The Scribes were copyists of the Scriptures. Their role and calling were of very early origin. The work of the Scribe was to study and interpret, as well as copy, the Scriptures. Because of their close acquaintance with the law they were also called lawyers, and became recognized authorities. The decisions of leading scribes became oral law, or "tradition." They were quite numerous in the Maccabean period, and became very influential among the people. Their contribution was of great importance before the days of printing. (See Bible History Online - The Scribes for a more detailed study.)
Painting of Jesus and The Scribes and Pharisees
Brief Historical Background of the Scribes
In ancient times the Scribes were Jewish officers who performed duties which included various kinds of writing, but when the Jews returned from the Babylonian captivity, the soferim, or Scribes, were organized by Ezra into a distinct body. These Scribes became the interpreters and copyists of God's law. Among these duties, they copied the Pentateuch, the Phylacteries, and the Mezuzoth. (Deut. 6:9).
Once the Canon of Old Testament Scripture was complete, and inspiration of the prophetic period in Old Testament times had been accomplished, we need to trace the degeneration of these men known as "Scribes" and the position of power by which they assumed.
History reveals that foreign influences pervaded the land of Judea throughout the Inter-Testamental period, and onward to the Christian era. Greek culture and Hellenization threatened the very existence of Judaism and the chosen people, the Jewish religious leaders determined that the law needed to be preserved with the most jealous care.
In order to preserve the law of God, it needed to be studied carefully, and all of its precepts needed to be given application according to the ever-changing way of public and private life in Israel. By developing a system of rules for people to follow, they forgot the heart and spirit of the law. Their prescriptions did not allow anyone the freedom to truly seek the LORD.
It seems as though the two main principles of the Scribes were, first, the multiplying of oral traditions in putting a fence around the law. Second, their interpretation and exposition of Scripture had utterly destroyed its original meaning. Instead of honoring the law, in reality they were destroying it.
They were so careful in their copying that they counted every letter, and then compared the total number of the document with that which they were copying from. If the numbers did not match the copy was burned. They were meticulous in making sure that no words were left out that belonged to the text, nor any words admitted improperly.
These Scribes would read the Torah in the synagogues, give commentary, and lecture their disciples.
The Scribes were also called "lawyers" and the "doctors of the law". They were all highly educated from a young age, and at an appropriate time (some say by the age of 30) they were elected to office.
They were not only copyists of the law, but they were also the preservers of the oral tradition, which included the commentaries and additions to the law. This oral tradition accumulated over the course of time into a great mass, and was regarded by most to be equal or even greater than the law itself.
It was to these oral traditions that Jesus so often attacked (see Mark 7:5-13). Even Paul the apostle spoke of himself as having been at one time "exceedingly zealous of the traditions" of his fathers (Gal 1:14).
The Scribes also developed forced interpretations of the law, attempting to find a hidden meaning in every word, syllable, and letter. Jesus charged them saying "Woe unto you, lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge, you entered not in yourselves, and those that were entering in you hindered." (Luke 11:52).
During the time of Jesus Christ the Jewish people were very dependent upon the Scribes. The language of the Jews was passing into the Aramaic dialect, and most of the people were unable to understand their own Torah, and gladly excepted the interpretation which was given by the Scribes.
The people were amazed by the authority in which Jesus spoke "I say unto you". The Scribes had little patience with sinners while Jesus enjoyed mingling with the people and encouraging them that God loves them regardless of their sins.