Scribes (Bible)

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Scribes in the Bible (Hebrew, סופרים soferim; Greek, γραμματεῖς grammateis) denotes the body of teachers in Judaism whose office was to interpret the Law to the people. The original meaning of the Hebrew word "soferim" was "people who know how to write,"[1] skilled in the art of writing.


An historical connection between ritual and scribal functions derives from the demand for fiscal organization of temple operations (for example, in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt most of the earliest writings are associated with temple records). The scribal function of composing private legal documents is widely attested in Mesopotamia and Egypt before, during, and after the Biblical period. In the earlier Hebrew writings, a scribe was one skilled in writing and accounts. They may have served as counselors, or have borne the responsibility of supervising the entire workforce of the people or for mustering the army as marshals [2].

In ancient Israel the scribal craft was principally confined to certain clans who no doubt preserved the trade as a family guild profession, passing the knowledge of this essential skill from father to son. Among the Kenites were “families of scribes” dwelling at Jabez [3]. The connection between Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro (also called Reuel), who was the priest of Midian [4], and the Kenites [5] strongly indicates that the art of writing was never far removed from the priesthood.

Because the art of writing was known only to the intelligent, the term "scribe" became synonymous with "wise man" [6]. The royal officials who were occupied in recording in the archives the proceedings of each day were called scribes [7]. The court scribe was the person who communicated to the people the commands of the king, like the modern Secretary of State.[8]. During the united and later Judean monarchies a substantial number of scribes came from the Levites. Most important of all were the scribes who served in the government. The highest ranking government scribe was the scribe of the king [9]. Royal scribes had offices, evidently located in the building complex of the royal Judean palace, illustrating the high standing of the king’s scribe in the Judean government. An Akkadian counterpart to the royal scribe possessed equally high standing and military functions. The multilingual, pluralistic character of the Persian period also demanded administrative specialists, and provincial commanders also had scribes as seconds in command, also called marshals [10].

At the time of the kings of Israel and Judah liberal scribes were notorious for their false interpretations of the meaning of the scriptures, which irritated the more conservative scribes among them. The prophet Jeremiah condemned the interpretations of "the pen of the scribes" which made void the actual doctrine of the Law of God revealed to Moses [11]. Later, the prophet Malachi denounced the priest-scribes in Jerusalem who had "turned aside from the way", and "caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi" and "shown partiality in your instruction" [12].

The precise role of the “scribe” is difficult to assess, for lack of source material. According to one rabbinic tradition [13], the oral law (according to rabbinic theology) was given to Moses on Sinai and mediated from the prophets to the generation of Simeon “the Just” by “the Great Assembly” [14]. When this tradition is compared with the rules cited in rabbinic literature as from “the scribes,” it seems that “scribes” of the Persian and Ptolemaic periods were identical with (or at least participant in) this body of formulators of the oral law.

In the time of Ezra the priest, the collective designation of "scribes" was applied to the body of teachers who interpreted the Law to the people. Ezra himself was "a ready scribe in the laws of Moses" [15].

After the Israelites who had returned from Babylon had turned their hearts back to God, there was greater need of men to instruct the people, and to assist them in obtaining a clear understanding of the Law [16]. The primary activity of the scribes as the body of teachers in Judaism whose office was to interpret the Law to the people began with the cessation of the activity of the Prophets. In the later times of the Old Testament, especially after the captivity, then through the Hasmonean period, and in the New Testament, a scribe, a sofer, is a person known as one skilled in the Jewish law, a teacher or interpreter of the law [17].

The scribes were essentially Biblical interpreters, for occasional scribal rules not strictly based on Scripture caused later rabbis considerable consternation [18]. The priest-scribe was considered particularly pious by virtue of his knowledge of the revealed will of God, a feature of rabbinic understanding of piety. The rules and practices established by the scribes acquired a binding authority, particularly with the specially orthodox of later first century New Testament times. One tradition ascribes greater authority to their teachings than to the written law [19], and a proselyte was required to follow the scribal traditions as well as the simply interpreted written law [20]. During the Maccabean revolt a company of scribes “sought justice” for redress of grievances from the Seleucid-appointed high priest, Alcimus, in the mistaken confidence that since he was “a priest of the line of Aaron” (1 Maccabees 7:12-18) they believed they had nothing to fear. This fact reflects an abiding sense of cooperation between the scribes and the established priesthood before and during that period. At the time of the Maccabean revolt the “party lines” between the Sadducees and the scribes devoted to the Torah had in all probability not yet been drawn. This devotedly cooperative spirit of the “pious” (Chasidim) and the scribes toward the priestly class of Israel before the time of Christ highlights the contrast of the later development of distrust in the period from the high priesthood of John Hyrcanus 134 B.C through almost two centuries, when the priestly Sadducees opposed those who were descended from the scribes, the rabbis and Pharisees as corruptors of doctrine by their interpretive additions, traditions and commentaries on the Torah before the destruction of the temple A.D. 70 [21].

The plural term "soferim" was sometimes used, particularly in the post-Maccabean time, to designate teachers generally. As a general rule the term refers to the body of teachers the first of whom was Ezra and the last Simeon the Just (circa 300 B.C.). By his priestly lineage [22] Ezra symbolized the close connection between the priesthood and this official interpretation of the law which existed probably until the 2nd century B.C. Although the activity of the scribes was manifold, their main object was to teach the Torah to the Jewish masses, and to the Jewish youth in particular. It was they who established schools. Their mode of teaching is indicated in Nehemiah 8:8

"So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading."

The scribes always connected with the text of the Torah the laws which they deduced from the Biblical passages: they read the passage, explained it, and then deduced the law contained in it. From the time of Ezra, the scribes also occupied themselves with plans for raising Judaism to a higher intellectual plane. They were active in reviving the use of Hebrew, which to a great extent had been forgotten during the exile in Babylon.

Jewish writers speak of the scribes as the schoolmasters of the nation. One mode in which they exercised their office was by meeting the people from time to time, in every town, for the purpose of holding familiar discussions, and raising questions of the law for debate. Hence "scribe" is also used for a person distinguished for learning and wisdom [23]. The scribes (grammateis) of the New Testament were a class of men educated for the purpose of preserving and expounding the sacred books. They had the charge of transcribing them, of interpreting the more difficult passages, and of deciding in cases which grew out of the ceremonial law [24], and were especially skilled in those glosses [25] and traditions by which the Jews made void the law [26]. Their influence was great; many of them were members of the Sanhedrin; they are mentioned in connection with the elders and chief priests in the Four Gospels [27]. Like the Pharisees, they were bitterly opposed to Christ, and joined with the priests and counselors in persecuting him and his followers, having little knowledge of Him concerning whom Moses and the prophets write. These same scribes are sometimes in parallel passages called lawyers and doctors of the law [28]. The only mention of “scribes” in John’s gospel is in John 7:53-8:11. Saul of Tarsus was a highly trained scribe who had sat at the feet of the Rabban Gamaliel, one of the eminent Tannaim, and afterward opposed the name of Jesus and persecuted his followers to death, before he encountered the risen Lord on the road to Damascus, and was afterward baptized, becoming eventually St. Paul [29], one of the greatest hermeneutical scholars of Old Testament scripture in support of the claims of the apostles that Jesus of Nazareth is the Rab Meshiach of Israel and the Navi foretold by Moses [30].

In the Early Church, the function of the scribe as a Christian scholar and instructor in legal responsibility was preserved [31], so that the Mosaic law was not abolished, but was reinterpreted and reapplied for the needs of the Christian Church [32]. Paul clearly understood the Jewish scribe as a dialectician [33], who was a scholar on the written and oral law; in Paul’s view such dialectics were foolishness in the face of God’s saving work in Christ. He warned against those who dispute about words and "proof texting", and do not use the Law of Moses "lawfully" [34].

The New Testament is the last witness to the usage of “scribe” as a scholar and authority on the law. “Scribes” are found in connection with both the priestly (Sadducean) party [35] and the Pharisaic party [36]. The scholars of the Pharisaic party were the leaders of what would become rabbinic Judaism, subsequently known as “sages” (“the wise”) and still later as rabbis.

After the period of the New Testament, “scribe” came to denote a teacher of children and composer of legal documents; the names “wise” and then “rabbi” afterward used for the scholar of the law.

The scribes or rabbinical scholars are better known for their work with the liturgy and in the field of Bible emendation, or corrective revision; for, besides the many benedictions and prayers ascribed to them, they revised the Hebrew text of the Scriptures. Their revisions are called "tiḳḳune soferim." The number of these scribal emendations is given as eighteen [37], of which the following may be cited:

"but Abraham stood yet before the Lord" (Genesis 18:22),
substituted for the original text, "but the Lord stood yet before Abraham" [38];
"and let me not see my wretchedness" (Numbers 11:15),
an emendation of the original text, "and let me not see thy wretchedness";
"to your tents . . . unto their tents" (1 Kings 12:16),
instead of "to your gods . . . unto their gods."

Other traces of the scribes' revision of the text are dots above certain words the meaning of which seemed doubtful to them, the original marks being ascribed to Ezra [39].

Acceptance of the emendations of the scribes as part of the inspired text of the Bible is implicit acceptance of the scribes as being divinely inspired by God [40]. Rejection of the emendations of the scribes is rejection of their corrections as being corruptions of the Bible.[41]

Scribes: "my father" - Matthew 23:9

To this day, students and disciples of highly regarded rabbis sometimes reverently address them as, "my father". One of the highest forms of personal respect is to honor one's own personal Jewish mentor and guide as, "my Rabbi".

In Matthew 23:9 the Lord Jesus Christ said, "Call no man on the earth your father" [42]

Jesus did not say, "Call no man on earth, 'father' ". He said, "Call no man on the earth your father" The Greek New Testament explicitly uses the word ὑμῶν hymōn "your":
καὶ πατέρα μὴ καλέσητε ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς
kai patera mē kalesēte hymōn epi tēs gēs
(literally) "And father no call your on the earth"
(Gk. μὴ "no" = no [one])
"And father no [one] call your on the earth" [43]

Jesus does not say, "Do not be called fathers".
However, in Matthew 23 verse 10, he does say, "Neither be called masters".
(Yet Paul and Peter addressed men as "masters": Ephesians 6:5, 9; Colossians 3:22; 4:1; 1 Timothy 6:1-2; Titus 2:9; 1 Peter 2:18.)

The meaning of this text in Matthew 23:9 "your father" is that no male parent in the most absolute sense is to be regarded most ultimately as the true father of any son or daughter naturally sired (procreated) by him. Jesus is correcting a distortion of the meaning of Exodus 20:12. Middle eastern cultural tradition taught each child to regard their natural father with absolute claim to their personal loyalty and obedience, above and apart from any other consideration of affection, respect, duty and reverence they might owe to another, to mother or sibling or spouse or children or friend or comrade-in-arms or teacher or commander or king or country, or even life itself. Students who came to regard their teachers and rabbis with reverent affection and loyalty, even awe, for imparting the knowledge of Torah to them, were traditionally encouraged to address them as "my father" and to regard them as their spiritual fathers possessing a dignity and authority above reproach. Jesus is setting them free of the tradition of unquestioning imitation of those abusers of legitimate Jewish authority who set aside the substance of the teaching of Moses and the scriptures for the sake of their own self-promoting customs and ritual traditions, as leaders beyond any possible reproach and as Icons of God's Authority on earth.

Matthew Poole's Commentary on Matthew 23 verses 8-10 states unequivocally:

It is most certain that our Saviour doth not here forbid the giving of the titles of masters and fathers to his ministers, for then Paul would not have given himself the title of father, 1 Corinthians 4:15; nor called the Galatians his little children, Galatians 4:19: nor called Timothy his son, and himself his father, Philippians 2:22; nor called himself a doctor of the Gentiles, 1 Timothy 2:7 2 Timothy 1:11.

This text in Matthew has been cited as condemning any use of the word "father" as an address or title of respect to any man, as if it said, "Call no man on earth, 'father'...". However, against this defective reading of the meaning of the text, and apart from the fact that a word (ὑμῶν hymōn) has been removed by such a reading (interpretation) of the text, multiple passages in sacred scripture itself demonstrate that the apostles and disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ themselves addressed others as "father" and were called "father". St. Paul told the Corinthians that though they had many guides, he was their father through the gospel, and he also said he was a father to Timothy. There is a substantial difference in saying "my father" and simply saying "Father". For example, no Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican says to a priest, "my father, ... ", but says instead, "Father", as a title of respect. In the same way, for example, St. Stephen addressed the high priest and members of the council as fathers, and John explicitly addresses the fathers of the Christian community as "fathers". See Acts 7:2, 22:1; 1 John 2:12-14; 1 Corinthians 4:14-15; Philippians 2:22; 1 Thessalonians 2:11; Hebrews 13:17. Most translations of Matthew 23:9 faithfully say "your father"; others explicitly omit the word ὑμῶν "your" in translation as an anti-Catholic reading which has no grammatical basis and cannot be justified according to the New Testament Greek text of Matthew 23:9

9 καὶ πατέρα μὴ καλέσητε ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς· εἷς γάρ ἐστιν ὁ πατήρ ὑμῶν, ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς. (boldface emphasis added)

Omitting to include in translation a doctrinally significant word that is present in every extant manuscript of this verse in Matthew is a deliberate act involving substantial alteration of the meaning of the scriptural text, an act which every Bible-believing Christian condemns.
See Jeremiah 8:8 and Revelation 22:19. See Luke 11:52.

Here is a list of some of the more widely published and distributed English translations which exclude the word "your" in Matthew 23:9, among their other scribal violations of the Bible:

  • NIV New International Version
  • NLT New Living Translation
  • ISV International Standard Version
  • ABE Aramaic Bible in English

Multiple versions of Matthew 23:9 can be accessed for comparison at .

See also


Biblical Canon


Bible manuscript evidence

Dynamic equivalence

Allegorical interpretation




Textus Receptus

Historical-critical method (Higher criticism)

Word Analysis of Bible

Christian apologetics

False equivalence



Examples of scribal disputation in Christianity

Great Apostasy

Eternal security (salvation)

Infant baptism Talk:Infant baptism Debate: Infant baptism


  1. Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary defines the noun "scribe" as 1. (n.) One who writes; an official or public writer; a notary; a copyist. 2. (n.) A writer and doctor of the law; one skilled in the law and traditions; one who read and explained the law to the people.
  2. Exodus 5:6-14 see interlinear text of Exodus 5:6 "officers" שֹׁטְרָ֖יו šō·ṭə·rāw;
    Judges 5:14; 2 Samuel 20:23-26; 1 Kings 4:7-19; 26:11; Jeremiah 52:24-25; 1 Maccabees 5:42
  3. 1 Chronicles 2:55
  4. Exodus 3:1
  5. Judges 1:16; 4:11
  6. 1 Chronicles 27:32
  7. compare 2 Samuel 8:16-17; 20:25; 1 Kings 4:3; 2 Kings 12:10; 18:18; 37; 2 Kings 19:2; 22:3, 8-12; 1 Chronicles 2:55; 18:16; 24:6; 27:32; 2 Chronicles 24:9-11; 26:11; 34:15-20; 1 Maccabees 5:42; 7:12; 2 Maccabees 6:18; Sirach 38:24; Jeremiah 8:8-9; 36:12, 21
  8. 2 Samuel 8:17; 20:25
  9. The Torah of Moses required the king to be fully qualified as a scribe over the people. Deuteronomy 17:18-20
  10. 2 Kings 25:19; 2 Samuel 8:16-18; 1 Chronicles 18:15-17; 1 Kings 4:2-6; Isaiah 36:3, 22; 2 Kings 22:3-13; 2 Chronicles 34:8-21; Jeremiah 36:11-12; 36:21; Nahum 3:17; Jeremiah 52:25; Esther 3:12; 8:9; 9:20; Ezra 4:8-9, 17, 23
  11. Jeremiah 8:8. See multiple commentaries on Jeremiah 8:8
  12. Malachi 2:1-9
  13. Pirke Aboth 1:1. —Pirke Abot 1 (
  14. The identification of Simon the Just is disputed; either the high priest circa 300 B.C. or his grandson, circa 210 B.C.
  15. Ezra 7:1-6
  16. Ezra 7:10-12, 21-28; Nehemiah 8:1-8, 18
  17. Romans 2:17-24
  18. Kelim 13:7. —Mishnah Kelim 13 (
  19. MSanh. 11:3. —Mishnah Sanhedrin 11 (
  20. Siphra on Lev 19:34. —see Sifra (
  21. See John 7:49.
  22. Ezra 7:1-6
  23. The fundamental question for those scholars, scribes and lawyers who devoutly studied the Torah of Moses was "What is the heart of the Law?" Compare Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 13:51-52; Sirach 37:12–39:11; Romans 2:12–4:15
  24. Matthew 2:1-6
  25. See Scriptural glosses ( A textual gloss is a type of commentary, sometimes a single word, intended to explain, interpret or clarify a text, either placed on the margin of the page or inserted directly into the text. The famous medieval Jewish scriptural scholar Rashi sought to make his marginal commentaries on the scriptures as simple and clear as possible so that even a child of eight could understand, sometimes with a single word for clarification. Possibly the most famous gloss in Christian history is the addition of the word "alone", inserted by Martin Luther into Paul's Letter to the Romans. See Romans 3:28 multiple commentaries.
    See also Luther Added The Word "Alone" to Romans 3:28? (
    Compare Dynamic equivalence.
  26. Matthew 15:1-6; Jeremiah 8:8; Malachi 2:1-9
  27. Matthew 5:20; 7:29; 12:38; 20:18; 21:15
  28. Matthew 22:35; Mark 12:28
  29. Galatians 1–2; Romans 14:1–15:21
  30. Deuteronomy 18:15, 18-19; Acts 9:20-22
  31. Matthew 8:19, especially Matthew 13:52 and 23:34
  32. Matthew 5:17-20; 1 Timothy 1:8; Romans 3:31; 7:7; 8:3-4; 13:8-10
  33. 1 Corinthians 1:20-25
  34. 1 Timothy 1:3-11; 6:3-4; 2 Timothy 2:23-26; Titus 3:9-11; 1 Peter 3:15; Acts 28:24-31
  35. For example, Matthew 2:4; 21:15
  36. See Matthew 23
  37. In Mek., Beshallaḥ Shirah, 6, and in Tan., Yelammedenu Beshallaḥ, ed. Vienna, 1863, p. 82b.
    "mek." is an abbreviation for "Mekhilta" or "Mikilta", an Aramaic word corresponding to the Hebrew middah, meaning a "measure" or "rule", referring to certain fixed rules of scriptural exegesis.
    "Tan." is an abbreviation for "Tanḥuma", "Midrash".
  38. see Gen. R. 49. 12 = Genesis Remez 49:12
    Remez (R.) refers to a Pardes (Jewish exegesis) on Genesis 49:12.
    "Pardes" refers to four general types of approaches to biblical exegesis in rabbinic Judaism, or to interpretation of text in Torah study, sometimes also spelled PaRDeS. The term is an acronym formed from the same initials of the following four approaches:
    Peshat (פְּשָׁט) – "surface" ("straight") or the literal (direct) meaning.
    Remez (רֶמֶז) – "hints" or the deep (allegoric: hidden or symbolic) meaning beyond just the literal sense.
    Derash (דְּרַשׁ) – from Hebrew darash: "inquire" ("seek") – the comparative (midrashic) meaning, as given through similar occurrences.
    Sod (סוֹד) (pronounced with a long O as in 'lore') – "secret" ("mystery") or the esoteric/mystical meaning, as given through inspiration or revelation.
    Each type of Pardes interpretation examines the extended meaning of a text.
  39. Ab. R. N., ed. Schechter, pp. 97-98 = Ab. d’R. N. = Aboth d’Rabbi Nathan (a late Talmudic treatise), Solomon Schechter editor, pages 97-98;
    Num. R. iii. 13 = Numbers Remez 3:13.
  40. Compare King James Only.
  41. See Literal Translation.
  42. The text of this Section –[ Addressing Scribes as "my father" - Matthew 23:9 ]– is copied and adapted from the marginal note on Matthew 23:9 at Harmony of the Gospel (Conservative_Version) longer form Chapters 22-28#Twenty-six.
  43. See the interlinear English and Greek text and multiple commentaries on Matthew 23:9.

External links

Strong's numbers: "scribe", "scribes"

H2710 Hebrew 2710 chaqaq inscribe, decree, simply to be a scribe
H2951 Hebrew 2951 tiphsar a scribe, marshal
H5608 Hebrew 5608 saphar count, recount, relate, score with a mark
H5613 Hebrew 5613 capher a secretary, scribe, 5613a saphar a secretary, scribe, 5613b. sopher enumerator, secretary, scribe
H7860 Hebrew 7860 shoter official, officer, properly, a scribe
G1122 Greek 1122. grammateus a writer, scribe
G3544 Greek 3544 nomikos relating to law, learned in the law ("lawyer") implies someone even more learned in the law than a typical scribe.

Topical Bible: Scribes

Douay-Rheims concordance: scribe, scribes

Encyclopedia of the Bible: Scribes

Scribes - Catholic Encyclopedia (

Jewish Encyclopedia - SCRIBES: By: Isisdore Singer, M. Seligsohn, Wilhelm Bacher, Judah David Eisenstein