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Explaining Biblical Words
'Scribes and Pharisees'

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Scribes and Pharisees 


A Scribe is literally someone who writes. In Old Testament times a Scribe was a wise man who had been educated to think clearly and concisely. They filled important diplomatic and administrative posts in the state and were counsellors to the kings. 

After the Jews returned from exile they no longer had kings nor were they in any way a political entity but they were still God's chosen people. Their religious identity had become the most important thing to them. Studying the Torah, the Law, the core of which is the Ten Commandments, and the Pentateuch - the first five books of the Old Testament which contain the written Law - was of vital importance. The thinking was that while the Torah expressed great principles for living, guidance for everyday living had to be found. 

The Scribes of the New Testament were the experts in the Law who drew out from the Torah and the Pentateuch rules and regulations for every possible situation. This became the oral law, the tradition of the elders - meaning the ancients. It was never written down and had to be memorised. The training was long and it is thought that the minimum age for official recognition was forty. A Scribe would hold a key position in the administration of justice, government and education. The Pharisaic representation on the Sanhedrin, the High Court of the Jews, would have been Scribes. 

Being a Scribe did not necessarily bring remuneration and many Scribes also had a trade. 'Scribe' is the name of a qualification not that of a party. The difference between the Scribes and Jesus was that the Scribes always quoted a previous great legal authority for their decisions and teaching. Jesus taught with his own personal authority quoting no experts. This was unacceptable in the eyes of Jewish religious leaders. 


At the time of Jesus the Pharisees were probably the most powerful religious group. The name means "separated one". They were the successors of the Holy Ones which had fought for religious freedom during the Greek occupation of Palestine from 332BC. They had separated themselves because they believed that the Law should be strictly kept in order to preserve Judaism as a pure religion. 

They felt that the ordinary people did not take observing the Law seriously enough and so fostered synagogue life and worship, recalling Jews to the study of the Law and its application to daily living. 

To the majority of the Pharisees religion meant keeping rules and regulations and when Jesus appeared to break the Law they saw him as a danger to Judaism. 

Although mainly middle-class business men, shopkeepers and teachers, they were essentially the people's party - but there were some priests among them. Admired by many for their obvious piety, they regarded with scorn those who did not come up to their standards and contact with such sinners rendered the Pharisees unclean. Their 'fellowship' held regular meetings and had prescribed rules for admission; seven 'hours of prayer'; a tithe of all possessions to the Temple; fasting twice a week; performing ritual washings and offerings; keeping the code of food laws and observing the Sabbath. 

In the Gospels the picture of the Pharisee is painted as almost completely black. However, Jesus' criticisms may well have been directed against the whole way of thinking and practice of the Pharisees rather than against individuals. It has to be kept in mind that some Pharisees played vital roles in the early church, including Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, Gamaliel and Paul who uses the title of himself. "As to the Law, I am a Pharisee". (Philippians 3;5) 

Christian Education Committee, 2003


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