Who Were the Scribes?

This week’s scripture reading – Matthew 8:18-22, 

Now when Jesus saw great multitudes about him, he gave commandment to depart unto the other side. And a certain scribe came, and said unto him, Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air [have] nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay [his] head. And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.

Scribes in History

This week’s scripture presents many notable observations with the reading of yet another account of great multitudes following Jesus. His teaching, preaching and healing ministry was clearly drawing a crowd of followers from diverse regions, backgrounds and positional standing within the community. By this time in his ministry, Jesus was somewhat of a traveling person, hence the phrase the Son of man hath not where to lay [his] head. What is perhaps most striking in this scripture is the encounter with a scribe who made the rather bold claim, Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. Let us explore who the scribes were and see how this played out with the interaction of one of them with Jesus.

Who were the scribes in ancient Israel? Historically, scribes date back to David’s reign over all Israel (2 Sam. 8:15-17) with the first recorded scribe in scripture called Seraiah. In most cases, scribes were trained to record and interpret the law of Moses and typically held lofty and influential positions within the ancient Israelite religion. Interestingly, the son of Seraiah was Ezra the priest and scribe, as described in Ezra 7:11, …and he was a ready scribe. To give some indication of the role of scribes, recorded here is a declaration from the reigning king during the time of Ezra as shown in Ezra 7:21, And I, [even] I Artaxerxes the king, do make a decree to all the treasurers which [are] beyond the river, that whatsoever Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, shall require of you, it be done speedily.

New Testament Scribes

Transitioning forward to the New Testament, scribes, along with other religious elite were often perceived as a source of reliable religious information given their in depth knowledge of scripture and the law. For example, Herod once summoned such leaders for his own selfish desires as noted in Matt. 2:4, And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.

Despite their knowledge and unique skill though, scribes and their cohorts had evolved over time to make the traditions of the elders more important than the Law of Moses. This tended to make for a rather pretentious role within the religious community and it was not until Jesus came along to challenge them on their self imposed traditions. This was noted by Jesus as he spoke to the multitudes in Matt. 5:20, For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed [the righteousness] of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Also note the contrast following the lengthy sermon on the mount from Jesus as the people reacted with astonishment in Matt.7:29, For he taught them as [one] having authority, and not as the scribes. As a result, the scribes therefore became threatened over the sayings of Jesus and began to falsely accuse him on countless occasions such as in Matt.9:3, And, behold, certain of the scribes said within themselves, This [man] blasphemeth. And Jesus knowing their thoughts said, Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts? 

Scribes & Pharisees

What’s the difference between the scribes and the pharisees? They were both intent on doing away with Jesus. The scribes, and for that matter the Pharisees, were intent on trying to trick Jesus into saying something that could be used against him as noted in Matt. 12:38, Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas.

As noted earlier, the scribes and Pharisees, over time had created a labyrinth of traditions, superseding the Law of Moses as shown in Matt.15:1, Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread. But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? Jesus, however would have nothing to do with their misguided traditions and taught his disciples accordingly in Matt. 23:2, Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, [that] observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.

Persecution from Scribes

What did the scribes teach? Well, all four gospel accounts however chronicle the continuous diatribe from the scribes against Jesus, such as noted in Mark 2:6, But there were certain of the scribes sitting there, and reasoning in their hearts, Why doth this [man] thus speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only? While the compassionate ministry of Jesus took him to places and people, the likes of which no scribe would remotely consider approaching, this was again cause for criticism in Mark 2:16, And when the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and sinners, they said unto his disciples, How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners?

The depravity of the scribes however reached new lows upon witnessing the miracles performed by Jesus and ascribing them to Satan as recorded in Mark 3:22, And the scribes which came down from Jerusalem said, He hath Beelzebub, and by the prince of the devils casteth he out devils. As time progressed though, the ministry of Jesus created more and more followers and disciples, therefore it became time for the next phase of the scribe’s insidious plans from Mark 11:18, And the scribes and chief priests heard [it,] and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine. 

The conundrum facing the scribes was the fact that Jesus was a carpenter by trade, as was his father. He was unlearned, having never been schooled in their religiosity, and this prompted scenes such as Mark 11:27-28, And they come again to Jerusalem: and as he was walking in the temple, there come to him the chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders, And say unto him, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority to do these things?

Hypocrisy of Scribes

This came as a complete contradiction of their hypocrisy since they would ask him the basis of his authority on one occasion but then acknowledge the accuracy of scripture and truthfulness from him on another occasion in Mark 12:32-33, And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he: And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love [his] neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. 

As their pattern of deception continued, Jesus reached a transition point and began to teach his closest disciples more intently, thus reducing his exposure to the multitudes in Matt. 16:21, From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. The scribes, Pharisees and chief priests though continued to aggressively pursue Jesus and sought an opportunity to collaborate with Judas, the traitor among the midst of his apostles in Mark 14:43, And immediately, while he yet spake, cometh Judas, one of the twelve, and with him a great multitude with swords and staves, from the chief priest and the scribes and the elders.

And the scribes and chief priests heard [it,] and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine. 

Mark 11:18

Relentless Persecution

From that point on, the religious aristocracy were relentless in their pursuit of convicting Jesus for his supposed offences and transgressions of their laws and traditions as noted in Mark 15:1, And straightway in the morning the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council, and bound Jesus, and carried [him] away, and delivered [him] to Pilate. Their despicable nature sadly held true right through to the point of Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross as depicted in Matt. 27:41-43, Likewise also the chief priests mocking [him,] with the scribes and elders, said, He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God. 

Here was the tragic state of affairs for the Israelites with their religious leaders completely failing to see that their very Messiah was standing right before them. This however, held true to the statement from the apostle in John 1:5, And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. The chief priests and scribes, who were intent on destroying Jesus even sent forth spies after him to try and capture him in his own words (Luke 20:20).

The religious elite who while acknowledging the authenticity of Jesus, still refused to believe him as recorded in Luke 20:21, And they asked him, saying, Master, we know that thou sayest and teachest rightly, neither acceptest thou the person [of any,] but teachest the way of God truly. Jesus clearly knew better as noted in Luke 20:23, But he perceived their craftiness, and said unto them, Why tempt ye me?

Thereafter, Jesus increased his indictment of them for their hypocrisy as recorded in Luke 20:46-47, Beware of the scribes, which desire to walk in long robes, and love greetings in the markets, and the highest seats in the synagogues, and the chief rooms at feasts; Which devour widows’ houses, and for a shew make long prayers: the same shall receive greater damnation.

This was merely the beginning of the indictment from Jesus toward both the scribes and the Pharisees. Returning back to the Gospel according to Matthew, there is a far more comprehensive account of the pattern of their hypocrisies in Matt. 23:13-33. While time does not permit the full list to be presented in this study, here are two excerpts to help illustrate the indictment from Jesus with the first one from Matt. 23:27-28, Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead [men’s] bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. As this chastisement continued, one would think the final indictment expressed by Jesus would have woken them up from their slumber of hypocrisy but such was not the case, as recorded in Matt. 23:33, [Ye] serpents, [ye] generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?

Full of Faith and Power

Let us digress for a moment after the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension to heaven as the scribes continued in their darkness. There was an account in the Acts of the Apostles as recorded by Luke that provides evidence of such complicit evil pursuits. A man called Stephen, who was appointed to help the apostles, was noted in Acts 6:8, And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people. A group of people arose to resist and argue against Stephen, but as it happens when people fight against the one true God, the resulting effect was shown in Acts 6:10,  And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.

Scripture records the vigilance by which these individuals pursued Stephen, but take careful note of the involvement yet again, from the scribes in Acts 6:11-13, Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and [against] God. And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon [him,] and caught him, and brought [him] to the council, And set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law. 

This account continued to unfold with Stephen giving a notable oratory message, further indicting them as recorded in Acts 7:51-52, Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers [did,] so [do] ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers.

The account of Stephen unfortunately ends with the evil conspirators stoning him to death for declaring his message of truth, but no doubt indicting them in the process for their hypocrisy. To end this story off, there is a most compelling statement made by Stephen, shortly before his death as documented in Acts 7:55-56, But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Clearly, one will never know or understand, this side of heaven, why Stephen was taken so soon from his incredible, loyal and steadfast discipleship for the Lord. 

For my thoughts [are] not your thoughts, neither [are] your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For [as] the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Isaiah 55:8-9

Concluding Thoughts

To bring this Bible study to a close on who were the scribes, a detailed account and description of them was provided, since they formed part of the upper religious circle during their time in Israelite history. As one looks back, hindsight should have been clear for them on who Jesus was during his earthly ministry. As Paul once wrote to believers though, the foolish wisdom that often blinds people is mere folly before God, as described in 1 Cor. 1:20, Where [is] the wise? where [is] the scribe? where [is] the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?

Perhaps this begs the question for readers on where your own wisdom is toward God? Is it standing in the way of coming to faith in the Lord with his provision for atonement of sin in your life? If so, the ancient prophet once exclaimed in Is. 55:6-9, Seek ye the LORD while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

This plea from the Lord is as relevant today, as it was yesterday. For as the prophet continued to illustrate, the infinite wisdom of the Lord is before us right now, if only we will call upon him while he is near, Is. 55:8-9, For my thoughts [are] not your thoughts, neither [are] your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For [as] the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. Why not make today the day you will seek the Lord while he may be found.

Bible Study Questions

  1. In this study on who were the scribes, they had a long history dating back to ancient Israel as recorders and translators of scripture, true or false?
  2. Why do you think the scribes upheld their traditions and self imposed customs over the commandments of God?
  3. In Matt.7:29, it says this about Jesus, “For he taught them as [one] having authority, and not as the scribes.” Why do you think the people viewed the scribes as not having authority?
  4. In the section, Persecution of the Scribes, to whom did they attribute the words, works and miracles of Jesus?
  5. In the section, Relentless Persecution, why do you think the chief priests, scribes, elders and whole counsel plotted against Jesus?
  6. In the book of Acts, Stephen accused the scribes and elders of resisting the Holy Ghost, true or false?
  7. Is there something in your life that could be similar to the scribes in either not believing in or not following God’s will for their life? How could you share this important message with them?

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