167. Who is the ‘Scribe’ (grammateus) in Matthew 13:52?

The Greek word grammateus “recorder, administrator, expert/scholar” occurs about sixty times in the New Testament, primarily in the Gospels and Acts. Paul uses it once in 1 Corinthians 1:20. In 95% of the contexts it describes experts in the Jewish Law, literate people educated to read the Jewish Scrolls and interpret the Torah in reference to issues of the day. We might call them experts or scholars. Their expertise in Jewish circles pertained to the interpretation of God’s revelation. In the Greco-Roman world the term describes the chief executive officer of a government institution (e.g., Acts 19:35 at Ephesus), or minor functionaries who had secretarial responsibilities. Often this role is associated with tax-collecting because of the need to keep accurate records of payments.

Its use in one context is exceptional and that is Matthew 13:52. Jesus is concluding a discourse in which he shares seven parables in response to the growing opposition of the Jewish religious leaders, some of whom have the title “scribe, teacher of the law” (Matthew 12:38). In the first half of the discourse Jesus is teaching a large crowd (13:2). It is quite probable that some of these Jewish scribes or teachers of the law were in this gathering listening. After Jesus has shared four parables with the crowd, however, the narrative shifts to a more private discussion between Jesus and his disciples (13:36). No Jewish scribes would be present in these discussions. Jesus then offers three more parables before concluding with this question “Have you (pl.) understood all these things?” addressed to his disciples. They answer affirmatively and then Jesus declares: “Therefore every teacher of the law (grammateus ‘expert ) who has become a disciple (mathēteutheis) in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (NIV).

I am not sure the NIV translation has captured the intent of the speaker. Jesus is addressing his disciples. There is no discussion about Jewish scribes in the entire chapter and presumably none present in this context. Why would he suddenly discuss the specific situation of a Jewish scribe who becomes a disciple? And there is no indication in the text that Jesus is referencing the apostle Matthew, who has training as a tax-collector and so probably has secretarial scribal competence. As v. 51 indicates he is talking specifically with his disciples and so I would suggest he is using the function of grammateus to describe those who become his disciples. He is not talking about Jewish scribes who become his disciples, but about his disciples becoming a new breed of expert in the interpretation of God’s revelation, experts trained by Jesus for this role. I would paraphrase Jesus statement in this fashion: “every expert trained in kingdom matters is like a person, a house owner, who brings out of his possessions, i.e., what he now knows regarding the interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures relative to Jesus and the Kingdom, new things (taught by Jesus) and old things (key principles of Jewish theology interpreted in the light of Jesus).”

If this is what Jesus intended to communicate, then this statement offers us another definition of a Jesus follower. Jesus makes them “fishers of people” (4:19), his “apprentices” (Matthew 11:29) and “trainers of others” (Matthew 28:19-20). However, in 13.52 he offers another paradigm for discipleship — “experts in interpreting God’s revelation in the light of Jesus and kingdom realities.” Through his training they become equipped to “make disciples/learners” of people in every nation. Jesus sets up his own “scribal academy” in which he trains initially the twelve and then all subsequent generations of Jesus followers to be “kingdom experts.” The Gospels become our manual of instruction, particularly with respect to the significance of Jesus and how we should read and understand the Jewish Scriptures (Old Testament). Remember that Jesus is speaking to Jewish people and they would appreciate this paradigm within their Jewish context.

We see the significance of this played out in Acts 4:13. Peter and John address the Jewish Sanhedrin, speaking about Jesus and his significance. The members of that council, in Luke’s description, “realized they were unschooled, ordinary men,” in other words not Jewish scribes of the Law, but “they took note that these men had been with Jesus,” i.e., had been trained by him. After the Resurrection of Jesus the Holy Spirit assumes this teaching and training function (John 16:12-15), that is a continuing function of the Spirit in our time.

In Jesus’ day “Kingdom scribes” interpret the Old Testament differently than their contemporary Jewish scribes. They discern its meaning in the light of Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection and the significance of this for Israel and for the nations. They have a different knowledge than the Jewish scribes and this gives them access to “the mystery of Kingdom.” They discern God’s plans and purposes more fully and perfectly than others because of Jesus’ teaching. In the light of this new teaching, they are able to bring “treasures” out of the “old” revelation that Yahweh had provided to the Jewish people.

Believers in Jesus now enjoy this same privilege and perspective. Fundamentally, discipleship centres on this kind of training, namely understanding the significance of Jesus and the ability to interpret God’s purposes revealed in the Scriptures. Jesus’ disciples have access to a new knowledge not available to others. Paul rejoices that believers now have “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16) and possess the “greatly diverse and rich wisdom of God” (cf. Ephesians 3:10). The role of a disciple is to communicate this wisdom in word and deed, enabling others to enjoy life as “new creations” and no longer living in ignorance (Ephesians 4:17-19).

In this new role all followers of Jesus have a specific capacity and mission. We are the new media in Christ to communicate this good news of God’s wisdom in the world. This gives every disciple a dignity and significance that other believers, especially church leaders must recognize and respect. It also defines in many ways the purpose of the church, i.e., “to equip the holy ones to do the assisting work…so that the body can grown the body” (Ephesians 4:12, 16). Continuing education of all disciples in the purposes of God has to be a priority for every church community. Remember that a disciple first is a “learner, trainee.” The way we learn and train is by following Jesus, keeping step with the Spirit. “Following” is the means, but the end is “learning.” In this process the curriculum primarily the Bible, but also the example demonstrated by mature leaders in the company of new believers. In terms of non-believers, Paul’s metaphor of believers being “living letters” expresses well the role of Jesus followers as the medium by which Jesus message gets communicated.


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