People; Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus; McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia, s.v.).
Bibliography: Merrill Frederick Unger et al., The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988).; W. R. Smith, The Old Testament in the Jewish Church (1892), pp. 42–72; G. F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era (1927), 1:37–47; A. S. Diamond, The Earliest Hebrew Scribes (1960); J. W. Bowker, Jesus and the Pharisees (1973); A. Finkel, The Pharisees and the Teacher of Nazareth (1974); J. Jeremias, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, γραμματευ̦ (1964), 1:740–42; N. Turner, Christian Words (1980), pp. 402–4.