Monday, October 22, 2018

Standing Up for the Write Thing

I was revisiting my computer models of the Temple's sanhedrin courthouses when I came across a point that required further investigation. The Mishnah tells us that the sanhedrin had two court stenographers, on either side of the judges, who would record the proceedings. I included this detail in my model but I made what turned out to be an erroneous assumption about what these stenography stations looked like.

Here is the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:3) that describes the Jewish court and its scribes:

סַנְהֶדְרִין הָיְתָה כַּחֲצִי גֹרֶן עֲגֻלָּה, כְּדֵי שֶׁיְּהוּ רוֹאִין זֶה אֶת זֶה. וּשְׁנֵי סוֹפְרֵי הַדַּיָּנִין עוֹמְדִין לִפְנֵיהֶם, אֶחָד מִיָּמִין וְאֶחָד מִשְּׂמֹאל, וְכוֹתְבִין דִּבְרֵי הַמְזַכִּין וְדִבְרֵי הַמְחַיְּבִין
The sanhedrin was arranged like half of a round threshing floor, so that all of the judges could see each other. Two judicial scribes stood before them, one on the right and one on the left, and they would write the words of the defenders and the words of the prosecutors.

Initially, I tried to imagine what such a scribe would need to do his work efficiently. Reams of parchment and rivers of ink, for sure. And while the other students that sat before the court were seated on the ground, I wanted to make the scribes a bit more comfortable and so I gave them stools and a writing desk (which could also be used for supply storage).

In this image from my post about the Chamber of Hewn Stone you can see one of the scribes (in a light blue robe) at his station near the center of the picture:

Great sanhedrin of seventy-one judges meeting in the Chamber of Hewn Stone

However, if you read the Mishnah above more carefully it says that the scribes "stood" in front of the judges. That word had not registered properly in my mind because anyone who has tried taking notes while standing up — whether in a notebook or even on a clipboard — can tell you how hard it is. Now imagine doing that while dipping a quill into an inkwell every few words, all while recording the proceedings in real time. Also, when you picture (aka: do an image search for) a "scribe" you see a man seated on the ground or at a desk.

To double-check whether the Mishnah should be taken literally I took a look at how Rambam describes the court. He follows the wording of the Mishnah pretty closely in his ruling (Hilchos Sanhedrin 1:10):
כָּל מָקוֹם שֶׁיֵּשׁ בּוֹ סַנְהֶדְרִין יִהְיוּ שָׁם שְׁנֵי סוֹפְרֵי דַּיָּנִים עוֹמְדִין לִפְנֵיהֶם אֶחָד מִן הַיָּמִין וְאֶחָד מִן הַשְּׂמֹאל 
Wherever there is a sanhedrin there should be two judicial scribes standing before them, one on the right and one on the left.
With this new understanding I went back to the search results and looked a little closer. It turns out that there are examples, from many different civilizations, of scribes doing their work standing up. Here are just a few:

Egyptian scribe (Canada History Museum)

Assyrian scribes.jpg
Assyrian scribes (wikipedia)
Roman scribe (alamy)
I needed to redo my judicial scribes. This reexamination of the Mishnah also brought to light that, as noted by Rambam (as well as Rashi to the Mishnah cited above), it was not just the major sanhedrin of seventy-one judges that had scribes but even a minor sanhedrin of twenty-three judges had them as well. Can you see what is missing in my picture below?
Minor sanhedrin courthouse of the Temple

My homework is to add standing scribes to all of the Temple's sanhedrin courts.

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