Bible Background: The Scribes

The members of the group we’re talking about today were respected for their understanding of the law.  They had the sacred responsibility of preserving the Scriptures for future generations.  Their knowledge of the law made them regular participants in judicial proceedings–possibly even Jesus’ own.

Throughout the gospels, we read about different people groups that played a significant role in the land of Palestine during the first century.  These people influenced the culture in which Christ ministered, and He tailored His messages in order to both reach and respond to these groups.  Learning more about these people can add greater detail and deeper understanding to our study of the gospels.  What follows is a thumbnail sketch of the one of these groups–the scribes.

Historical Development (After 200 BC)

  • Valued for their skill in writing, scribes were originally recorders and copyists of official information (2 Kings 12:10) who organized themselves into guilds (1 Chronicles 2:55).
  • Eventually, scribes became holders of high political office.
  • By 180 B.C., scribes were a separate social class who held positions of status within Jewish society alongside the priestly orders.
  • Though reliable information about the development of the scribes is sketchy, rabbinic tradition suggests that the scribes became interpreters of the law during the intertestamental period.
  • Scribes were trained in religious wisdom and taught to understand the implications of the written and oral traditions.
  • The teachings, applications, and traditions set forth by the scribes during the intertestamental period carried a binding authority.  In some instances, their traditions were given greater weight than the written law.
  • Known for their zeal for the law and their willingness to die in defense of their beliefs, lay scribes gained prominence during the intertestamental period, while priestly scribes compromised with Hellenistic influences.

Function in Judaism at the Time of Christ

  • While some scribes were members of the aristocracy, the majority of scribes came from diverse segments of Jewish society.  Some were priests and members of the lower orders of the clergy, while others supported themselves through various trades.
  • In the New Testament era, scribes applied the principles of the Torah to average life situations.  In some instances, they developed applications for theoretical circumstances in order to protect against unintentional violations of the law.
  • Because of their knowledge of the law, many scribes came to be known as elders, sages, and scholars within Jewish society.
  • While any Jew could be asked to preside over judicial hearings, scribes were invariably chosen for such tasks.  Thus, they also came to be referred to as “lawyers.”
  • Scribes were considered to be the guardians of tradition in Jewish society.
  • Scribes also carried the sacred responsibility of copying the texts of Scripture.
  • Scribes were connected to the parties of both the Sadducees and the Pharisees.
  • In the gospels, scribes of both parties challenged Jesus on His failure to observe the traditions of the oral law, especially as they pertained to eating practices (Mark 2:16; Matthew 15:2; Mark 7:5).
  • The scribes disapproved of Christ because He claimed divine authority (Mark 2:7).
  • Scribes of both parties were likely involved in the legal proceedings against Jesus in the hours before His death.

Resources for Further Study 

  1. Evans, C. and Porter, S. (eds.) Dictionary of New Testament Background (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2000)
  2. Green, J., McKnight, S., and Marshall, I.H. (eds.) Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downsers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1992)
  3. Tenney, Merrill C.  The Zondervan Pictoral Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1975)
Trey Garner
Trey Garner is the Pastor of Children's Ministries at Faith Church. He has been married to his wife Deb since 2001. They have two children named Noah and Lauren. Originally from Texas, Trey appreciates barnwood, armadillos, and Blue Bell Ice Cream.