In his attempt to inflate his case for Jewish religious diversity in The Empty Tomb – which includes misstating the beliefs of the Saduccees and Herodians, as well as misconstruing Clement’s reference to the Assumption of Moses – Richard Carrier also misstates the nature of the Scribes. According to Mr. Carrier, “the Scribes often mentioned in the Gospels were also a distinct sect, closely allied with the Pharisees but diverging from them in certain ritual observances and practices.” The Empty Tomb, page 108. Is it true that the Scribes were a distinct religious sect and that they only differed from the Pharisees on some items?
Mr. Carrier’s support for this argument is an endnote referencing, among other cites, Mark 7:3-4:
For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.
It is difficult to see how Mr. Carrier gleans support for his assertions about the Scribes from this reference. The Scribes are not even mentioned in these two verses. While it is true that the Scribes and the Pharisees are often depicted together elsewhere in the Gospels, nothing specific is said about any sectarian beliefs they hold that would distinguish them as their own sect.
Mr. Carrier offers some other, much later references to the Scribes. First, he refers to two passages from the Clementine Recognitions:
The scribes also, and Pharisees, are led away into another schism; but these, being baptized by John, and holding the word of truth received from the tradition of Moses as the key of the kingdom of heaven, have hid it from the hearing of the people.
And, behold, one of the scribes, shouting silt from the midst of the people, says: ` The signs and miracles which your Jesus wrought, he wrought not as a prophet, but as a magician.' Him Philip eagerly encounters, showing that by this argument he accused Moses also. For when Moses wrought signs and miracles in Egypt, in like manner as Jesus also did in Judaea, it cannot be doubted that what was said of Jesus might as well be said of Moses. Having made these and such like protestations, Philip was silent.
The first of these passages does seem to consider the Scribes as a “schism,” but does not distinguish them from the Pharisees. The second passage portrays Scribes as hostile to Jesus and his followers, but offers little else. Thus, these depictions hardly support Mr. Carrier’s portrayal of the Scribes as a religious sect distinct from the Pharisees in rituals and observances. In any event, the value of these sources – especially given the brevity of their mentions of the Scribes – is questionable. The Clementine Recognitions were not written until the mid-third century and were basically of the genre of theological romance. All told, these two references fail to support Mr. Carrier’s characterization of the Scribes.
Finally, Mr. Carrier cites Epiphanius’ Panarion. Written near the end of the fourth century, it is of questionable worth for understanding the various Jewish sects extant during the early first century. In any event, the passage cited by Mr. Carrier is mainly about the Pharisees and, regarding the Scribes, simply states that the Scribes held many of the same beliefs as the Pharisees. Nevertheless, there is a hint of the true nature of the Scribes in a passage that Mr. Carrier failed to reference. Just prior to Panarion 15, in verse 14, is -- as we will see more fully discussed below -- a passage devoted to the Scribes, which describes them as, “lawyers and repeaters of the traditions of their elders. Because of their further, self-chosen religion they observed customs which they had not learned through the Law but had formulated.” (emphasis added).
Now that we have seen that the evidence does not support Mr. Carrier’s description of the Scribes, just who were they? Generally speaking, the Scribes were not a sect at all but a profession. “[T]he scribes in their capacity as scribes did not form or belong to any one religious group in Palestinian Judaism at the time of Jesus.” J.P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Companions and Competitors, page 550. Indeed, the Scribes were not even limited to Jewish society. “Scribes were distinguished professional people throughout the world.” Oxford Companion to the Bible, Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, eds., page 684. In Palestine, however, Scribes assumed a unique role in Jewish society. Though they could loosely be called lawyers, scribes performed a number of related functions. “‘Scribe’ thus combined the offices of Torah professor, teacher, and moralist, and civil lawyer, in that order.” James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, page 54. The Scribes were, therefore, not a religious sect but a profession which performed a number of duties related to religious matters. Although individual Scribes may have affiliated with one sect or another, they were not in and of themselves a unique religious sect.
In addition to being wrong about the Scribes being a sect in and of themselves, Mr. Carrier misstates their relationship with the Pharisees. “Scribes were often associated with Pharisees, but the two were not identical. The ‘scribes of the Pharisees’ (Mark 2:16, Luke 5:30; Acts 23:9) were probably legal counselors employed by the Pharisees.” Oxford Companion to the Bible, page 684. So, rather than simply being a closely related sect, most – though not all – of the Scribes mentioned in Gospels worked for the Pharisees or chose to affiliate with them in their role as professionals concerning the law. This is likely why Luke sometimes refers to them as “lawyers” (Luke 5:17; 7:30; 14:3), why they are often depicted as involved in debates with Jesus over legal issues (Matt. 9:3; Luke 5:21; Matt. 15:1; Mark 2:16; 3:22; Luke 5:30; Luke 15:2; Mark 7:1-2; Mark 17:10; Mark 9:11; Luke 20:39; John 8:2; and Luke 6:7), and why they participate in legal proceedings such as the trial of Jesus.
Some New Testament passages refer to Scribes who were clearly not a distint Jewish sect. Acts 19:25 refers to a Gentile Scribe. In 1 Corinthians, Paul refers to Scribes in a very broad sense. (1 Cor. 1:20). The Gospel of Matthew even refers to Scribes who were followers of Jesus. (Matthew 23:34: “I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes”).
Perhaps more telling is that Mark and Acts make a point of contrasting the Scribes affiliated with the Pharisees from Scribes who must have affiliated with other sects. “The phrase ‘scribe of the Pharisees’ (Mk 2:16; Acts 23:9) indicates the probability that scribes were associated with various sects and associations within first-century Judaism.” G.H. Twelftree, “Scribes, in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, page 733. Acts 23:9 is the most explicit, stating “And there occurred a great uproar; and some of the scribes of the Pharisaic party stood up and began to argue heatedly….” Luke 5:30 also reinforces this understanding. (“The Pharisees and their scribes….”). These references indicate that the Pharisees had their Scribes and other sects had their Scribes.
Furthermore, there is additional New Testament evidence that associates some Scribes with the Chief Priest and the Sanhedrin. As summed up by the Oxford Companion to the Bible, “Chief priests also employed scribes (Mark 15:31; Acts 4:6) as their legal counselors. Scribes were associated with the Sanhedrin, probably as clerks, legal counselors for participants in trials, and judges." Page 684. The scriptural support for these conclusions is abundant, though somewhat generalized (as are most references to the Scribes in the New Testament):
Matt. 2:4 (“Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people"), Matt. 16:21 (“From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes”), Matt. 20:18-19 ("the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes"), Matt. 21:15-16 (“when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that He had done"), Matt. 26:57 (“Those who had seized Jesus led Him away to Caiaphas, the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were gathered together.”), Matt. 27:41 (“In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking Him and saying…”), Mark 11:27 ("as He was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to Him”), Mark 14:43 (“Judas, one of the twelve, came up accompanied by a crowd with swords and clubs, who were from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.”), Mark 14:52 (“They led Jesus away to the high priest; and all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes gathered together.”), Mark 15:1 (“Early in the morning the chief priests with the elders and scribes and the whole Council”), Mark 15:31 (“In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes, were mocking Him among themselves and saying,”), Mark 10:33 ("the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes”), Mark 11:18 (“The chief priests and the scribes heard this”), Luke 9:22 ("The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes"), Luke 19:47-48 (“but the chief priests and the scribes and the leading men among the people were trying to destroy Him….”), Luke 20:1 (“the chief priests and the scribes with the elders confronted Him”), Luke 22:2 (“The chief priests and the scribes were seeking how they might put Him to death”), Luke 22:66 (“When it was day, the Council of elders of the people assembled, both chief priests and scribes.”), and Acts 6:12 (“And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes”).
Although the Gospels sometimes generalize the role the Scribes played in their narratives, it is clear from the evidence at hand that they were not a distinct Jewish sect who were closely related to the Pharisees. Rather, they were members of a profession that gave them prominent roles in Jewish Society. Moreover, different Scribes affiliated with or worked for different Jewish sects or religious institutions, including the Pharisees, the Chief Priests, and the Sanhedrin. Mr. Carrier's attempt to offer them up as an example of yet another Jewish sect fails.