Since every detail of Jewish life was expected to be regulated by the law, and since it was impossible for an ordinary Jew to become familiar with the multitude of legal requirements and to apply them in the new situations of daily life, it was absolutely necessary for some men to devote themselves to a study of the law. Those who did were the lawyers.

Among the leading duties of the lawyers were the following: to study, interpret, and expound the law; to teach the law in the schools and in the synagogues; to decide questions of law; to act as judges—as in the various Sanhedrins throughout the country.

The word is found once in Matthew (22:35), six times in Luke (7:30; 10:25; 11:45, 46, 52; 14:3); and once in Titus (3:13), where, however, it refers to a Rom. or a Gr., not a Jewish, lawyer.

As depicted in the gospels, the lawyers regularly showed themselves to be unsympathetic to Jesus, and they joined the Pharisees in opposing Him. They rejected the teaching of John the Baptist (Luke 7:30). Jesus denounced them in severe language for putting unbearable burdens upon men, refusing to help them in their need, and for actually hindering those who sought the truth (11:45-52). They opposed Jesus for healing upon the Sabbath day (14:3). During Passion Week one tried to embarrass Jesus by means of a difficult question (Matt 22:35).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(1) to study and interpret the law;

(2) to instruct the Hebrew youth in the law;

(3) to decide questions of the law. The first two they did as scholars and teachers, the last as advisers in some court.

By virtue of the first-named function, they gradually developed a large amount of common law, for no code can go into such detail as to eliminate the necessity of subsequent legislation, and this usually, to a great extent, takes the form of judicial decisions founded on the code rather than of separate enactment. And so it was among the Hebrews. The provisions of their code were for the most part quite general, thus affording much scope for casuistic interpretation. As a result of the industry with which this line of legal development had been pursued during the centuries immediately preceding our era, the Hebrew law had become a very complicated science; and since it was forbidden to record these judicial decisions, a protracted study was necessary in order to commit them to memory.

But since the law must have universal application, the views of the individual scribe could not be taken as a standard; hence, the several disciples of the law must frequently meet for discussion, and the opinion of the majority then prevailed. To these meetings the youth interested in the study would be invited, that they might memorize the formulas agreed upon and might clear up the points upon which they were uncertain by asking questions of the recognized doctors (Lu 2:46).

Such centers of legal lore, of course, would seldom be found in rural communities; the authorities would naturally gather in large centers of population, especially--until 70 AD--in Jerusalem. While the deliverances of these law schools were purely theoretical, yet they stood in close relation to the practical. Whenever doubt arose regarding the application of the law to a particular case, the question was referred to the nearest lawyer; by him to the nearest company of lawyers, perhaps to the Sanhedrin; and the resultant decision was henceforth authority. Thus the lawyers became law makers, and after the destruction of Jerusalem, which brought an end to the existence of the Sanhedrin, the rabbinical doctors were recognized as the absolute authority in such matters. Frequently a single lawyer of great rank, as for instance Hillel or Gamaliel I, might pronounce dicta of unquestioned recognition with as much authority as a supreme court in our day, though sometimes his opinions were received and corrected by the legal tribunal, especially the Sanhedrin. Of course, frequently, these tribunals were under the sway of such a man’s influence, so that what he said upon his own authority would be ratified in the assembly of the doctors.

Frank E. Hirsch

See also

  • Occupations and Professions