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Jesus came to Capernaum with his followers, and on the sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught.The people were astonished at his teaching,for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes. Mark 1:21-22
These are the opening lines from Mark's description of a day in the early ministry of Jesus. It begins on the sabbath with his teaching in the synagogue. His style and/or content was different enough that people responded to him with astonishment. All we know is that he taught them differently than did the scribes. He taught "as one having authority."
I often wondered exactly what it meant not to teach as the scribes did. I did some research on exactly what the scribes did and who they were. In all ancient societies with a written language but low levels of literacy, scribes provided a service of creating private and public written documents. They also copied existing documents which was an essential service before printing was invented. Scribes in these societies and in first century Israel also served in functions which we would describes now as "public servants, journalists, accountants, typists, and lawyers." In a religious context of Judaism, they would be the teachers of the law and the judges who applied the law in specific circumstances.
One gets an idea of the culture of being a scribe by reading the rules under which the copying function had to be carried out. The following are examples of some of the rules:
- Each column of writing could have no less than forty-eight, and no more than sixty lines.
- The ink must be black, and of a special recipe.
- They must say each word aloud while they were writing.
- They must wipe the pen and wash their entire bodies before writing the most Holy Name of God, YHVH, every time they wrote it.
- There must be a review within thirty days, and if as many as three pages required corrections, the entire manuscript had to be redone.
- The letters, words, and paragraphs had to be counted, and the document became invalid if two letters touched each other. The middle paragraph, word and letter must correspond to those of the original document. From Wikipedia entry on scribes.
It is easy to see the emphasis on details so that the copy would be an exact copy. Since the copy would itself be copied, it was clearly importance that accuracy be maintain. Unfortunately this culture could influence the way the scribes carried out their other functions, particularly teaching and judging. They would tend to focus on the minute details of the law rather than the broad purpose of the law. They would tend toward the parsimonious rather than the charitable and generous. Further everything they taught would have to be documented from the law or previous writings. Think of a piece of writing in which every word is footnoted and you get an idea of the spirit of "scribism."
Jesus was different. He came from a different occupation and tradition. His teaching was more his person and his actions rather than the intellectual content of his preaching. Even Mark's account makes clear by not mentioning the content that who Jesus was constituted what astonished his hearers. He spoke with freedom and conviction and then attended to the healing of those who needed it. He made clear later in his ministry that the minute details of the law were inconsequential compared to the ultimate purpose of the law: holiness.
While the scribes were laying heavy burdens of of details laws and regulations on the ordinary people whom they served, Jesus offered freedom that came from recognizing the Divine One within each and every one.