Revolt of the Scribes

by Richard Horsley (2010), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

One of the groups identified in the synoptic gospels is the scribes, ‘who work in tandem with the chief priests in command of the Temple, and in turn collaborate with the Roman governors’ (p 9).  Ben Sira, writer of Ecclesiasticus (a deuterocanonical writing), ‘represents scribes as serving the priestly aristocracy yet also as caught in the middle between those  heads of the temple state and the Judean people’ (p 9).

The scribes ‘devoted themselves to intense learning of the spectrum of Judean cultural tradition, including Torah, prophets and wisdom of various kinds (p 11). The temple and the high priesthood were imperial instruments to maintain order and collect revenue in Judea.

‘The subordination of the Judean temple state to imperial rulers (Hellenistic and Roman) set up several major conflicts that involved Judean scribes:  the idea of G-d as the ruler of the Judean people and the reality of imperial role; subjection of the temple-state to imperial rules set up potential conflicts between rival factions (p 14).

Horsley details scribal activity during Greek and Roman occupation and influence, pointing out scribal contributions (Daniel, Psalms of Solomon, Enoch) and their role in the nation.  They did not participate in the civil uprisings; ‘rather than preparing to engage in violent revolt, they were prepared to suffer violent repression, even the torture and death of themselves, relatives and friends… preaching and planning an organized action of nonviolent non-cooperation (p 187).

The lesson of the scribes for us is two-fold:  recognize the pressure we are under to cooperate with the dominant order and to figure out how it might be possible to resist; recognize eschatologically that history is not hopeless, and that far from being destroyed, the earth will be renewed (p 205).  We look for the end of empire, not the end of the world.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.