Scribes (Heb. sôpherı̂m). I. Name.—(1) Three meanings are connected with the verb sâphar, the root of sôpherı̂m—(a) to write, (b) to set in order, (c) to count. The explanation of the word has been referred to each of these. The sôpherı̂m were so called because they wrote out the law, or because they classified and arranged its precepts, or because they counted with scrupulous minuteness every clause and letter it contained. (2) The name of Kirjath-sepher, Josh. 15:15; Judges 1:12, may possibly connect itself with some early use of the title, and appears to point to military functions of some kind. Judges 5:14. The men are mentioned as filling the office of scribe under David and Solomon. 2 Sam. 8:17; 20:25; 1 Kings 4:3. We may think of them as the king’s secretaries, writing his letters, drawing up his decrees, managing his finances. Comp. 2 Kings 12:10. In Hezekiah’s time they transcribed old records, and became a class of students and interpreters of the law, boasting of their wisdom. Jer. 8:8. After the captivity the office became more prominent, as the exiles would be anxious above all things to preserve the sacred books, the laws, the hymns, the prophecies of the past. II. Development of doctrine.—Of the scribes of this period, with the exception of Ezra and Zadok, Neh. 13:13, we have no record. A later age honored them collectively as the men of the Great Synagogue. Never, perhaps, was so important a work done so silently. They devoted themselves to the careful study of the text, and laid down rules for transcribing it with the most scrupulous precision. As time passed on the “words of the scribes” were honored above the law. It was a greater crime to offend against them than against the law. The first step was taken toward annulling the commandments of God for the sake of their own traditions. Mark 7:13. The casuistry became at once subtle and prurient, evading the plainest duties, tampering with conscience. Matt. 15:1–6; 23:16–23. We can therefore understand why they were constantly denounced by our Lord along with the Pharisees. While the scribes repeated the traditions of the elders, he “spake as one having authority,” “not as the scribes.” Matt. 7:29. While they confined their teachings to the class of scholars, he “had compassion on the multitudes.” Matt. 9:36. While they were to be found only in the council or in their schools, he journeyed through the cities and villages. Matt. 4:23; 9:35, etc. While they spoke of the kingdom of God vaguely, as a thing far off, he proclaimed that it had already come nigh to men. Matt. 4:17. In our Lord’s time there were two chief parties: 1, the disciples of Shammai, conspicuous for their fierceness, appealing to popular passions, using the sword to decide their controversies. Out of this party grew the Zealots. 2. The disciples of Hillel, born b.c. 112, and who may have been one of the doctors before whom the boy Jesus came in the temple, for he lived to be 120 years old. Hillel was a “liberal conservative, of genial character and broad range of thought, with some approximations to a higher teaching.” In most of the points at issue between the two parties, Jesus must have appeared in direct antagonism to the school of Shammai, in sympathy with that of Hillel. So far, on the other hand, as the temper of the Hillel school was one of the mere adaptation to the feeling of the people, cleaving to tradition, wanting in the inuition of a higher life, the teaching of Christ must have been felt as unsparingly condemning it. III. Education and life.—The special training for a scribe’s office began, probably, about the age of thirteen. The boy who was destined by his parents to the calling of a scribe went to Jerusalem and applied for admission in the school of some famous rabbi. After a sufficient period of training, probably at the age of thirty the probationer was solemnly admitted to his office. After his admission there was a choice of a variety of functions, the chances of failure and success. He might give himself to any one of the branches of study, or combine two or more of them. He might rise to high places, become a doctor of the law, an arbitrator in family litigations, Luke 12:14, the head of a school, a member of the Sanhedrin. He might have to content himself with the humbler work of a transcriber, copying the law and the prophets for the use of synagogues, or a notary, writing out contracts of sale, covenants of espousals, bills of repudiation. The position of the more fortunate was of course attractive enough. In our Lord’s time the passion for distinction was insatiable. The ascending scale of rab, rabbi, rabban, presented so many steps on the ladder of ambition. Other forms of worldliness were not far off. The salutations in the market-place, Matt. 23:7, the reverential kiss offered by the scholars to their master or by rabbis to each other, the greeting of Abba, father, Matt. 23:9, the long robes with the broad blue fringe, Matt. 23:5—all these go to make up the picture of a scribe’s life. Drawing to themselves, as they did, nearly all the energy and thought of Judaism, the close hereditary caste of the priesthood was powerless to compete with them. Unless the priest became a scribe also, he remained in obscurity. The order, as such, became contemptible and base. For the scribes there were the best places at feasts, the chief seats in synagogues. Matt. 23:6; Luke 14:7.
A Jewish Scribe.