SCRIBE, SCRIBES (סֹפְרִימ׃֙; LXX and NT γραμματεῖς, skilled in the art of writing).
1. OT usage. In ancient Israel the scribal craft was principally confined to certain clans who doubtless preserved the trade as a family guild profession, passing the knowledge of this essential skill from father to son. Among the Kenites were “families of scribes” dwelling at Jabez (
During the united and later Judean monarchies a substantial number of scribes came from the Levites. The point of contact between the ritual and scribal functions derives from the demand for fiscal organization of temple operations (e.g., in Mesopotamia and Egypt most of the earliest writings are associated with temple records). A Levite recorded the priestly assignments (
The scribal function of composing private legal documents is widely attested in Mesopotamia and Egypt before, during, and after the Biblical period. Although it is not stated that the scribe composed the text of a deed of sale (
2. Ezra and the intertestamental period. Ezra marked the watershed for the later development of the understanding of “scribe.” Indeed, the transition is already suggested in the Book of Ezra: in the royal decree (
The sources for the next several centuries are almost exclusively later rabbinic lit. However, the priestly hegemony over the correct legal interpretation of the law can hardly be doubted. During the Pers. and most of the Ptolemaic periods, the high priest was the most important local official of the government and a ranking member of the local aristocracy. He was the logical choice to receive Alexander the Great (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 69a; Jos. Antiq. XI. viii. 4, 5), being escorted by nobles, and clearly was expected to function as the highest local official under Ptolemaic rule (Jos. Antiq. XII. iv. 1). As late as the reign of Antiochus III over Pal., the high priest was clearly the chief local official (
The precise role of the “scribe” is still somewhat difficult to assess, however, for lack of source material. According to one rabbinic tradition (Pirke Aboth 1:1), the oral law (which according to rabbinic theology was also given to Moses on Sinai) was mediated from the prophets to the generation of Simeon “the Just” (the identification is disputed; either the high priest c. 300 b.c. or his grandson, c. 210 b.c.) by “the Great Assembly.” When this tradition is compared with the rules cited in rabbinic lit. as given from “the scribes,” it seems quite probable that “scribes” of the Persian and Ptolemaic periods were identical with (or at least participant in) this body of formulators of the oral law.
The rules and practices established by the scribes acquired a binding authority, particularly with the specially orthodox of later (NT) times. One tradition ascribes greater authority to their teachings than to the written law (MSanh. 11:3), and a proselyte was required to follow the scribal traditions as well as the simply interpreted written law (Siphra on
From the 2nd cent. b.c. are two additional sources of information on the scribes. In the book of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus), whose author clearly considered himself to be in the scribal tradition, is an “ode” to the “perfect scribe” (38:24-39:11). This ode confirms the picture of a scribe as one schooled in the law and religious wisdom, understanding the implications of both the written law and oral traditions. As a result of his learning, he enjoyed a prominence in public assemblies, and both understood and exercised justice among the people. Moreover, he was considered particularly pious by virtue of his knowledge of the revealed will of God, a feature of rabbinic understanding of piety. If Ecclesiasticus is Sadducean in origin (or more appropriately proto-Sadducean), then we are faced with one more point of connection between the established priesthood and the class of scribes. Also, during the Maccabean revolt a company of scribes “sought justice” from the Seleucid-appointed high priest, Alcimus, in the confidence that since he was “a priest of the line of Aaron” (
After the period of the NT, “scribe” came to describe a teacher of children and composer of legal documents; the names “wise” and then “rabbi” being used for the scholar of the law.
Bibliography R. H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the OT in English, I (1913), 282-288; J. Jeremias, “γραμματεῦς,” TWNT I, 740ff.; R. de Vaux, AIs, 131f.; A. Rainey, “The Soldier Script in Papyrus Anastasi I,” JNES XXV (1966), 58ff.