Scribes were distinguished professional people throughout the ancient world. Although they were called scribes because they could read and write, they were not only copyists. In Israel, some were officials who had authority to draw up legal documents (Jer. 32.12–15; 36.26). Some held special positions in the royal palace (2 Kings 18.18; Jer. 36.12) and functioned as ministers of finance or secretaries of state (2 Kings 22.3; Isa. 36.3). Some were academic advisers to the king. During the Diaspora (see Dispersion) in Babylon, scribes became responsible for preserving and interpreting scripture. Later, scribes were also called “the wise” and described as those with special knowledge of the Law (Dan. 11.33, 35; 12.3; Sir. 39.6–11; Ezra 7.6, 10). Early in the conflict with Antiochus Epiphanes (ca. 168 BCE), a group of Jewish scribes met with Antiochus's agents to negotiate justice (1 Macc. 7.12). They were probably local politicians with legal training.

In the New Testament, scribes are described functioning as lawyers (Luke 5.17; 7.30) and judges (Matt. 23.2), and they are shown arguing with Jesus over legal matters—authority to forgive (Matt. 9.3; Luke 5.21), traditions of the elders (Matt. 15.1), dietary laws (Mark 2.16; 3.22; Luke 5.30; 15.2), purity laws (Mark 7.1–2), interpretation of scripture (Matt. 17.10; Mark 9.11; 12.28, 35; Luke 20.39; John 8.2), and Sabbath observance (Luke 6.7). Scribes were often associated with Pharisees, but the two were not identical. The “scribes of the Pharisees” (Mark 2.16; Luke 5.30; Acts 23.9) were probably legal counselors employed by the Pharisees. Chief priests also employed scribes (Mark 15.31; Acts 4.6) as their legal counselors.

Scribes were associated with the Sanhedrin, probably as clerks, legal counselors for participants in trials, and judges. The fact that Jesus was reported arguing with the scribes at the same time that he was refuting the Pharisees does not prove that scribes were Pharisaic. Since the scribes whom Jesus attacked were defending the Pharisees, Jesus opposed them as well as the clients they represented.

The authority of scribes was delegated. They interpreted existing law; they did not create it. Well‐trained scribes were acquainted with all kinds of law, both ancient and contemporary (Matt. 13.52). When Jesus was distinguished from the scribes as one who had authority (Matt. 7.29; Mark 1.22), the implication was that, as the Messiah, he had authority to make law, just as David and other kings did. This gave him authority over the Sabbath (Matt. 12.8) and all other national laws. He also had authority to pardon (Matt. 9.6), as other kings did.

Some scribes also copied biblical texts. The care with which this was done has been recognized with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which allow scholars to compare medieval texts with examples copied a thousand years earlier. The relatively few differences disclosed are not so often scribal errors as variant texts. At the ends of some books, the scribe gave the total number of words in the book and told which word was the exact middle, so that later scribes could count both ways to be sure they had not omitted a single letter; this tradition was continued by the Masoretes.

See also Books and Bookmaking in Antiquity; Judaisms of the First Century CE; Textual Criticism; Writing in Antiquity


George Wesley Buchanan