Matthew Chapter 23:13-22

Jesus is still proclaiming woe to the Pharisees. In all, this must date from a time when the Pharisees and the nascent church were in conflict. This is not in either Mark or Luke; given the latter, it cannot be ascribed to Q unless there is a bloody good reason why Luke chose to leave this out. So it belongs to Matthew alone. Traditionally, this would be ascribed to the M material: to the source that Matthew had but no one else did. Or perhaps Matthew invented the story to fit the time and circumstances of when he wrote it. And Luke left it out because it did not fit the time or the circumstances of when he wrote. [Note: I’m assuming that Luke read and used Matthew.]

13 Οὐαὶ δὲ ὑμῖν, γραμματεῖς καὶ Φαρισαῖοι ὑποκριταί, ὅτι κλείετε τὴν βασιλείαν τῶν οὐρανῶν ἔμπροσθεν τῶν ἀνθρώπων: ὑμεῖς γὰρ οὐκ εἰσέρχεσθε, οὐδὲ τοὺς εἰσερχομένους ἀφίετε εἰσελθεῖν.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites, that lock the kingdom of the heavens in front of men, for you do not come in, nor do you allow the ones coming towards to enter. 

This is a curious accusation. That, being hypocrites, they won’t enter heaven–the kingdom of the heavens–but the part about closing it off to others? Almost by necessity this has to refer to the period after Jesus’ death, when the Pharisees had taken the initiative to harassing the nascent sect. That is about the only way we can make sense of “locking” the kingdom to others, is it not? The harassment is intended to prevent the ministers of the proto-church from being able to spread the word of Jesus, thereby “locking” others out from the place they would never enter.

13 Vae autem vobis, scribae et pharisaei hypocritae, quia clauditis regnum caelorum ante homines! Vos enim non intratis nec introeuntes sinitis intrare.

14 Οὐαὶ 15 ὑμῖν, γραμματεῖς καὶ Φαρισαῖοι ὑποκριταί, ὅτι περιάγετε τὴν θάλασσαν καὶ τὴν ξηρὰν ποιῆσαι ἕνα προσήλυτον, καὶ ὅταν γένηται ποιεῖτε αὐτὸν υἱὸν γεέννης διπλότερον ὑμῶν.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites, because proceed around the sea and arid make (it) arid a <<proselyton>>, and whomsoever becomes you make him a son of Gehenna twice more than you.  

A whole bunch of technical stuff here. Either Verse 13 0r 14 is omitted in most texts–which one is omitted varies. However, in whatever textual tradition the KJV follows, the verse was included. So if you read the KJV, you will find an injunction against the Pharisees for devouring the houses of widows by sucking them dry for ostensibly religious motives, but for actions that are designed to do nothing but deprive others for the gain the Pharisees might make from the transaction. This sounds something like the “Totenfresserei” of Luther: those who feed on the dead by extorting money from their relatives to ease torment of the deceased from the torments of Purgatory. This is found in Luke 20:47, and apparently some manuscript traditions believed it should be in here as well. Other traditions disagree, and it seems that the consensus is now on their side, since it has been removed from most translations.

The second technical issue involves the translation of <<προσήλυτον>>, which transliterates to “proselyton”, which is obviously the root of “proselyte”. This word does not exist in Classical Greek; it has three other occurrences in the NT, and another in the LXX. In the LXX–Exodus–it’s been agreed that the word means “soujourner”, and I assume that this meaning was taken from the Latin translation of the text. In the Vulgate, the other three occurrences–all of them in Acts–are not translated; they are simply transliterated. As such, we can probably infer that the word had come to mean in Latin what it had in Greek.

The problem, we don’t know what it meant in either language. The definition was finally set in the late 2nd/Early 3rd Century when Tertullian explained that a proselyte was someone who had converted from another religion. But that’s a good century beyond Matthew. Can we be reasonably certain that Tertullian used it the same way Matthew did? Actually, to be honest, we cannot be reasonably certain at all. Can say that it would be reasonable to infer that Tertullian had maintained the meaning of the word? Probably. That is, there is at least a slightly better than even chance that Tertullian understood the word as Matthew had, so that we can be slightly more than half-way confident that it means “convert” here. After all, what else could it mean?

That’s the problem. I can think of three or four possible other meanings more or less from the top of my head. The context here is that we’re discussing the Pharisees preventing others from entering the kingdom; in this context, the word here could simply mean “believer”, but then why the special word? The decision that this came to mean something like our word “proselyte” is most likely based on the fact that the word is novel–pretty much a neologism–so we are likely describing a reasonably novel situation. But how novel? Many people in the pagan world became adherents of new religions, joined new sects, attached to different divinities than those, perhaps, to which their parents had belonged.

But in some ways saying this, or saying it in this way, is to misrepresent the situation. Pagan gods were very fluid; the word “syncretic” has been overused, but it describes a basic sense of enhancing similarities rather than emphasizing differences; thus Tacitus could say the chief god of the Germania was Mercury, because Wotan shared a number of traits with the Roman Mercury/Hermes. But there were also a number of cults–religions–that were truly new to Rome. These are the so-called “Eastern Mystery Religions”. They included Isis, Magna Mater, Cybele, and, eventually, Christianity. These fell outside the scope of the traditional mythologies and the mos maiorum, the customs/morals/ways of our ancestors. But outside of Christianity, joining one of these “new” religions did not mean revoking your previous affiliations. One could become an initiate into the cult of Isis and still maintain the worship of the traditional gods. Judaism, and later Christianity, did not allow this. That is perhaps the critical distinction between these two religions and all (at least most) of the other religions available. So perhaps this is why a new word was needed to describe one who was making the transition from paganism to Christianity. However, it is critical to remember that we do not necessarily know what the word actually meant. We have come to decide that we do, and agreed upon what it meant, but we do not have truly a large enough sample of the use of the word from the First Century to be certain.

I did do some amateur etymological work to see if I could perhaps make an educated guess as to what the word might have meant based on the components of the word. It seems to be a compound of the preposition “pros” which means “toward” (sort of), and “elytos”, or perhaps “lytos”. Unfortunately, I was not terribly successful in coming up with anything that might make sense. Let it be said that Greek contains a high number of irregular forms, so I could be completely missing the boat on “e/lytos”. Someone with more chops than I might be able to succeed where I failed.

(14) 15 Vae vobis, scribae et pharisaei hypocritae, quia circuitis mare et aridam, ut faciatis unum proselytum, et cum fuerit factus, facitis eum filium gehennae duplo quam vos!

16 Οὐαὶ ὑμῖν, ὁδηγοὶ τυφλοὶ οἱ λέγοντες, Ὃς ἂν ὀμόσῃ ἐν τῷ ναῷ, οὐδέν ἐστιν: ὃς δ’ ἂν ὀμόσῃ ἐν τῷ χρυσῷ τοῦ ναοῦ ὀφείλει.

17 μωροὶ καὶ τυφλοί, τίς γὰρ μείζων ἐστίν, ὁ χρυσὸς ἢ ὁ ναὸς ὁ ἁγιάσας τὸν χρυσόν;

18 καί, Ὃς ἂν ὀμόσῃ ἐν τῷ θυσιαστηρίῳ, οὐδέν ἐστιν: ὃς δ’ ἂν ὀμόσῃ ἐν τῷ δώρῳ τῷ ἐπάνω αὐτοῦ ὀφείλει.

“Woe to you, blind guides who say, ‘He who may have sworn in the Temple, it is nothing. But he who may have sworn on the oil of the Temple, he owes’. (17) Morons and blind men, which is better, the oil or the Temple that makes holy the oil? (18) And he who may have sworn on the altar,  it is nothing. But he who may have sworn on the gift upon it owes.

This is apparently meant to demonstrate the nit-picking lawyerly behaviour of the Pharisees, thereby holding it up for scorn and derision. Of course, this is the stuff and basis of Christian propaganda for the next two millennia: the legalistic Jews vs. the sincere Christians. Of course, it’s just that: propaganda. The more interesting thing is that Christians said much the same about the pagan religions. They had become formulaic, stale, and sterile; in the case of philosophy, appealing too much to the head and not the heart, and in the case of the standard pagan temple religions, that they had no emotional appeal at all. RL Fox, in Pagans and Christians, did an excellent job of debunking the latter half of the story. It turns out that, when we actually look at the evidence, the First and Second Centuries represented something of an overall religious revival throughout much of the Empire, with perhaps an extra dollop of enthusiasm in the East. This makes sense, given that the chronic state of civil war that had pervaded the final century BCE had been put to rest by the Augustan settlement towards the end of that last century, and the benefits of peace had permeated most of the empire in the succeeding two hundred years, until approximately the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180. This was the pax Romana, the Roman peace, when a single government controlled the territory between Britain and Arabia, from the Rhine to North Africa. The Mediterranean Sea had become, in a term beloved by historians, a Roman lake, every inch of its shoreline under the control of the Empire. During this period Christianity sort of went along for the ride, ever-expanding until it eventually became legalized, and then became the only legal religion of the Empire under Theodosius (no, that’s not a typo or a mistake).

That was a bit off-topic. It’s honestly difficult to assess how accurate Jesus’ critique of Judaism was. Or, probably more accurately, whether the critique put into Jesus’ mouth was accurate. This is likely another instance of something more reflective of the time of writing than the time of Jesus. The conflict with Judaism most likely did not arise until a decade or more after Jesus’ death, when the group of followers had grown sufficiently in size and in the degree of separation from the mother religion. This difference was most likely caused by the insistence that Jesus was the Messiah, which claim the Jews stoutly rejected. And since Jesus most likely never claimed to be the Messiah, almost by definition the hostility with “The Jews” only came after Jesus died. That argument, I realize, has a whiff of begging the question about it, but I believe it is sound.

16 Vae vobis, duces caeci, qui dicitis: “Quicumque iuraverit per templum, nihil est; quicumque autem iuraverit in auro templi, debet”.

17 Stulti et caeci! Quid enim maius est: aurum an templum, quod sanctificat aurum?

18 Et: “Quicumque iuraverit in altari, nihil est; quicumque autem iuraverit in dono, quod est super illud, debet”.

19 τυφλοί, τί γὰρ μεῖζον, τὸ δῶρον ἢ τὸ θυσιαστήριον τὸ ἁγιάζον τὸ δῶρον;

“Blind ones, for what is better: the gift or the altar the sanctifier (i.e., “that sanctifies) the gift? 

Per the text of Jesus’ speech in Verses 16-18, the Pharisees apparently said that the gift was more sacred than the altar.

19 Caeci! Quid enim maius est: donum an altare, quod sanctificat donum?

20 ὁ οὖν ὀμόσας ἐν τῷ θυσιαστηρίῳ ὀμνύει ἐν αὐτῷ καὶ ἐν πᾶσι τοῖς ἐπάνω αὐτοῦ:

21 καὶ ὁ ὀμόσας ἐν τῷ ναῷ ὀμνύει ἐν αὐτῷ καὶ ἐν τῷ κατοικοῦντι αὐτόν:

22 καὶ ὁ ὀμόσας ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ ὀμνύει ἐν τῷ θρόνῳ τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ ἐν τῷ καθημένῳ ἐπάνω αὐτοῦ.

“Therefore the one swearing on the altar he swears on that very thing and all those things above (= ‘upon’) it. (21) And the one swearing by the Temple, he swears upon that very thing, and on the one dwelling there. (22) And the one swearing by heaven, he swears upon the throne of God and by the seat of him above”.  

In Western Europe in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries, several heretical groups would not take oaths under any circumstances. This, in fact, became a method of detecting them. These groups had read this particular passage and concluded that real Christians had been enjoined never to take oaths. I am fairly sure that I have explained this elsewhere, most likely in Mark. However, I cannot find another passage that (at least seems to) prohibit oaths. Perhaps it was earlier in Matthew? 

The point, however, is that this is all rather obscure, or at least odd. It’s the sort of topic that doesn’t really fit in with the rest. Or, at best, it’s a bit of a Procrustean bed: stretched here, lopped off there and made to fit. Why do we care about the habits of the Pharisees when it came to taking oaths and swearing? Why does Jesus bring this up here?

That question has stumped me for more than a week. Time to post this and move on. 


20 Qui ergo iuraverit in altari, iurat in eo et in omnibus, quae super illud sunt;

21 et, qui iuraverit in templo, iurat in illo et in eo, qui inhabitat in ipso;

22 et, qui iuraverit in caelo, iurat in throno Dei et in eo, qui sedet super eum.


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 May 13, 2016, in Chapter 23, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. “Tottenfresserei” is an interesting word. “Totten” means “dead ones” and “fresserei” means “eatery” except that people “ess” and animals “fress”.

    • That was Luther’s term for the Indulgence salesmen, and much of the Roman priesthood in general. They fed on dead souls by guilting a person’s survivors into buying indulgences, commissioning masses, etc.

  2. Could the word “proselyte” shifted from “sojourner” to “seeker” to “missionary/convert”?

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