In Matthew 13, after teaching in parables, Jesus asks the disciples: “Have you understood all these things?” (Matt 13:51). When they answer in the affirmative, we are told that Jesus replied, “For this reason, every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a house, who brings out of his treasure both the new and the old” (Matt 13:52). Many scholars have held that the evangelist finds in this saying about a “scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom” a description of himself.[i] Let us look more carefully at this saying.
First, it is important to explain the meaning of “scribe” (grammateus). The term is sometimes used in Greek literature generally to describe a civil official such as a secretary of state (cf. Acts 19:35). In Jewish contexts, however, a scribe would generally be seen as someone with the ability to read and write. Of course, not all scribes were seen as equal. Some were derided for their poor formation (Josephus, Jewish War 1.479).[ii] The ideal training involved being free from ordinary business dealings. The book of Sirach says, “The wisdom of the scribe depends on the opportunity of leisure; and he who has little business may become wise” (Sirach 38:24). To master the various skills their work required, scribes needed time for intense study and meditation. Scribes served the needs of the people of God. It was not as though their training was simply for their own good. Among other things, they might also serve as public readers of scripture (cf. Neh 8:1–3). Importantly, they were also recognized for their ability to interpret the scriptures (cf. Neh 8:7–8). This was especially necessary because many Jews could not read Hebrew.
Scribes and the “Fulfillment of the Scriptures” in Matthew
In the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew we see that this understanding informs Matthew’s view the scribes’ task. When the magi arrive in Jerusalem, they announce that they are looking for “he who was born king of the Jews” (Matt2:2). Herod, perturbed by the possibility of a rival royal claimant, gets right to work. Specifically, his attention turns to Jewish messianic hopes: "And assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ would be born. They said to him, 'In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written through the prophet, ‘And you Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, for from you shall come a ruler, who will shepherd my people Israel’” (Matt2:4–6; citing Mic 5:1; 2 Sam 5:2).
Notice here that the scribes serve as interpreters of the scriptures. In particular, their task is to explain how the scriptures are fulfilled in the coming of the Messiah.
Notably, the notion of the “fulfillment” of the scriptures in Jesus is a major theme in the Gospel of Matthew. It is not hard to see why scholars believe the Gospel writer views himself as fulfilling the duties of the scribe “trained for the kingdom” described by Jesus in Matthew 13. The evangelist regularly quotes scripture passages to highlight how Christ’s life is in accord with biblical prophecies (cf. Matt 1:23; 2:6, 15, 18, 23; 4:15–16; 8:17; 12:18–21; 13:35; 21:5; 26:56;27:9–10). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also makes a statement in Matthew not found in any of the other gospels: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). This passage has played a key role in Church history. It is often cited against heretical groups who have sought to de-Judaize Jesus and reject the authority of the Old Testament.
A “scribe trained for the kingdom” is therefore someone who knows the scriptures well. Such a figure not only knows the biblical languages, but also knows how to interpret the sacred texts. Above all, Matthew would emphasize that such an interpretation would need to emphasize how the meaning of the Old Testament is “fulfilled” in Christ.
The Scribe Trained for the Kingdom as a Model for Biblical Studies
In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Thomas Aquinas offers different ways to interpret Jesus’ words about the “scribe trained for the kingdom.” At one point, he turns to Augustine’s interpretation, of which he says, “you should understand, so that you may know to explain those things which are written in the Old Law through the New. Hence those things said in the Old are figures of the New Testament” (Aquinas, Commentary on Matthew, §1206).[iii] Properly interpreting the scriptures involves, as the Church has repeatedly emphasized, not only paying attention to the linguistic, literary, and historical dimensions of the text, but also reading scriptures in such a way that sees how the two Testaments are interrelated and mutually interpretive (cf. Vatican II, Dei Verbum §12).
Indeed, the teaching in Matthew 13 about the scribe “trained for the kingdom” may be seen as a model for thinking about what education in Scripture studies should entail. In fact, the passage was on my mind when I helped design the new curriculum for the Augustine Institute Graduate School’s newly launched M.A. in Biblical Studies. The program aims at forming those who seek a rigorous training in biblical studies. It involves training in biblical languages and the tools of scholarship. It also involves reading the New Testament in light of the Old, paying attention to the Church’s living tradition. The Augustine Institute will provide generous financial support so that students can devote themselves to careful study. You can find more information about the program here. Please pray for our students, that they will learn to become “scribes trained for the kingdom.”
[i] See, e.g., W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr., The Gospel According to St. Matthew, ICC, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: T&TClark, 1988–1997), 2:446.
[ii] See the helpful treatment in Chris Keith, “Scribes and Scribalism,” in T&T Clark Encyclopedia of Second Temple Judaism, eds. Daniel M. Gurtner and Loren T. Stuckenbruck, 2 vols. (London: T&T Clark, 2020), 2:712–13.
[iii] See Augustine, Sermon 24.