Jews under Roman Rule - W. D. Morrison

The Teachers of the Law

Although the Law was regarded as binding upon every member of the Jewish people, its precepts were of such a character that it was impossible for the ordinary Israelite without assistance either to know or to follow them. In the first place, they were written in a language which he had ceased to speak; for soon after the return from Babylon Hebrew fell more and more into disuse, and Aramaic, a cognate dialect, assumed its place. But even if it had been written in a tongue which the people fully understood, it would have been difficult for them to remember the six hundred and thirteen different commandments contained in the Pentateuch alone, not to mention the multitude of traditions which had accumulated around these commandments. And this difficulty would have risen to an impossibility when the Jewish husbandman—for it was to this class that the great bulk of the people belonged attempted to put his knowledge into practice. As a matter of fact, some of the Pentateuchal laws had never been put into operation, and only possessed a theoretical value; others had become inapplicable to the altered social state of the community, and others were so worded that it was no easy thing to know when and how to apply them. Besides, the written Law was not intended, as the Jews in the time of Christ had been taught to believe, to cover the whole field of civil, social, and religious life. To give it the appearance of doing so required the exercise of a degree of exegetical skill which the mass of the people could not possibly possess or perhaps acquire.

[Illustration] from The Jews Under Roman Rule by W. D. Morrison


As a result of these circumstances the people had to fall back upon the assistance of a class of men who made the study of the Law the supreme business of their lives. In the Old Testament these men are known under the name of Sopherim, in the New Testament they are designated as men of learning (grammateis—scribes), or as men learned in the Law (nomikoi—lawyers), or as teachers of the Law (nomodidaskaloi). According to the Jewish habit of throwing every institution back into a remote antiquity, the scribes were said to have come into existence in the time of Moses; they sprang up in reality during the Babylonian exile, and their rise was chiefly owing to this disaster to the national fortunes. The Jews had then perished as a nation, the ties of a common fatherland were for the time dissolved, and the only things which united the deported community were the bonds of a common faith and the hallowed memories of the past. It accordingly became a sacred duty as well as a consolation to preserve and strengthen these bonds; otherwise the Jews would have lost their distinctive characteristics, and been swallowed up among the populations who surrounded and so enormously outnumbered them. To prevent this crowning calamity, the ancient records of the race, its traditions, its laws, its customs were sedulously collected and disseminated among the exiles. Copies of these records were required for the edification of the weekly assemblies which afterwards developed into the synagogue. A class of copyists sprang into existence, and these copyists are the scribes.

The return from Babylon and the establishment of the Law as an obligatory code increased the numbers and importance of the scribes. The growth of the synagogue into a national institution added to the demand for copies of the sacred book; as the belief in its Divine origin grew in intensity, the functions of the scribes became correspondingly enlarged, and they naturally developed into canonists and guardians of the text as well as copyists of the Law. It has also to be observed that the language in which the Law was written ceased to be a living tongue soon after the Exile, and the scribes had to undertake the task of interpreting its contents to the people. This duty involved the assumption of the widest powers and responsibilities, and at the opening of the Christian era we find the scribes exercising the three-fold office of jurists, judges, and popular instructors.

It was in their capacity of interpreters that the scribes were drawn into assuming the functions of jurists and legislators. These duties devolved upon them in this wise. It had been solemnly laid down that every act in life, from the cradle to the grave, should be done according to the Law. Now the written Law in many instances does not go beyond general principles. Some of its precepts are ambiguous, and in process of time others had become almost impossible of fulfillment. But most important of all is the circumstance that in a multitude of cases it laid down no positive regulations whatsoever. In other words, it was not a complete code of Law. Still the theory remained that this incomplete code must supply an answer to every question which might arise in all the manifold and complicated relations of human life. How was this theory to be maintained in face of the fact that the written Law was inadequate and incomplete? Only in one way, namely, the creation of such elastic rules of interpretation as would permit the scribes to construct a code of law, at once more comprehensive in its character and more capable of adaptation to the changing requirements of a living society. And this was what actually did take place. A set of exegetical rules was elaborated by the scribes which allowed them the widest latitude in interpreting the written Law. By means of these rules a new code was practically evolved out of the existing one, and this new code actually derived its authority from the laws which it was in many cases meant to supersede. This new code is called the law of tradition because it was represented as being nothing more than an ancient and authoritative interpretation of the written law an interpretation which dated back to the time of Moses himself. It was in reality no such thing, but simply the work of the scribes. This work was framed in the spirit of the Mosaic code, but it became, in process of time, much more elaborate and comprehensive in its character. It was also more flexible, because it was not stereotyped in written documents. For, although the scribes attempted to hand down the precepts of tradition intact from one generation to another, it is certain that circumstances were more powerful than the rules of the school, and that the laws of tradition were modified as time went on to meet the practical needs of the community.

The whole body of the scribes co-operated in the task of law-making, but as the more eminent among them resided at Jerusalem, most of the alterations and amendments in the law had their origin in the Holy City. It was a habit of the scribes to meet together for the ventilation and discussion of legal questions. These questions were often the subject of prolonged debate, and it was not until a certain degree of unanimity had been arrived at among the doctors that any projected change in the law had a chance of being effected. After the destruction of Jerusalem and the final downfall of the Jewish state, the scribes formally became the lawgivers of Judaism. But before this catastrophe, and in the days of Christ, the decisions of the scribes required to be confirmed by the Sanhedrin, and it was not until they had received this confirmation that they attained the force of law and became binding on the whole community. Still, public opinion was so strongly on the side of the scribes that the members of the Sanhedrin did not venture to oppose anything on which the scribes were agreed. When the scribes arrived at the conclusion that a certain interpretation of the Law was the one to be accepted, it was adopted and acted upon by the Sanhedrists.

Very little is said in the New Testament as to the judicial functions of the scribes. Some of their number are stated to have been members of the Sanhedrin, and in that capacity they must at times have performed the functions of judges, for the Sanhedrin was the supreme judicial tribunal of the community. It is also probable that they sometimes acted as judges in the provincial districts. But at this period it was not necessary for a judge to be a scribe and there is every reason to believe that in most cases he was not. As, however, the law was in great measure the work of the scribes, it is extremely probable that they exercised a powerful if indirect influence on the decisions of the judges. No doubt the tendency of the times lay in the direction of placing judicial power in the hands of the scribes; for we find soon after the fall of Jerusalem, that the scribes had become the administrators of justice as the earthly representatives of the will of God.

Another most important function of the scribes consisted in teaching the Law to their disciples in the school, and to the general public in the synagogue. The places in which the more eminent of the scribes taught their disciples were called Houses of Assembly or Houses for the study of the Law, or simply Houses of the Rabbis. It is probable that these schools were in existence in all the more important towns of Palestine in the time of Christ. The halls and rooms of the outer forecourt of the Temple also appear to have been used by the scribes as schools of instruction, and the old rabbinical saying, "Let thy house be a house of assembly," apparently leads to the inference that private houses were sometimes employed for a similar purpose. Besides being places of instruction for their pupils, these schools were also utilized by the scribes for holding discussions with each other on disputed points of Law; discourses were sometimes delivered in them on Sundays and feast days for the edification of the people at large. The chief object of these schools, however, was to teach those who would, in most cases, afterwards become rabbis themselves. A doorkeeper guarded the entrance to them, and a small charge was made for admission. The internal arrangements were of a very simple character. The teacher appears to have sat on a slightly raised platform, while his scholars sat around him on the ground.

[Illustration] from The Jews Under Roman Rule by W. D. Morrison


The mode of teaching mainly consisted in making the pupils learn the law of tradition by heart. As it was considered derogatory to the pentateuchal code to commit the laws of tradition to writing, to commit them to memory was the only way of preserving them. Although these laws were framed in the most concise manner possible, with the express purpose of being easily retained in the mind, it was found necessary for the scribe to go over them again and again, and in consequence of this frequent repetition, to teach and to repeat came to mean exactly the same thing. The monotony of such a process was varied by allowing the scholar to put questions to his master, and to carry on an argument with him on the various points of law which came up for considerations In these discussions the scribes were accustomed to display a remarkable capacity for entering into minute refinements and distinctions to prove any dictum or interpretation which they particularly wished to establish. He who had the most retentive memory for the precepts of tradition was accounted the best scholar, and he who had the reputation of teaching only what he had received was believed to be the best scribe.

As has already been stated, to teach in the synagogue was not the exclusive privilege of the scribes. But it can hardly be doubted that in the time of Christ they were the men most frequently selected to address the congregation. Being the authorized exponents of the Law, an importance must have attached itself to their words which the utterances of a layman did not possess. Before addressing the public on religious matters in the synagogue, the scribe in the centuries immediately succeeding the Christian era, and very probably in the days of Christ Himself, was expected to have thoroughly prepared himself for his sacred task. And not only was he supposed to be a man of knowledge and education, he was expected to be a man of sincere piety as well. Any scribe who is not inwardly what he is outwardly is no scribe. A scribe's life must be in harmony with his words. Accordingly, it was said of Ben Asai, a rabbi of the first century, "Thou preachest finely, but thou dost not fulfill finely." A scribe was also required to weigh well every word he uttered, lest his hearers should drink of poisoned waters, and cause the name of God to be dishonoured. In his principles he was to be as hard as iron, but in the expression of them it is said that the scribe whose discourse is not as pleasant to his audience as fine honey in the mouth had better hold his peace.

The preaching of the scribes was enlivened by the introduction of parables, allegories, ironical allusions, and pithy sayings which were likely to stick in the memory. "Do you know a woman," said Rabbi Judah, when he saw his congregation going to sleep, "who has given birth to six hundred thousand men?" All roused themselves to hear the answer. "Jochebed," said he, "is the name of the woman; she gave birth to Moses, who was worth all Israel." A rabbi of, the first century, Jochanan ben Sakai, in urging the necessity of immediate repentance, used the following parable:—A certain king invited his servants to a feast, but gave them no time to make ready. Then some of the guests said within themselves, "A king can in an hour prepare a meal and invite us to it." They immediately put on their finest and best garments and waited at the door of the palace. These were the wise. The others thought that there was yet time, and went in soiled raiments. Suddenly the king called them to the banquet; all had to appear before him. Those who had on the clean garments were received with joy, and they ate and drank at the feast; but with the others, the careless ones, who came in soiled attire, the king was angry, and they had to stand aside and look on. A scribe chose as a text the following verse from the Book of Ecclesiastes: "As he came forth of his mother's womb, naked shall he go again as he came, and shall take nothing for his labour, which he may carry away in his hand." He illustrated the passage in this manner. A certain fox stood before a vineyard, which was encompassed by a wall. The grapes tempted him, and he tried to find out an opening in the wall by which he could enter the vineyard. He found one, but it was too small to let him go through. He then made a resolution to fast three days, so as to make his body lean enough to go through the hole. His plan succeeded, and he entered the vineyard. Here he feasted on the grapes to his heart's content, and his body once more grew fat and strong. But a time came when he wanted to leave the vineyard. He again sought the hole in the wall, but when he tried to go out he could not. He was accordingly obliged to starve his body with fasting so as to escape. And when at last he got outside he was as lean as when he entered. Then he turned his eyes to the vineyard and its fruits, and said, "O vineyard, vineyard, how lovely art thou, and how good are thy fruits! but what do I bring away with me from thee? As I entered so must I return." Such, says the scribe, is the life of man: "Naked did he come forth, and naked shall he return."

Besides being illustrated by parable and fable, a text was frequently made the subject of allegorical interpretation, as in the following instance:—Rabbi Jochanan ben Sakai preaching from the words, "Let thy garments be always white, and let thy head lack no ointment," said, "If in this passage we think of white garments in a literal sense, and of real oil, how many white garments and how much oil do the heathen have? But here, by white garments, the garment of virtue is to be understood, the fulfillment of God's commandments, good works." These examples will sufficiently explain the popular teaching of the scribes as it was practiced in the time of Christ.

Before a scribe could properly exercise the high duties of his office he had at least in the centuries which immediately followed the rise of Christianity, and probably in the time of Christ's public ministry as well to go through some form of ordination, but no satisfactory record remains of the manner in which this sacred act was effected. The power of admitting a scribe among the recognized doctors of the Law appears to have been originally vested in the rabbi by whom he had been taught. Such is the teaching of the Jerusalem Talmud which says, "At first every doctor ordained his own scholars; for example, Rabbi Jochanan ben Sakai ordained Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua; Rabbi Joshua ordained Rabbi Akiba, and Rabbi Akiba ordained Rabbi Mair and Rabbi Simon." A scribe who was publicly acknowledged as such by his teacher had to make himself thoroughly conversant with the contents of the sacred code, and with all those studies which were believed to throw light upon its interpretation. Whatever the teacher himself knew would unquestionably be imparted to his scholars, and the pages of the Talmud show that the rabbis did not confine their attention exclusively to the ethical or practical contents of the Law. Their field of view was much more comprehensive, and among many other things embraced the study of such subjects as mathematics, botany, medicine, and astronomy. Nor were the languages of Greece and Rome neglected by the scribes. Gamaliel and many of his immediate successors were ardent Hellenists. By some of the rabbis Greek was described as a faultless tongue, and as the only language into which the Law could be properly translated. So warm was the admiration for Greek that the translation of the Septuagint was considered to be the result of Divine inspiration and in its accomplishment was seen the fulfillment of the prophecy that Japhet should dwell in the tents of Shem. Parents were exhorted to teach their daughters Greek, and it was apostrophized as the most beautiful language among the sons of men. In three things said the rabbis of the first century Greece stands superior to Rome, in laws, in language, and in literature. Rabbi Juda went so far as to say that Greek or Hebrew was the only language which should be spoken by the people of Palestine. All these sayings go far towards establishing the conclusion that in the time of Christ Greek formed no unimportant part in the education of a scribe.

One of the principles professed by the scribes was that the sacred duties entrusted to them should be performed without fee or reward. It was considered derogatory to the rabbinical office to look upon it as the means for obtaining a livelihood. "The study of the Law," said Rabbi Zadok, "is not to be used as a spade to dig with." Hillel also said that, "Whosoever makes use of the crown (of the Law for mercenary purposes) perishes." It was accordingly a rule with the rabbis to combine the study of the Law with the exercise of some useful calling. This custom is exemplified in the case of St. Paul, who was a weaver; Hillel was a hewer of wood, Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania was a needle maker, Rabbi Juda ben Ilai was a cooper, and among the other rabbis of the first century whose names are mentioned in the Talmud, some were perfumers, and some bakers, and some tailors. "Great is labour," said a rabbi, as he passed along with his burden, "it honours the Lord." "Do any kind of work," said Rabbi Akiba to his disciples, "even to the skinning of carcases on the highways, and say not as an excuse, I am a priest."

Though honouring labour the rabbis were at the same time warned against pursuing civil occupations to the detriment of the Law. On this question Hillel is stated to have put forth the dictum, "that the man who gives himself up too exclusively to business shall not become wise."

In this respect Hillel is in harmony with Jesus the son of Sirach, who says of the scribes, "The wisdom of a learned man cometh by opportunity of leisure, and he that hath little business shall become wise. How can he get wisdom that holdeth the plough and that glorieth in the goad, that driveth oxen and is occupied in their labours, and whose talk is of bullocks. . . . But he that giveth his mind to the Law of the Most High and is occupied in the meditation thereof, will seek out the wisdom of all the ancient, and be occupied in prophecies. He will keep the sayings of the renowned men; and where subtle parables are he will be there also." It may safely be inferred from the words of Hillel and Ben Sirach that in many cases the scribe did not actively pursue the calling in which he had been instructed. It is also evident from the New Testament that among many of the scribes the principle of taking no reward for their services, if preserved in name, was violated in reality. The stigma of being covetous and devourers of widows' houses is fatal to the lofty pretension of disinterestedness which the rabbis laid claim to, when fulfilling their duties as teachers and administrators of the Law.

In outward demeanour a scribe was expected to conduct himself with a circumspection and decorum which should place his character above the breath of suspicion. Six things were said to be unbecoming in a scribe to walk about perfumed in public places, to appear in torn shoes, to go alone at night, to hold much converse with women in the public streets, to be the last to enter the house of instruction, and to pass his time in the society of the unlearned. A scribe was forbidden to take part in any meal which was not in accordance with the Law, and he was not to allow his daughter to marry any man who was ignorant of the Law. Where he should live, what kind of bed he should sleep on, what sort of table he should use, the cut of his garments and even the manner of his walk, were all subject to precise regulations.

[Illustration] from The Jews Under Roman Rule by W. D. Morrison


Great deference was paid by the people to the scribes. Of this fact we are not without evidence in the New Testament, where it is said that they loved to receive the salutations of the people in the market-places and were accommodated with seats of honour at feasts and in the synagogues. According to Rabbi Akiba, honour was to be paid to the scribe as well as to God. He was to be preferred before father and mother, and before prophets, priests, and kings. It was not permissible to address him without using the title rabbi. Most men accounted it a great privilege to see a famous rabbi, and it was no uncommon thing for zealous Israelites to go through a period of fasting, in the hope of being considered worthy of so high an honour. In the language of the Talmud the rabbis were the lamps and the shield-bearers of Israel, the princes of the people, the leaders of the nation and the fathers of the world. A rabbi was to be treated with the same reverence as God Himself. He was not as other men, and he stood in such close relationship to the Creator that he was able to defy the laws of nature and accomplish miracles. The angry glance of a rabbi was sufficient to bring on misery and death. Instances abound in which the rabbis reformed the wicked, healed the diseased, and raised the dead to life. How natural that a class which was believed to possess such lofty attributes, should enjoy the reverence of the multitude.

The immense influence wielded by the scribes in the time of Christ was productive of many evil consequences both upon their own character and the religious life of the community. It led them to assume an exclusive right to the privilege of sitting in Moses' seat, or in other words of formulating the religious beliefs and duties of the Jewish people. So much was this the case, that to resist their pretensions, or to regard the truths of religion from another point of view than theirs, was to play the part of an apostate and blasphemer who did not deserve to live. Many of them displayed a puerile craving for notoriety which showed itself even in the details of their dress. The long flowing garments in which they used to appear in public, and the amulets or phylacteries with which they ornamented the forehead, were obviously designed to attract attention and bring their personality before the multitude. Whether at table, or in the streets, or in the synagogue the same spirit of ostentation manifested itself; and, what is worse, pride, intolerance, and hypocrisy, were often conspicuous elements in their character. In religious matters the dominant tendency of the scribes was to ignore ethical motives and ideals, and to transform religion into the observance of a multitude of external acts and ceremonies. It is needless to enlarge upon this defect in the work of the scribes, for the Gospels abound in instances which prove that they were in the habit of sacrificing the substance of religion for the form, and of losing sight of the central principles of morality in the boundless expanses of casuistry.

It would, however, be manifestly unjust to set down the whole body of the scribes as mere hypocrites and formalists. Even the New Testament which paints them in no favourable light, contains instances to the contrary, and these instances are supplemented by information from other sources. The life of Hillel alone and he must be looked upon as a type of many less famous scribes is a sufficient refutation of the notion that all the scribes were men of unreal lives. Hillel was a contemporary of Herod the Great, and although much mythical imagery has gathered around his name, enough is known of him to make it tolerably clear that he was one of those humble, pure, and humane spirits who save the honour of the human race. According to tradition, Hillel was a descendant of the house of David, and at the age of forty came from Babylon to Jerusalem to dedicate himself to the study of the Law. After the death of his teachers, he, along with his rival Schammai, attained to great eminence among the scribes. Besides an unrivalled knowledge of the Law, and the traditions which first established his fame, he possessed a wonderfully patient, meek, and gentle character, and his heart overflowed with a mild and attractive wisdom. Some of his sayings rise to a high standard of moral elevation, and reveal a very lofty conception of religious duty. "Be of the disciples of Aaron the peaceful," said he, "loving peace and pursuing peace, loving the creatures and bringing them nigh to the Law." And again, "What thou wouldest not have done to thee do not to others; this is the whole Law, all the rest is but the interpretation." Though Hillel is the most striking personality among the scribes after they became a thoroughly constituted class, other rabbis are credited with utterances which are in no wise inferior to his. One of Hillel's predecessors, Antigonus of Sochoh, is reported to have said, "Be not as slaves that minister to the lord with a view to receive a recompense, but be as slaves that minister to the lord without a view to receive a recompense, and let the fear of God be upon you." "Do God's will," said another rabbi, "as if it were thy will, that He may do thy will as if it were His will. Annul thy will before His will, that He may annul the will of others before thy will." "Tithe not overmuch," said Gamaliel; "Practice, not study, is the chief thing," said Simon his son. Such maxims as these, as well as many others which might be added to them, conclusively prove that some of the most eminent of the scribes had a higher conception of religion than the mere observance of its external forms. Yet those very men were unable to dissociate the religious life from the national and ceremonial accidents of Judaism. It was reserved for Christianity to show that religion in its highest aspects is not national but human, that all forms and ceremonies are at most but its temporary envelope, and that its essence consists in an inward disposition of the heart.