The Scribe as a Commendable “Ministerial Model” in the Gospel of Matthew

Because of the word pair “scribes and Pharisees,” as well as the numerous examples of the scribes as being opposed to Jesus’ teaching, Derek Tidball’s claim (in Ministry By the Book [IVP Academic, 2008]) that “Matthew sets before us the wise scribe as a model of ministry” (pg. 36) sounds fairly jarring. And yet in his study of how scribes (γραμματεύς) are portrayed in Matthew, he gives some very interesting things to ponder:

The Synoptic Gospels paint an almost wholly negative picture of the scribes, although Matthew tries to relieve it somewhat. His more sympathetic presentation of them involves a playing down of some of the negative comments found in Mark, the mention of one as at least a potential follower of Jesus (8:19), and the recognition that they did ‘sit in Moses’ seat’ (23:2). Even so, they are presented as in constant conflict with Jesus and a key component of the alliance of hostility against him. They are essentially ‘blind guides’ who fail to understand the truth (15:1-14), to whom revelation had not been given (11:25) and who could not teach with any persuasive authority (7:28-29). Their pattern of living was anything but commendable and Jesus could only warn his disciples against them (23:1-39).

The fact that there were so many poor representatives of the teachers of the law around did not render the mode inherently unusable and Matthew seeks to rehabilitate it for the Christian church.

(pg. 26; bold emphasis added)

Tidball makes this interesting suggestion in light of two unprecedented uses of the word γραμματεύς in Matthew 23:34 and 13:52. He explains:

In a saying unique to Matthew, Jesus says to the crowds who have suffered from the blind guides of Israel, ‘Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages (sophoi) and teachers (grammateis)’ (23:34). Earlier Jesus, using the same word grammateus, had referred to the teachers of the law who had been instructed about the Kingdom of Heaven (13:52). These are very rare references in that they put a positive spin on the word grammateus, and commend the role as one of benefit to his disciples in contrast to the fairly negative use of the word, which is common throughout the Synoptic Gospels. They strike one as so unusual that they demand further exploration.

(pg. 25; bold emphasis added)

In light of the general task of the scribe in the Old Testament as one who records and/or teaches the Word of God (e.g., Baruch & Ezra), it is easy to see value in viewing Jesus’ call to his disciples as in part, a call to be “scribes of the new age,” that is to say, truly wise interpreters and teachers of God’s Word. Indeed, as Tidball suggests, “…Matthew himself exercises his ministry as a model of a wise scribe” (pg. 33).

In his Anchor Bible Dictionary article, “Scribes,” Anthony Saldarini makes a similar observation:

For Matthew both the scribes and Pharisees had many interests in common and were the learned groups par excellence in Judaism. The scribes were connected both with village life and the leaders in Jerusalem and were part of the middle leadership of Judaism. Matthew approves of scribes because he recognizes the scribal role in the new Christian community (13:52; 23:34). His quarrel is not with the role of scribes as learned guides of the community and guardians of the tradition, but with the Jewish scribes’ opposition to Jesus.

(ABD vol. 5, pg. 1015).

I think Tidball is right – the “wise scribe” is indeed a good metaphor for ministry and his explication of that idea in Ministry by the Book is insightful. This book has a very interesting approach and very fascinating content!

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA

One Reply to “The Scribe as a Commendable “Ministerial Model” in the Gospel of Matthew”

  1. Well, even if Karel van der Toorn’s thesis is only partly right, the scribes likely had quite a bit to do with passing on the OT. They couldn’t have been all bad! :-)

    At the end of the day, I always tell people that we should view the scribes and Pharisees with deep empathy. These were the people who should have known Jesus for who he was, and yet keeping in mind the intertestamental history, I can understand why they (humanly speaking) missed the boat.


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