Matthew Chapter 23:1-12

The rubric for this chapter in one of my Bibles is “Seven Woes”. This is a series of Jesus describing the sorrow that will come to certain groups based their behaviour. In many cases, this behaviour was, until the time of Jesus, considered righteous and admirable. This section was not in Mark, so this is new territory for us. And it is in Luke, so this is properly Q material, assuming Q existed. And this is what Q is held to be: things Jesus said. This chapter continues the longest stretch of Jesus talking in the Gospel of Matthew, one that is significantly longer than the two-point-five chapters of the Sermon on the Mount.

1 Τότε ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐλάλησεν τοῖς ὄχλοις καὶ τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ

2 λέγων, Ἐπὶ τῆς Μωϋσέως καθέδρας ἐκάθισαν οἱ γραμματεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι.

3 πάντα οὖν ὅσα ἐὰν εἴπωσιν ὑμῖν ποιήσατε καὶ τηρεῖτε, κατὰ δὲ τὰ ἔργα αὐτῶν μὴ ποιεῖτε: λέγουσιν γὰρ καὶ οὐ ποιοῦσιν.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, (2) saying, “Upon the seat of Moses sit the scribes and the Pharisees. (3) So all so much if they say to you do and watch over, but according to the their works do not do. For they say and do not do.  

First up for criticism are the scribes and the Pharisees. It’s interesting to note that Jesus says the Pharisees “sit on the chair of Moses”. The word for “chair” is “kathedra”, transliterated into Latin as “cathedra”, which is the root of  “cathedral”. A cathedral is the church of an episcopal see, because it was originally, and literally, the “chair” of the bishop. To see the use of the term chair here as reminiscent of, or alluding to, a bishop’s chair is wildly anachronistic. Such things were not implemented for a good century after these events. Now, this creates a connexion in my mind. You may want to put on your tin-foil hats for this one; it’s a great conspiracy theory. It is not entirely clear when members of the Christian community came to be designated as bishops, and when this term came to mean something like the specific office we think of today. It seems that the term was not in use when Clement wrote his letters in the late 1st Century. So there were no bishops yet when this was written. The thing is, the bishop existed well before he had a specific see, and well before he had a cathedra. Was this word inserted later, perhaps by the bishop of Rome, or a scribe working there? Remember, the “thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my assembly” passage is only found in Matthew. Just so, the word cathedra in this context is also found only in Matthew. Since Matthew was long considered the first gospel–hence its placement in the NT–did those in Rome doctor the text a little bit? But only Matthew, because it was considered the original? If you know anything about the subsequent history of the Church, this kind of massaging of the text was not uncommon, sometimes ending up in outright forgery as with the Donation of Constantine.

This is wildly speculative. But, stranger things have happened.

As for grammar, we’ve discussed the use of <<δὲ>> several times. In textbooks, the construction is <<μενδὲ>>, which is translated as “on the one hand…on the other”. But this formal construction is not used all that often, but the <<δὲ>> is used all the time. It’s generally used as a conjunction, and can be translated as “in contrast”, or even as “and” or “but”. Sometimes there’s no value to translating it at all because it just sticks itself into the English in an awkward sort of way. In the middle of Verse 3, however, it’s crucial, because it sets up the “but” which contrasts what the Pharisees say and what they do. On the one hand, this is a minor grammatical point. On the other, it shows that one has to pay attention even to particles when attempting to translate.

More, I do not understand how Jesus can say that the Pharisees sit in the chair of Moses. We discussed the cathedral implication and how wrong that is. And yet, that is the image of this part of Verse 2. I will fully grant that I am reading it this way because of the 2,000 years of conditioning that has led me to understand “cathedral” in a certain way. But what else does–can–“the chair of Moses” mean? Even if we take this as figurative–which we must, since there was no chair of Moses–that is what the passage implies. It resonates because we have the idea of a bishop sitting in a cathedral chair. How else does this make sense? And note, the word “kathedra” is only used two other times in the NT, and both times it is used for the chairs of the money-changers that Jesus overturns while cleansing the Temple. This particular expression is not in Luke. There is no passage in Luke corresponding to this. It’s strictly Matthew.

 The real issue is that the Pharisees did not occupy chairs. They were not authorities at all; they were a particular view of Judaism, perhaps a sect would be proper, but probably nothing so distinct as the division between Catholics and Baptists. Given Paul, perhaps they were the ones who did a lot of the ancillary functions around the Temple, as Paul was a Pharisee who was carrying out persecutions of the nascent church. So taking all this into consideration, perhaps my suggestion is not so wild after all?

Finally, we have to say something about Jesus’ message. There’s nothing unique about it, but he’s calling them hypocrites, who do not do what they tell others to do. This certainly can resonate; most of us are all-too aware of people like this. Even religious people.

1 Tunc Iesus locutus est ad turbas et ad discipulos suos

2 dicens: “ Super cathedram Moysis sederunt scribae et pharisaei.

3 Omnia ergo, quaecumque dixerint vobis, facite et servate; secundum opera vero eorum nolite facere: dicunt enim et non faciunt.

4 δεσμεύουσιν δὲ φορτία βαρέα [καὶ δυσβάστακτα] καὶ ἐπιτιθέασιν ἐπὶ τοὺς ὤμους τῶν ἀνθρώπων, αὐτοὶ δὲ τῷ δακτύλῳ αὐτῶν οὐ θέλουσιν κινῆσαι αὐτά.

“They bind heavy burdens [and intolerable ] and put (these) upon the shoulders of men, but they do not wish to move themselves even by a finger ( i.e., won’t lift a finger to help ). 

Not a whole lot to be said about this. It’s all pretty straightforward. The question, I suppose, is how do they do this? The complaint is that they sit in chairs and load burdens on people. By what authority? Ought we infer that the Pharisees were the class that populated the positions of authority? Perhaps most of the high priests came from the group of Pharisees. Actually, that might be a reasonable inference, and would explain why they are treated as they are. But then, the Sadducees come in for a certain amount of abuse, too, and these two groups had different views of religion. Were they working together? Or was it that the Pharisees took the lead in persecuting the new offshoot of Judaism, so they sort became remembered as the generic bad guys by later followers of Jesus? I would suspect it’s something like that. 

4 Alligant autem onera gravia et importabilia et imponunt in umeros hominum, ipsi autem digito suo nolunt ea movere.

5 πάντα δὲ τὰ ἔργα αὐτῶν ποιοῦσιν πρὸς τὸ θεαθῆναι τοῖς ἀνθρώποις: πλατύνουσιν γὰρ τὰ φυλακτήρια αὐτῶν καὶ μεγαλύνουσιν τὰ κράσπεδα,

6 φιλοῦσιν δὲ τὴν πρωτοκλισίαν ἐν τοῖς δείπνοις καὶ τὰς πρωτοκαθεδρίας ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς

7 καὶ τοὺς ἀσπασμοὺς ἐν ταῖς ἀγοραῖς καὶ καλεῖσθαι ὑπὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων, Ῥαββί.

“But all their works they do towards to have been seen by men. (Everything do is for the purpose of being seen by others; i.e. for show) For they widen their safeguards and make large the tassels (of their garments). (6) They love the first couches in the dinners and the first chairs (“proto-kathedra” in the synagogues. (7) And the greetings in the marketplaces and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi’.  

The bit about widening their safeguards and making large their tassels requires a bit of interpretation. These are words that, used here, do not quite mean what their standard definition says in Liddell & Scott. However, L&S do describe how these words came to be understood in this context. The “safeguard” (which is based on the actual meaning of the word “phylacterion”) was, according to L&S, a a piece of parchment with a bit of the law written on it worn as a headband by people praying. OK. So the Pharisees widen these so they are conspicuous, so the can be seen, for show. As in showing off. And the tassels on the garments being enlarged is seemingly a bit of frippery done to be ostentatious. And note: the first chairs in the synagogues. Here, it’s a compound word, so it doesn’t show up on the lists of where “cathedra” is used. Now, one wonders, are these the chairs to which we referred in the passage above? Where I was seeing a dastardly plot by the bishop of Rome? They could be, and I could easily be wrong in my speculation. In fact, I would retract it outright if we had any sense that the Pharisees sat in their first chairs in the synagogue and connived to increase burdens on those poorer than them. I don’t know that they did, but then I don’t know that they didn’t. The other thing in my favor is that Jesus didn’t say they sat in their “chairs”. He said the sat in “the chair of Moses”. Greek has a separate word for “throne” (basically = “thronos”), so it’s not like there isn’t a different word that could have been used. 

So, overall, this is a dicey call, either way. All things considered, there is a better than even chance that I’m wrong in my speculation, and that this wasn’t inserted by–or at the behest of–the bishop of Rome.

Oh well. However, to be even close to 50/50 in wild speculation isn’t too shabby. 

As for the content, this is of a piece with the passage above, grinding the Pharisees into the dustbin of disrespect, consigning them to eternal vilification. They are showy, ostentatious, pompous, and insincere. And hypocrites. The question is, were they really that bad? Paul was proud of being a Pharisee, and he proclaimed this as something that made him special. So, perhaps there was a certain level of self-satisfaction, but what self-selected group does not feel that? It just seems a little hard to believe that all the Pharisees were like this to a man; sure, no doubt there were those who took it too far, but all of them? Which leads to (but it does not beg) the question, why do they come in for such nasty treatment? I’m reading Ehrman’s latest book, and he talks about how much of what it said in the gospels is more about the time it was written than the time being written about. Given Paul and his zeal for persecuting the new group, and given that Paul (Saul) was a Pharisee, perhaps they were the ones who led the harassment of the newly-minted version of Judaism. As such, it’s not hard to see why they came in for some especially negative press by the proto-Christian writers. And then, too, one wonders if there wasn’t a certain amount of piling on; they had been designated the bad guys, so there came to be a contest in who could portray them in as poor a light as possible.

5 Omnia vero opera sua faciunt, ut videantur ab hominibus: dilatant enim phylacteria sua et magnificant fimbrias,

6 amant autem primum recubitum in cenis et primas cathedras in synagogis

7 et salutationes in foro et vocari ab hominibus Rabbi.

8 ὑμεῖς δὲ μὴ κληθῆτε, Ῥαββί, εἷς γάρ ἐστιν ὑμῶν ὁ διδάσκαλος, πάντες δὲ ὑμεῖς ἀδελφοί ἐστε.

9 καὶ πατέρα μὴ καλέσητε ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, εἷς γάρ ἐστιν ὑμῶν ὁ πατὴρ ὁ οὐράνιος.

“But you are not called ‘Rabbi’, for (there is) one teacher of you, you all are brothers. (9) And you do not (s0) call the father upon the earth, for the father of you is (the) heavenly (father). 

The rendering of Verse 9 is a little rough; it’s accurate, but this is one of those times where it’s really hard to get the Greek and the English to line up. All of my crib translations add some words, so that it comes out as “call no one/no man your father upon the earth”. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, but it’s just not in the Greek. Or the Latin, either for that matter. Now Greek and Latin both very often assume that the reader will understand certain things that are not stated explicitly, and this is likely one of them. The literal translation I’ve provided does get this point across. Well, sort of, anyway. So the adding of the extra couple of words is pretty much necessary for a smooth rendering in English, and I agree that the Greek can accommodate this extra couple of words. But I want to point out that this phrase is not in the Greek.

8 Vos autem nolite vocari Rabbi; unus enim est Magister vester, omnes autem vos fratres estis.

9 Et Patrem nolite vocare vobis super terram, unus enim est Pater vester, caelestis.

10 μηδὲ κληθῆτε καθηγηταί, ὅτι καθηγητὴς ὑμῶν ἐστιν εἷς ὁ Χριστός.

11 ὁ δὲ μείζων ὑμῶν ἔσται ὑμῶν διάκονος.

12 ὅστις δὲ ὑψώσει ἑαυτὸν ταπεινωθήσεται,καὶ ὅστις ταπεινώσει ἑαυτὸν ὑψωθήσεται.

(10) “And you are not called teachers, that the one teacher of you is the Christ. (11) But the greatest of you is to be the minister of you. (12) But he who will exalt himself will be humbled, and he who will humble himself will be exalted.”

You know, the next time I read about how masterfully Matthew arranged anything, I’m going to commit some kind of minor act to demonstrate my annoyance. This is shoe-horned in, put on a Procrustean bed, and it’s been made to fit whether it fits or not. There is a certain logic: the Pharisees are pompous asses; as such, the disciples are not to follow their example, but rather they are to go the other direction and eschew titles like “teacher” because it is unseemly to puff oneself up with such empty pride. Therefore, be humble, because he who…you know the rest. This is simply a fairly gratuitous attack on the Pharisees. Did they deserve it? Hard to say. The most likely explanation for this animosity likely traces to events that occurred after the death of Jesus. Most likely, this was the group most set against the innovations that were introduced by Jesus’ followers. As such, they likely did deserve some of the scorn they are given, but if that’s the reason behind this all, this sort of disparagement almost seems a bit childish. No? 

10 Nec vocemini Magistri, quia Magister vester unus est, Christus.

11 Qui maior est vestrum, erit minister vester.

12 Qui autem se exaltaverit, humiliabitur; et, qui se humiliaverit, exaltabitur.

About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on April 22, 2016, in Chapter 23, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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