Scribal Duties

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Old Testament / New Testament, The Bible


I've always wondered how one was chosen and taught to be a scribe in ancient times. Are the scribes in the Old Testament (like Baruch) similar to the ones that we hear about in the New Testament?


All of the empires of the Ancient Near East were vast bureaucracies. This would include the countries of Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt. People were specifically trained for the positions that were needed. Men began their studies at a very young age and had to study for many years. In order to trade with other nations, they would also have had to understand other nations' writings and laws. Egypt and Mesopotamia both had a very complex written language. No doubt the development of the alphabet was a major advancement for the time. Nonetheless, it is probably incorrect to assume that only scribes could read or write. Evidence exists that at least some people had a certain level of functional literacy in that they could write their names, receipts, or even letters. Inscriptions also exist that show very poor writing, unlike that which would be expected from a trained scribe. It probably is true, however, that the vast majority was illiterate. 

Having said that, however, scholars are less certain how scribes were taught in ancient Israel and Judah. They believe they had some system that functioned outside the home, but really don't know how organized it was. The first scribal reference occurs in Judges 5:14 in relation to military issues. During the monarchical period, the scribe is seen as a cabinet official; his duties include finance, policy, and administration. He would have been in charge of writing and preserving legal documents, including merchandise that was bought and sold. In the case of Baruch, he was the "secretary" to Jeremiah. The word "scribe" derives from sophar, which means "to ciphe

By the end of the monarchy – around the time of Jeremiah and Baruch – there were probably professional schools attached to the administration where scribes were educated and trained not only in scribal techniques but also in official protocols. Baruch could easily have been a product of one of these schools. The fact that he was out on his own also suggests that not everyone was tied to the government bureaucracies. Scribes were a professional group and accorded considerable honor.

During the time of exile, however, there was a major shift in the definition of scribe. During that time, the Law became the center of all Jewish life and people studied it voraciously. No one did this more than the priests. They, in essence, became the keepers of the law, the guardians of the truth. They did this first by gathering the sacred literature and then by trying to make sense out of the events that transpired. They began to interpret, copy, and edit the sacred documents. Out of this endeavor came the canonical writings. 

By the time Ezra was sent back to reestablish Jerusalem, he was a "scribe" of high repute. Not only was he an influential teacher, but he was also an interpreter of the law. He had spent his life studying it and was ready to share his conclusions with the people of Israel. These new classes of scribes were no longer among the professionally trained, but came, in fact, from priestly families and ranks. They were the backbone of the restoration period and were highly influential for many centuries. 

Then we come to the Selucid period of history – roughly the second century BCE. The attempts to Hellenize Israel were met with great resistance and eventually culminated in the Macabbean revolt. It is shortly after this that we have the first recorded instances of the terms "Sadducees and Pharisees." Scholars are not certain how they evolved, but most believe that at this time there was a cultural divide within Judaism. Some were satisfied with the rededication of the temple and the restoration of sacrifices. These became the Hasidim that scholars think were the forerunners of the Pharisees. Many of them were lay people who called themselves the "pious" or the "loyalists," and they studied the scriptures religiously. The aristocratic Jews, however, were not satisfied with the status quo. They truly believed in the possibility of a transformed world. As descendants of the powerful and wealthy priestly establishment, they looked to become a political force in the region. They were represented by the Sadducees. The more successful they were in their endeavors, the more opposition they felt from the Pharisees.

Typically we read in the New Testament the phrase "the Pharisees and scribes" as though they were distinct groups. Most now think the Pharisees were a segment of the scribal profession. Nonetheless, by the time of the New Testament, the term for "teachers of the law" was synonymous with "scribes." Scholars also believe that both the Sadducean and Pharisaical parties had scribes. In addition to interpreting the law, these scribes would have tried to preserve the entirety of the legal system upon which the law was based.

If you have any questions related to the Bible, please feel free to email us.