And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. (Matthew 7:28-29 ESV)

There are numerous references to the scribes in the gospels and they are usually unsympathetic portrayals. Nonetheless, Jesus appears to have a very high view of what is now called the Old Testament scriptures. Presumably, these documents would be copied and maintained by scribes. Who are these scribes in question? Are they the same people who maintained the Old Testament, and if so why would they be unsympathetic characters?

If scope of the question should need to be narrowed, this is in reference to the historical identity of this group whom the canonical author places in disputation with Jesus from those who are involved in academic religious history.

  • Ben, I think to be in scope this question needs to ask who the scribes were according to a specific Christian denomination or tradition. At the moment it could be closed either as a 'Truth' question or because it is too broad. There were many scribes, who would need to be identified. Nov 10, 2015 at 19:53
  • The perspective would be according to a historical pursuit by those who are involved in historical scholarship of that era, Christian or secular. I attempted to clarify this in the final paragraph. Scoping more narrowly than this might eliminate the ability to even ask the question (i.e. is there really a huge difference between the Lutheran answer vs. the Reformed? etc) Nov 10, 2015 at 19:56
  • 5
    I really don't think the question of who the scribes were (historically speaking) is a question that will vary by denomination.
    – ThaddeusB
    Nov 10, 2015 at 20:16
  • 3
    This isn't a question that can be restricted to a 'Reformed perspective'. It is a purely historical question, so the only real answer is a purely historical one. Nov 10, 2015 at 21:40
  • 2
    I agree, I am just trying to hedge against this getting closed over scope. "Historical" should be adequate in my opinion. I want historical answers not just Reformed ones, but I added the condition in case someone was planning to vote to close. This is becoming a problem I think. It's simply too hard to scope questions anymore without someone thinking it is too broad. Nov 10, 2015 at 21:43

1 Answer 1


In Ancient Judaism, preserving and accurately copying the scriptures was a task considered to be of the utmost importance. As such, an official Temple position dedicated to this task was created. Such a scribal position was not unique to Judaism; indeed, many ancient societies had trained professionals whose primary job was to maintain and copy religious records and scriptures.

Such copyists and maintainers of the religious records were regularly immersed in the text and thus quickly became experts in it. Thus, in Temple-era Judaism the term "Scribes" refers both to the copyists and to experts in the scriptures in general. In later Rabbinic writing, the Scribes are described as "teachers with authority" and elsewhere as "copyists and teachers" (jobs that taken on by Rabbisafter the Temple fell, with the specific scribal roles disappearing entirely by the Talmudic period). Such literature considers their teachings to have been authoritative and ascribes many legal interpretations to the Scribes. Scribes also functioned as councilors, philosophers, and sophists at times.

Historically, most of the scribes were probably priests or members of the priestly class. Ezra, for example, is described as a scribe (Ezra 7:6) and priest (Ezra 10:10). However, in the late Temple period, non-priests were added to the ranks as duties of the scribes increased. In the Maccabean period, the term "Scribe" became a title. Ben Sira describes a Scribe as a wise man with comprehensive knowledge.

Josephus does not speak of a specific "Scribes" group, but says that scribes were employed at all levels of government. As such, the Scribes of Jesus' day do not appear to have been a distinct social group, but more akin to bureaucrats. That is, experts on the Law and Jewish life in general, not a distinct class of people. That said, the evidence suggests most lived in Jerusalem and were closely associated with the Temple priests. These Scribes likely help enforce Jewish law and pick Sanhedrin members.

This picture is consistent with the Gospel accounts. Mark describes the Scribes as high officials and advisors of the priests. Matthew portrays them as learned leaders of the people. Luke shows them as leaders and protectors of Judaism associating with the Pharisees and Chief Priest. Collectively the accounts show people who did not necessarily have official power, but yielded considered authority due to the people's respect for their knowledge.

Source: Allen Ross, "The Scribes" (2006), hosted at Bible.org


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