From their students the rabbis demanded honors even surpassing those bestowed on parents. "Let the honor of thy friend border on the honor of thy teacher, and the honor of thy teacher on the fear of God" (’Abhoth 4 12). "The honor of thy teacher must surpass the honor bestowed on thy father; for son and father are both in duty bound to honor the teacher" (Kerithoth 6 9). Everywhere the rabbis demanded the position of first rank (Mt 23:6 f; Mr 12:38 f; Lu 11:43; 20:46). Their dress equaled that of the nobility. They wore (stolai), "tunics," and these were the mark of the upper class.
Naturally the place of chief influence for the scribes up to the year 70 AD was Judea. But not only there were they to be found. Wherever the zeal for the law of the fathers was a perceptible force, they were indispensable; hence, we find them also in Galilee (Lu 5:17) and in the Diaspora. In the Jewish epitaphs in Rome, dating from the latter days of the empire, grammateis are frequently mentioned; and the Babylonian scribes of the 5th and 6th centuries were the authors of the most monumental work of rabbinical Judaism--the Talmud.
Since the separation of the Pharisaic and the Sadducean tendencies in Judaism, the scribes generally belonged to the Pharisaic class; for this latter is none other than the party which recognized the interpretations or "traditions" which the scribes in the course of time had developed out of the body of the written Law and enforced upon the people as the binding rule of life. Since, however, "scribes" are merely "students of the Law," there must also have been scribes of the Sadducee type; for it is not to be imagined that this party, which recognized only the written Law as binding, should not have had some opposing students in the other class. Indeed, various passages of the New Testament which speak of the "scribes of the Pharisees" (Mr 2:16; Lu 5:30; Ac 23:9) indicate that there were also "scribes of the Sadducees."
Under the reign and leadership of the scribes, it became the ambition of every Israelite to know more or less of the Law. The aim of education in family, school and synagogue was to make the entire people a people of the Law. Even the common laborer should know what was written in the Law; and not only know it, but also do it. His entire life should be governed according to the norm of the Law, and, on the whole, this purpose was realized in a high degree. Josephus avers: "Even though we be robbed of our riches and our cities and our other goods, the Law remains our possession forever. And no Jew can be so far removed from the and of his fathers nor will he fear a hostile commander to such a degree that he would not fear his Law more than his commander." So loyal were the majority of the Jews toward their Law that they would gladly endure the tortures of the rack and even death for it. This frame of mind was due almost wholly to the systematic and persistent instruction of the scribes.
The motive underlying this enthusiasm for the Law was the belief in divine retribution in the strictest judicial sense. The prophetic idea of a covenant which God had made with His select people was interpreted purely in the judicial sense. The covenant was a contract through which both parties were mutually bound. The people are bound to observe the divine Law literally and conscientiously; and, in return for this, God is in duty bound to render the promised reward in proportion to the services rendered. This applies to the people as a whole as well as to the individual. Services and reward must always stand in mutual relation to each other. He who renders great services may expect from the justice of God that he will receive great returns as his portion, while, on the other hand, every transgression also must be followed by its corresponding punishment.
The results corresponded to the motives. Just as the motives in the main were superficial, so the results were an exceedingly shallow view of religious and moral life. Religion was reduced to legal formalism. All religious and moral life was dragged down to the level of law, and this must necessarily lead to the following results:
(1) The individual is governed by a norm, the application of which could have only evil results when applied in this realm. Law has the purpose of regulating the relations of men to each other according to certain standards. Its object is not the individual, but only the body of society. In the law, the individual must find the proper rule for his conduct toward society as an organism. This is a matter of obligation and of government on the part of society. But religion is not a matter of government; where it is found, it is a matter of freedom, of choice, and of conduct.
(2) By reducing the practice of religion to the form of law, all acts are placed on a paragraph with each other. The motives are no longer taken into consideration, but only the deed itself.
(3) From this it follows that the highest ethical attainment was the formal satisfaction of the Law, which naturally led to finical literalism.
(4) Finally, moral life must, under such circumstances, lose its unity and be split up into manifold precepts and duties. Law always affords opportunity for casuistry, and it was the development of this in the guidance of the Jewish religious life through the "precepts of the elders" which called forth Christ’s repeated denunciation of the work of the scribes.
Frank E. Hirsch