Scribes fulfilled several roles in Biblical history. The scribe was the secretary of state in the Hebrew monarchy, teachers of the law after captivity, and in the New Testament, they were sometimes referred to as lawyers. They were responsible for developing the law and determining how it applied to their own time period. When they taught, they did so catechetically, which means they taught using a system of questions and answers, with students required to answer exactly. All teaching was done in schools or temple courts, but never on their own authority. Normally Pharisees (although a few were Sadducees), they were important members of the Supreme Court of the Sanhedrin and were referred to as rabbis. Since they were technically unpaid, they generally also held another profession.
Jesus warned people against them:
38 And he said unto them in his doctrine, Beware of the scribes, which love to go in long clothing, and love salutations in the marketplaces,
39 And the chief seats in the synagogues, and the uppermost rooms at feasts:
40 Which devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayers: these shall receive greater damnation. (See Mark 12:38-40.)
In return, the scribes also taught against Jesus, saying He ignored the traditions of the elders.
They are first found in the New Testament in Matthew, who writes that Herod called the scribes and chief priests, who are often found together in the book, to find out where Christ was to be born. They informed him that the child was to be born in Bethlehem.
The scribes and Pharisees approached Jesus to ask why His disciples were not washing their hands before eating bread, which was a tradition of the elders. He responded by noting that they also violated traditions of their elders, most notably in the commandment to honor our fathers and mothers. He reminded them the scriptures said that those who cursed their parents were to die, but the scribes taught that those who didn’t honor their parents were free. He informed them they were hypocrites for judging the disciples when they themselves did the same thing. (See Matthew 15.)
Later in Matthew, we learn that they asked Jesus what authority He had to do the things He did. Since they already knew what authority He claimed, He instead asked them if John’s baptism was of God or of man. They held a fast debate among themselves. They knew that if they said it was of Heaven, Jesus would want to know why they didn’t honor it, but if they said it was of man, they’d make the people mad, since people believed in John’s baptism. Being unable to decide what to do, they answered that they couldn’t tell. He said that in that case, He would not tell them His own authority. He then followed with two parables which they recognized were about them. In the first, He warned them that the publicans and harlots would get to Heaven before they would, because they—the scribes—did not believe in John’s baptism and didn’t repent of that disbelief, while those they considered sinners did believe him. In the second, the story of a husbandman included a warning that the gospel would be taken from them and given to another nation that brought forth fruits. Although the scribes were angry, they were afraid of the reactions of the people if they laid hands on Jesus.
Jesus warned his followers to listen to the teachings of the scribes, but to follow their words, not their example, since they were hypocrites who taught one thing, punishing those who did not obey, while themselves breaking the rules they taught. He said they did their good works for show only, loving the power and honor of the position rather than the spiritual opportunities to serve.
Some scribes felt Jesus was guilty of blasphemy because He told a man with palsy His sins were forgiven. They felt only God could forgive sins. Jesus informed them He did have that power from God and then He healed the man. They also objected to Jesus’ habit of eating with sinners and to His not insisting the disciples fast. Jesus reminded them that He came to call sinners to repentance, not the righteous, and that there was no need to fast until after His death.
Jesus prophesied that He would be betrayed two days after the feast day. The scribes, chief priests, and elders met together to decide how to capture and kill Jesus. They determined it was too dangerous to take Him on the feast day, since the people might create an uproar. Judas Iscariot offered to betray Him to them. He did so and Jesus was taken to Caiaphus, the high priest, who was with the scribes and elders, They falsely accused Jesus of blasphemy and sentenced Him to death. The scribes were among those who mocked Jesus when He was sentenced to death.
*This article was adapted from the LDS Bible Dictionary and Every Person in the New Testament by Lynn F. Price (Horizon Publishers, , 25-26).