Mark 2:16 – “Scribes” of the Pharisees – Did They Exist?

καὶ οἱ γραμματεῖς τῶν Φαρισαίων⸃ ἰδόντες ⸄ὅτι ἐσθίει⸅ μετὰ τῶν ⸂1ἁμαρτωλῶν καὶ τελωνῶν⸃⸌ ἔλεγον τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ· ⸀ὅτι μετὰ τῶν τελωνῶν καὶ ἁμαρτωλῶν ⸁ἐσθίει;

When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (NRSV)

As I was reading through the Gospel of Mark in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, I came across a comment on Mark 2:16. The commentator mentions the following:

“Scribes of the Pharisees” indicates a group unknown in antiquity; it may have been a slip of the author.[1] 

The commentator is not arguing that the Pharisees did not exist. Instead, it is the “scribes of the Pharisees” that the commentator is distinguishing as a separate and seemingly non-existent group.

Here’s my question: does not knowing about a group of people automatically make it a slip? Are we to assume that the author made a mistake because current scholarship has not found evidence to the contrary? Now, if the commentator would have just stated that the “Scribes of the Pharisees” is an unknown group, that would have sufficed. But the last line adds a whole new dimension to the conversation (and maybe revealing some of the commentator’s presuppositions regarding the text.)

Most of the reputable New Testament scholars that I have read are quick to recognize the limits of historical research into New Testament backgrounds. There are many questions yet to be answered, and even more that will likely never be answered with any degree of certainty. Historical study has its limits.

With that said, I do think that historical research into early Christianity and the Greco-Roman and Jewish culture of Jesus’ day does help us understand the Bible better. However, it must be done with humility. After all, the author of the gospel was there; we were not. So, to say that it may have been “a slip” is to question the credibility of the witness while also bearing the burden of proof. The gospels are the reports of eyewitness accounts in a world foreign, distant, and very different than our own. Just because we have not found an old manuscript dated to the 1st century with the phrase “Scribes of the Pharisees” in no way refutes the testimony of the author.

[1] Harrelson, W. J., Senior, D., & Abingdon Press. (2003). The New Interpreter’s Study Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1809.

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