The Lying Pen of the Scribes

Can we trust the Bible?

Recently I have encountered those who quote Jeremiah 8:8 and claim that the Torah, the books of Moses, have been corrupted. They insist that cultish religious concepts have been added to the Torah by the scribes who copied it and by the Levitical priests. In their view, the Torah does not represent the words or the character of Yahweh.

The logical outcome of this is that the Bible cannot be trusted, either the Old Testament or the New Testament. Instead, these people cherry-pick passages from extrabiblical sources along with the parts they like from the canon of Scripture and concoct their own god, one who meets their approval.

So what is Jeremiah telling us? Have the scribes and the priests corrupted the Scriptures?

How can you say, ‘We are wise, And the law of the LORD is with us’? But behold, the lying pen of the scribes has made it into a lie. (Jeremiah 8:8 NASB & ESV)

Who Are The Scribes?

We often encounter the phrase “the scribes and the Pharisees” in Yeshua’s conversations. According to the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, the term scribes “refers to those who were literate and formally trained in the Law of Moses, often teaching others the law.” In general, scribes are simply writers, usually in some official capacity. There are many references to scribes, or someone who writes or records things, throughout the Bible. The NIV Study Bible says this passage in Jeremiah may for the first time be referencing “scribes” as a recognizable group.

The Hebrew word translated as scribes in Jeremiah 8:8 is sofarim, plural of the word safar (Strong’s #H5608), which can either be a noun or a verb. As a noun, it means a secretary or a scribe (Brown-Driver-Briggs). The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament adds this:

In pre-exilic Israel, the position and work of the scribes were not clearly delineated. It is known that the scribal art was in existence (e.g. Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch) and the scribe seems to have enjoyed a favorable and responsible position in government, even being quartered in special chambers in the palace. It is small wonder, then, that the names of many scribes have been retained, the most famous of whom are: Baruch, Shebna (Hezekiah’s scribe), Shaphan (the head of the Josianic scribal family), and Ezra.

It is important to note that Jeremiah lived in pre-exilic Israel (Judah). He prophesied and his scribe, Baruch, wrote up until the time of the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE. The book of Jeremiah is not in chronological order, and this was among the later prophecies.

Not all Bible translations render Jeremiah 8:8 in the same way. Here are a few variations:

How can you say, “We are wise, and we possess the Instruction of the Lord?” Assuredly, for naught has the pen labored, for naught the scribes!” (Jewish Publication Society 1985)

How do ye say, We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us? Lo, certainly in vain made he it; the pen of the scribes is in vain. (KJV)

How can you say, ‘We are wise, And the law of the Lord is with us’? Look, the false pen of the scribe certainly works falsehood. (NKJV)

How can you say, “We are wise, we have the law of the LORD”? Why, that has been changed into falsehood by the lying pen of the scribes! (New American Bible, not to be confused with NASB)

And in this photo snip you can see an interlinear representation of the passage. The suggested English equivalent follows the KJV, which is arguably not the best translation. Read it right-to-left.

Interlinear Hebrew and English of Jeremiah 8:8

The English word order is awkward. If we accept that the most accurate, literal translation of this Hebrew Masoretic text is the NASB or ESV, we then need to put it in context.

You shall say to them, Thus says the LORD: When men fall, do they not rise again? If one turns away, does he not return? Why then has this people turned away in perpetual backsliding? They hold fast to deceit; they refuse to return. I have paid attention and listened, but they have not spoken rightly; no man relents of his evil, saying, ‘What have I done?’ Everyone turns to his own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle. Even the stork in the heavens knows her times, and the turtledove, swallow, and crane keep the time of their coming, but my people know not the rules of the LORD. “How can you say, ‘We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us’? But behold, the lying pen of the scribes has made it into a lie. The wise men shall be put to shame; they shall be dismayed and taken; behold, they have rejected the word of the LORD, so what wisdom is in them? (Jeremiah 8:4-9 ESV)

Three Interpretations of the Lying Pen

There are three primary interpretations usually given for this passage, and they can be reflected in the way the words are translated. And though there are a few other variations, they can still pretty much be separated into these three views.

First: The scribes and religious leaders are falsely teaching the true words of the Torah. This is the majority view among Christian readers, and seems to align with Yeshua’s condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees. There is nothing errant about the words of Scripture, however the religious authorities – in this passage, the scribes – have so twisted the meaning that it leads the people astray. They (the scribes) have lied. Many modern translations that use the words “the lying pen of the scribes” direct the reader to this understanding.

Second: The scribes and religious leaders are correctly teaching the true words of the Torah, but the people have refused to listen. This is a common view among Jewish readers. In this case, the fault lies with the receiver, not the transmitter. They (the scribes) are doing this in vain, or with no positive result. The immediately preceding context could support this understanding that the people, not the scribes, have turned away and are backslidden.

The NET Bible reflects the first view in the way it translates this passage, and explains how the second view could apply in the accompanying footnote.

How can you say, “We are wise! We have the law of the LORD”? The truth is, those who teach it have used their writings to make it say what it does not really mean. (Jeremiah 8:8 NET)

Heb “The lying pen of the scribes has made (it) into a lie.” The translation is in an attempt to make the most common interpretation of this passage understandable for the average reader. This is, however, a difficult passage whose interpretation is greatly debated and whose syntax is capable of other interpretations. The interpretation of the NJPS, “Assuredly, for naught has the pen labored, for naught the scribes,” surely deserves consideration within the context: i.e., it hasn’t done any good for the scribes to produce a reliable copy of the law, which the people have refused to follow. That interpretation has the advantage of explaining the absence of an object for the verb “make” or “labored” but creates a very unbalanced poetic couplet.

Third: The “scribes” have falsely written the words of the Torah. This is the view espoused by those I mentioned in the opening portion of this post. On the surface it is a very dangerous position, and can be used to justify tossing out most if not all of Scripture, especially the parts they don’t like. And if that was the end of the story, we might as well throw caution to the wind and, as Yeshua described in his parable of the rich fool (Luke 12), “eat, drink, and be merry.”

There is a scenario, though, where this interpretation of the “falsely written” words of Torah could be correct.

Before the Exile to Babylon

H.L. Bosman of Stellenbosch University observed that “prophets such as Amos, Hosea and Micah, related to the 8th century, show no interest in quoting from written Torah, since their indictments take unwritten law embodied in concepts such as justice and righteousness.” These prophets were before the time of King Josiah when the Book of the Law was discovered in the Temple (2 Chronicles 34:15), a book describing religious practice they apparently did not know. This might suggest that the written code of law followed at that time was different than what God had given to Moses; that the scribes and religious leaders had created their own “Torah.”

Jeremiah prophesied after the time of King Josiah, when there would likely be conflict between the recently discovered legitimate Book of the Law and the writings of the scribes. If this is the situation, then there might be a lot of confusion about what was really the Word of God and what was from the “lying pen of the scribes.”

This all happened before the conquest by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It was before the city was sacked and the Temple burned, presumably along with both the legitimate scrolls and the scribal writings. One could wonder if there was any way to know the real instructions of God.

But there is no reason to wonder, even if that third scenario here is correct

Enter Ezra

Following the return from Babylonian captivity, Ezra is recognized as the “reformer who reconstituted the Jewish community on the basis of the Torah” (Britannica). Many scholars believe Ezra is largely responsible for the Scriptures we have today. This is not to suggest he wrote them, but rather that he complied them. There is an interesting account in the book of 2 Esdras (sometimes called 4 Esdras) in the Apocryphal writings.

19 Then I answered and said, “Let me speak in your presence, Lord. 20 For behold, I will go, as you have commanded me, and I will reprove the people who are now living; but who will warn those who will be born hereafter? For the world lies in darkness, and its inhabitants are without light. 21 For your law has been burned, and so no one knows the things which have been done or will be done by you. 22 If then I have found favor before you, send the Holy Spirit into me, and I will write everything that has happened in the world from the beginning, the things that were written in your law, that people may be able to find the path, and that those who wish to live in the last days may live.”

23 He answered me and said, “Go and gather the people, and tell them not to seek you for forty days. 24 But prepare for yourself many writing tablets, and take with you Sarea, Dabria, Selemia, Elkana, and Asiel — these five, because they are trained to write rapidly; 25 and you shall come here, and I will light in your heart the lamp of understanding, which shall not be put out until what you are about to write is finished. 26 And when you have finished, some things you shall make public, and some you shall deliver in secret to the wise; tomorrow at this hour you shall begin to write.”

27 Then I went as he commanded me, and I gathered all the people together, and said to them, 28 “Hear these words, O Israel. 29 At first our fathers dwelt as aliens in Egypt, and they were delivered from there, 30 and received the law of life, which they did not keep, which you also have transgressed after them. 31 Then land was given to you for a possession in the land of Zion; but you and your fathers committed iniquity and did not keep the ways that the Most High commanded you. 32 And because he is a righteous judge, in due time he took from you what he had given. 33 And now you are here, and your kindred are farther in the interior. 34 If you, then, will rule over your minds and discipline your hearts, you shall be kept alive, and after death you shall obtain mercy. 35 For after death the judgment will come, when we shall live again; and then the names of the righteous will become manifest, and the deeds of the ungodly will be disclosed. 36 But let no one come to me now, and let no one seek me for forty days.”

37 So I took the five men, as he commanded me, and we proceeded to the field, and remained there. 38 And on the next day, behold, a voice called me, saying, “Ezra, open your mouth and drink what I give you to drink.” 39 Then I opened my mouth, and behold, a full cup was offered to me; it was full of something like water, but its color was like fire. 40 And I took it and drank; and when I had drunk it, my heart poured forth understanding, and wisdom increased in my heart, and my spirit retained its memory; 41 and my mouth was opened, and was no longer closed. 42 And the Most High gave understanding to the five men, and by turns they wrote what was dictated, in characters that they did not know. They sat forty days, and wrote during the daytime, and ate their bread at night. 43 As for me, I spoke in the daytime and was not silent at night. 44 So during the forty days ninety-four books were written. 45 And when the forty days were ended, the Most High spoke to me, saying, “Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; 46 but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people. 47 For in them is the spring of understanding, the fountain of wisdom, and the river of knowledge.” 48 And I did so.

(2 Esdras 14, ESV)

The visions of Ezra certainly contain some cryptic or mystical parts, similar to other apocalyptic writings like Enoch or the New Testament book of Revelation. However, there is a clear story here indicating that Ezra, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, led the charge to restore the written word of God to its original content. Even if Jeremiah’s reference to “the lying pen of the scribes” means that the written Torah itself had become corrupted, the least likely of the three interpretations, God resolved that problem through Ezra. There is no reason to doubt that we have an accurate representation of the Law of God, the Torah, today.

Yeshua Did Not Challenge the Validity of the Torah

If the “lying pen of the scribes” had desecrated the sacred Scriptures, it seems logical that the Messiah, the very Son of God, would have at least mentioned it. Instead, we read that he was brought up in a household that followed “the law of Moses” and that he instructed people to do the same.

And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” (Luke 2:22-24)

…and He said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” (Mark 1:44)

We do not read anywhere that Yeshua ever said the scrolls or known Scriptures of his day were errant. To the contrary, he quoted them and told his followers and his adversaries that they were all about him.

And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
(Luke 4:20-21)

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me…” (John 5:39)

“For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me.” (John 5:46)

Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things which are written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished.” (Luke 18:31)

Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. (Luke 24:27)

Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures… (Luke 24:44-45)

Other New Testament passages confirm that the disciples understood the Torah and the Prophets to be true, particularly in regard to Yeshua.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote–Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1:45)

But this I admit to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets… (Acts 24:14)

So, having obtained help from God, I stand to this day testifying both to small and great, stating nothing but what the Prophets and Moses said was going to take place… (Acts 26:22)

There is no reason to doubt the integrity of the Scriptures today. While there are variations in interpretation and translation, they are a true revelation of the creator Yahweh and the instructions for holy living before him. For someone to suggest otherwise may be a modern day application of “the lying pen of the scribes.”

Scripture quotations taken from the (NASB®) New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved. www.lockman.org
Scripture quotations marked ESV are from the ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®) copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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