Scribes and lawyers were names for essentially the same occupation: professional experts in Jewish law. These renowned Rabbis continually studied the Torah – the first five books of the Bible – and gave applications for everyday life. Their interpretations and expansions of the Law were handed down verbally through generations of religious teachers before being recorded in the Mishnah around 200 AD. These rules dealt with all aspects of Jewish life, including prayer, agriculture, rest, festivals, marriage, law, courts, Temple rituals, diet, and purity. By the first century, they were as legally binding as the Torah itself. Scribes were responsible for continually studying, revising, and further interpreting Jewish oral tradition. They also meticulously made copies of Scripture and judged court cases.

There are various terms in the New Testament for such positions. The Greek word for “scribe” is grammateus, derived from the word for “letter” or “writing.” Didaskalos means “teacher,” a title frequently used for Jesus in the Gospels. Some Bible translations specify didaskalos as “teacher of the law” or “doctor of the law” when not referring to Jesus. Finally, nomikos comes from the Greek word for “law” (nomos) and is therefore translated “lawyer.” Unlike modern lawyers, ancient lawyers in Judea didn’t represent parties in court cases. They would give their expert opinions on the law in criminal matters, but didn’t necessarily act as advocates for the accused.

Scribes and lawyers worked closely with Pharisees, a class of Jews firmly committed to Judaism. Insisting that Moses’ Law be kept according to the scribes’ interpretation, the Pharisees were a religious group that arose during the second century BC when Judea was under strong Greek influence. They enjoyed high social standing for their moral excellence, and were typically called Rabbi in public, the Hebrew word for “master.” As a political movement, the Pharisees were the people’s party, since most were ordinary Jews who had worked and studied their way into their positions, contrary to the rich ruling class of the Sadducees. The term “Pharisee” comes from the Hebrew word parash, meaning “separate.” They were so particular about following Jewish purity customs that they wouldn’t eat in the homes of non-Pharisees, since they couldn’t be sure that the food had been properly prepared. Similarly, they had limited contact with Gentiles (non-Jews). The Pharisee movement became the basis for Rabbinic Judaism, which arose in the first century AD.