Scribes of the New Covenant
Mt 13:52: "Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."
One of Jesus’ shortest parables is found in Matthew 13:52, where he says, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” But what does this verse mean? When Jesus used the word “scribe,” was he referring to the Jewish scholars and theologians of his day (cf. Mt 5:20, 7:29, 9:3, 17:10, etc.), or was he instead thinking of his own disciples?
Though Jesus didn’t frequently refer to his followers as “scribes” of the new kingdom, this does appear to be his intended audience, particularly as we observe the larger context of Matthew 13.1 And later in chapter 23 as Jesus pronounces his “woes” against Israel’s corrupt leadership, once again he refers to his disciples as scribes: “Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town…”
So what exactly is Jesus’ point? Why does he consider some of his disciples to be “scribes”? According to The Oxford Bible Commentary, “The major point is that the disciples have indeed understood Jesus’ discourse and so qualify as scribes instructed in the truths of the kingdom of heaven. Perhaps a Christian counterpart to the Jewish rabbinate is envisaged.”2 Craig Keener similarly observes that, “The law and wisdom were often compared with treasure (and sometimes with a pearl); scribes, who were specially conversant with the law, naturally had the “old” treasure, and the message of the kingdom gave them something new.”3
In his discussion of this passage, the ancient church father Jerome noted that “the Apostles are called scribes” since they effectively served as “the savior’s notaries who wrote his words and precepts.” And in his interpretation of the latter part of the verse about bringing out “things old and new,” he says, “Whatsoever they preached in the Gospels, that they proved by the words of the Law and the Prophets.”4 What was old according to Jerome were the ancient promises recorded throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, and what was new was the announcement of Jesus’ messianic mission—his words and deeds—particularly insofar as he filled all those ancient prophecies.
R.T. France, in his commentary on The Gospel of Matthew, argues that the word “scribe” in Mt 13:52 “is unexpected…All that we are told about the background from which the Twelve have come gives us no ground to believe that any of them was a ‘scribe’ in the normal NT sense of a trained interpreter of the Mosaic law…”5 He then goes on to suggest “two possible explanations” similar to the comments made above:
1. Jesus uses the term to designate his chosen disciples as a new ‘alternative’ scribal school, trained not in the rabbinic schools but by his own instruction to bring his new and radical understanding of the law to Israel. The clearest hint of this is in Mt 23:34, when in the course of his diatribe against the traditional scribes and Pharisees Jesus claims to be ‘sending scribes’ to them, whom they will persecute and kill…
2. The term is being used here not in its specialized religious sense but in the secular sense of a ‘writer,’ someone sufficiently educated to undertake writing and reading commissions for others and to compile records—something like our ‘civil servant.’ Those who espouse this view point out that Matthew must have been such a ‘writer’ in his customs office, and some have suggested that this verse, which is found only in Matthew, is the author’s own self-identification as the paradigm ‘discipled writer’…
In my mind, the second option above is certainly plausible since Jesus specifically says in Mt 23:34 that he will be sending “prophets and wise men and scribes.” If the word “scribe” simply refers to the men who have been trained in his “alternative rabbinic school,” then it appears that “wise men” would have sufficed. But in addition to prophets and wise men, Jesus says he will also send them scribes.
I do think it’s worth noting that according to Mt 9:9, Jesus called Matthew while he was sitting at his “tax booth,” where he no doubt spent much of his time filling out tax reports. According to several sources I’ve encountered, tax collectors of this period kept very detailed records, and so in a sense, by listing his former vocation, Matthew is letting his readers know that he has the qualifications that enable him to be a competent record keeper of all that Jesus said and did.6 After his lengthy study of the Gospels, Hebrew University scholar and Orthodox Jew, David Flusser ended up concluding that,
The early Christian accounts about Jesus are not as untrustworthy as scholars today often think…My research has led me to the conclusion that the Synoptic Gospels are based on one or more non-extant early documents composed by Jesus’ disciples and the early church in Jerusalem. These texts were originally written in Hebrew [and subsequently] translated into Greek.7
Flusser may have been on to something here. There was an ancient Christian writer named Papias (50-130 AD) who wrote a five-volume work titled Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord, which unfortunately has been lost to history. However, this work was so frequently cited and quoted by others throughout the early church that many fragments remain to this day. And in one particular famous quotation, Papias tells us that “Matthew composed the oracles in the Hebrew language and each man interpreted them as best he could.”8
What I think is particularly intriguing about this fragment is that Papias didn’t end up using the word Gospel. Though he did use this word when referring to Gospels written by other Evangelists,9 for some reason when it came to Matthew, he spoke instead of the oracles he composed in Hebrew, which others were forced to translate. The word “oracles” (Gk. logia) is a plural noun, whereas Papias’ references to the “Gospel” written by Mark or John, happen to be singular in form. In fact, a careful reading of the passage reveals that there are two significant plural words in this fragment: “Matthew composed the oracles in the Hebrew language and each man interpreted them as best he could.”
Richard Bauckham has argued persuasively that in this frequently quoted passage, Papias is recalling statements he had personally received from two of Jesus’ living disciples. “The time when he collected oral traditions deriving from disciples of Jesus,” Bauckam says, “was in the past. At that time most of the disciples of Jesus had died, but at least two disciples, Aristion and John the Elder, were still alive. This must be during or close to the decade 80-90 CE.”10
In short, Papias’ report comes to us from a very early period of Church history and originates from very reliable sources. Now, the title of his work is the “Expositions of the Sayings (Gk. logia) of the Lord.” So what if in this work, Papias wasn’t referring to Matthew’s Gospel? What if instead, he was referring to Matthew’s written collection of Jesus’ Sayings that still existed in those days? Could this be a reference to what David Flusser theorized as one of the “non-extant early documents composed by Jesus’ disciples?” Could it be what many scholars refer to as “Q”?11
Let’s assume for a minute that this theory is correct. These sayings would have first been written by Matthew in Hebrew (or, more likely, Aramaic, which was in those days the common tongue of Hebrew people)12 and then translated by others as needed. According to Lk 1:1 “Many” individuals in that day had already compiled a narrative about Jesus, and even according to late estimates for the date of Luke’s Gospel, the tradition received by Papias was almost certainly later than this time.13 The fact that “each man interpreted them (i.e., Jesus’ sayings) as best he could” seems to indicate that many had attempted to reproduce this material, and that some translations were more faithful than others. Most likely, the only surviving records we have of Jesus that incorporated his recorded sayings are the canonical Gospels that circulated widely, outside the region of Judea. The other narratives that Luke describes likely ended up being destroyed in the Jewish War (66-73 AD) as the Romans marched through the towns of Galilee and Judea slaughtering Jews and burning villages.14
It may be that a few fragments of one of the many narratives hinted at in Luke 1:1 are still in existence. In 1934, the British Museum acquired what is now called the Egerton Gospel (pictured above)15 which includes several well-known stories from the Synoptic Gospels as well as from the Gospel of John.16 In other words, it appears to be an “Unknown Gospel.” The content of the Egerton Gospel isn’t like the Hellenized and esoteric teaching we find in the later Gnostic Gospels (at least in the portions that have remained),17 and surprisingly, an additional miracle story, not found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, is also found among these fragments: “Jesus walked and stood on the bank of the Jordan river; he reached out his right hand and filled it […] And he sowed it on the […] And then […] water […] and […] before their eyes; and it brought forth fruit..”
According to John 21:25, Jesus did “many other things” and if everything he did had been written down, John suggests (with obvious hyperbole) that “the world itself could not contain the books.” So does this tantalizing fragment give us a hint of one of those other things Jesus may have done? Obviously, we can’t pronounce this fragment authentic given its lack of provenance. Perhaps if we had a complete copy of the Egerton Gospel we could discover additional clues that would serve to demonstrate its authenticity (or lack thereof). Perhaps we could also have more certainty if we found references to this Gospel in the writings of Papias, or other members of the early church whose lives overlapped with those of Jesus’ disciples. But if Jesus was an actual historical figure, rather than merely an invented character who lives only in the pages of the Four Gospels, then in my thinking, this is the sort of thing we should expect to find.18
On at least two occasions, Jesus referred to some of his disciples as “scribes,” and based on his resume, Matthew was certainly qualified for this particular calling. As many NT scholars have speculated, perhaps he’s the only one who ended up recording the Parable of New and Old Treasures in Mt 13:52 since that particular saying resonated with him and served as a kind of self-description of his life’s work. Throughout his Gospel, Matthew constantly brought out treasures both new and old, as he highlighted Jesus’ words and deeds and showed how they fulfilled the ancient messianic prophecies.19
According to the prophet Jeremiah, a time would come in Israel’s history when God would make a “new covenant” that would be different from the one made at Mt. Sinai (Jer 31:31-34), and according to several NT passages, Jesus claimed to be the one to inaugurate this new covenant (Lk 22:20, 1Cor 11:25, 2Cor 3:6, Heb 8:8, 13, 9:15, 12:24). Perhaps this is why he also commissioned scribes of the new covenant since written tablets and documents were an essential component of all ancient Near-Eastern treaties and covenants.20 It may also be helpful to realize that the Greek word for covenant is “diatheke” which was also frequently used in reference to a person’s “last will and testament.” Perhaps, then, it’s not a stretch to suggest that in Mt 13:52, Jesus was commissioning scribes of the soon-to-be-published “New Testament.”
Shane Rosenthal is the founder and host of The Humble Skeptic podcast. He is the author of Is Faith Blind? Questioning Our Beliefs About Belief Itself (due this Spring). Shane was one of the creators of the White Horse Inn radio broadcast which he also hosted from 2019-2021, and has written numerous articles for various sites and publications, including TableTalk, Core Christianity, Modern Reformation, and others. He received an M.A. in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary California, and he lives with his family in the greater St. Louis area.
RELATED BOOKS & ARTICLES
Jesus & The Eyewitnesses, 2nd Edition, Richard Bauckham (book)
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A Doubter’s Guide to Jesus, John Dickson (book)
Can We Trust The Gospels?, Peter J. Williams (book)
New Evidence the Gospels Are Based on Eyewitness Accounts, (video)
How to Detect Deception, Shane Rosenthal (article)
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According to Mt 13:36, Jesus left the crowds and went into the house, and his disciples came to him privately inquiring about the purpose of his parables. It is in this context that he tells them The Parable of New and Old Treasures.
Dale C. Allison Jr., The Oxford Bible Commentary, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 862
Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, New Testament, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1993), p. 84-85
Catena Aurea, Vol. 1, Matthew (London: J.G.F and J. Rivington, 1842), p. 518
R.T. France, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Matthew, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), p. 544-545
James M. Arlandson discusses this in his article, “Did Some Disciples Take Notes During Jesus’ Ministry,” and in his book, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (2001), Alan Millard argues that “some, possibly much” of the source material that eventually made its way into the Gospels “was preserved in writing from that period…”
David Flusser, The Sage From Galilee (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans, 2007), p. 2-3. This book was originally published in German in 1968, and the first English edition, under the simple title, Jesus, was published by Magnes Press in 1997.
Apostolic Fathers, Papias 3:16
Cf. Pap. 3:14, 19:1, 21:1, etc.
Richard Bauckham, Jesus & The Eyewitnesses, 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006, 2017), p. 19. This quote appears in a chapter titled “Papias and the Eyewitnesses” which is worth reading in its entirety (pp. 12-38).
Q, which is short for Quelle, meaning “source,” refers to a hypothetical written or memorized collection of Jesus’ sayings (Gk. logia). One reason for this hypothesis is that though the Synoptic Gospels frequently cover the same material, their closest similarities appear when examining direct quotations of Jesus, which is something Peter J. Williams discussed on Ep. 15, Faith Founded on Facts. In his book, Jesus & The Eyewitnesses, (2nd Edition, p. 225), Richard Baukham says that “the attempt has frequently been made to identify the logia written in Hebrew or Aramaic by Matthew with the hypothetical Gospel source Q,” and cites the work of W.D. Davies and Dale C. Allison as one example.
In first-century Judea, Aramaic was often described as “Hebrasti.” For example, in the ESV renderings of Jn 5:2, 19:13, 17, 20, and 20:16, the word “Aramaic” appears, but the Greek word is Ἑβραϊστί.
Even the very liberal German scholar, Adolph Von Harnack, was forced by the evidence to conclude after a lengthy study that Luke’s second volume (the Book of Acts) must have been written by sometime around 62 AD, and that Luke’s Gospel preceded it in time. He made this case in his 1911 book, The Date of the Acts and of The Synoptic Gospels. See also Redating the New Testament by the liberal John A.T. Robinson, in which he argues that Luke was completed between 57-60, and Acts between 57-62. For more recent assessments, see John Wenham’s Redating Matthew, Mark & Luke (1991), and Jonathan Bernier’s Rethinking the Dates of the New Testament (2022). Now, if Luke was written before 62 AD, and he and others (Lk 1:1) made use of Matthew’s record of Jesus’ Sayings, this obviously implies that Matthew’s Sayings were written before 62 as well. For a discussion of an early date for John’s Gospel, I’d recommend that you listen to my interview with Daniel Wallace on Episode 16, Faith Founded on Facts, Part 2 (jump to 39:37).
The surviving fragments include material that is parallel to Mt 8:1-4, 22:15-22, Mk 1:40-45, 12:13-17, Lk 5:12-16, 17:11-14, 20:20-26, John 5:39-47, and 10:31-39.
For a discussion of the noticeable difference between the material we find in the canonical Gospels and the later Gnotic Gospels, listen to my conversation with Richard Bauckham on Episode 15, “Faith Founded on Fact” (jump to 33:13).
We should also expect to find Jesus referred to in other documents, whether Christian or otherwise—which, as it happens, is precisely what we do find. I discuss this on Episode 12, The Jesus of History.
Cf. Mt 4:14, 5:17, 8:17, 12:17, 13:14, 35, 21:4, 26:54, 56, 27:9, etc.