The work of the "lawyers," frequently spoken of as "scribes," also known as "doctors" of the law (Luke 2:46 margin), was first of all that of jurists. Their business was threefold:
(1) to study and interpret the law;
(2) to instruct the Hebrew youth in the law;
(3) to decide questions of the law. The first two they did as scholars and teachers, the last as advisers in some court.
By virtue of the first-named function, they gradually developed a large amount of common law, for no code can go into such detail as to eliminate the necessity of subsequent legislation, and this usually, to a great extent, takes the form of judicial decisions founded on the code rather than of separate enactment. And so it was among the Hebrews. The provisions of their code were for the most part quite general, thus affording much scope for casuistic interpretation. As a result of the industry with which this line of legal development had been pursued during the centuries immediately preceding our era, the Hebrew law had become a very complicated science; and since it was forbidden to record these judicial decisions, a protracted study was necessary in order to commit them to memory.
But since the law must have universal application, the views of the individual scribe could not be taken as a standard; hence, the several disciples of the law must frequently meet for discussion, and the opinion of the majority then prevailed. To these meetings the youth interested in the study would be invited, that they might memorize the formulas agreed upon and might clear up the points upon which they were uncertain by asking questions of the recognized doctors (Luke 2:46).
Such centers of legal lore, of course, would seldom be found in rural communities; the authorities would naturally gather in large centers of population, especially--until 70 AD--in Jerusalem. While the deliverances of these law schools were purely theoretical, yet they stood in close relation to the practical. Whenever doubt arose regarding the application of the law to a particular case, the question was referred to the nearest lawyer; by him to the nearest company of lawyers, perhaps to the Sanhedrin; and the resultant decision was henceforth authority. Thus the lawyers became law makers, and after the destruction of Jerusalem, which brought an end to the existence of the Sanhedrin, the rabbinical doctors were recognized as the absolute authority in such matters. Frequently a single lawyer of great rank, as for instance Hillel or Gamaliel I, might pronounce dicta of unquestioned recognition with as much authority as a supreme court in our day, though sometimes his opinions were received and corrected by the legal tribunal, especially the Sanhedrin. Of course, frequently, these tribunals were under the sway of such a man's influence, so that what he said upon his own authority would be ratified in the assembly of the doctors.
The second function of the lawyers was that of teachers. The renowned rabbis always sought to gather a company of pupils about them whose business it was to repeat the teachers' law formulas until they had "passed into their flesh and blood." For the purposes of such instruction as well as for the discussion of the teachers and the students, there were special schoolhouses, which are often mentioned in connection with the synagogues as places of special merit and privilege. In Jerusalem, these law schools were conducted in the temple--probably in the hall dedicated to this special purpose (Matthew 21:23; 26:55; Mark 14:49; Luke 2:46; 20:1; 21:37; John 18:20). The students during the lectures sat on the floor, the teacher on a raised platform, hence, the expression "sitting at the feet of" (Acts 22:3; Luke 2:46). Finally, the lawyers were called upon to decide cases in court or to act as advisers of the court. Before the destruction of Jerusalem, technical knowledge of the law was not a condition of eligibility to the office of judge. Anyone who could command the confidence of his fellow-citizens might be elected to the position, and many of the rural courts undoubtedly were conducted, as among us, by men of sterling quality but of limited knowledge. Naturally such men would avail themselves of the legal advice of any "doctor" who might be within reach, especially inasmuch as the latter was obliged to give his services gratuitously. And in the more dignified courts of large municipalities; it was a standing custom to have a company of scholars present to discuss and decide any new law points that might arise. Of course, frequently, these men were elected to the office of judge, so that practically the entire system of jurisprudence was in their hands.
Frank E. Hirsch
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