Scribes: Ancient Israel’s scholars.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 September

It wasn’t just that they knew how to write.

SCRIBE /skraɪb/ n. One who writes [for a living].
2. In ancient Israel, a bible scholar; one with expertise in the Law and theology.

In our culture, we strive for universal literacy: We want everybody to be able to read. ’Cause in a democracy, if the people are gonna run the country, they need to be educated to that level. (Of course, if nobody but private-school kids get such an education, only the wealthy will really run the country… which is a whole other rant, and one I don’t care to go into today.)

But just as democracy has only recently been widespread in human history, universal literacy is also a relatively new idea. Bounce back in time to the Roman Empire, and maybe 15 to 25 percent of the people could read. The rest could not.

Not because they were dumb. Humans are just as smart now as they were then. It’s because they didn’t have access to an education. Only those who could afford literate slaves who’d teach their kids, or those who could afford to send their kids to an academy, had access. Everybody else could’ve learned to read—but their jobs didn’t require it, and a good memory served ’em just fine. So they were illiterate.

The exception was the Hebrew culture. They did strive for universal literacy. Because they had scriptures. God ordered his people to not just learn the commands of his Law, but “write them on your house’s doorframes, and your gates.” Dt 6.9 If you’re gonna obey that command, you gotta know how to write. The culture had to be literate. A written Law required it.

So the Pharisees created synagogues, schools which’d teach Hebrew children to read and write. (I know, you thought they were the Jewish equivalent of church, right? They largely are now. They weren’t in the beginning.) The kids were taught to read, and read the Law. And maybe a little history, math, and other subjects the rabbis found appropriate.,/p>

But for those who felt called to go further in their studies—who wanted to memorize the Law, and study it to the level Pharisees believed it should be studied—these folks became sofrím/“scribes.” Or as the New Testament called ’em, grammateís/“scribes.” (Same meaning.)

The scribe’s job.

A scribe wasn’t merely someone who could read and write, ’cause the Pharisees meant for everyone to be able to do that. A scribe did it vocationally. They studied books, kept records, and copied scrolls. They were usually the best-educated people around, and officials would tap their knowledge from time to time; even make scribes into official advisers, diplomats, specialists, and so forth.

Ezra was a scribe. Ez 7.6 Not a prophet, like most folks assume. Some people claim he was the first Jewish scribe, though it doesn’t seem so: King David’s uncle was also a scribe. 1Ch 27.32 But Ezra is the model most people hold up when it comes to what a scribe oughta know: Ezra knew his Law. That was the Jewish scribe’s primary job: To know the Law, teach it, make copies of it, and speak authoritatively on it.

Nowadays anyone can carry a bible on their phone. Back then it was impractical to carry round a full set of bible scrolls: They were kept in synagogue, and you went there to read them. If a family was wealthy enough, they might own a book or two. But without instant access, it meant scribes had to have large stretches of the bible memorized. Which they did. And since chapters and verses weren’t invented till the Middle Ages, scribes also had to remember where everything was in the bible—and find any needed passage immediately.

So this wasn’t a hobby. You couldn’t become a scribe in your spare time. The apocryphal book of Jesus ben Sirach points out how farmers, craftsmen, smiths, potters—all useful trades, and nothing to sneer at—were simply too busy with their vocations to become experts in the Law.

Sirach 38.24-25, 33 KWL
24 A scribe’s wisdom comes with the chance for study time:
Those who create fewer distractions for themselves will become wise.
25 What plowman, one who boasts in his goading spear, will become wise?
What cattle-driver who lives by this work, whose stories are about bull calves?
33 But they won’t be sought out in the people’s senate, nor stand up in the congregation.
They won’t sit in the judge’s seat, nor understand a judgment on the covenant.
They can’t explain instructions or rulings.
They won’t figure out parables.

I know; some folks are gonna disagree with ben Sirach a bit, because there are plenty of people nowadays who can become bible experts in their spare time. But you have to remember the middle class is a recent invention. We live at a point in history where many people only work 8 hours a day or less, and the rest of the day is our own: We have spare time. Whereas in ben Sirach’s day, and throughout much of human history (and still in many parts of the world today), you worked sunrise to bedtime, and your only free day was Sabbath: There was no such thing as leisure time. Not unless you were already rich… or unless your parents were scribes, and could train you.

Sirach 39.1-10 KWL
1 Those who give up their lives in understanding the Highest God’s Law
will seek out all the wisdom of the ancients, will be engaged with prophecies,
2 will preserve the stories of famous men, will dig out the solution to parables,
3 will seek out the hidden things in proverbs, will be comfortable with obscure parables.
4 They’ll serve among majestic people and be seen by rulers.
They’ll travel foreign lands, and test for good and evil in people.
5 They’ll lift up their heart to the Lord who made them.
They’ll open their mouth in prayer and ask about their sins.
6 When the great Lord wants, the Spirit of understanding will fill him.
They’ll gush forth their words of wisdom, and confess to the Lord in prayer.
7 They’ll keep their advice and expertise current,
and keep their prejudices to themselves.
8 They’ll practice what they teach.
They’ll boast in the Law of the Lord’s covenant.
9 Many will praise their intelligence, and throughout this age it won’t be wiped out.
Their memory won’t go away. Their name will live for generations.
10 Gentiles will detail their wisdom.
Congregations will report their praise.

In Jesus’s day, getting trained as a scribe started in childhood. You went to synagogue and learned to read. In young adulthood—after you were 13 years old—most Jewish males studied under a rabbi like Jesus for a few years. From there they went on to the ancient equivalent of university, an akadímeia/“academy” where various loosely connected expert scholars and their pupils gathered together for regular instruction. (Of course, some were more structured than others.)

Scribes supported themselves either by being independently wealthy, by the support of their students and their parents, or by working a day job: Working in the marketplace, making wine, leatherwork, combing flax, carpentry. Same as with Paul making tents. Ac 18.3 Flavius Josephus stated scribes were exempt from taxes, and the Talmud states some scribes were even paid from the temple treasury. But some scribes were also quite poor, and had to glean for their food, or survive on the public storehouse.

What scribes were expected to do.

We sometimes get the idea New Testament scribes spent all their time studying bible. Not just bible: Scribes read everything. The Pharisees felt it was important for scribes to be knowledgeable about anything and everything, ’cause you never knew which subjects might come up—and whether you’d need a ruling from the Law about them. So scribes read Greek philosophy and history and mathematics. And bible.

In Jesus’s culture, the average person didn’t know Hebrew. It was a dead language: The Assyrian and Babylonian conquests had replaced Hebrew with Aramaic, and the Greek and Roman Empires had made it so Greek was everyone’s second language in the eastern Mediterranean. The only people who still knew Hebrew were the priests and scribes: They learned it so they could read bible.

To a point, scribes taught Hebrew in synagogue. They’d read the bible in the original Hebrew, then translate it on the fly: Listeners would hear a bit in Hebrew, then in Aramaic or Greek. But many scribes also translated the bible for their students. An Aramaic translation was called a targum/“translation,” and of course the Greek translations became collectively called the Septuagint.

Scribes were also called upon to write out copies of the bible for synagogues, or for individuals who could afford to pay for one. In the middle ages, scribes also wrote out the appropriate verses which were put in tefillin/“phylacteries,” or prayer-straps; Dt 6.8 or in mezuzot, the capsules which held a bit of parchment with a verse on it, which you nailed to your doorposts. Dt 6.9 Scribes also handled any other legal documents, like contracts and divorces.

Scribes also taught the Law. Like Jesus, they sat in synagogue or temple and posed questions for their students to answer, or gave them lessons to memorize. They demonstrated how to apply the Law to daily life.

Because of their knowledge about the Law, scribes were often called upon to offer rulings: Devout Jews would wanna know whether one thing or another was consistent with God’s will, and the scribe would interpret the Law to suit the circumstance. Sometimes by bending the Law an awful lot. In several circumstances, Jesus objected when the scribes bent it too far: Some of them were more interested in finding loopholes in God’s Law than actually upholding it. Same as Christians today.

Non-Pharisee scribes.

Don’t get the idea all scribes were Pharisees. The Sadducees had their own spin on the Law, and therefore had their own scribes who interpreted the Law to suit them. Many Sadducees were priests who had to make sure they were following the Law properly when it came to their priestly duties. Scribes, y’see, could be of any denomination.

Of course Jesus’s knowledge of the scriptures exceeded that of any scribe, and people quickly noticed Jesus’s students had scribe-level knowledge, even though the students had never attended any of their academies. Ac 4.13 When you read the New Testament, y’might notice the apostles regularly quoted, translated, and interpreted the Old Testament. That’s not something common Pharisees could do, or felt qualified to do. It’s something scribes did. Jesus had trained his kids to know a lot more than your average synagogue students would: He made scribes of them. A number of them could rival Paul for knowledge—and Paul actually had scribal training. Ac 22.3

Yep, there are Christian scribes. We tend to call ’em bible scholars, but it’s the same deal.

And any Christian can become a bible scholar. Seminary doesn’t hurt, but you don’t have to go that far: Just start reading the bible a lot. Put as much of it into your head as possible. Read books about it. Start learning ancient Hebrew and Greek. Make contact with some experts and pick their brains. Study. You’ll get there.