The existence of law leads necessarily to a profession whose business is the study and knowledge of the law; at any rate, if the law is extensive and complicated. At the time of Ezra and probably for some time after, this was chiefly the business of the priests. Ezra was both priest and scholar (copher). It was chiefly in the interest of the priestly cult that the most important part of the Pentateuch was written. The priests were therefore also in the first instance the scholars and the guardians of the Law; but in the course of time this was changed. The more highly esteemed the Law became in the eyes of the people, the more its study and interpretation became a lifework by itself, and thus there developed a class of scholars who, though not priests, devoted themselves assiduously to the Law. These became known as the scribes, that is, the professional students of the Law. During the Hellenistic period, the priests, especially those of the upper class, became tainted with the Hellenism of the age and frequently turned their attention to paganistic culture, thus neglecting the Law of their fathers more or less and arousing the scribes to opposition. Thus, the scribes and not the priests were now the zealous defenders of the Law, and hence, were the true teachers of the people. At the time of Christ, this distinction was complete. The scribes formed a solid profession which held undisputed sway over the thought of the people. In the New Testament they are usually called (grammateis), i.e. "students of the Scriptures," "scholars," corresponding to the Hebrew (copherim) = homines literati, those who make a profession of literary studies, which, in this case, of course, meant chiefly the Law. Besides this general designation, we also find the specific word (nomikoi), i.e. "students of the Law," "lawyers" (Matthew 22:35; Luke 7:30; 10:25; 11:45,52; 14:3); and in so far as they not only know the Law but also teach it they are called (nomodidaskaloi), "doctors of the Law" (Luke 5:17; Acts 5:34).
The extraordinary honors bestowed on these scholars on the part of the people are expressed in their honorary titles. Most common was the appellative "rabbi" = "my lord" (Matthew 23:7 and otherwise). This word of polite address gradually became a title. The word "rabboni" (Mark 10:51; John 20:16) is an extensive form, and was employed by the disciples to give expression to their veneration of Christ. In the Greek New Testament "rabbi" is translated as (kurie) (Matthew 8:2,6,8,21,25 and otherwise), or (didaskale) (Matthew 8:19 and otherwise), in Luke by (epistata) (Luke 5:5; 8:24,45; 9:33,19; 17:13). Besides these, we find (pater), "father," and (kathegetes), "teacher" (Matthew 23:9).
From their students the rabbis demanded honors even surpassing those bestowed on parents. "Let the honor of thy friend border on the honor of thy teacher, and the honor of thy teacher on the fear of God" ('Abhoth 4 12). "The honor of thy teacher must surpass the honor bestowed on thy father; for son and father are both in duty bound to honor the teacher" (Kerithoth 6 9). Everywhere the rabbis demanded the position of first rank (Matthew 23:6; Mark 12:38; Luke 11:43; 20:46). Their dress equaled that of the nobility. They wore (stolai), "tunics," and these were the mark of the upper class.
Since the scribes were lawyers (see LAWYER), much of their time was occupied in teaching and in judicial functions, and both these activities must be pursued gratuitously. Rabbi Zadok said:
"Make the knowledge of the Law neither a crown in which to glory nor a spade with which to dig." Hillel used to say: "He who employs the crown (of the Law) for external purposes shall dwindle." That the judge should not receive presents or bribes was written in the Law (Exodus 23:8; Deuteronomy 16:19); hence, the Mishna said: "If anyone accept pay for rendering judgment, his judgment is null and void." The rabbis were therefore obliged to make their living by other means. Some undoubtedly had inherited wealth; others pursued a handicraft besides their study of the Law. Rabbi Gamaliel II emphatically advised the pursuit of a business in addition to the pursuit of the Law. It is well known that the apostle Paul kept up his handicraft even after he had become a preacher of the gospel (Acts 18:3; 20:34; 1 Corinthians 4:12; 9:6; 2 Corinthians 11:7; 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:8), and the same is reported of many rabbis. But in every instance the pursuit of the Law is represented as the worthier, and warning is given not to overestimate the value of the ordinary avocation. It was a saying of Hillel: "He that devotes himself to trade will not become wise." The principle of gratuity was probably carried out in practice only in connection with the judicial activity of the scribes; hardly in connection with their work as teachers. Even the Gospels, in spite of the admonition that the disciples should give without pay because they had received without pay (Matthew 10:8), nevertheless also state that the workman is worthy of his hire (Matthew 10:10; Luke 10:7); and Paul (1 Corinthians 9:14) states it as his just due that he receive his livelihood from those to whom he preaches the gospel, even though he makes use of this right only in exceptional cases (1 Corinthians 9:3-18; 2 Corinthians 11:8,9; Galatians 6:6; Philippians 4:10,18). Since this appears to have been the thought of the times, we are undoubtedly justified in assuming that the Jewish teachers of the Law also demanded pay for their services. Indeed, the admonitions above referred to, not to make instruction in the Law the object of self-interest, lead to the conclusion that gratuity was not the rule; and in Christ's philippics against the scribes and Pharisees He makes special mention of their greed (Mark 12:40; Luke 16:14; 20:47). Hence, even though they ostensibly gave instruction in the Law gratuitously, they must have practiced methods by which they indirectly secured their fees.
Naturally the place of chief influence for the scribes up to the year 70 AD was Judea. But not only there were they to be found. Wherever the zeal for the law of the fathers was a perceptible force, they were indispensable; hence, we find them also in Galilee (Luke 5:17) and in the Diaspora. In the Jewish epitaphs in Rome, dating from the latter days of the empire, grammateis are frequently mentioned; and the Babylonian scribes of the 5th and 6th centuries were the authors of the most monumental work of rabbinical Judaism--the Talmud.
Since the separation of the Pharisaic and the Sadducean tendencies in Judaism, the scribes generally belonged to the Pharisaic class; for this latter is none other than the party which recognized the interpretations or "traditions" which the scribes in the course of time had developed out of the body of the written Law and enforced upon the people as the binding rule of life. Since, however, "scribes" are merely "students of the Law," there must also have been scribes of the Sadducee type; for it is not to be imagined that this party, which recognized only the written Law as binding, should not have had some opposing students in the other class. Indeed, various passages of the New Testament which speak of the "scribes of the Pharisees" (Mark 2:16; Luke 5:30; Acts 23:9) indicate that there were also "scribes of the Sadducees."
Under the reign and leadership of the scribes, it became the ambition of every Israelite to know more or less of the Law. The aim of education in family, school and synagogue was to make the entire people a people of the Law. Even the common laborer should know what was written in the Law; and not only know it, but also do it. His entire life should be governed according to the norm of the Law, and, on the whole, this purpose was realized in a high degree. Josephus avers:
"Even though we be robbed of our riches and our cities and our other goods, the Law remains our possession forever. And no Jew can be so far removed from the and of his fathers nor will he fear a hostile commander to such a degree that he would not fear his Law more than his commander." So loyal were the majority of the Jews toward their Law that they would gladly endure the tortures of the rack and even death for it. This frame of mind was due almost wholly to the systematic and persistent instruction of the scribes.
The motive underlying this enthusiasm for the Law was the belief in divine retribution in the strictest judicial sense. The prophetic idea of a covenant which God had made with His select people was interpreted purely in the judicial sense. The covenant was a contract through which both parties were mutually bound. The people are bound to observe the divine Law literally and conscientiously; and, in return for this, God is in duty bound to render the promised reward in proportion to the services rendered. This applies to the people as a whole as well as to the individual. Services and reward must always stand in mutual relation to each other. He who renders great services may expect from the justice of God that he will receive great returns as his portion, while, on the other hand, every transgression also must be followed by its corresponding punishment.
The results corresponded to the motives. Just as the motives in the main were superficial, so the results were an exceedingly shallow view of religious and moral life. Religion was reduced to legal formalism. All religious and moral life was dragged down to the level of law, and this must necessarily lead to the following results:
(1) The individual is governed by a norm, the application of which could have only evil results when applied in this realm. Law has the purpose of regulating the relations of men to each other according to certain standards. Its object is not the individual, but only the body of society. In the law, the individual must find the proper rule for his conduct toward society as an organism. This is a matter of obligation and of government on the part of society. But religion is not a matter of government; where it is found, it is a matter of freedom, of choice, and of conduct.
(2) By reducing the practice of religion to the form of law, all acts are placed on a paragraph with each other. The motives are no longer taken into consideration, but only the deed itself.
(3) From this it follows that the highest ethical attainment was the formal satisfaction of the Law, which naturally led to finical literalism.
(4) Finally, moral life must, under such circumstances, lose its unity and be split up into manifold precepts and duties. Law always affords opportunity for casuistry, and it was the development of this in the guidance of the Jewish religious life through the "precepts of the elders" which called forth Christ's repeated denunciation of the work of the scribes.
Frank E. Hirsch