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Jean Miélot, a European author and scribe at work

A scribe is a person who serves as a professional copyist, especially one who made copies of manuscripts before the invention of automatic printing.[1]

The profession, previously widespread across cultures, lost most of its importance and status with the advent of the printing press. The work of scribes can involve copying books and other texts, as well as secretarial and administrative duties, such as taking of dictation and keeping of business, judicial and, historical records for kings, nobles, temples, and cities. The profession has developed into public servants, journalists, accountants, typists, and lawyers. In societies with low literacy rates, street-corner letter-writers (and readers) may still be found providing the service.[citation needed]


Ancient EgyptEdit

Egyptian scribe with papyrus scroll.

One of the most important professionals was a person educated in the arts of writing (using both hieroglyphics and hieratic scripts, and from the second half of the first millennium BCE the demotic script, used as shorthand and for commerce) and arithmetics.[2][3] Sons of scribes were brought up in the same scribal tradition, sent to school and, upon entering the civil service, inherited their fathers' positions.[4]

Much of what is known about ancient Egypt is due to the activities of its scribes and the officials. Monumental buildings were erected under their supervision,[5] administrative and economic activities were documented by them, and stories from Egypt's lower classes and foreign lands survive thanks to scribes putting them in writing.[5]:296

Ancient Egyptian Scribe's palette with five depressions for pigments and four styli.

Scribes were also considered part of the royal court, were not conscripted into the army and did not have to pay taxes. The scribal profession worked with other creative professions, the painters and artisans who decorated reliefs and other building works with scenes, personages, or hieroglyphic text. A scribe was exempt from the heavy manual labor required of the lower classes, or corvee labor.

The hieroglyph used to signify the scribe, to write, and "writings", etc., is Gardiner sign Y3,
from the category of 'writings, & music'. The hieroglyph contains the scribe's ink-mixing palette, a vertical case to hold writing-reeds, and a leather pouch to hold the black and red ink blocks.

Thoth was the god credited with the invention of writing by the Ancient Egyptians, being the scribe of the gods and holding knowledge of scientific and moral laws.[6][page needed][ISBN missing]

Egyptian and Mesopotamian functionsEdit

This early New Kingdom statue commemorates the scribe Minnakht ("Strength of Min") and demonstrates how ancient scribes read papyri— in a seated position on the floor with the text on their lap. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Besides accountancy and governmental politicking, the scribal professions branched out into literature. The first stories were probably creation stories and religious texts, but other genres were evolving, such as wisdom literature, collections of the philosophical sayings from wise men which contain the earliest recordings of societal thought and exploration of ideas in some length and detail.

In Mesopotamia, the middle to late 3rd millennium BCE the Sumerians originated some of this literature in the form of a series of debates. Among the list of Sumerian disputations is the Debate between bird and fish. [7] In another other Sumerian example, the Debate between Summer and Winter, Winter wins. Other disputes are between; the cattle and grain, the tree and the reed, silver and copper, the pickax and the plough, and the millstone and the gul-gul stone.[8]

An Ancient Egyptian version is The Dispute between a man and his Ba, from the middle kingdom period.


As early as the 11th century BCE, scribes in Ancient Israel, were also distinguished professionals who would exercise functions which today could be associated with lawyers, journalists, government ministers, judges, or financiers.[9] Some scribes also copied documents, but this was not necessarily part of their job.[10][page needed]

Jewish scribes at the Tomb of Ezekiel in Iraq, ca. 1914

The Jewish scribes used the following rules and procedures while creating copies of the Torah and eventually other books in the Tanakh.[citation needed]

  1. They could only use clean animal skins, both to write on, and even to bind manuscripts.
  2. Each column of writing could have no less than forty-eight, and no more than sixty lines.
  3. The ink must be black, and of a special recipe.
  4. They must say each word aloud while they were writing.
  5. They must wipe the pen and wash their entire bodies before writing the most Holy Name of God, YHVH, every time they wrote it.
  6. There must be a review within thirty days, and if as many as three pages required corrections, the entire manuscript had to be redone.
  7. The letters, words, and paragraphs had to be counted, and the document became invalid if two letters touched each other. The middle paragraph, word and letter must correspond to those of the original document.
  8. The documents could be stored only in sacred places (synagogues, etc.).
  9. As no document containing God's Word could be destroyed, they were stored, or buried, in a genizah.


Sofers (Hebrew: סופר סת”ם‎‎) are among the few scribes that still ply their trade by hand, writing on parchment. Renowned calligraphers, they produce the Hebrew Torah scrolls and other holy texts.


Until 1948, the oldest known manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible dated back to CE 895. In 1947, a shepherd boy discovered some scrolls dated between 100 BCE and CE 100, inside a cave west of the Dead Sea. Over the next decade, more scrolls were found in caves and the discoveries became known collectively as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Every book in the Hebrew Bible was represented except Esther. Numerous copies of each book were discovered, including 25 copies of the book of Deuteronomy.

While there are other items found among the Dead Sea Scrolls not currently in the Hebrew Bible, and many variations and errors occurred while they were copied down, the texts on the whole testify to the accuracy of the scribes.[11] The Dead Sea Scrolls are currently the best route of comparison to the accuracy and consistency of translation for the Hebrew Bible because they are the oldest out of any Biblical text currently known.

Europe in the Middle AgesEdit

Scribes in monasteriesEdit

In the Middle Ages, every book was made by hand. Scribes had to carefully cut sheets of parchment, make the ink, write the script, bind the pages, and create a cover to protect the script. Writing the script was likely the most tedious task and took many long hours. For instance, it took scribes fifteen months to copy a Bible.[12]

Books were copied in rooms called scriptoriums, kept very quiet so scribes could maintain concentration. Scribes woke to morning bells before dawn and worked until the evening bells, with a lunch break in between. They worked every day except for the Sabbath.[12]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "the definition of scribe". Retrieved 2017-06-06. 
  2. ^ Rice, Michael (1999). Who's Who in Ancient Egypt. London: Routledge. p. lvi. ISBN 0415154480. 
  3. ^ Damerow, Peter (1996). Abstraction and Representation: Essays on the Cultural Evolution of Thinking. Dordrecht: Kluwer. pp. 188–. ISBN 0792338162. 
  4. ^ Carr, David M. (2005). Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 66. ISBN 0195172973. 
  5. ^ a b Kemp, Barry J. (2006). Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization (2nd ed.). London: Routledge. p. 180. ISBN 0415235499. 
  6. ^ Budge, E. A. Wallis (1969). The Gods of the Egyptians. New York: Dover Publications. 
  7. ^ "The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature". 2006-12-19. Retrieved 2017-03-09. 
  8. ^ "The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature". 2006-12-19. Retrieved 2017-03-09. 
  9. ^ "Hebrew language, alphabet and pronunciation". Retrieved 2017-03-09. 
  10. ^ Metzger, Bruce M.; Coogan, Michael D. (1993). The Oxford Companion to the Bible (1st ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195046458. 
  11. ^ Johnson, Paul (1993). A History of the Jews (2nd ed.). London: Phoenix. p. 91. ISBN 185799096X. 
  12. ^ a b Lyons, Martyn (2011). Books: A Living History. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum. pp. 36–38. ISBN 9781606060834. 

Further readingEdit

  • Henri-Jean Martin, The History and Power of Writing, University of Chicago Press 1995, ISBN 0-226-50836-6

External linksEdit

  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainEaston, Matthew George (1897). "article name needed". Easton's Bible Dictionary (New and revised ed.). T. Nelson and Sons.