New Covenant Scribes

Last week I read something Jesus said that puzzled me, it is in Matthew 13.51-52 where he finishes a string of parables and told the disciples:

Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

Typically when Jesus is talking about scribes, it is not in a positive light. But here, he is taking about scribes trained for the kingdom. What did he mean? I asked around and Jeff Meyers said:

I think it’s important to remember that the apostolic calling was fundamentally about scribal work. They were called to write out the Scriptures for the new world, especially what we call the four Gospels. They understood this, if we read Acts 6:2, 4 correctly. This is not about them “preaching.” It’s them “attending to the Word.” The word “preaching” is not in the text. It’s about the “service of the Word.” They collaborated as “scribes” to insure that the words and acts of the Messiah were quickly recorded as founding documents for his new kingdom. Acts 6 is not about “preachers” and “deacons,” even if it might be applied to modern ecclesiastical issues like that by abstracting from the passage the wisdom of a “division of labor.”

Of course, the “service of the Word” also includes speaking the Word, as they do in the book of Acts.  But Acts 6 and Luke 1:2 point to more than proclamation.

I was thrilled to hear this! It makes perfect sense to me and it accords with what Jesus said. Further, Jesus later says:

Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.

One of the categories of people who Jesus sends to doomed Israel is scribes! It stands to reason, as Jeff wrote, that the process of writing the Scriptures happened early, contra what many recent scholars might think. Also, the early Deacons saying they should not wait tables to attend to scribal work accords will with the role of a scribe as described in Jesus ben Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 38.24:

A scholar’s wisdom comes of ample leisure;

if a man is to be wise he must be relieved of other tasks.

If the work that these New Covenant scribes performed was anything like the Old Covenant scribes, then we have some idea of what it consisted of.  Michael Fishbane writes extensively about the subject in his book, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel. He says (with Hebrew terms excluded by me):

The technical title ___, meaning ‘scribe’, first appears in connection with the royal council established by King David at the outset of the United Monarchy (2 Sam. 8: 16-18~20: 23-25), and appears in similar listings preserved for the dynasties of King Solomon (1 Kg. 4: 1-6), King Joash (2 Chron. 24: 11-12), and King Hezekiah (2 Kg. 18: 18, 37). The the [scribe] appears as a stable component of the high royal bureaucracy for at least 300 years, from the beginning of the tenth to the seventh century BCE. However, the relative position of this court officer in these listings varies, and his relationship to the ___, ‘recorder’ or ‘secretary’, is unclear. As the priests, war commanders, major-domos, and tax officials noted in these lists were the heads of specialized sub-bureaucracies serving the royal administration, we may surmise that the ___ of these texts was the overseer of a diversified scribal network.
Regrettably, no biblical sources describe the training of ancient Israelite scribes. It may be assumed, however, that the skills taught in their various guild centres and schools (cf. 1 Chron. 2:55) enabled those scribes to serve a variety of administrative and state functions. Some served the military and aided in conscription (2 Kgs. 25: 19~Jer. 52:25); others, Levites by lineage, served as overseers of the priestly rotations (1 Chron. 24: 6), or provided administrative services to the Temple and its upkeep (2 Chron. 34: 13; cf. Neh. 13: 13); and still other scribes served in the royal court, providing the king with diplomatic skill and sage wisdom. Trained in the forms and rhetoric of international diplomatic correspondence, and thus kept abreast of internal and external affairs, many of these court scribes–as individuals and as family guilds–were directly caught up in religious and political affairs affecting the nation as a whole. Particularly exemplary of such involvements are the activities of the Shaphan scribal family during the final decades of the Judaean state. In other cases, the professional court scribe was primarily a sage counsellor–a repository of traditional wisdom. Just such a personage was Jonathan, an uncle of King David, who was ‘an adviser __, a man of understanding __ and a scribe ___’. There is no reason to doubt that this combination of traits reflects an authentic pre-exilic tradition, despite its unique articulation in the relatively late Book of Chronicles. What is certain, at any rate, is that this formulation draws from an international courtier vocabulary. […] The technical and official nature of this description is confirmed by the fact that Ezra the priest, the great teacher of the post-exilic restoration, is also called a __ ___ (Ezra 7:6). The fact that Ezra’s title already occurs in Ps. 45:2 as a frozen idiom suggests that this designation was known in the pre-exilic period as well, and was not simply a contemporary title conferred upon him by later historians.
In addition to their service in regional, national, and international capacities, ancient Israelite scribes were tradents of texts. Indeed, this activity was a constitutive characteristic of the ancient Israelite scribal class. Thus, in addition to copying texts, Israelite scribes were also responsible for maintaining, transmitting, and collating literary record. […]
Details related to the scribal activities of collating, entitling, and indexing literary records can be deduced from a variety of biblical data. A general indicator of such activity is the recurrent references in the Books of Kings and Chronicles to the archives or records of the Northern and Southern kingdoms from which the ‘historical’ report is excerpted or derived (e.g. 1 Kings 11:41, 14:19, 29, 15:7, 23; cf. 1 Chr. 9:1; 2 Chr. 9:29, 12:15, 13:22, 20:34, 24:27, 27:7, 32:32). Such historical archives were maintained by court archivists or other guardians of the historical traditions. Some scribal practices may be deduced from the annotations to the priestly regulations found in the Books of Leviticus and Numbers. These records have both superscriptive titles (e.g. Lev. 6:2, 7, 7:1, 11) and summary colophons (e.g. 7:37-38, 11:46-7, 12: 8, 15:32-3, Num. 5:29-31, 6:21), which are well evidenced in other ancient Near Eastern documents. Moreover, like the latter, these biblical regulation were often collated into short series or collections, for example the laws of sacrifice in Lev. 1-7 or the various laws on purity and impurity in Lev. 11-15. Such annotations and collections, found in legal and prophetic literature, only make sense as formal conventions of an established scribal tradition.

Fishbane, Michael A. 1988. Biblical interpretation in ancient Israel. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Clarendon Press. Pages 25-27.

So it seems that the scribal profession was continued, purified and renewed, in the New Covenant.






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