Matthew Chapter 23:23-28

The chapter continues with the recitations of woes unto the Pharisees. I just stumbled on something interesting. In Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles and elders. This is another version of Galatians 2, in which Paul is made to answer for his teaching that pagans did not have to undergo circumcision and follow other Jewish practices. When Paul faces this group, we are told that it was the party of the Pharisees that raised these objections. At the end of the passage, James (we are not told who it was; but from Galatians we know it was the brother of Jesus) summarizes, and comes up with a compromise solution that puts a happy ending on the situation. Of course, this should be dealt with when we reach Acts 15, but it’s interesting that we are told there was a party of the Pharisees within the community of the followers of Jesus. We have to wonder if it is this party that is being addressed.

But then, on second thought…this is perhaps a bit more complex than my initial impression. First, there is probably no reason to take anything in Acts as reliably historical, although we do get another version of the two meetings between Paul and James, which we can take as historical based on Acts’ corroboration of Paul’s story. So let’s assume that calling this the party of the Pharisees actually reflects the situation in Luke’s time–or closer to Luke’s time than the time of the actual meeting. Since it was James who had the objections in Paul’s account, is this lumping James in the party of the Pharisees–which, it must be emphasized, is not actually done in Acts–an attempt to discredit James? Or, by having him come up with the compromise, is this an attempt to rehabilitate James?

Questions, questions everywhere.

23 Οὐαὶ ὑμῖν,γραμματεῖς καὶ Φαρισαῖοι ὑποκριταί, ὅτι ἀποδεκατοῦτε τὸ ἡδύοσμον καὶ τὸ ἄνηθον καὶ τὸ κύμινον, καὶ ἀφήκατε τὰ βαρύτερα τοῦ νόμου, τὴν κρίσιν καὶ τὸ ἔλεος καὶ τὴν πίστιν: ταῦτα [δὲ] ἔδει ποιῆσαι κἀκεῖνα μὴ ἀφιέναι.

24 ὁδηγοὶ τυφλοί, οἱ διϋλίζοντες τὸν κώνωπα τὴν δὲ κάμηλον καταπίνοντες.

“Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, (you) hypocrites, that tithe the mint and the anise and the cumin, and stand away from the burden of the law, the judgement, and the mercy, and the faith. These things had to be done and you ought not to have stood away from them. (24) “Blind guides, those filtering (straining) the gnats while on the other hand swallowing a camel.

The word that translated as “tithe” is another word only found in the Bible. It’s not used by Classical authors because pagans did not tithe. However, in this case, the meaning is so obvious based on its composition that there is no reason to question it.

The whole sense of the passage is the excessive legalism of the Pharisees, the letter rather than the spirit of the law. It is very important to realise, as I never did, that Jesus is not advocating for some radical new mode of conduct. Instead, he is advocating the return to the roots of Judaic social justice, which was a very important aspect of Judaism. So Jesus’ message here is essentially conservative; he wants to return to the good old ways of the elders, to what the Romans called the mos maiorum, the mores of our ancestors. He is claiming that the Pharisees have gotten away from this idea of social justice, but he is not saying that the legalism of the Pharisees is in any way an integral part of Judaism. It’s not, and that is the problem Jesus wants to address. This helps dissipate, I think, some of the force of the position that Jesus was killed because he was a radical, who was threatening to overturn the Old Ways. No. He wanted to bring them back.

It could be argued, of course, that they only thing more threatening than overturning the old ways is actually restoring them. Judea was under Roman jurisdiction, and, as is always the case in such circumstances, a certain segment of the native population benefited from collaborating. This group could easily be threatened by the possible return to a more traditional set of values. And it’s entirely possible that the Pharisees were the group that most benefited from the Roman occupation, as the group most willing to work with the Romans. This would explain the particular vitriol directed at the Pharisees, as well as indicate that the animosity went both ways. But then, that’s more or less what the standard explanation for Jesus’ execution: the Pharisees felt threatened. The reason for bringing it up in this situation is that it’s said that Jesus was teaching something novel and new; perhaps that’s backwards.

The bit about the gnat and the camel needs no elucidation, I expect. It’s quite well known. 

23 Vae vobis, scribae et pharisaei hypocritae, quia decimatis mentam et anethum et cyminum et reliquistis, quae graviora sunt legis: iudicium et misericordiam et fidem! Haec oportuit facere et illa non omittere.

24 Duces caeci, excolantes culicem, camelum autem glutientes.

25 Οὐαὶ ὑμῖν, γραμματεῖς καὶ Φαρισαῖοι ὑποκριταί, ὅτι καθαρίζετε τὸ ἔξωθεν τοῦ ποτηρίου καὶ τῆς παροψίδος, ἔσωθεν δὲ γέμουσιν ἐξ ἁρπαγῆς καὶ ἀκρασίας.

“Woe to  you, Scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites, that clean the outside of the drinking cup, and the platter, while the inside meanwhile (is) full of robbery and a bad mixture.   

These last two words are very interesting. The first, translated as robbery, occurs here, in the corresponding passage of Luke, and also in the Epistle to the Hebrews. It has the meanings of robbery and rape (hence, rendered as “rapina” in the Latin), but especially in the sense of plunder and booty, as from a captured city. The KJV offers it as “extortion”; the NASB as “robbery”, and the ESV and NIV as “greed”. Now, “rapina” comes from the verb for “to seize”; as such, the Latin has more of the sense of stealing than of rape as we mean the word. Extortion can be made to fit inside the idea of theft, although the correlation of theft and extortion is not the first that would come to mind; worse, though, are the more modern translations of “greed”. That is too generic.

Here is a question. Does the fact that Luke uses this very unusual word, but not the second, slightly more unusual (33% fewer occurrences) word increase or decrease the likelihood that Luke used Matthew? Or does it increase or decrease the likelihood that they both used Q? The point is, one of them, at least, changed one of the words. We can suggest that Luke followed Matthew on the first word, and chose a different second word, or that they both used the first and one of them–it’s impossible to know which–chose a different word for the second? And how is the equation affected by knowing that Luke’s second word is very common–pornes–a pretty generic word for “wickedness” which is how it gets translated by all four of the translations I cited earlier. It would be easy to think that Matthew chose to use the second word specifically because “pornes” is so generic.

Easy to say, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean it’s accurate, or correct. The thing is, Matthew’s second word (last in the verse) is even more unusual, used here and in 1 Corinthians 7. There, the consensus is that it means “incontinent”, as in sexual, as in lacking self-control. The word is formed from the adjective “a-kratos”, a “kratos” meaning “strength”. Oddly, even though the “a-” prefix is a negation (a-theist, e.g.), here it seems to have the opposite sense. Where the word should mean “weak”, it actually means “strong”, but in a very specific sense. This word is most often used to mean “unmixed” or “pure”, but specifically in reference to wine. Greeks generally mixed their wine with water to dilute it; wine that was not mixed, but straight up, or neat, as scotch-drinkers say it. So it was at fully potency, rather than at some diluted strength. By extension, the word can mean, when referring to a person, “intemperate”, or even “violent”. 

Why the etymology lesson? The point of this is that Matthew uses the word in a sense that is highly idiosyncratic, to put it mildly. Is it possible that, reading the word in Matthew, Luke scratched his head, thought a moment, then used a much more appropriate word: wicked. Yes, it’s possible that Matthew wanted to spice up the generic found in Q by showing off his vocabulary skills, without quite realizing that he didn’t quite have it right. Each of us has to decide which of those scenarios seems most likely. Naturally, I lean (to the point of falling over) towards the first.

25 Vae vobis, scribae et pharisaei hypocritae, quia mundatis, quod de foris est calicis et paropsidis, intus autem pleni sunt rapina et immunditia!

26 Φαρισαῖε τυφλέ, καθάρισον πρῶτον τὸ ἐντὸς τοῦ ποτηρίου, ἵνα γένηται καὶ τὸ ἐκτὸς αὐτοῦ καθαρόν.

27 Οὐαὶ ὑμῖν, γραμματεῖς καὶ Φαρισαῖοι ὑποκριταί, ὅτι παρομοιάζετε τάφοις κεκονιαμένοις, οἵτινες ἔξωθεν μὲν φαίνονταιv ὡραῖοι ἔσωθεν δὲ γέμουσιν ὀστέων νεκρῶν καὶ πάσης ἀκαθαρσίας.

28 οὕτως καὶ ὑμεῖς ἔξωθεν μὲν φαίνεσθε τοῖς ἀνθρώποις δίκαιοι, ἔσωθεν δέ ἐστε μεστοὶ ὑποκρίσεως καὶ ἀνομίας.

“Blind Pharisees, clean first the interior of the vessel, in order that also the outside becomes clean. (27) Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites, that you are like tombs having been whitewashed, which on the outside appear seasonal/proper to be, but full of bones of the dead and all uncleanliness. (28) In this way also you, while on the outside you appear to men (to be) just, inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

To continue the theme of the previous comment, we get another couple of words that Matthew uses in his own peculiar fashion. The words rendered as “whitewashed” and “seasonal”. According to my NT dictionary, the latter word should be translated as beautiful, but that is not what the Classical Greek means. It means “seasonal/timely”, as a fruit in season. From there one can see how it could mutate into a generic sense of “beautiful”, but it’s not really the base meaning of the word. Interestingly, the only times Liddle & Scott assign it this meaning are in the Bible: in the LXII version of Genesis, here, and…once in Acts. Now that is interesting. Here we have an unusual word, or one used in an odd sense, reused in that same odd sense by the author of Acts, who is assumed to be Luke. It almost seems like, perhaps, Luke…maybe got the word from Matthew when he read Matthew? He didn’t repeat it here, but saved it and used it later. This proves nothing, of course, but it’s another weight on the side of Luke using Matthew rather than both of them using Q.

The Q people insist that we have to have a logical, consistent explanation for every time that Luke does not follow Matthew. Of course, this demand is impossible; it’s also a bit frivolous, but most damning is that it’s rather beside the point. If Luke were going to follow Matthew to the letter, then why bother writing another gospel? Here’s where we come back to the absolute need for Q, because it allows the illusion that we have a compendium of sayings that trace directly back to Jesus. That is not how one builds a sound historical argument.

26 Pharisaee caece, munda prius, quod intus est calicis, ut fiat et id, quod de foris eius est, mundum.

27 Vae vobis, scribae et pharisaei hypocritae, quia similes estis sepulcris dealbatis, quae a foris quidem parent speciosa, intus vero plena sunt ossibus mortuorum et omni spurcitia!

28 Sic et vos a foris quidem paretis hominibus iusti, intus autem pleni estis hypocrisi et iniquitate.


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 20, 2016, in Chapter 23, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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