A secretary or a copyist of the Scriptures; later, a person educated in the Law. The Hebrew word so·pherʹ, which comes from a root meaning “count,” is translated “secretary,” “scribe,” “copyist”; and the Greek word gram·ma·teusʹ is rendered “scribe” and “public instructor.” The term implies one who has learning. The tribe of Zebulun had those who possessed “the equipment of a scribe” for numbering and enrolling troops. (Jg 5:14; compare 2Ki 25:19; 2Ch 26:11.) There were scribes, or secretaries, in connection with the temple. (2Ch 34:9, 13) King Jehoash’s secretary worked together with the high priest in counting money contributed and then gave it to those paying wages to the workers repairing the temple. (2Ki 12:10-12) Baruch wrote at the prophet Jeremiah’s dictation. (Jer 36:32) Secretaries of King Ahasuerus of Persia worked under the direction of Haman in writing out the decree for the destruction of the Jews, and under Mordecai when the counterdecree was sent out.
The Egyptian scribe was usually a man of the lower class but intelligent. He was well schooled. He carried his equipment, consisting of a palette with hollow places to hold ink of different colors, a water jug, and a reed-brush case. He was acquainted with the legal and business forms in use. For filling out such forms, taking dictation, and so forth, he received a fee.
In Babylon the scribe held a professional position. His services were practically indispensable, as the law required that business transactions be in writing, duly signed by the contracting parties and witnessed. The secretary would sit near the city gate, where most of the business was carried on, with his stylus and lump of clay, ready to sell his services whenever required. The scribes recorded business transactions, wrote letters, prepared documents, cared for temple records, and performed other clerical duties.
The Hebrew scribes acted as public notaries, prepared bills of divorce, and recorded other transactions. At least in later times they had no fixed fee, so one could bargain with them beforehand. Usually one of the parties to a transaction paid the fee, but sometimes both shared. Ezekiel, in his vision, saw a man with a recorder’s inkhorn doing a marking work.
Scripture Copyists. It was in the days of Ezra the priest that the scribes (soh·pherimʹ, “Sopherim”) first began to come into prominence as a distinct group. They were copyists of the Hebrew Scriptures, very careful in their work and regarding mistakes with terror. As time went on they became extremely meticulous, going so far as to count not only the words copied but the letters also. Until centuries after Christ was on earth, the written Hebrew consisted only of consonants, and the omission or addition of a single letter often would have changed one word into another. If they detected the slightest error, the miswriting of a single letter, that entire section of the roll was rejected as unfit for synagogue use. Thereupon that section was cut out and replaced by a new and faultless one. They read aloud each word before writing. To write even a single word from memory was regarded as gross sin. Absurdities of practice crept in. It is said that the religious scribes prayerfully wiped their pen before writing the word ʼElo·himʹ (God) or ʼAdho·naiʹ (Sovereign Lord).
But, despite this extreme care to avoid inadvertent errors, in process of time the Sopherim began to take liberties in making textual changes. In 134 passages the Sopherim changed the primitive Hebrew text to read ʼAdho·naiʹ instead of YHWH. In other passages ʼElo·himʹ was the word used as a substitute. Many of the changes were made by the Sopherim because of superstition in connection with the divine name and to avoid anthropomorphisms, that is, attributing human attributes to God. (See JEHOVAH [Superstition hides the name].) The Masoretes, the name by which copyists came to be known centuries after Jesus’ days on earth, took note of the alterations made by the earlier Sopherim, recording them in the margin or at the end of the Hebrew text. These marginal notes came to be known as the Masorah. In 15 passages in the Hebrew text, certain letters or words were marked by the Sopherim with extraordinary points, or dots. The meaning of these extraordinary points is disputed.
In standard Hebrew manuscripts the Masorah, that is, the small writing in the margins of the page or at the end of the text, contains a note opposite a number of Hebrew passages that reads: “This is one of the eighteen Emendations of the Sopherim,” or similar words. These emendations were made evidently because the original passages in the Hebrew text appeared to show irreverence for Jehovah God or disrespect for his earthly representatives. However well intentioned, this was an unjustified alteration of God’s Word. For a list of occurrences of emendations by the Sopherim, see the appendix of the New World Translation, page 1569.
Scribes as Teachers of the Law. At first the priests served as scribes. (Ezr 7:1-6) But great stress was laid on the need for every Jew to have a knowledge of the Law. Therefore those who studied and gained a great deal of knowledge were looked up to, and these scholars eventually formed an independent group, many not being priests. By the time Jesus came to earth the word “scribes,” therefore, designated a class of men learned in the Law. They made the systematic study of the Law and its exposition their professional occupation. They were evidently among the teachers of the Law, the ones versed in the Law. (Lu 5:17; 11:45) They were generally associated with the religious sect of the Pharisees, for this body recognized the interpretations or “traditions” of the scribes that had developed in course of time into a bewildering maze of minute, technical regulations. The expression ‘scribes of the Pharisees’ appears several times in the Scriptures. (Mr 2:16; Lu 5:30; Ac 23:9) This may indicate that some scribes were Sadducees, who believed only in the written Law. The scribes of the Pharisees zealously defended the Law, but additionally upheld the traditions that had been developed, and they held sway over the thought of the people to an even greater extent than the priests. Primarily, the scribes were in Jerusalem, but they also were to be found all over Palestine and in other lands among the Jews of the Dispersion.
The scribes were looked up to by the people and were called “Rabbi” (Gr., rhab·beiʹ, “My great one; My excellent one”; from Heb., rav, meaning “many,” “great”; a title of respect with which teachers were addressed). The term is applied to Christ several places in the Scriptures. At John 1:38 it is interpreted as meaning “Teacher.” Jesus was, in fact, the teacher of his disciples, but he forbade them, at Matthew 23:8, to covet that designation or to apply it to themselves as a title, as was done by the scribes. (Mt 23:2, 6, 7) The scribes of the Jews along with the Pharisees were strongly condemned by Jesus because they had added to the Law and had provided loopholes by which to circumvent the Law, so that he said to them: “You have made the word of God invalid because of your tradition.” He cited an instance of this: They would permit one who should have helped his father or mother to avoid doing so
Jesus declared that the scribes, like the Pharisees, had added many things, making the Law burdensome for the people to follow, loading the people down. Furthermore, as a class, they had no genuine love for the people nor did they desire to help them, being unwilling to use a finger to lighten the people’s burdens. They loved the plaudits of men and high-sounding titles. Their religion was a front, a ritual, and they were hypocrites. Jesus showed how difficult their attitude and practices had made it for them to come into God’s favor, saying to them: “Serpents, offspring of vipers, how are you to flee from the judgment of Gehenna?” (Mt 23:1-33) The scribes were heavily responsible, for they knew the Law. Yet they took away the key of knowledge. They were not content with refusing to acknowledge Jesus, of whom their copies of the Scriptures testified, but they added to their reprehensibility by fighting bitterly to keep anyone else from acknowledging him, yes, from listening to Jesus.
In their office, not only were the scribes as “rabbis” responsible for theoretic development of the Law and the teaching of the Law but they also had judicial authority, expressing sentence in courts of justice. There were scribes on the Jewish high court, the Sanhedrin. (Mt 26:57; Mr 15:1) They were not to receive any pay for judging, because the Law prohibited presents or bribes. Some rabbis may have had inherited wealth; almost all practiced a trade, of which they were proud, in that they were capable of supporting themselves aside from their rabbinic office. While they could not properly receive anything for work as judges, they may have expected and received pay for teaching the Law. This may be inferred from the words Jesus spoke when he warned the crowds about the greed of the scribes, also when he spoke of the hired man who did not care for the sheep. (Mr 12:37-40; Joh 10:12, 13) Peter warned Christian shepherds against making gain of their positions.
Copyists of the Christian Greek Scriptures. In the apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he orders that the letter be read in the congregation of the Laodiceans in exchange for the one to Laodicea. (Col 4:16) No doubt all the congregations desired to read all the congregational letters of the apostles and their fellow members of the Christian governing body, and so copies were made for later consultation and to give them wider circulation. The ancient collections of Paul’s letters (copies of the originals) stand as evidence that there was considerable copying and publication of them.
The Bible translator Jerome of the fourth century and Origen of the third century C.E. say that Matthew wrote his Gospel in Hebrew. It was directed primarily to Jews. But there were many Hellenized Jews among the Dispersion; so it may be that it was Matthew himself who later translated his Gospel into Greek. Mark wrote his Gospel mainly with Gentile readers in view, as is indicated by his explanations of Jewish customs and teachings, by his translations of certain expressions that would not be understood by Roman readers, and by other explanations. Both Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels were intended for wide circulation, and of necessity, many copies would be made and distributed.
Christian copyists were not often professional, but having respect and high regard for the value of the inspired Christian writings, they copied them carefully. Typical of the work of these early Christian copyists is the oldest extant fragment of any of the Christian Greek Scriptures, the Papyrus Rylands No. 457. With writing on both sides, it consists of but some 100 letters (characters) of Greek and has been dated as early as the first half of the second century C.E. (PICTURE, Vol. 1, p. 323) While it has an informal air about it and makes no pretensions to be fine writing, it is a careful piece of work. Interestingly, this fragment is from a codex that most likely contained all of John’s Gospel, or some 66 leaves, about 132 pages in all.
Bearing more extensive witness, but at later dates, are the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri. These consist of portions of 11 Greek codices, produced between the second and fourth centuries C.E. They contain parts of 9 Hebrew and 15 Christian Bible books. These are quite representative in that a variety of writing styles is found in them. One codex is said to be “the work of a good professional scribe.” Of another it is said: “The writing is very correct, and though without calligraphic pretensions, is the work of a competent scribe.” And of still another, “The hand is rough, but generally correct.”
More important than these characteristics, however, is their subject matter. In the main they corroborate those fourth-century vellum manuscripts termed the “Neutrals,” which are rated most highly by textual scholars Westcott and Hort; among these are the Vatican No. 1209 and the Sinaiticus. Further, they contain none of the striking interpolations that are found in certain vellum manuscripts that have been termed, perhaps mistakenly, “Western.”
There are extant thousands of manuscripts dating from especially the fourth century C.E. forward. That the copyists used extreme care is seen by scholars who have carefully studied and compared these manuscripts. Some of these scholars have made recensions or collations based on these comparisons. Such recensions form the basic texts for our modern translations. Scholars Westcott and Hort stated that “the amount of what can in any sense be called substantial variation is but a small fraction of the whole residuary variation, and can hardly form more than a thousandth part of the entire text.” (The New Testament in the Original Greek, Graz, 1974, Vol. II, p. 2) Sir Frederic Kenyon stated concerning the Chester Beatty Papyri: “The first and most important conclusion derived from the examination of them is the satisfactory one that they confirm the essential soundness of the existing texts. No striking or fundamental variation is shown either in the Old or the New Testament. There are no important omissions or additions of passages, and no variations which affect vital facts or doctrines. The variations of text affect minor matters, such as the order of words or the precise words used.”
For several reasons, little remains of the earliest copyists’ work today. Many of their copies of the Scriptures were destroyed during the time that Rome persecuted the Christians. Wear through use took its toll. Also, the hot, humid climate in some locations caused rapid deterioration. Additionally, as the professional scribes of the fourth century C.E. replaced papyrus manuscripts with vellum copies, there seemed to be no need of preserving the old papyrus copies.
The ink used by copyists in writing was a mixture of soot and gum made in a cake form and mixed in water for use. The pen consisted of a reed. The tip, when softened with water, resembled a brush. Writing was done on leather and papyrus in scrolls or rolls; later in codex form on sheets which, if bound, often had a wooden cover.