John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v. 3, ch. 30: Jesus in Relation to Competing Jewish Grouups: the Scribes,
pp 549-560

(Detailed summary)

Did the scribes really oppose Jesus?


It can be generally said that some of the scribes had controversies with Jesus and that others were involved in his arrest as advisors to Caiaphas. Unfortunately, however, we cannot use any text from the Gospels to find an event that can be traced back to the historical Jesus. In the Synoptics the portrait of the scribe passes through the filter of the theology and polemics of the early Christians, and sometimes shows a certain ignorance of the situation before the year 70.

Let us recall that the scribes do not constitute a religious group, but a profession, that of writing or copying documents. They are found everywhere on the social ladder: in a small village, one could have a scribe with little education who took care of marriage contracts or the correspondence of illiterate people; in more developed societies, scribes could be civil servants in governmental and religious institutions; at the royal court or in major religious establishments, they became special advisers, involved in diplomatic missions or in the education of the elite. In Judaism, they will develop a knowledge of the Mosaic Law. Unfortunately, the synoptic Gospels will have the tendency to confuse them with the Pharisees, even if indeed some scribes were, and will make them the opponent par excellence.

Jesus in Relation to Competing Jewish Grouups: the Scribes

The perception that the scribes, as scribes, formed a particular religious group in Palestinian Judaism and that they were specialists in Mosaic law, and therefore experts on religious, moral and legal issues, must be eliminated immediately. It is forgotten that their basic function was simply to write and copy documents.

  1. The title of scribe applied to a wide range of figures on the social and political ladder. They could be called secretaries, as they included not only the person taking notes at a meeting, but also bureaucrats or senior officials. They had to be able to write long and complex documents. It was therefore a very specific profession that was less in demand in agrarian societies than in big cities and in commercial, military, religious, governmental or educational centers.

    Scribes were found at different levels of the social ladder. In a small village, one could have a scribe with little education who handled marriage contracts or the correspondence of illiterate people. In more developed societies, scribes could be civil servants in government and religious institutions. At the royal court or in major religious institutions, they became special advisers, involved in diplomatic missions or in the education of the elite.

  2. The Scribe in the Old Testament

    Before exile in Babylon, they were usually found at the royal court, in military circles, and in the temple. The best known at this time is Baruch, a collaborator of Jeremiah (Jer 36:26.32). On their return from exile, they are found as bureaucrats in the government and in the temple in Jerusalem. The best known is Ezra, someone who combines several functions: a priest and a community leader, and even a specialist in the Mosaic Law that he teaches.

    With the administrative reforms of Ptolemy II (3rd century BC), local bureaucracy grew and the demand for scribes increased, not only in Jerusalem, but also in the villages. It is in this context that we must place the scribe Ben Sirah, the author of the Bible book called Sirach, a man who was both highly educated and very pious, a well-traveled ambassador, a master of Israel's wisdom and a teacher of the Jerusalem elite (see Sir 38:24 - 39:11).

    In some apocalyptic circles, the image of the Jewish scribe in Palestine is enhanced. For example, if we look at 1 Enoch, Enoch is called the "scribe of righteousness", exercising the function of prophet and teacher of wisdom, and thus is not simply a writer or religious leader, but an apocalyptic author preaching repentance to all Israel. This is all the more astonishing because at the same time, in the Greco-Roman milieu, the scribe is seen simply as a copyist or a government official.

  3. The scribe in the evangelical writings

    We will focus on Mark, Matthew and Luke because John never talks about scribes.

    1. In Mark, the scribes usually come from Jerusalem and often appear as a commission of inquiry (Mk 3:22; 7:1.5); often associated with Jewish leaders, their interaction with Jesus is mostly negative. Mark presents them as specialists in the Mosaic Law who enjoy a certain authority. A number of them were found in the party of the Pharisees (Mk 2:16). In his Gospel, Jesus' controversy with the scribes begins early on when the scribes accuse him of blasphemy (Mk 2:6-7). The polemic reaches a climax with the account of the passion: the scribes appear alongside the chief priests and elders in the Sanhedrin, suggesting that they wielded some political and religious power in Jerusalem. An exception to this negative image of the scribe is the account of the first commandment where a scribe agrees with Jesus (Mk 12:28-34), an account that may well go back to the historical Jesus.

    2. Basically, Matthew repeats the same portrait of the scribes, but darker. They are the official interpreters of the Law with the priests of Jerusalem. However, for Matthew the adversary par excellence is not the scribe, but rather the Pharisee, so that he sometimes substitutes the Pharisee for the scribe in certain passages that he takes from Mark: the distinction between Pharisees and scribes becomes blurred as we see for example in the curses of ch. 23. The scribes are therefore among the opponents of Jesus. And when he takes Mark's passage about the scribe who agrees with Jesus, he modifies it by inserting a question hostile to Jesus.

    3. Like Matthew, Luke repeats Mark's conclusions, except that his portrait of the scribes is more vague: they are often likened to the Pharisees. He associates them with the chief priests and the elders. He even complicates matters by introducing lawyers into his gospel, people who seem to be equivalent to the scribes. In his Acts of the Apostles, he indicates that certain scribes belonged to the party of the Pharisees.

  4. In conclusion

    In the synoptic accounts, the portrait of the scribe passes through the filter of early Christian theology and polemics, and sometimes shows a certain ignorance of the situation before the year 70. What then can be said of Jesus' relationship with the scribes? It can be said that Jesus probably met various types of scribes during his travels in Galilee and Judea. In Galilee, he may have had discussions with scribes from villages who were not well educated. In larger cities such as Capernaum, there were probably more educated scribes who had a good knowledge of the Law and could read and interpret sacred writings in public. In Jerusalem, Jesus was able to meet even more educated scribes who belonged to the government bureaucracy and enjoyed a fairly high social standing, playing the role of leaders in certain religious groups. It is therefore normal that some of them belonged to the Pharisaic movement. So it is reasonable to think that some of the scribes were involved in the arrest of Jesus, while some were advisors to Caiaphas.

    All this being said, let us not forget that the scribes are not a religious movement, but a very widespread profession in the ancient Mediterranean world, even if this profession has taken on a special color in Palestinian Judaism. Yes, Jesus probably entered into discussions with scribes in the course of his ministry, and these discussions could be varied, for the scribes were not a homogeneous group. On the other hand, specific texts from the synoptics cannot be used to identify certain historical events because of the tendency of the evangelists to caricature them in the role of opponents of Jesus.

Next chapter: Did the Herodians contribute to the death of Jesus?

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