Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
Matthew 7:28-29 (NRSV)
Scribes have been around in many forms and fashions in ancient history. As a formal profession of Torah-scribes, we can probably look to the practices of Ezra who, on wanting to rebuild Israel out of the returned exiles from Babylon, started an assembly of scholars and teachers to teach the Law, disseminate it, and interpret it. In rabbinical tradition, this was the forerunner of the Sanhedrin.
A scribe’s job could be compared in some ways to a modern-day lawyer with some historian thrown in. Scribes translated the writings of Torah and copied them. They learned the Law and the various comments on the Law and related works. They researched, wrote, and taught. They explained the Law and served as resources on Law-knowledge in all kinds of activities, including trials.
In Ezra’s day, the scribes served an important function by providing instruction in the Law to the fledgling “new Israel” of returned exiles. They helped each family learn what the Law required and helped them interpret it. Perhaps one of the most interesting episodes with these early scribes comes in Nehemiah 8, when the people are weeping because of their neglect of the Law, and the scribes turn that situation around, declaring that the day they heard the Law is a day of joy – that now they know what God requires and have a chance to do better! It is in the context of this event that we get the famous verse, Nehemiah 8:10: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.”
So, far from being the scribes we will come to know in the Gospels, these scribes wanted to encourage Israel in her faithfulness. They used the Law to rebuild, restore, and revitalize those who had been in exile and so far off from the faith and ways of Israel. When people felt convicted of their shortcomings, it was a scribe who would put his arm around them and say, “Do not weep, for today is holy to the Lord. The joy of the Lord is your strength.”
But the best laid plans of mice and men.
Over time, Israel’s leadership becomes frequented by people who are looking out for their own survival and prosperity. They become fat off the oppression of their own people. Their ranks become heavily compromised in their hearts and, in some cases, directly by Romans themselves.
By the time we get to Jesus’ day, scribes are more like our social caricatures of lawyers. The scribes of Jesus’ day were pedantic money-grubbers who found loopholes for their friends and nooses for their enemies. Some scribes would make arguments, not only from the wording of a law, but from the very letters used in a word. They had gone from comforters to accusers. They could find a dozen ways to kill you with their reams of legal knowledge – not just the Torah itself, but a veritable minefield of traditions they helped to craft around the Law to keep people from breaking it.
It is a sad, sad thing that these people who once helped comfort and compassionately restore Israel to faithfulness are now primary enemies against Jesus who is trying to do just that. The scribes, by contrast, will take your house, take your money, strip you of your rank, and get you ostracized from the Temple, all through their complex legal wizardry and vaunted traditions. They are the Satan to God’s people – standing as their accusers night and day for their own benefit.
But the scribes have a particular weakness. They know the Law. They know what rabbis have taught about the Law. They know what traditions have sprung up around they Law. They know every word choice, every legal precedent, every penalty, every jot, every tittle. What they cannot do is speak for God. They can only replicate and regurgitate; they cannot produce.
This is a key thing that separates the role of a scribe from the role of a prophet. A scribe knows comprehensively the words that God has spoken; a prophet speaks them.
This is probably part of the crowd’s reaction when they hear Jesus teach. This is not a man who defines faithfulness through complex layers of tradition or the nuances of spelling. This is a man who delivers the very words of God. This is a man who is not afraid to correct tradition, to speak forth his own teachings, to tell the lost of Israel then and there what they must do to be saved and what is about to befall Israel.
A scribe cannot do these things. A scribe could tell you that adultery was a violation of the Law, but divorce was allowed for any reason, but it takes a prophet to tell you that coveting a woman is the same as adultery and that divorce was allowed only because of the hardness of the hearts of Israel, and it is not meant to be summoned up at a whim.
A scribe can tell you that you are legally entitled to a certain level of retribution if someone harms you, but it takes a prophet to call the people to a different standard so that they might enter the age to come.
When these people look at Jesus, and they look at their own authorities, it becomes clear to them which one of these parties is speaking for God and, perhaps just as deeply, who is on their side. Jesus is not some freewheeling antinomian Jewish anarchist where everything goes. He is not, as he is sometimes cast, doing away with the “legalistic” Jewish religion in favor of a lawless “relationship.” He brings many commands to Israel, but look at what he is doing – saving, restoring, rebuilding, healing, and comforting Israel. His commands are designed to dust off these poor, downtrodden people and help them be the shining lights they were always meant to be, not condemn them and grind them into the dust. His yoke is easy.
And he will turn like a tiger on any leader who stands to use God’s laws as a tool to break His people down. That is what Satan does, and Jesus will destroy all the works of the devil.
- As we invite people to participate in the ongoing story of the people of God, what role does law play in that? How do we use it? What role, if any, is it meant to serve in the present life of the people of God? How do we deal with people who have fallen short?
- Is there a difference between having comprehensive knowledge of the Bible and being able to speak for God?