In biblical times, scribes were in demand to prepare copies of Israel's sacred literature on parchment scrolls. Many scribes devoted themselves to preserving and copying the scriptures.
When there were prophets in Israel scribes served primarily as teachers and copyists. However, when there was limited access to the prophets, such as some periods of time when the Jews were in exile, scribes – who were experts in the law of Moses – took on important duties and filled powerful roles.When the Jews were in Babylonian exile, scribes worked to help keep their people's faith alive and to retain their national identity. During the Exile, scribes organized small groups to study the Law of Moses and the history of their people.
While they were in exile, most of the people had begun speaking Aramic or Chaldean, languages used in Babylonia, and were no longer able to read or speak Hebrew. By the time they returned to Jerusalem, they had become quite dependent upon scribes to interpret the scriptures. In an effort to present the scriptures so they could be understood by all the people, the scribes read them in the original Hebrew and translated or explained them in whatever local language was spoken by the people.
Charles Scribner's Sons Dictionary of the Bible states: "The ideal scribe was both student and teacher of `the Law of the Most High.' "
Scribes studied diligently, not only to detect scribal errors but also to understand the meaning of the scriptures. After the Exile, the scribes' role expanded. They not only supplied copies of the scriptures to the synagogues, but also became teachers of the law, taking the place of the priests. (See Neh. 8:9, which describes Ezra the priest as a scribe.)
During the time between the Old and the New Testaments, scribes took titles that reflected their growing importance. For example, in the New Testament – particularly the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – scribes were referred to as "lawyers." These "lawyers" were experts in the sacred Mosaic Law that was, in theory, the sole legislation both in civic and religious matters that governed the Jewish people. The lawyers or scribes usually were associated with the Pharisees.
Many scribes became interpreters of the law as members of the Sanhedrin, which was the highest legal and administrative body that governed Jewish life.
The scribes' services were given freely, without payment. Unless they possessed independent means, the scribes had to earn their living and then teach the law as an avocation. Some scholars speculate that the scribes' unpaid status is reflective of the order that judges not receive gifts, as decreed in Deut. 16:19: "Thou shalt not wrest judgment; though shalt not respect persons, neither take a gift: for a gift doth blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous."