Chapter & verse: Matthew 13:51-52
Fiona Thomas on what makes a good scribe
I once had a classmate who left school to join the civil service. At the time, I didn’t know what that meant. Civil servants are sometimes the silent, invisible people who get things done behind the scenes – the administrators who create the subtle machinery which isn’t noticed until sand gets into the cogs, or one part of the system is decoupled from another.
In the ancient Near East, civil servants were known as scribes – literate people with a knowledge of the law. The author of the Gospel of Matthew seems to have been a member of this self-perpetuating scribal class. A scribe has responsibility for passing on tradition in all its detail, which is where the words ‘jot’ and ‘tittle’ come from – tittles being the little flourishes on Hebrew letters that had to be strictly preserved from one manuscript to the next. Such traditional learning, necessarily based on rote memorisation, contrasted with the lively, creative spirit of debate at the heart of Hebrew interpretation.
Scribes tend to get bad press in readings of the New Testament; they are lumped together with the Pharisees as recipients of easy stereotyping. That there were good scribes and a good purpose for them is suggested by the words of Jesus later in the Gospel, when he identifies prophets, sages and scribes as people sent by God and mistreated by generations of religious leaders.
Matthew’s skills as a scribe show in his ability to construct a coherent account of the life and ministry of Jesus, and maybe he consciously or unconsciously gives himself a little bit of a plug in these two verses, which round off a run of parables. He’s subtle too – his reference to the treasure in the householder’s store resonates with the stories of the pearl of great price, and the buried treasure in a field, from a few verses earlier.
In this Bible passage, referring to the series of parables he has told the crowd, Jesus asks: ‘Have you understood all this?’ Having discreetly explained the parables to the inner core of his followers, they confidently say: ‘Yes’. Because they are people who listen to his teaching, take it in, and act upon it, they will be the right kind of scribe, in contrast to the people who refuse to listen. …
This is an extract from an article that was published in the November 2018 edition of Reform