[Heb., so·pherʹ, enumerator, muster-officer, secretary, scribe; Gr., gram·ma·teusʹ, a scribe, a man of letters].
The term implies one who has learning. The Hebrew word comes from a root meaning “to write” or “to count” and is variously translated scribe, secretary, copyist. The tribe of Zebulun had those who possessed the “equipment of a scribe” for numbering and enrolling troops. (Judg. 5:14; compare 2 Kings 25:19; 2 Chronicles 26:11.) There were scribes or secretaries in connection with the temple. (2 Ki. 22:3) 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. (2 Ki. 12:10-12) Baruch wrote at 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 counter-decree was sent out.—Esther 3:12; 8:9.
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 reed-brush case. He was acquainted with the legal and business forms in use, for the filling out of which, 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 business transactions to 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 party or the other 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.—Ezek. 9:3, 4.
It was in the days of Ezra the priest that the scribes (soph·rimʹ or, anglicized, 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·nayʹ (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, acording to the Sopherim, they changed the primitive Hebrew text to read ʼAdho·nayʹ instead of Yeho·wahʹ. 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, as they claimed, to avoid anthropomorphisms, that is, attributing to God human attributes. (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 of the Hebrew text. These marginal notes came to be known as the “Masorah.” The Masorah listed the fifteen extraordinary points of the Sopherim, namely, fifteen words or phrases in the Hebrew text that had been marked by dots above and below. The meaning of these extraordinary points is disputed. The Sopherim also made other emendations or changes.
In standard Hebrew manuscripts the Masorah, that is, the small writing in the margins of the page, 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. Actually there were more than eighteen of these emendations. Below we list twenty-eight: Gen. 18:22; Num. 11:15; 12:12; 1 Sam. 3:13; 2 Sam. 12:14; 16:12; 20:1; 1 Ki. 12:16; 21:10, 13; 2 Chron. 10:16; Job 1:5, 11; 2:5, 9; 7:20; 32:3; Ps. 10:3; 106:20; Eccl. 3:21; Jer. 2:11; Lam. 3:20; Ezek. 8:17: Hos. 4:7; Hab. 1:12; Zech. 2:12; Mal. 1:12; 3:9.
SCRIBES AS TEACHERS OF THE LAW
At first the priests served as scribes. (Ezra 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 of the priestly tribe. 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. (Luke 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. (Mark 2:16; Luke 5:30; Acts 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 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.—Matt. 15:1; Mark 3:22; compare Luke 5:17.
The scribes were looked up to by the people and were called “Rabbi” (Gr., hrab·biʹ, “My great one; My excellent one”; from Heb., rav, primarily denoting “great,” “master,” “chief,” and constituting a title of respect with which teachers were addressed). The term is applied to Christ at 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. (Matt. 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 by claiming that the substance or possession he had with which he could help his parents was a gift dedicated to God and therefore something that could not be touched. (Matt. 15:1-9; Mark 7:10-13) Anything dedicated or sanctified to God—for example, grain set aside as a tithe—could not thereafter be used for other things. If it was so used, guilt rested on the user thereof.—Compare Leviticus 5:14-19; 22:14.
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?” (Matt. 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.—Luke 11:52; Matt. 23:13; John 5:39; 1 Thess. 2:14-16.
In their office, the scribes as “rabbis” not only were 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. (Matt. 26:57; Mark 15:1) They were not to receive any pay for judging, because the Law prohibited presents or bribes. Hillel said: “He who employs the crown [of the Law] for external purposes shall dwindle.” 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 rabbinical 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 by Jesus 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. (Mark 12:37-40; John 10:12, 13) Peter warned Christian shepherds against making gain of their positions.—1 Pet. 5:2, 3.
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 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.—See the book “All Scripture Is Inspired of God and Beneficial,” pp. 175-186.
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 Greek No. 457. Written on both sides, it consists of but some one hundred letters (characters) of Greek and has been dated as early as the second century C.E. While it has an informal air about it and makes no pretensions to be fine writing, it has been classified as “a careful piece of work.” Interestingly this fragment is from a codex about eight inches square, and which most likely contained all of John’s Gospel, or some sixty-six 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 eleven Greek codices, produced between the second and fourth centuries C.E. They contain parts of nine Hebrew and fifteen 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.”—Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri, Vol. I.
More important than these characteristics, however, is their subject matter. In the main they corroborate those fourth-century vellum manuscripts known as the “Neutrals,” which are rated most highly by textual scholars Westcott and Hort, such as the Vatican No. 1209 and the Sinaiticus. Further, they contain none of the striking interpolations that are found in certain vellum manuscripts and that have been termed, perhaps mistakenly, “Western.”
There are extant many 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, compilers of what is widely considered the most accurate recension of the Christian Greek Scriptures, stated that 99.9 percent of the differences found in the manuscripts consist of “comparatively trivial variations.” 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.”
There are several reasons why 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 by vellum copies, there seemed to be no need of preserving the old papyrus copies.
Scrolls and parchments are mentioned by Paul at 2 Timothy 4:13. 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, a “calamus.” 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. The advantage of the codex over the roll book was that writing was more compact and cheaper to produce, easier to handle and much more convenient for locating references.