We’ve been learning about the different Jewish religious groups, so far the Pharisees and Sadducees and last time, the Scribes. We actually have a lot to be thankful for from this group because it was their meticulous attention to detail over the centuries, that has resulted in us having a really trustworthy record of Scripture.
While there are computers and printing presses to give us beautiful Bibles today, the craft of the Scribe is still important today, there are many Scribes in Israel and around the world and they maintain the ancient practices and tradition, albeit it with more accurate and better made instruments and conditions.
I’ve been on Mt Masada many times, and on that mountain are the ruins and remains of an ancient synagogue, and very often while we’re visiting, you can see a Scribe sitting in a small glassed in room, in air-conditioned comfort, hand copying the Word of God onto a new scroll. It’s fascinating to see.
We read about the Scribes in the New Covenant, and it seems that whenever Jesus spoke about them or to them, He wasn’t particularly complimentary. Why was that? What was it about the Scribes that made Him so cranky? We understand why He was angry with the Pharisees, we understand why He was angry with the Sadducees…but why the Scribes. They made copies of the Word of God…that’s a good thing!
The Scribes were theologically aligned with the Pharisees in that they were conservative, they knew the Scriptures intimately and were known as the teachers of the Law. They knew it back to front. But listen to what Jesus said about these teachers of the Law.
Matthew 23:14-15, Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows houses and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you’ll receive greater condemnation. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.”
That’s a savage assessment!
He goes on to the end of the chapter, calling them blind guides because they manipulated and tortured the Scripture, creatively tying people up in so much tradition that they could extort so much out of them for their own personal gain and power. They’d fixate on the tiniest elements of the Law and traditions to keep the masses bowing and submitting to them, Jesus described this as straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel…all with a pretense of piety and righteousness. He finished by telling them they were filled with robbery, self-indulgence, tombs that looked glorious on the outside but were filled with rotting corpses inside. They were filled with uncleanness and lawlessness. Pretty harsh stuff.
Because the Scribes (and the Pharisees) were the teachers and authorities of the Law – along with all their additional rules, rites and regulations, they had unhindered power over the people they were supposed to be shepherding and caring for.
I want to share what I learned from Dr John Macarthur with regard to the accusation of how the religious leaders devoured widow’s houses.
“A widow would have an estate, she would want to make sure that it was secure and safe, and so she would bring in a scribe to take care of the legal work to protect her estate, and while pretending to protect her estate, he would take it. They would mismanage the property of widows. They would abuse the hospitality of widows – living in their houses, taking up space in their houses, eating their food in a gluttonous fashion, making excessive demands, leeching off of them. They would take money from older widows with deficient mental powers – as the older women lost the ability to reason and think what was going on, they would steal them blind. Then they would take the house of a widow in pledge for the debt that they were owed for their legal services; then when the widow died, they would own the house – nothing would be left if she had children. They demanded that the widows give to purchase blessing from God – as they demanded that from everybody in their system.” *
They could bamboozle people with their knowledge of the Law and all the regulations, walking within a tight adherence of it, but all the while abusing the people for the own personal gain. They were legal con artists.
Now I want to state that not all Scribes and Pharisees were like this, there were genuine, caring and loving religious leaders among them, by unfortunately, the majority were pretty bad.
Jesus was scathing of these men, He was brutal in both His assessment and His condemnation of them. We like to think of Jesus as being mild, patient, full of love and tolerance, never raising His voice or uttering anything even remotely critical. Wrong! When it came to men who claimed to be God representatives before the people, He was scathing in His critiques and judgment. He won’t tolerate anyone who claims to speak for God, who stands behind a pulpit, who prophesies in His name, and uses that position for self-promotion and personal benefit, while manipulating God’s Word to achieve it.
So the Scribes were important, we can be really grateful to them for the handing down of incredibly accurate copies of the Scripture, but in their day to day dealings they were reprehensible…as were the Pharisees and Sadducees at that time. At least in the majority of cases with exceptions of course.