The Successors of Ezra the Scribe

By George S. Goodspeed,

The University of Chicago.

Taken from THE BIBLICAL WORLD, Volume 2, Issue 2.


Of the two centuries from Cyrus to Alexander the Great, during which the Jews were Persian subjects, the first was filled with stirring and significant events. It saw the rise of the Persian Empire, her first conflict with Greece at Marathon, the beginnings of Greek philosophy and literature, and the introduction of the law into Jerusalem. Socrates, Euripides and Ezra, Darius, Pericles and Nehemiah, played their parts within it. The next hundred years from 425-331 B.C. brought changes and events equally important to the peoples of the East and West. The huge bulk of the Persian Empire held together in spite of many shocks within and without. The court was a scene of intrigue and corruption, where murder more than once paved the way for the accession of the new ruler. In such circumstances Darius II. (Nothus) came to the throne and reigned twenty years, to be succeeded by Artaxerxes II. (Mnemon), whose reign, from 405 — 362 B.C., was marked by the expedition of his brother Cyrus against him, which Xenophon has immortalized in his Anabasis. It was then that the Greeks learned for the first time the weakness of that great empire through whose length and breadth ten thousand Greek soldiers could march victoriously. A third Artaxerxes followed, called Ochus, who by shrewd and vigorous management gave the empire something of its former prestige. He won back Egypt, which had revolted half a century before — an achievement which, according to Mr. Grote, " must have been one of the most impressive events of the age,” and “exalted the Persian Empire in force and credit to a point nearly as high as it had ever occupied before.” It was the last effort, however, just preceding the end. Ochus was poisoned in 340 B.C.; his son, who succeeded him, was murdered after three years, to be followed by Codomannus, who took the name of Darius III. A few months after his accession there came to the throne of a Greek state the young Alexander. He invaded Asia Minor in 335 B.C. By three battles, on the Granicus in Asia Minor in 334 B.C., at Issus in 333 B.C., and in the heart of the empire in 331 B.C., he laid Persia at his feet. With him a new era begins for the Orient, the introduction of Greek rule and Greek ideas and, what especially concerns the student of biblical history, a crisis in the history of Jerusalem and the religion of Israel—an entirely new chapter of the world’s history.

This second Persian century, whose outward events are thus briefly summarized, extending in biblical annals from Nehemiah to Alexander the Great, was, so far as recorded history goes, the darkest epoch in Jewish life. No historical records of the time remain. The historians of Greece and Persia do not mention Judea. These facts make it evident enough that Jerusalem was thoroughly submissive to Persian rule and played an utterly insignificant part in the political activity of the time. But it is not at all to be taken as a matter of course that the inward life of the Jewish people during this period is unimportant. Indeed the contrary is the case. One need merely glance at the new ideas and institutions of the Greek period which succeeded this century to loam how active and productive was Jewish thinking in this silent age.

The chief characteristic achievement of this epoch is found by noting the condition of the Jewish commonwealth at the close of the preceding age. That had seen the beginning of those institutions which Ezra had introduced. In the following century the good and the evil elements of these institutions began to appear as well as tendencies which followed in their train; as the former had been the age of Ezra the Scribe, so this was the age of his followers, the Scribes, who organized, established and applied his teachings, and made practically operative the forces which constituted the Jewish people what they came to be in the time of Christ—embracing those on whom he pronounced condemnation, as well as those from whom he selected his disciples and founded his church. These considerations make the study of the movements of thought in the period especially important, and justify the use of every scientific means to ascertain the details of their course and character. Unfortunately, however, the sources of information are very few. The student must depend largely upon indirect evidence, the result of inference and conjecture from the thought and institutions of the centuries which precede and follow.

The Jewish community of the preceding century, under the pressure of Persian rule, had gradually lost the spirit of nationality. With it disappeared a great and salutary element in their life, the presence and activity of the prophets. Before it died, however, prophecy had given utterance to a notable series of truths, which it left as a heritage to the later generations. The ideas of the one Jehovah, of his righteousness, so pure and lofty, demanding righteousness in his people, of that Messianic reign which he was to introduce, when Jerusalem was to be the center of the world, were the chief parts of this prophetic legacy. They must now be worked into the national experience — for it is one thing to know a truth and another thing to make it a part of one’s being. Of these ideas, monotheism, the faith of one Jehovah, was already learned. The hope of the Messianic kingdom was also early appropriated. But the ideal of righteousness, a central thought of national and individual experience, was slow to work its way into men’s hearts. Great prophetic souls had seen it from afar and proclaimed it, but the mass of the people were too far down in the valley to be seriously affected by the vision. Something else was needed to bring it home to them, to enable them to realize and attain it. Could this be done ? It was the firm conviction of its possibility which underlay Ezra’s mission when he came with "the Law” from Babylon. He taught men that to obtain this righteousness they must obey “the Law” of the righteous God. He made known to them that the righteous character of which the prophets had spoken was open to all through this "Law.” This was the essence of Ezra’s gospel, and a veritable Gospel it was to the Jewish community.

The “prophets” and the “Law” were, therefore, not at variance but in deepest harmony. The “Law” was a means to the realization of the rich ripe teaching of prophecy. It is no wonder that, when the people realized what Ezra had made possible for every individual among them, they embraced it with a passion of joy, with a delighted devotion which no epoch of the religion of Israel had ever before witnessed. Delight in the discovery and application of a genial religious truth, delight in the consciousness of righteousness now to be secured, delight in the universal appropriation of truth which had seemed hitherto reserved for select souls—all this was characteristic of the age, and enshrines itself in those ringing Psalms1 of joy which are the response of the community to the “Law of Jehovah.” The religious poetry of the individual life was now first made possible in the history of mankind.

It is easy now to see more clearly and definitely the task of the generation that followed Ezra. It was theirs to work into experience the great truths of prophecy made attainable by the individual through obedience to the “Law” and realized under .the form of legal precepts. Who was to lead the way in this task if not that body of men in sympathy with Ezra and his ideals, who knew the “Law,” the meaning and spirit of its teachings, who could explain and enforce its precepts ? These were the Scribes, and to them belongs the coming age. Some of them were also priests, as Ezra was, but it was not necessary that they should be priests. Priests’ duties were often such as to prevent their acting as scribes, while pious and devoted laymen were equally eligible to teach and apply the Law.

The primary necessity then was the application of this Law to the age. The Law was ancient, its precepts were directed to different historical circumstances, came themselves in part from different ages of the nation’s history. It was, therefore, in its details, often inappropriate, incomplete and even contradictory. To accomplish the purpose of making righteousness possible to all, the life of the present must be able to find in the Law a network of rules governing present conditions. The Scribes' work was to accomplish this adaptation, to work it out into practical detail, to show the people how ancient statutes bore on immediate circumstances. In the accomplishment of this purpose they laid the foundations of two very important institutions of later days —the Synagogue and the Oral Tradition.

The Synagogue was the institution whose germ lay in the primitive gathering of Jews to hear a Scribe explain and apply the Law. Even in Ezra’s time it had been foreshadowed in the meeting of that assembly recorded in Nehemiah, ch. 8, when Ezra read the Law to the people in Jerusalem, and the Levites went about among them explaining it. Its appearance was natural and inevitable—the indispensable complement of the work of the Scribes. It was not an assembly for worship, it was for the teaching of the people in the Law. Worship was offered at the Temple. Instruction was given in the Synagogue. In the former place the priest officiated and the people stood afar off. In the latter people and priest or scribe united in one common work. The Synagogue was the people’s affair, while the Temple was Jehovah’s house.2

The instruction of the Scribes in the Synagogue was given orally as a kind of commentary on the sacred roll. It is not difficult to understand how these explanations and teachings of pious scribes might partake in time of a similar sacred character. There was deep enthusiasm for the Law and devotion to its teachings. But scribes had given days and nights to the study of this Law; they had become imbued with the Mosaic spirit; without their wise elucidation and application the Law would lose half its authority through misunderstanding of its relation to present life. Hence there grew up the belief that these scribal teachings constituted an “Oral Law,” running side by side with the “Written Law,” explaining and modifying it. This “Law” was thought to have Mosaic authority also. The Scribes' naturally would cherish such a notion, at first crudely and in all sincerity, until it came to be a dogma that this Oral Law was delivered from God to Moses on the sacred mount. Jewish writers came to write of it as follows: “Moses received the Law (i. e., the Oral Law) from Sinai and delivered it to Joshua and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets3 delivered it lo the men of the great Synagogue,” i. e., the Scribes. This authoritative oral traditional Law was the instrument in the hands of the early Scribes which made the written Law flexible, in harmony with the times, which saved it from becoming antiquated and unintelligible, and thus Anally from losing practical authority. Its usefulness remained constant, since it grew with the needs of the people, while the written Law was Axed.

In connection with these fundamental activities of the Scribes were two other services, which were complementary but most important. The first was their literary activity, manifested in the collection of the national religious literature. The connection of this with their legal spirit and labors is easily seen. It was one of the most notable and valuable of their services to the nation and the world. Nehemiah may have given the first impulse in this direction. Tradition says that he "founded a library and gathered together the writings concerning the Kings and of the Prophets, and the songs of David and epistles of (Persian) kings concerning temple gifts.” If we think of the writings of the Prophets, Psalmists, and others as gathered into collections, edited, arranged, corrected by these diligent students, teachers and preachers, we shall not go far wrong in asserting that we owe our Old Testament to the work of the Scribes.

The second service which they rendered is seen in their influence upon the Temple worship, the priests and the worshippers. The Law, preached and applied by the Scribes, had very much to say about the Temple and its services. The results secured by the diligent scribal instruction of the people on these points have not always been considered by scholars, but they could not fail to be very significant and impressive.

This appears evident in relation to the priests. The Law immensely increased their privileges, exalted their position, enhanced their revenues. It might legitimately be called a glorification of the priesthood. But, at the same time, it presented a lofty ideal of the priest, clearly defined his duties and obligations, and became thus a powerful restraint on his worldly and irreligious ambitions and tendencies. That such a restraint was necessary may be imagined from the one hint which Josephus gives of the outward history of the time. Johanan, the grandson of Eliashib, high priest in the time of Nehemiah, quarreled with his brother Joshua about the high-priesthood and killed him in the Temple. It cannot be doubted that the Law as preached by the Scribes tended to elevate and dignify the character of the priests and the Temple worship.

Its most beneficent influence, however, in this respect, was exercised on the community as a whole. It must be remembered that the whole people were instructed in a Law, of which a large element consisted of ritual and details of priests’ work in the Temple. To us all this element is exceedingly dull and antiquated, a field for archaeological investigation or the excursions of type-mad allegorists. But what was it to them if not a veritable revelation ? It explained to them the meaning of the worship. What they had formerly done, or merely seen, with a vague awe of the sanctity of the action, whether it were a sacrifice or a festival, what had formerly been a more or less unintelligible action of the priest on great days of worship, was now made plain. With their knowledge of the religious meaning of these ceremonies their interest in them naturally grew and their love for them increased. In the Jews of the Second Temple appears the first example of intelligent popular worship. Ritual became real. Worship was a religious exercise of the mind and heart. The outcome of all this training is seen in the revival of Temple song. The Book of Psalms, as we have it, is the Hymn Book of the Second Temple. Its editing, its arrangement of responsive parts for priests and congregation, is the work of Scribes and the result of their teaching of the Law.

This, in general, was the inner course of events in Jerusalem’ during the fourth pre-Christian century, the silent age, the age of the Scribes. It was not a gloomy, hopeless period in the community’s history. They were not groaning under the yoke of religion. “We judge the Scribes wrongly,” suggests an historian of Israel, “if we regard them as the censors of their nation, or imagine that their disciples felt oppressed under their guidance. It does not appear that the Jews, at all events at first, saw in the Law and in the precepts added to it, a yoke, which, had it been possible, they would gladly have thrown off.” Why this judgment is correct we have seen above, and how it came to pass that the Law made them strong, a nation of zealots who a few centuries after were willing to die “rather than do the things which the Law forbade or leave undone the things which it commanded.”

Such is the bright side—a side which is commonly passed over unnoted, as though men who wrought so powerfully upon the Jews were nothing but blind and bad leaders. But there was a dark side. This teaching of the Law and hope in Law, the devotion to Temple service which followed in its train, have within them tendencies which, if left alone and allowed to proceed unchecked, paralyze the religious life which they sincerely propose to conserve and develop. They lead to externalism in life and formalism in worship, two of the worst evils by which any religion can be cursed. “Grand and beautiful” as were the ideas of the lawgiver, to secure the prophetic ideal of righteousness by means of obedience to the written Law and to realize this in a holy people dedicated to Jehovah, and firmly as he embodied these ideas-in his institutions and thus preserved them, the righteousness attained by them was not after all that of the prophetic ideal. “A free dedication to Jehovah he could not imagine. He must circumscribe and regelate everything down to the very details. The holiness attained was a holiness by separation. What it required came to be not to do good but to avoid sin.” The first glow of obedience could not last.4

This aim which was cherished, the planting of the prophetic ideas in the popular mind, was thus defeated not only by the method adopted to attain it. It went to shipwreck upon another rock by a disaster which was almost inevitable. The great end was lost in the worship of the means. The Law and Temple worship began to usurp the place of, to be equivalent to, to claim superiority over, the holiness which they were expected to secure. It soon came to the religious practice which Koheleth a few centuries after rejected with scorn—painful, scrupulous observance of rites and payment of vows.5 The sanctity of a book, the efficacy of mere ritual, apart from their moral and religious ideal and content, made of the community what it was in the days of Jesus. The successor of Ezra the Scribe at the last—his lineal descendant—was the Pharisee.



1) The people who wrote and sang Psalm ciii. had very different conceptions of life and religion from those which we are accustomed to assign to the age of " legalism.” It was under the “Law” that this Psalm was produced, and many others like it.

2) It has often been pointed out how the Christian Church has drawn from both Temple and Synagogue. Its services are a combination of Temple worship and Synagogue teaching.

3) Here is another evidence of the close relation between the prophetic teaching and the activity of the Scribes, a relation often misunderstood, overlooked and even denied. Just what this relation was, one of means and end, has been already suggested.

4) Some ideas and, in part, the language here are suggested by Kuenen’s Religion of Israel where a keen analysis of Scribism is made.

5) Cf. Eccles. 5:1-7.