Jesus Wrote on the Ground: Was He a Scribe?

Jesus quotes many writings and has an exhaustive knowledge of many authors.

Making Jesus appear well-educated. The kind of scribe of his time.

But was he?

Was Jesus a scribe and writer?

Despite Jesus’ understanding of religious texts, he was not a scribe by profession. With limited stories about Jesus being a scribe or doing the work of a scribe. He interpreted religious texts like a scribe and often interacted with them, but was not one. 

Before jumping to conclusions, we will need to understand better who a scribe was in Jesus’ culture.

Along with the skills required to be a scribe and what role they performed in society.

Then, we can look over some of the stories in the gospels of Jesus’ reading and writing.

Plus, his many interactions, positive and negative, with scribes of his day.

Scribes in the First Century

Like today, those who have “professional” jobs are held in high regard by the general community. Scribes were no different in the second temple period.

Being honoured for their skills in literacy along with their knowledge obtained by the ability to read, dedication in writing and copying large sections of texts.

In the Jewish context, their common association with the law gave them added respect.

This also elevated them beyond simply someone who could read and write but also made them experts in regard to written text and laws.

Our modern equivalent would be closer to a lawyer or judge than simply a printer. One who literally writes down or copies the relevant information.

In Judea and Galilee, there are two types of roles of scribes.

Secular Scribes of Galilee

With the general population being illiterate.

Scattered throughout Galilee and Judea would be your local scribes whose primary job would be to write down contracts, divorce, loans, inheritance, mortgages, the sale of land, and the like.

Not only would they write such information down, but their knowledge of the local law would have them perform a role similar to a real estate or civil lawyer in the community. Someone who could advise and correctly word contracts or arrangements between individuals and parties.

Of course, in places of government such as Jerusalem or Tiberias. The scribes would act as officials within the government, increasing the number of scribes in the area.

Like bureaucrats in Ottawa and Washington.

Religious Scribes of the Second Temple Period

Being “people of the book,” many scribes were employed in Jewish religious work.

Beyond simply being copyists, the Mishnah speaks of scribes as pre-rabbinic teachers.

Often with a loyalty to the chief priests and other religious leaders.

Similar to civil scribes, religious scribes would also act as lawyers or interpreters of the religious laws for the Jews. At times bringing Jesus into conversations with them as they scrutinized his interpretations. 

Being a scribe was not always a solo endeavour. Higher or more acclaimed scribes would often have understudies or disciples learning from them. With schools of scribes being created in popular areas like Jerusalem.

Overall Education Level of Education in the First Century Galilee

What set scribes apart from the general population was their ability to read and write. There is debate among scholars about how much of the population was literate.

Facts and Details put neighbouring Egypt with a literacy rate close to half of the population.

But for Galilee and Judea, consequences if often between 3 and 20%. With most leaning towards 3% or less.

Urban centres would have a higher rate of literacy than rural communities. Similar to the rest of the Roman Empire, Jewish communities would have a higher rate of literacy among males compared to women.

Could Jesus Read or Write?

To be a scribe, you would need to be able to read and write.

Reading a Book

“If Jesus was a carpenter/mason, as we generally suppose, then it’s not impossible that he had some rudimentary grasp of letters and/or numbers for the purposes of his trade, but I think it very unlikely that Jesus could read or write.”

Helen Bond

But Helen’s view is not universal among scholars.

Craig Evans feels there is sufficient evidence to believe that Jesus could read.

Do we have any records of Jesus reading or writing?

A common phrase from Jesus’ mouth in the gospels is “Haven’t you read” or something similar.

  • 6 times in Matthew
  • 3 times in Mark
  • 2 times in Luke

Along with numerous times Jesus quoting from the Torah.

“acquire their knowledge of texts – even accurate knowledge of texts – from hearing them read aloud (which is how most people “read” in the ancient world: by hearing a text read aloud in a public context).”

Bart Ehrman

Chris Keith is in agreement with Bart Ehrman that most of Jesus’ knowledge of scriptures does not come from “reading” but regularly listening to the scriptures being read aloud at the local synagogue.

Two examples of Jesus quoting are The Sermon on the Mount and his temptation in the wilderness.

Luke 4:16-20 tells a story of Jesus reading in the synagogue.

Reading a scroll

But beyond this single story, there are no exclusive events of Jesus reading.

But from that story and his regular use of scripture, one could deduce that he could.

Now, writing is a different matter. We often equate the two, but in ancient times and even today, they are not the same. Most of us can read at a much higher level than we can write.

But, regards to Jesus’ writing, we have limited records.

Possibly John 8:1-11. Jesus “writes” in the sand as he ignores some teachers of the law (scribes) and Pharisees when they question him about a woman caught in adultery.

It doesn’t say what he writes, if anything. Plus, this is a later addition to the gospel of John, which is already a late-dated Gospel.

Considering that we have nothing written by Jesus beyond an apocryphal letter to King Abgarus. Which is much debated if it was written by Jesus.

Leaving it probably safe to assume that Jesus could not write.

Without this skill, Jesus could not be a scribe in the sense of a copyist.

But that does not mean that Jesus did not interact and debate with the scribes.

Jesus’ View of Scribes

Jesus has mixed comments about scribes.

On one hand, he exhorts people that their righteousness needs to exceed the scribes (Matt.5:20). He also tells a parable of how a scribe brings treasure from his training (Matt.13:52).

On the other hand, most of Matthew 23 is Jesus cursing the scribes.

He also warns people against their hypocrisy (Mk: 12:38, Lk:.20:45-47).

Jesus also predicts that the scribes, along with others, will kill him (Matt.16:21; 20:18, Mk.8:31; 10:33, Lk.11:53).

Leaving you wondering if Jesus even liked the scribes.

Jesus Compared to Scribes

At times, when people heard Jesus teach, they would compare him to the scribes.

Claiming that he spoke with authority compared to the scribes, he lacked such confidence (Matt.7:29, Mk.1:22).

Jesus’ Interaction with Scribes

Jesus’ teaching created opportunities to interact with the scribes.

Some positive, some not.

One scribe asked Jesus if he could be his disciple (Matt.8:19).

Twice, it is recorded that a scribe praises Jesus for his answers. (Mk.12:28-34, Lk.20:39).

But they also accuse him of blasphemy after “forgiving” a man’s sins (Matt.9:3. Mk.2:6, Lk.5:21).

Another time, some scribes, along with Pharisees, questioned Jesus about his authority (Mk.11:27, Lk.20:1ff).

In reverse, another time, Jesus posed a question regarding scribes’ interpretation of a prophetic Psalm (Mk.12:35).

But there were also times when the scribes disagreed with Jesus about his actions and teachings.

Argueing

Disagreement Between Scribes and Jesus

There are many more stories of Jesus disagreeing with the Pharisees, but he also had disagreements with scribes.

Jesus’ teaching a times brought him in conflict with the official interpreters of the law. The scribes.

Scribes from Jerusalem question Jesus why his disciples didn’t wash their hands correctly (Matt.15:1, Mk.7:1ff).

Another time, they question Jesus’ choice of dinner companions (Mk.2:16, Lk.5:30, 15:2).

Later, they accuse him of having a demon (Mk.3:22).

And intentionally watching to see if he will “break the law” by healing on the Sabbath (Lk.6:7). Watching Jesus if he heals on the sabbath.

They also condemned the children’s actions as they welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem (Matt.21:15).

No, the scribes at times did not think highly of Jesus or agree with his teaching.

But even worse than disagreeing with his teachings and actions is what the scribes schemed to do to Jesus.

Scribes Scheming to Destroy Jesus and His Ministry

Ultimately, it was the scribes, along with others, who took Jesus down.

Luke 20:19 they are offended by his parable and start planning to arrest him.

They, along with the chief priests, seek ways to have Jesus killed after he cleansed the temple (Mk.11:18).

They are part of the planning to have Jesus arrested (Mk.14:1, Lk.22:2).

And are actively involved in Jesus’ trial, which in the end condemns him to death (Matt.26:57; 27:41, Mk.14:43,53: 15:1,31; Lk.22:66; 23:10).

Yes, some scribes admired Jesus, like the one who wanted to follow him.

But in Jerusalem, by the end, they had had enough of him and worked to get rid of him.

Sources

  • https://bible.org/seriespage/scribes#P10_1908
  • https://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/don_stewart/don_stewart_1315.cfm

Ryan Nickel

Two loves of my life beyond my wife and 4 children are history and the person of Jesus. From childhood, I was captivated by history and still love reading and learning about the past. One life in particular that intrigues me in history is the person of Jesus. It's fascinating to think about how the course of human history was changed by a carpenter turned preacher. Both in our times and also in his. I attempt to process all I am learning about him through conversations, writing and shooting videos about the life and teachings of Jesus. With each word drawing me closer into his life. Ryan Nickel has been part of range of churches, including Baptist, Evangelical Free and Church of Christ. In 1999 I graduated from Peace River Bible Institute with a Bachelor of Religious Studies.

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