The scribe (Ezra 8)

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Scribes occupied an important position as a professional class in the society of the ancient world. The scribal arts of reading, writing and interpreting written documents assured them a vital role in the affairs of person, state and sanctuary. Writing was typically performed as dictation (Jeremiah 36:32), using a stylus reed pen sharpened frequently with a “scribe’s knife” (Jeremiah 36:23). Scribal training was acquired in schools and was at times viewed as a family trade (1 Chronicles 2:55). Several important personages in the Bible were scribes: Shaphan, who read the Book of the Law to king Josiah (2 Kings 22:10), Baruch, who recorded the words of the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 36:4), Ezra, who cpoied and read the decrees of Persian kings and the Law of Moses (Ezra 7:6-11), and the evangelist Matthew, who applied his scribal training toward the composition of the first canonical Gospel (Matthew 8:19, 13:52).

The Bible presents scribes accurately as royal recorders who preserved the will of kings (1 Chronicles 24:6, Esther 3:12). They occupied important posts within the military (2 Kings 25:19, Jeremiah 52:25) and are often depicted with the high priest as close advisors of kings (2 Kings 12:10, 18:18, 37, Matthew 2:4). Many scribes were themselves priests and were entrusted with the preservation, interpretation and exposition of Scripture (Nehemiah 8:9, Matthew 17:10, 23:2). It is, therefore, understandable that scribes became widely regarded as men of great wisdom and learning. David’s uncle Jonathan is said to have been “a counsellor, a man of insight and a scribe” (1 Chronicles 27:32).

These various ideals became focused in the person of Ezra. He was an important figure in traditional Judaism who represented the ideal model for the rabbinic sage as a faithful man of learning, scholarship, counsel and service. Due to their importance and responsibility as preservers of tradition, scribes were also subjected to the scrutiny of prophetic critique. Jeremiah indicted the “lying pen of the scribes” who had forsaken the law of the Lord (Jeremiah 8:8), and Jesus himself pronounced an extensive list of negative judgements against the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23).


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