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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.


Scribes were the backbone of administration in the ancient and Hellenistic Near East. As those able to read and write, and trained in record keeping and document drafting, they were necessary in every society. When literacy and the production of writings are discussed in scholarly writings on the Bible, the place and importance of professional scribes is not always recognized.

The Hebrew Bible assumes that scribes were used in the administration of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah: David's scribes (2 Sam. 8: 17; 20: 25; 1 Chr. 18: 16; 24: 6), Solomon's scribe (1 Kgs. 4: 3), a royal scribe in the time of Jehoash (2 Kgs. 12: 11; 2 Chr. 24: 11), Shebna the scribe (2 Kgs. 18: 18, 37; 19: 2); Shaphan the scribe (2 Kgs. 22: 3, 8–10, 12; 2 Chr. 34: 15, 18, 20), the scribe of the army commander (2 Kgs. 25: 19; Jer. 52: 25). Jeremiah has a number of references to scribes: the chamber of Gemariah, son of Shaphan, the scribe in the Temple (36: 10); the chamber of the scribe in the king's palace (36: 12); Elishama the scribe (36: 12, 20, 21); Baruch the scribe plays a prominent role (36: 26, 32); Jeremiah was imprisoned in the house of Jonathan the scribe (37: 15, 20).

Levites as scribes are mentioned in a number of passages of Chronicles that have no parallel in Kings (many would argue that these passages should be dated to the Persian period and reflect the situation then): clans of scribes were said to live at Jabez (1 Chr. 2: 55); Shemaiah ben Nathanel the Levite was a scribe (1 Chr. 24: 6); the clans of the Izharites and Hebronites acted as scribal administrators (1 Chr. 26: 29–32); Jeiel the scribe mustered the army under Uzziah (2 Chr. 26: 11); some of the Levites were scribes, officials, and gatekeepers (2 Chr. 34: 13). Zadok the scribe is appointed to a panel by Nehemiah (Neh. 13: 13); his name might suggest that he is a priest, but other members of the panel are identified as a priest and a Levite while he is said only to be a scribe.

It could be debated as to how reliable the information from the Hebrew Bible is. However, we also have contemporary information beginning at least with the Persian period. Ten seal impressions from a horde sold on the antiquities market have the name ‘to Jeremai the scribe’ (Avigad 1976: 7–8). These do not tell us a lot beyond the title, but we have valuable data from the Jewish community at Elephantine in Egypt. A number of the documents name the scribe who copied it (e.g. TAD A6.2: 28; A6. 8: 4; A6.10: 10; A6.11: 6; A6.12: 3; A6. 13: 5 = AP 26: 28; AD 4: 4; 7: 10; 8: 6; 9: 3; 10: 5). ‘Scribes of the province’ are named alongside judges and other officials in a letter to Arsames, the governor of Egypt (TAD A6. 1: 1, 6 = AP 17: 1, 6); we also have references to ‘scribes of the treasury’ (TAD 4.3: 13//4.4: 12, 14 = AP 3: 13//2: 12, 14). An individual, whose salary had not been paid and had complained to the ‘officials’, was told to complain to the scribes (TAD A3. 3: 5 = BM 4: 5).

The main employers of scribes would have been the provincial administration and the temple (Grabbe 1995: 152–71). Scribes would have worked at various levels, however, all the way from high up in the administration, where they advised and supported the governor and the main offices of the provincial administration, to posts in the treasury where records of payments and even lists of taxpayers were kept, to storage warehouses for taxes and tithes, where they kept inventory of incoming produce and dispersals for approved purposes. We also know about temple scribes. For example, they are referred to in the decree of Antiochus III about 200 BCE (AJ 12. 3. 3, §§142). The temple scribes would have had similar record-keeping duties, but in addition they would have had the responsibility of copying any sacred writings, manuals, instruction books, lists of regulations, priestly genealogies, and the like relating to the temple administration. Some scribes were quite powerful with a high office, whereas others had rather mundane duties. Neverthelesss, the office of scribe—whether high or low—required a trained individual and was preferable to back-breaking labour for uncertain yields in the fields, vineyards, and orchards.

There is evidence that the Levites were especially drawn on for the scribal skills necessary to run the nation as well as the temple (cf. Grabbe 1995: 160–1; Schwartz 1992: 89–101). The temple personnel—both priests and Levites—were the ones who had the education and leisure for intellectual pursuits, and thus constituted the bulk of the educated and those who read, wrote, and commented on religious literature. They were also the primary teachers in religious matters. Thus, not only the cult but also a large portion of the religious activity of other sorts, including teaching and development of the tradition, took place in the temple context.

Another function carried out by some scribes—probably only a very few—was that of literary activity. The legendary scribe Ahiqar was said to be an advisor to the king of Assyria and the composer of wise sayings. In The Words of Ahiqar he is described as ‘a wise and rapid/skillful scribe’ (TAD C1. 1: 1; cf. line 35) and as ‘the wise scribe and master of good counsel’ (TAD C1. 1: 42; cf. lines 12, 18). In general, scribes were an important part of the intellectual scene during the Second Temple period (Schams 1998; Grabbe 1995: 152–76).

Perhaps the most famous passage on the scribe is that of Ben Sira (38: 24–39: 11, NEB):

A scholar's wisdom comes of ample leisure; to be wise he must be relieved of other tasks. How can one become wise who guides the plough…whose talk is all about cattle?…How different it is with the one who devotes himself to studying the law of the Most High, who explores all the wisdom of the past and occupies himself with the study of prophecies! He preserves the sayings of famous men and penetrates the subtleties of parables. He explores the hidden meaning of proverbs and knows his way among enigmatic parables. The great avail themselves of his services, and he is seen in the presence of rulers. He travels in foreign countries, learning at first hand human good or human evil. He makes a point of rising early to seek the Lord.…If it is the will of the mighty Lord, he will be filled with a spirit of intelligence; then he will pour forth wise sayings of his own and give thanks to the Lord in prayer. He is directed in his counsel and knowledge by the Lord, whose secrets are his constant study. In his teaching he will reveal his learning, and his pride will be in the law of the Lord's covenant. Many will praise his intelligence; it will never be forgotten. The memory of him will not die, and his name will live for ever and ever. The nations will tell of his wisdom, and the assembled people will sing his praise. If he lives long, he will leave a name in a thousand; when he goes to his long rest, his reputation is secure.

This is no doubt an idealized image of the scribe, which makes the scribe responsible for knowledge and study of God's law. Ben Sira's close association with the Temple (some have argued that he was himself a priest) should be kept in mind, however. It is not clear that Ben Sira was suggesting that everyone with scribal training was to be an expert in the law.

The use of the term ‘scribe’ in Jewish literature after the time of Ben Sira follows basically the usage already outlined: normally, ‘scribe’ refers to a professional: someone trained to write, copy, keep accounts, and otherwise carry out the functions we now associate with being a clerk or a secretary. The position could vary from a rather lowly individual keeping records in a warehouse to a high minister of state whose office was an important one in the established governmental bureaucracy. The situation can be exemplified from Josephus, who makes many references to scribes: village clerks (BJ. 1. 24. 3, §479); the secretary to Herod (BJ. 1. 26. 3, §529); the secretary of the Sanhedrin (BJ. 5. 13. 1, §532); the scribes of the temple (AJ. 12. 3. 3, §142).

Here and there, however, we find hints that the term could also be used of someone learned in the divine law and looked up to as an interpreter of scripture. This might be the case in some passages, though the possibility remains that the individuals referred to were professional scribes who served in the public bureaucracy or were employed by private clients. For example, 1 Macc. 7: 12 speaks of a delegation of scribes who appeared before Alcimus to ask for terms. On the one hand, they may have represented the learned among the anti-Seleucid opposition (some would say they were the scholars among the Hasidim—v. 13); on the other hand, it is also possible that they were professional scribes (nor is it clear that they had anything to do with the Hasidim mentioned in the same general context). Similarly, 2 Macc. 6: 18–31 refers to the martyr Eleazar as a scribe. Is this because of a special knowledge of the law or because he was just an ordinary scribe? For what it is worth, 4 Macc. 5: 4 says that he was a priest.

Apart from Ben Sira, this usage of ‘scribe’ to mean one learned in the sacred law is best known from the NT. In some NT texts ‘scribe’ seems to have almost a sectarian meaning, as if they were a religious group alongside the Sadducees, Pharisees, and others. Thus, Mark 7: 1–23 mentions both Pharisees and scribes together, as does Matt. 12: 38, 23: 2, and Luke 5: 21. Is this a new and different identity for the ‘scribes’? Is there now a religious sect known as ‘the scribes’? The answer is not an easy one, and needs to take into account recent study of the gospel writers, their knowledge and intent. It may be that by the time Mark (usually thought to be the earliest of the evangelists) wrote, the Pharisees were the only group really known, and references to other groups were made not on the basis of proper knowledge (cf. Cook 1978). D. R. Schwartz (1992: 89–101) has noted that since the temple personnel were often drawn on for their scribal skills, the ‘scribes’ of the gospels may in many cases be Levites.

The key may lie in some passages that some scholars (e.g. Cook 1978) have dismissed as secondary. The most likely reading of Mark 2: 16 is ‘scribes of the Pharisees’, which suggests that scribes were not a separate party but certain professionals among the Pharisees. Acts 23: 9 speaks of ‘scribes of the Pharisees' party’. This suggests that other parties (e.g. the Sadducees) also had their own scribes, perhaps individuals with special expertise in the law or legal interpretations of the sect in question. If so, this usage would be in line with that of Ben Sira, in which the ‘ideal’ of the scribe is not only one with professional knowledge and skills but also one with knowledge and understanding of God's law. Also, this explanation need not contradict D. R. Schwartz's argument, since some of the Levites may well have belonged to various of the sects extant at the time.

The question of literacy in ancient societies has been more of an emotive issue than one might expect. This is probably because for some it is linked to the question of whether the composition of biblical literature was early or late. That is, those who defend literacy at an early time in Israel tend to be those who also argue for an early origin of the text (e.g. Millard 1985). Yet most studies agree that functional literacy among the general population was low in most pre-modern societies, especially those with complicated scripts such as Egyptian hieroglyphs or Mesopotamian cuneiform. But was it any different in Israelite and Jewish society, where there was an alphabetic script, as has been argued? Recent studies have indicated that those who had an alphabetic script were not much better off, by all counts (e.g. Young 1998). Historically, having an alphabetic script does not guarantee a high rate of literacy among the general populace, as shown by studies of Greece and Rome (Street 1984; Harris 1989) or even of Jewish society in the late Second Temple period (Hezser 2001), 5 per cent being the general maximum.

A similar judgement applies to the question of schools (Grabbe 1995: 171–4). The ideal of public education is a modern concept. In antiquity the wealthy might hire tutors, and we know that in the Graeco-Roman world ‘sophists’ would take on pupils for payment. Greek cities also operated a ‘gymnasium’ for the training of citizens, but this was limited to the small number who qualified as citizens. In short, a system of schools for the general public was unknown. In the ancient Near East schools for training scribes existed in places like Egypt and Mesopotamia because their vast bureaucracies required many scribes. In ancient Israel and Judah, however, the number of scribes would have been much smaller. Scribes in the temple would have been trained by priests. There are also indications that the scribal office was often passed down from father to son, so that training could be given via a form of apprenticeship (Grabbe 1995: 160–1).

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