Scribal Wisdom

by Graham Kings

Date added: 06/02/2024

A sermon preached at the leavers’ service,

Trinity College, Bristol, 4 June 2011

published in Church of England Newspaper, 8th July 2011, and Fulcrum 30 June 2011


In Alan Bennett’s play, Forty Years On (1968), there is an intriguing dialogue between Lady Dundown and her butler:

Lady Dundown: I see the Dean of Windsor has been consecrated the Bishop of Bombay.

Withers: Bombay. Hmm. If I may say so, ma’am, that seems to me to be taking Christianity a little too far.

I do not think, geographically, you can take Christianity too far. ‘To the ends of the earth’ is our calling. The ironic critique of the ‘scribes and pharisees’ in Matthew 23 is not so much about geography as depth: ‘For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves’ (Matthew 23:15). Scribes have got a bad name. Is it worth, perhaps, trying to redress the balance? Is there such a thing as scribal wisdom?

A. Ezra the Scribe

In Rabbinic literature, Ezra is known as Ezra the Scribe. The rabbis look back to him with awe. He was deeply involved in the return of the Judean exiles from Babylon back to Jerusalem in the middle of the 5th century BC. Ezra chapter 7 begins with his genealogy and his influence: he was skilled in the law of Moses, had a network of influence and a particular gifting from God (v 6). He was accompanied by a variety of others on the journey (v7-9). 

This may be a model for those about to be ordained or commissioned for ministry and mission, in particular verse 10: ‘For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel.’

At St Andrew’s College, Kabare, in the foothills of Mount Kenya, where I served from 1985-91, it is inscribed above the library entrance. It may be a memorable text for study doors too.

Ezra ‘setting his heart’ reminds me of the commitment of the newly baptised on the day of Pentecost ‘devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’ (Acts 2:42). Ezra studied, acted and taught.


Carving out time for studying the living Word of God is crucial in ministry for mission. For Ezra it was the Torah, the law of the Lord. For us, it is the whole breadth of the Bible. Spending time during morning and evening prayer meditating on the scriptures, set in the lectionary, is life-giving. Reading long sections in depth in the study, together with the wisdom of others through the ages in commentaries, is vital.


The study in the morning leads out to visiting, meeting, connecting and caring during the day: practising what is learnt, unlike the scribes in Matthew 23:3. Jesus concludes his ‘Sermon on the Mount’ with the parable of the houses built on the sand or on the rock. ‘Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.’ (Matthew 7:24)

Ezra practised what he learnt. At that period, the returning exiles were surrounded by gloating people. Part of his action was speaking against mixed marriages with those around them. From our perspective, which includes the breaking of the Jewish-Gentile barrier in the New Testament, this seems controversial: but at that time, the continuing survival of the Judeans was paramount. Context is crucial in our interpretation for today.


We need to teach the whole of the Scriptures and following the lectionary is a good way to ensure that we do not merely focus on what seems to us to be the key sections. Oliver O’Donovan, in his collected sermons from Oxford, Word in Small Boats (Eerdmans, 2010), stresses the importance of the lectionary. Local sermon series with themed readings may be very helpful, but these need balancing with the regular, set passages read by the wider Church.

Teaching and learning takes places in a variety of contexts: the pulpit, home groups, Alpha groups, and conversations in the kitchen.

So in your ministry and mission, follow Ezra: not in terms of ending mixed marriages for the people of God, for we are now a wonderfully multi-ethnic family, but in terms of studying, practicing and teaching the lively Word of God.

B. Scribe for the Kingdom of Heaven

I was discussing Sherborne Abbey with a visiting friend recently. He asked, ‘Does Sherborne go back to Waterloo?’ I replied, ‘It goes back way beyond the year 1815. It was founded in 705 and...’, when he interrupted me, ‘No, I meant, does the train from Sherborne go back to Waterloo?’ Context is important in communication as well as in the interpretation of the scriptures. 

St Aldhelm (639-709), who was consecrated the first Bishop of Sherborne in 705AD, was in the scribal tradition. He studied and wrote, and played music on a bridge in Sherborne to gather crowds and preached. He wrote poetry both in Latin and Anglo Saxon, though sadly the latter are no longer extant. He reminds me of Jesus’ words in Matthew 13: 52:

Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

The form of the parables in chapter 13 is a ‘chiasmus’ with matching parables in the shape of A B C B A. Verses 44-45 are the twin parables of the treasure in the field and of the pearl of great price, which match the earlier parables of the mustard seed and of yeast.

Jesus often told parables in pairs. The treasure in the field is found by accident and the pearl in the sea is found by meticulous searching. In our ministry and mission, we come across people who enter the kingdom through various routes.

In verses 47-50 we hear the parable of the drag net, where all sorts of fish are gathered and later separated: this matches the earlier parable of the wheat and the weeds (vv 24-29).

Jesus concludes his parables with a question to his disciples (v 51): ‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered ‘Yes’. It seems to me that there is deep irony embedded in Matthew’s recording of their short answer.

Then Jesus describes the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven (v 52). Three levels of interpretation may be seen in this extraordinary verse: Jesus, Matthew and ministers in mission.


Jesus is the master of the household who brings what is new and old out of Judaism and renews the people of God around the Messiah. He came not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them (Matthew 5:17). In an article, ‘Don’t Throw Stones: Deuteronomy and the Prodigal Son’, I tried to wrestle with this concept of the ‘new and the old’ in the teaching of Jesus, and pondered how we may, perhaps, see the seed of the parable of the Prodigal Son in the book of Deuteronomy.

Jesus is the scribe trained for the kingdom of God, but had had an unusual sort of training. ‘Be trained for’ means ‘become a disciple of’ or ‘be a learner in’. In Luke 2 we read of him at the age of 12 asking questions of the teachers in the Temple and causing amazement.


Perhaps Matthew, the writer of the gospel, may also be seen as the scribe in this passage? Some scholars see Mark the evangelist in the young man escaping at the arrest of Jesus. In Acts we read the ‘we passages’, where Luke is clearly present with Paul. In John’s gospel, we learn of the beloved disciple. Where is Matthew the evangelist? Perhaps here, seeing himself reflected in the words of Jesus about the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven. He gathers the teaching of Jesus into five sermons echoing and going beyond the five books of Moses: chapter 5-7 on ethics; 10 on mission; 13 on parables; 18 on church and 24-25 on the last days.

Ministers in Mission

The third level of interpretation may be ministers in mission: those about to be ordained deacons, or priests and those about to be commissioned as mission partners or youth workers or licensed as lay ministers. All those need to bring out of their treasure what is new and what is old, for they will be preaching and teaching for many years to come.

Scribal wisdom today needs to develop a treasury of stories, ideas, quotations and illustrations for preaching and teaching, together with an appropriate storage and retrieval system. Two books as sources come to mind: Time to Pray(London, 2006) a small Common Worship book of prayers, providing Prayer during the Day and Night Prayer; and Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, edited by Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson and Rowan Williams (Oxford, 2001).

Two journalists and authors come to mind: Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, and a modern day Ezra the Scribe, who writes the most insightful of the Credo columns in The Times and has just published The Great Partnership (London, 2011); and Simon Jenkins author of England’s Thousand Best Churches (London, 1999) and columnist of The Guardian, whose best article recently is, ‘There’s no such thing as Big Society – just many small ones, under steeples’ (Guardian, 21 April 2011).


We have considered the old (Ezra the Scribe) and the new (the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven). Be a scribe: not with scribal errors, nor with scribal cleverness, but drawing on a hinterland of scribal wisdom.

Graham Kings

Graham Kings

A bronze


Wood panel

Wood panel