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Persons who can read and write. Their education made them indispensable in many civilizations, as they were needed to keep all military, government, legal, and financial records. Such secular roles for scribes are found in the earliest biblical references to them (e.g., Judg. 5:14; 2 Sam. 8:17; 1 Kgs. 4:3; 2 Kgs. 12:10; 18:18; 22:3, 12; Jer. 36:10). Jeremiah’s secretary Baruch is a scribe, assisting with business transactions (Jer. 32:12) as well as taking dictation (36:18, 32).
Although scribes continue to perform such roles in the postexilic period (cf. Neh. 13:13, where a scribe named Zadok is appointed as a treasurer over the storehouses where tithes are kept), the term begins to be more specifically associated with the transmission and interpretation of Torah. The scribes were Torah scholars who preserved and interpreted the Law in order to maintain its centrality in Judaism after the Exile and in the Diaspora. Ezra is an epitome of this kind of scribe (Ezra 7:6, 10).
Ben Sira (ca. 180 B.C.E.) describes the scribe as one whose study of God’s revelation translates into great power in the government and courts (Sir. 38:24–39:11). The scribe’s learning extends to all Israelite (and even non-Israelite) traditions: he “devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High. He seeks out the wisdom of all the ancients, and is concerned with prophecies; he preserves the sayings of the famous and penetrates the subtleties of parables” (Sir. 38:34–39:2). Only the scribe has “eminence in the public assembly”; he is the one who can “sit in the judge’s seat” and can “expound discipline or judgment” (Sir. 38:33). The scribe “serves among the great and appears before rulers; he travels in foreign lands and learns what is good and evil in the human lot.… The Lord will direct his counsel and knowledge, as he meditates on his mysteries” (Sir. 39:4, 7).
Such a description of scribes as both pious and influential is found in 1 and 2 Maccabees (late 2nd century B.C.E.). In 1 Macc. 7:12 a group of scribes negotiates with the Syrians, indicating they were in a position of some authority and power. Later a scribe, Eleazar, is held up as a model of piety for the rest of the community (2 Macc. 6:18–20).
Scribes are again presented as influential interpreters of Torah in the NT, though with a decidedly negative portrayal of them. They are usually presented together with other Jewish groups, especially Pharisees (e.g., Matt. 5:20; 23:2). As interpreters of the Torah, the scribes probably would have been most often associated with the Pharisees, who sought to broaden the applicability of the Torah. On a very few occasions scribes are shown as responding positively to Jesus (Matt. 8:19; 13:52; Mark 12:32), but they are most frequently portrayed as his enemies (Mark 8:31; 10:33; 11:18; 14:1, 43, 53; 15:1). Not surprisingly, their conflicts with Jesus often have to do with how the law of Moses should be observed (Mark 2:15–17; 7:1–8; Luke 6:6–11).
Matthew’s depiction of the scribes is at once the most negative and the most positive in the NT. On the one hand, probably due to the opposition his own community was experiencing from Jewish officials, Matthew views the Jewish scribes as corrupt and false, having Jesus attack them with the refrain, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (Matt. 23). But while he may view the current interpreters of the law as misguided (Matt. 23:16), Matthew still accepts their legitimacy and authority (vv. 2–3). Also, Matthew does not believe that Jesus has come to abolish the old laws and institutions, but rather to fulfill and complete them, giving them their proper authority and place (Matt. 5:17). Matthew therefore believes that there will still be scribes in the new Christian community, and they will continue their function of making the past traditions relevant and alive to believers, preserving them as precious treasures (Matt. 13:52; cf. 23:34).
By Kim Paffenroth