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Scribes of the Kingdom

An Apologia for Christian Scholarship

There are several classes of people in the New Testament setting that are difficult to translate or describe, and are liable to be painted with a broad brush:

As we take each of these in turn, a clear picture emerges: Jesus and the apostles endorsed the role of theologians and scholars as essential to the function of the church. The problem with the Pharisees and Sadducees was most assuredly not that they took their Bible seriously and sought to learn all they could about it; rather, Jesus’ conflict with them was caused by their neglect of applying what they knew so well (Matthew 23:23). Their expertise brought upon them a great responsibility.

Who Are Pharisees and Sadducees?

Pharisees and Sadducees are two important schools of thought within the Judaism of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees derived their authority from the law of Moses, and numbered in the thousands. According to Josephus, only the wealthy elite were persuaded to become Sadducees. Their main distinguishing doctrine was their denial of an afterlife.

Both of these groups frequently become straw men during sermons on the New Testament. However, it is clear from the Bible that not all of the scholars or religious elite of Jesus’ day were hypocrites. In the New Testament, the Sadducees are never depicted in a positive light.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were rivals with different views of the Torah. Interestingly, Jesus warns his disciples about “the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6). Thus, he steered them away from joining both of these leading schools of thought, though several Pharisees did later join them.

Who Are Scribes and Lawyers?

Scribes and lawyers are, for all intents and purposes, the scholars and theologians of biblical times. But they are not translated this way because there are clear differences related to the tasks that they were involved in. In general, scholars of today are more specialized and less involved in clerical work.

In Greek, scribes are, etymologically, “lettered” or “literate” people. This makes more sense here in Asia, where handwriting is considered a marketable skill. In the Middle East, a “scribe” (خطّاط) acts mainly as a calligrapher, and neat handwriting is prized; in South Asia, scribes also may act like notaries, helping with official documents and clerical work, as they did in Bible times.

Lawyers as spoken of in the New Testament were not mainly concerned with secular law, but with God’s law found in the Torah. It is not entirely misleading to think of someone constructing an argument from piles of books or manuscripts, but the key difference here is that it was a religious role, not a secular role. For this reason, modern translations often use phrases like “expert” or “teacher” of the Law (that is, Mosaic law).

Woe to the Scholars!

Of the four categories listed above, all are are prone to negative descriptions. Among these, the Sadducees are perhaps the only one that is consistently portrayed in a negative light in the New Testament. They were in serious doctrinal error, and none of them in the Gospels or Acts ever offers any encouragement to the gospel of the kingdom.

Jesus also pronounces woe on lawyers (Luke 11:46, 52), and scribes and Pharisees, whom he groups together (Matthew 23, Luke 11:42-44). In light of this, and Paul’s writings about the cross being “foolishness” to the wise of this world, intellectuals and scholars have become low-hanging fruit for Bible teachers who want to lead people into a more spiritual worldview.

In general, this kind of anti-intellectualism is not only unfounded, but unbiblical. In the New Testament, there are many scholars and teachers that seriously consider Jesus’ teachings or even follow him. There are several verses where Jesus explicitly speaks of scribes in a positive light, which are listed below. As for the lawyers, Paul requests a lawyer named Zenas to minister with Apollos (Titus 3:13).

Several Pharisees are either sympathetic to the Christian faith or believers themselves. Paul calls himself a Pharisee before and after conversion, suggesting that there was nothing offensive about their doctrine; rather, similar to the “Nazirites” of Scripture, it denoted a certain status in relation to the law (Phil. 3:5). In today’s terminology, some contemporary writers have characterized the Pharisees more like a conscientious revival movement—not a bumbling cult of nitpickers.

Jesus Sends Us Scribes

There are at least three passages in which Jesus makes explicitly positive evaluations of scribes:

  • In Mark 12:28-34, a scribe asks Jesus about the first commandment. (This is one of several passages in which scholars ask Jesus sincere questions, not intending to “trap” him as in other stories.) After their discussion, Jesus pronounces that this scribe is “not far from the kingdom of God.”
  • In concluding the parables of the kingdom, Jesus tells his disciples that “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). Scholars, therefore, have an important role in preserving and disseminating kingdom truths!
  • In Matthew 23, Jesus is pronouncing woe on the “scribes and Pharisees.” He tells them that he sends “prophets, wise men and scribes.” This is the most important verse in this study because it not only legitimizes scribes, but proclaims that Jesus himself sends them, working alongside prophets and other “wise men.”

Jesus and his disciples frequently interacted with scribes, lawyers and Pharisees in neutral settings. They attend his teachings and ask genuine questions:

  • In Matthew 17:10, Mark 9:11, Jesus’ disciples knew scribal teachings. In Mark 12:35, Jesus himself knew the teachings of the scribes.
  • In Luke 17:20, the Pharisees ask about the coming of the kingdom.
  • In John 9:40, Pharisees ask Jesus if they are blind, too.
  • In Mark 7:1, Pharisees and scribes come to see him—though he afterward rebukes them.
  • In Luke 7:37 and 39, Jesus sits in a Pharisee’s house. In Luke 11:37, Jesus accepts another invitation from a Pharisee.
  • In John 3, Nicodemus (a Pharisee) approaches Jesus in the night.

In other passages, scribes agree with Jesus:

  • In Luke 20:39, scribes agree with Jesus about the resurrection.
  • In Mark 12:28-34, the scribe (mentioned above) agrees that Jesus has spoken well about the greatest commandments.

In many New Testament Scriptures, scribes, lawyers and Pharisees have even become disciples of Jesus:

  • In Matthew 8:19, a scribe asks to be a disciple.
  • In Acts 15:5, some Pharisees had believed the gospel.
  • In Titus 3:13, Paul asks Titus to send “Zenas the lawyer” with Apollos; here he appears to be financially endorsing a scholar with a traveling ministry.
  • Paul himself was a Pharisee, and proclaims himself “a Pharisee, son of a Pharisee” well after becoming a follower of Jesus (Acts 23:6, 26:5, Phil. 3:5).

There are also New Testament passages where scholars, teachers, and Pharisees receive Jesus’ spiritual ministry:

  • In Mark 9:14, scribes came seeking healing.
  • In Luke 5:17, Pharisees and teachers came from every town, and “the power of the Lord was present.”

In a surprising number of passages, scribes and Pharisees defend Jesus and the apostles from the persecution of others:

  • In Luke 13:31, some Pharisees warned Jesus of persecution from Herod.
  • In John 7:50, Nicodemus (a Pharisee) publicly defends Jesus.
  • In Acts 19:35, a scribe calmed the mob in Ephesus.
  • In Acts 23:9, scribes of the Pharisees wanted to release Paul.
  • In Acts 5:34, Gamaliel (a Pharisee) advises the Sanhedrin to release the apostles.

Conclusion

The above passages resist caricatures of the Pharisees, who were a large and presumably diverse group. Rather, unlike the Sadducees, many Pharisees became followers of Jesus, or defended him against others of their sect.

More importantly, though, there is a clear and legitimate role for theologians in Jesus’ teaching. He does not exclude all intellectuals with a wave of his hand; rather, in Matthew 13:52 and 23:34, he maintains space for scholars and experts who maintain a high regard for God and his words.