We’ve been learning about the different religious groups within Judaism in the days of Jesus, we’ve covered the Pharisees and Sadducees, probably the two most well-known, but another group often mentioned alongside them are the Scribes. Who were they and what did they do?
First of all, there were two different groups within the scribal community, those who were religious scribes and those who were more within the administrative roles within society.
The religious scribes tended to be from the Tribe of Levi, the tribe from which the line of priests came from and the families whose job it was to maintain all the functions for the work of the priesthood and the maintenance of the Temple and all its needs. The civil scribes were the historians if you will, the record-keepers and letter writers in royal palaces, secretaries and notaries, they worked in urban administration centres and were associated with the equivalent of professional guilds and writers.
We’re going to look at the role of the religious scribes because these are the ones that affect us most with regard to Bible study, although, it’s because of the civil scribes that we’ve got the historical writings on which to draw to learn about the culture and happenings in times past. So they’re all incredibly important, we’re just focusing on the religious group.
We in the 21st century are phenomenally blessed above all other centuries before us because we not only have access to the Bible, we have – most of us at least – have more than one copy and most have many copies…digital and print. Not only do we have many copies of the Bible, but we have access to some of the greatest theological minds and resources to help us better understand and apply it. Sadly, we don’t use them very much.
In centuries past, Christians could be burned at the stake for reading the Bible for themselves, for copying it and you’d reign down all the wrath of the official church if you dared print copies and spread them around. In ancient times, Scripture was taught orally because Mr Joe Average could never afford one scroll of the Bible for himself let alone copies of every scroll in the Bible.
Scribes underwent extreme training, governed by very detailed guidelines that were rigidly held to when it came to making copies of the books of the Bible. I’ll explain them in a little bit. The priests worked in the Temple in Jerusalem, and religious leaders that lived throughout Israel in Jesus day, generally worked through the local synagogues. Torah scrolls along with other scrolls from Old Testament writers were protected and read aloud in the Synagogues each Shabbat and the leader’s job was to teach the Scriptures and adjudicate on matters of the law as applicable to daily life and interpreting the Law according to the ever-changing daily lives of the citizenry.
Before Scribes filled the role of writing down the Scriptures, that task was primarily filled by the prophets, and it wasn’t until after the return of the Babylonian exiles that the desperate need for Scripture and teachers of Scripture became really necessary. So many of the people had been influenced by their pagan neighbours while in exile that they basically had to be stripped back to nothing, and learn all over again what God’s Law said and meant.
The Scribes established schools to teach youth especially, they knew the Law probably better than anyone because they were writing it constantly and they became known as the experts in the Law. Zealous and fastidious in minute details and in this, they were akin to the Pharisees and this is why these two groups are quite closely aligned with each other.
Before we look at the theological perspective of the Scribes I want to describe for you the procedures followed by the Scribes so you get an idea of just how meticulous they were at their craft.
The parchment and quill used in making and writing a scroll had to be made from a kosher animal. No instrument containing iron or steel is permitted to be used in its making, because those materials are used in instruments of war.
Authentic Torah (first 5 books of Moses) scrolls are without question masterpieces; they’re made of between 62 and 84 sheets of parchment – all kosher of course – that contain exactly 304,805 letters. They take months to complete.
Before a Scribe would begin writing, he would be sure to be ritually clean, if he was going to write the name of God, ritual cleansing would take place.
Only a specific number of letters would be on each line, and only a certain number of lines were permitted on each page. The Scribe was never allowed to write from memory, he had to copy each word one letter at a time, looking back to the original for each letter and saying it out loud as he wrote it. A specific spacing between the letters was also necessary so that letters and words didn’t run together and become obscured.
If the name of God was to be written, the quill was to be cleaned and the ink applied carefully so as not to blur the name of God. If the king himself happened to ask a Scribe a question while he was writing God’s name, he was to ignore the king and finish writing to ensure no errors were made.
Each Hebrew letter has a numerical value, and after each sheet of the scroll was completed, it was meticulously checked to ensure the correct number of letters were present, and that their numerical value added precisely to the original. All errors had to be identified, and if more than 3 errors were found, that sheet was removed and given a burial because it contained the Word of God. When all the sheets were checked for accuracy, they were sewn together and the scroll was then completed with the timber scroll rollers.
There are many more rules and regulations that are adhered to, but the end result is that Torah scrolls and scrolls of other Biblical books are phenomenally accurate.
When a scroll is worn out and no longer usable, it’s buried and given a funeral service.
Next time we’ll look at some of the issues Jesus had with the Scribes.