The canonization of the Old Testament by the members of the Great Assembly was the real stabilizing factor in the religious life of the Jews. Ezra and Nehemiah bound upon the people the Law of Moses as the constitutional law of the land. And the Great Assembly, after the deaths of Ezra and Nehemiah, enforced this same law in every respect.
Even though Judea was properly a province of the Persian Empire, the Jews maintained a semi-independent community. Since the days of Ezra, the Persians had shown extraordinary consideration to the Jews. “God hath extended mercy unto us in the sight of the kings of Persia” (Ezra 9:9).
“The Persian rulers,” says Herford, “living far from Judea, seldom interfered with the internal affairs of their Jewish subjects, and were content to leave their public business in the hands of the governor of the province. If the royal taxes were paid, the order maintained, the Jews might organize their life as a community in the way that seemed best to them” (Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 45).
The Persians had rule over Palestine until 331 B.C. -- about one hundred years after Ezra and Nehemiah. During this entire period, the Jews were allowed full freedom to practice their own customs and traditions. This Persian period was especially propitious to them because they were allowed to observe the Scriptures as ordained of God (Kent, History of the Jewish People, p. 224). And during this period the Law of Moses was kept!
At this time, the Jews were under the direction of the High Priest, the president of the Great Assembly, and the other authoritative priests who comprised its membership. No religious splits or schisms were tolerated and all the people were kept in obedience to the laws of the Old Covenant. This peaceful condition in Palestine led to many advances in the social and religious life of the Jews.
The canonization of the Old Testament, and the establishment of the Law of Moses as the constitutional law, brought about the necessity of teaching the Law to the people on a grand scale.
Ezra had brought back with him from Babylon a good number of priests to add to the 4,000 who had come back from the Babylonian captivity at the earlier time (Ezra 8:17-20). These priests were brought back to Palestine in order to assume their position as religious teachers of the people, for the Bible had ordained that priests were to teach the people the laws of God (Lev. 10:11; Deut. 24:8; 27:14). The book of Malachi, written immediately after the return of Ezra and Nehemiah, records what these priests were ordained to do. “For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 2:7).
Because the Law of Moses had become the law of the land, it became the priests’ lot to teach the law. These commands required meeting every Sabbath in all the villages and towns around Judea. It was these Sabbath services that finally merged into regular synagogue services.
In time, all the areas within Judea began to build their own synagogues. In some of the larger areas a body of priests would take up residence and have charge of these synagogues. Before the Babylonian captivity, synagogues had existed throughout Israel and Judah (Psa. 74:8), but because all these previous synagogues had been completely destroyed by the invading armies of the Assyrians and Babylonians, the Jews had to start afresh after their return from Babylon to build completely new synagogues. This fact has led some commentators to erroneously assume that synagogues had their first development only after the Babylonian captivity, and that they were not in existence before. This, however, is not true! These new synagogues which were built in Palestine were certainly built from scratch. But there had been synagogues before.
Buildings for religious assemblies are essential in every age and dispensation. It was impossible for all the Jews throughout Judea to journey each Sabbath to Jerusalem and to the Temple in order to learn of the law and to worship God in holy convocation. The people had to have instruction by the priests every Sabbath in their own communities. The proper instruction of the Law of Moses could only by accomplished by the establishment of synagogues throughout the land. And, under the benevolent rule of the Persians, with peace and safety everywhere, there is no reason to doubt that synagogues dotted the land from one end to the other (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 58).
Not only did the synagogues offer opportunity for worship of God on the Sabbath, but we are informed in a Talmudical reference that Ezra ordained the priests to hold periods of religious instruction on the regular marker days of the week – Mondays and Thursdays (B. Kamma, 82a, b). From this evolved the custom of having instruction in the Law on those two days of the week. This custom was even carried down until the time of Christ.
It is plain that the people during this one hundred year period under the Persians had adequate instruction in the Laws of God – not only on the Sabbaths and Holy Days, but even on two marker days during the week. The priests were kept busy in the occupation of teaching the people the Law. For their helpers the priests had the regular Levites who gave them proper assistance in teaching the people. These Levites really did much of the actual teaching, and the priests were the supervisors. It was impossible for the limited number of priests to do all the necessary duties. For that reason, a good deal of the help in teaching, judging, being dieticians and, in a limited way, being policemen, fell to the Levites.
In effect, the Levites represented the professional class among the people. They were under the authority of the priests, however, who were the responsible organization for the over-all well-being of the nation (ibid., p. 59). The real leader of the whole nation was the High Priest, who was actually the head of the state being the leader of the Great Assembly.
The Great Assembly was the one organization that was the governing authority. This religious assembly, as previously pointed out, was composed of the chief priests of the land with the High Priest as official president and over-all ruler. All members of this authoritative assembly in the Persian period were priests and priests alone (Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p. 28).
“For the priests were the actual leaders of the community, since they alone were recognized by the Law (Deut. 17) as its official teachers and competent interpreters” (ibid., p. 28). These priests were not elected by the people to hold a high office in the Great Assembly. They assumed this position by heredity, as ordained by God (Deut. 17). Actually, no one but the priests, according to the Law of God, could teach or direct the people in their religious life. This is the reason why the Great Assembly was composed exclusively of the priests, with the High Priest being the recognized leader.
With the canonization of the Scriptures and the establishment of synagogues throughout the land, a problem confronted the Great Assembly. In order to teach the Law of God, it was necessary that the priests and Levites have copies of the Scriptures. Up to the time of the canonization, books were not made with all twenty-two scrolls of the Old Testament combined together.
Now that the Scripture had been authoritatively assembled, it became necessary to distribute the complete word of God. The synagogues needed the Holy Scriptures as did many individual priests. So, it fell the lot of the Great Assembly to remedy this situation. They had the responsibility of seeing that many scrolls of Scripture were made and distributed to those who were in authority to teach the Word of God. And, too, they had to be extremely careful and make sure that only individuals who were thoroughly qualified would undertake such a sacred task of copying the Scriptures. Such a job could not be entrusted to just anyone, lest from inexperience or carelessness the transcription was not an exact reproduction.
It became obvious that the only body of men who were qualified to do such a work were the members of the Great Assembly themselves. It was necessary that the new scrolls be perfect and that each scroll be sanctioned by these authoritative priests. This led the Great Assembly to assume the task of copying the Scriptures. They assumed this occupation sometimes not long after the deaths of Ezra and Nehemiah.
From this time forward, the members of the Great Assembly became known as Sopherim. The word “Sopherim” in Hebrew signifies “counters.” They were called Sopherim because they counted all the letters in the Torah and interpreted it” (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 44).
In order to have an accurate transcription of the Scriptures, the Sopherim, the members of the Great Assembly counted each letter on each section of a scroll. They made sure that when they copied the letters onto a new scroll, that there would be exactly the same number of letters on the new section as had existed on the old. To do this, they had to count each of the letters on the new scroll several times to make certain that the exact number was transcribed.
This method of copying the Scriptures was followed by later Jews until the invention of the printing press. In fact, about eight hundred years after Christ, this method was so highly developed among the Jews that they knew the middle letter of each book in the Bible, and, even the middle letter of the whole Bible. There were many nonessential features developed from this method of counting the letters of the Scriptures. For those who may be interested in some of these features see Ginsburg’s’ Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (this book is now out of print and would be found only in some of the larger libraries.)
Once the members of the Great Assembly became the copiers of the law (the Sopherim), we find the two names synonymously referring to the one group of priests. To speak of Sopherim was to speak of the Great Assembly, and vice versa (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, pp. 44-45). For convenience’s sake, we will refer to those men by the name most used in history – we will call them the Sopherims. The term Sopherim denotes that the one major job of the Great Assembly was to copy faithfully the Scriptures, and to teach these Scriptures to the priests of lower rank who in turn would teach the people. Their lives were centered in the study of the Scriptures and in teaching the Law of God. This was, after all, the occupation that God had ordained for the priests. They were also to regulate the religious life of the people. And, history shows that the members of the Great Assembly, the Sopherim of Persian times, following the examples of Ezra and Nehemiah, carried out their commission with fidelity.
We read in the Scripture that Ezra “read in the book of the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them (the lay people) to understand the reading” (Neh. 8:8).When Ezra taught the people, he would read from the Law of God and then give the sense of it, that is, he would give the true explanation of it so the common people could understand what God meant from the Law.
This is what any true minister of God will do. All that is necessary to understand God’s Word is to have it properly explained by dedicated teachers who know the Scriptures thoroughly. A true minister of God will allow the Scripture to interpret Scripture. This is the only way of arriving at the truth of God’s Word. This is the reason the Church of God New World Ministries interpret Scripture with Scripture. This is exactly what Ezra and his successors, the Sopherim, did! They simply expounded the Law of God, the Scriptures. They did not make up their own ideas about Scripture teaching. They taught the Word of God, and it only!
This manner of teaching the Scriptures, and which is the only proper way, is known among the Jews as the Midrash-form! The word Midrash means “to comment.” And the term Midrash-form designates that manner of teaching which depends only on the written Word of God for doctrines – letting the Bible explain itself.
The reason this type of teaching has a special designation among the Jews is because they later had different methods of teaching which did not rely upon the Word of God. And, it became a later custom to refer to the true type of teaching, which expounded or commented on the Scriptures, and the Scriptures only, as teaching in the Midrash-form.
This Midrash-form is the type of teaching that the Sopherim used, for they were following Ezra’s example of reading in the Scriptures and then giving the sense or the meaning so the common people could understand. This is the method of teaching that began with Moses and was exclusively used from his day and throughout the period of the Sopherim. For it was, and still is, the only proper way to teach the Word of God (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 47).
“The Midrash-form was supposed to be that in which Moses had originally taught the Torah, and to use that form was called ‘teaching after the manner of Moses’” (ibid., p. 47).
The later Jews, as previously mentioned, came to the place to teaching religion in an entirely different method than “after the manner of Moses” and the Sopherim. We will see that they did not utilize the Midrash-form as the only method of teaching. However, Ezra and the Sopherim, following the example of Moses, taught exclusively in this correct form. They never departed from teaching directly from the Word of God. No other form on interpretation was used or allowed!
The Sopherim, being the successors of Ezra and Nehemiah as well as being the custodians of the Scriptures, were responsible for adding the final portions to the Old Testament. While they were in authority among the Jews, they added a few names to certain genealogical tables in order to bring them up to date. In I Chronicles 3:17-24 and Nehemiah 12:10-11, there are recorded lists of certain men. The last mentioned of these men lived just before the coming of Alexander the Great in 331 B.C.
Notice I Chronicles 3:17-24.There is mentioned a sixth generation after Zerubbabel. This last generation would have lived about the time of Alexander the Great. Nehemiah 12:10-11 refers to Jaddua the High Priest who was alive when Alexander the Great came to Palestine (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, xi. 8, 4). Thus, the names were added to the genealogical tables by the Sopherim just before the coming of the Greeks in 331 B.C.
This shows plainly that the Sopherim, who were established about 440 B.C., were in authority for a period just over one hundred years – until 331 B.C. And also that the Old Covenant, as we have it today, was made into its final form by the Sopherim with the addition of a few names to the genealogical tables, about 330 years before the birth of Christ!
The Sopherim had complete authority for doing this. They were the proper custodians of the Law and ordained of God for this purpose.
It must be emphasized that the Sopherim were all priests – there were no laymen among them.
“In the days of the Sopherim, when the High Priest was the head of the community, and when the teachers under his leadership formed an official body vested with authority to arrange all religious matters in accordance with the Law as they understood it, the knowledge of the Law was limited to the priests who were the only official teachers. On the one hand, the priests who were in possession of the Law and tradition of the fathers considered the teaching and interpreting of the religious law as their priestly prerogative” (Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p. 197).
This priestly authority was in accord with the Word of God. The priest had been ordained to be the teachers of the people in religious matters. No layman was permitted to assume this authority. As long as the Sopherim remained as the official body among the Jews, this direction of God was adhered to. And during the entire period of the Sopherim –from the days of Ezra until the coming Alexander the Great – the Jews were keeping the Law of Moses. However, in 331 B.C., when Alexander came to Palestine and defeated the Persians, the whole complexion of Palestine government changed.
The Greeks, unlike the Persians, did not allow the Sopherim to hold their authoritative position among the Jews. In fact, after 331 B.C., the Sopherim disappeared from history as a body of priests directing the religious life of the people. The whole organization was dismantled by the Greek conquerors.
The coming of the Greeks brought a complete change in practically every mode of life in Palestine. With the Sopherim taken away from their position of authority, the Scripture teachings ceased being enforced. A whole new way of life was forced upon the Jews.
The next article will elucidate what happened in this very important period in Jewish history!