Greek: γραμματεúς (grammateus); plural γραμματεῖς (grammateis)
English: scribe; teacher of the law; teacher of religious law
by Mark D. Taylor, NLT Bible Translation Committee
The Greek noun grammateus (plural grammateis) is used sixty-three times in the New Testament, almost always in reference to members of a group of Jewish religious leaders. The one exception to this usage is found in Acts 19:35, where the term refers to a city official in Ephesus.
With respect to its typical New Testament usage, this term has traditionally been translated as “scribes,” going all the way back to John Wycliffe’s translation. Similarly, William Tyndale, the KJV, ASV, RSV, NASB, NRSV, and ESV all render the term as “scribes.” This rendering aligns with the term’s common usage in the Greco-Roman world to refer to someone who composed official documents. But in its New Testament context, the term means more than simply a person who writes out a text. In the first-century Jewish world, the grammateis were also trained as experts in the law of Moses and thus became authoritative interpreters of that law.
The NIV thus translates the term as “teachers of the law.” The NLT is a bit more expansive, rendering the term as “teachers of religious law,” drawing a distinction between the Roman law and the religious law of the Jews. The grammateis were not interested in teaching the Roman law, though that law was very present in the lives of their people. Instead, their role was to teach the religious law of the Jewish community. This role gave them a great deal of influence over the Jewish people, though in Mark 1:22 we get a hint that their authority was sometimes seen as limited. We read about the response of those who listened to Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue of Capernaum: “The people were amazed at his teaching, for he taught with real authority—quite unlike the teachers of religious law.”
In teaching the law of Moses, the grammateis tended also to add their own interpretations of it, often building new and impossible restrictions on top of the original law. In a rebuke of such practices, Jesus stated: “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either” (Matthew 23:13). Jesus understood the influence of the grammateis and spoke harshly against them for leading people away from the true meaning of God’s law.
In a culture where many people could not read or write, the grammateis had an important role as they could write letters or important documents. But in the Jewish communities of the first century, they were more than secretaries (scribes). They were teachers of religious law who influenced generations of learners, but not always in the right direction. Jesus was disdainful of their hypocrisy. May we learn from their example and not be hypocrites in our own lives as we try to teach God’s Word to our children, grandchildren, and others.