Summary Matthew Chapter 23

This entire chapter was given over to the Woes to the Pharisees. One obvious point of departure is to ask why the Pharisees were chosen to be the recipients of so much vitriol. Perhaps more to the point is the question of whether this was more appropriate to Jesus’ day, or to the days of his followers, among whom would be the authors of the gospels and epistles that comprise the NT. The problem is, the only real evidence we seem to have is that of the NT itself, those aforementioned gospels and epistles. And the evidence found in them states that this dates to Jesus himself. After all, it was the Pharisees and Scribes who conspired to put Jesus to death. Can we trust this? Should we trust this?

In addressing this question, we need to go back to who the Pharisees were. They were not the Temple officials. Some Pharisees may have indeed been Temple officials, and Pharisees may have constituted the majority of Temple officials. But they were not Temple officials because they were Pharisees, but in addition to being Pharisees. They are generally credited with being the forerunners of Rabbinic Judaism. Now, naturally on the principle of like attracts like, it may have been a good career move to become a Pharisee if one wanted to be a Temple official, but that is still a different question. And then we must ask if we know how these Temple officials were selected? But, even before that, we have to ask if the term “Temple official” has any real meaning. Most pagan temples, at least the bigger ones, did have a sort of professional staff, consisting of attendants, caretakers, priests, and the like. And the Temple in Jerusalem was big. But these were Temple officials; the gospels imply they also had some sort of political role. That is certainly not true. As such, any influence they had in getting Jesus executed was purely persuasive. Which means, Temple “official” is not the proper way to think of them.

Our best evidence about the Pharisees comes from the testimony of Paul. He proudly claims to be a Pharisee; given that along with his self-proclaimed zeal in harassing the followers of Jesus, we might suppose that the Pharisees may have taken a prominent role among those who set upon the new sect. But that takes us out of the time of Jesus and into the days of his followers; that is, the invective against the Pharisees is anachronistic when put into the mouth of Jesus. Then the gospel accounts tend try t0 conflate the Pharisees and the High Priests of the Temple, implicating both groups into a single, common, conspiracy, one that throws the Herodians in for good measure. All of this strikes me as very unlikely given the political jealousies and squabbling that Josephus says were going on at the time. This sort of all-in animosity seems to be more the product of a later time and place, where the exact situation on the ground in Jesus’ day was poorly understood and largely forgotten.

A great example of this comes, I think, when Jesus says that the Pharisees sat in “the chair of Moses”. This expression is unique to Matthew; the only other uses of “kathedra/cathedra” are in relation to the chairs of the money changers, both in Matthew and then in Luke. It is very hard to know what Matthew meant by this, or if indeed he meant anything, or even if this sentence is not a later interpolation. It is extremely difficult to read this and not interpret it to mean something like a bishop in his “cathedra”, his seat, a century or more later. As such, it’s completely anachronistic, dating to a time even after Matthew wrote, and perhaps much later. Was this added deliberately? Likely not. This has the feel of a marginal gloss, some copyist noting that the Pharisees held the “chair of Moses” when the idea of a bishop having a chair had become common, whether or not this copyist made an intentional comparison to “the chair of Peter”. Suggesting a textual emendation like this is a bold move, especially for someone like me with no background in textual criticism. The earliest mss we have are the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus, dating from the 4th Century. Since these are more or less complete mss of the NT, it’s probable that this sentence was included. My hard-copy Greek NT does not show any variant ms traditions that leave this out. As such, we have to ask if this is sufficient time for such a gloss to have crept in, at a time when a bishop having a ‘cathedra’ was well-established. It is, perhaps, but barely so IMO. Is it time for someone to add this deliberately? More likely, but it would have had to be a very early addition to reach all the ms traditions.

The term “episcopos” is scantily attested in the NT. It does not appear in any gospel. It appears once in Acts, in a context where it could mean “bishop”. It appears at the very end of 2 Timothy and Titus, but in passages that appear to be considered later additions; the only place I can find these cited is in Strong’s Words. None of my crib translations, neither of my hard-copy translations, and my hard-copy Greek edition do not contain the extension of the two passages that includes the word “bishop”. And as Strong cites the passage, it clearly means bishop. The word in Greek means overseer, and the once it occurs as a noun referring to a person–as opposed to the verbal form meaning oversight–it is translated as “overseer” in all the translations I’ve checked, including the KJV. The most interesting use of the word comes in Philippians, which is one of his letters that pretty much everyone accepts as genuinely Paul. Based on the grammatical structure (which is a bit of a mess), I wholeheartedly agree. In 1:1 he greets “…the bishops and deacons”. Here it is hard to render as “overseers”, since it comes in tandem with “deacons”, which Paul uses frequently. We could suggest that both terms are not meant to refer to an official position. The other possibility is that “bishops” was a later interpolation. Now, I realize that I have a pattern of ascribing a lot of things that make my positions difficult to defend to be “later interpolations”. But given the absolute near dearth of the term until Acts, the lone occurrence in Paul does stand out. I think it’s naive to believe that these traditions were handed down unadulterated and untouched by later transcribers and copyists. So it is very likely that there are layers–or maybe pockets–that were not accrued until a later time. I do not know when the practice of the bishop having a cathedra came into being, and where. It appears that Clement, in the late First Century, was considered a “bishop”, but did he have a cathedra? Offhand, I would tend to suspect that he didn’t, that this is something that came about later, but that’s just a suspicion; it does behoove us, however, to bear in mind constantly that the full apparatus of The Church did not spring into being, full-grown and clad in all its shining panoply. If the reference to a cathedra of Moses is not the reflection of a later time positing the anachronistic existence of a practice that did not exist, then how to explain it? What does “chair of Moses” mean? I simply cannot see any plausible explanation for this odd sentence. Perhaps someone with more imagination can.

If Matthew wrote this line, I would suggest that it’s a pretty good indication he wrote very late, at least in the 80s. If Matthew did not write this, what does that say about the integrity of the text?

Now that the discussion of the anachronisms of the Pharisees has been trod underfoot, the true theme of the chapter is the hyper-legalistic, letter-but-not-spirit-of-the-law attitude supposedly exemplified by the Pharisees. I do not feel that it is particularly useful to explore this attitude. It is the cliché that was (is) taught to Christians for centuries, to disparage the formulaic religion of the Pharisees vs. the sincere inward feeling of Christianity. Perhaps they were like this; perhaps they weren’t. Honestly, the description of the Pharisees could fit any number of Christian groups over any number of periods of times. It’s the smug satisfaction of the “haves” as they look down upon the “have-nots”. Unfortunately, the Pharisees hardly have a monopoly on the attitude described by Jesus here. However, here’s a thought: what if Jesus were not preaching a new idea, but that they Pharisees had turned against the “true” heart of Judaism with its heavy emphasis on social justice? What if what Jesus was not preaching a new way, but a return to the old way? What does that do to our understanding of Jesus? This is something that I need to consider. I believe that some Jewish scholars–like Boyarin, whom I’ve cited numerous times–have suggested exactly that.

Which leaves the other truly interesting point about this chapter, one that involves vocabulary. The words translated as “whitewashed” and “beautiful” in Verse 27 are the first example. “Whitewashed” occurs only in Matthew and Acts, which supposedly was written by Luke; “beautiful” only occurs in Matthew, twice in Acts, and once in Romans. It’s odd that two such odd words only show up in books written by Matthew and Luke; this is especially true since they both use the word for “beautiful” in sort of a non-standard way. The word actually means “seasonal”. The word, << ὡραῖοι >> is derived from “hora”, the standard word for “hour” in both Latin and Greek. So it is probably best translated as “timely”, and it often refers to fruit in season. Think back to the fig tree. Had it been in season, with fruit, it could properly be described as “beautiful” with this particular word. Matthew here uses it as a generic word for beautiful, and Luke does writing later. Why is this significant?

Remember, the orthodox position is that Luke did not read Matthew. Rather, the orthodox position is that they both got the stuff they share from Q. But when you see things like this, a word used wrong in the same way by two different authors, one writing after the other, the second including a lot of text that doesn’t occur elsewhere, you really have to start questioning the assumption that the second author did not read the first author. At least, it gets progressively harder to argue that the second author didn’t read the first author. As such, this hacks away at one of the major pillars of the argument for Q, that Luke did not read Matthew. Why? So much of comes to stylistic value judgements: if Luke had read Matthew, why did Luke “ruin” the “masterful” organization of the Q material found in the Sermon on the Mount? That, in a nutshell, is the keystone of the argument for Q.

And as it happens, we have another pairing of words here that, I believe, illustrates this point even more effectively. These words occur in Verse 25, but I saved them for last because they demonstrate the pro/anti-Q arguments in a very lucid fashion. The first word is << ἁρπαγῆς >>. This is not a terribly obscure word in Classical authors; in fact, it’s rather common, and is used several times in the early part of Book 1 of Herodotus. This use in Herodotus is especially germane because it refers to the seizure and carrying off of women by Asians of Greek women, and of Asian women by Greeks. Hence, the Latin translation as “rapina”, which is from the verb “rapeo”, which means “to seize (by force)”. It is, however, very rare in the NT; it occurs here, in the corresponding passage of Luke where it means exactly the same thing as it does here, and once in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where it has more of the sense of confiscation. Here, the KJV translates this as “extortion”, but in Luke 11:39 the KJV renders this as “ravening”; the translations are similar, but not exactly the same. In more modern translations, both come out as “greed”. In one sense the KJV is slightly more accurate, since it presents the word as an action, as in the Greek or Latin, where modern renderings present an abstract noun.

The point, though, is that Luke and Matthew use exactly the same word in exactly the same sense, and their use of the word is almost unique in the entire NT. Of course, if Jesus used the word, and Q reproduced it faithfully, then there is no problem. Both Matthew and Luke just used the word they found, in the way that they found it. But if Jesus did not pronounce these woes against the Pharisees because he’s cursing a group that was not a problem until a decade after he was dead, then this word could not have been in Q, which means, in turn, that Luke read Matthew and copied him in the choice of this word, even if this was not the way that Classical authors had used the word. As such, this is a significant bit of evidence.

The second word in this couplet is even more interesting. This is << ἀκρασίας >>. It occurs twice in the NT; here, and in 1 Cor 7:5, where it usually gets translated as “incontinence”, as in the sense of “loss of self-control”. Looking back, I see that I didn’t fret nearly as much as I should have over the translation. Instead, I simply accepted “incontinence” which is what my NT Greek dictionary gave as the meaning. It appears I didn’t even check Liddell & Scott. Lesson Learned. But in that context, it really did seem to fit. The root of the word is << κρασίας >>, which is the word for “mixture”. The << ἀ- >> prefix is a negation (a-theist), so the word literally means “unmixed”. The full word is very uncommon, but it’s most often used to describe wine that is unmixed with water; mixing wine with water was standard Greek custom. Herodotus tells us of a Spartan king who came to drink his wine “Skythian Fashion”, which was to drink it unmixed. This was not meant as a compliment. In any case, since the wine is not mixed with water, it is unmoderated. So the word can be stretched to mean “immoderate”, which is how Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians.  And so here, it gets translated as “excess” (KJV) or self-indulgence.

The bottom line, however, is that this is a highly unusual word, used in a non-standard, metaphorical way. Luke, OTOH, goes in a different direction, changing this really odd word to << πονηρίας >>, which is a very generic word, used all the time for “wickedness” in general. Now let’s assume that Q existed, and that Matthew and Luke both had copies, and that that Q included this story. Which of the readings was most likely to be the original? “Seizure and immoderation”? Or “seizure and wickedness?” Given that Q is supposed to be the more “primitive” version (blessed are the poor rather than the poor in spirit), the obvious answer is the second, with “wickedness” rather than the more unusual “immoderation”. By “unusual”, I mean in the sense of the Greek; “wickedness” is the word more likely used because it would be more likely to be understood. At least, that is how I would imagine the argument would work. Because let’s stop to remember that Jesus would have used neither of these words. He spoke Aramaic, with a smattering of Greek. So it would depend on what the original Aramaic would have said. Now, was Q written in Greek? Or Aramaic? A quick check tells me the consensus is that it was written in Greek, just as the rest of the NT. As such, assuming Q, we would be justified to infer that Luke’s reading was the original, especially since he is usually credited as having the more “primitive” version of things like the Beatitudes and the Pater Noster. As such, we would generally infer that his “wickedness” is the way we should take this.

But here’s the kicker. Depending on which reconstruction you read, this “Woes” section is not considered part of Q! How’s that for a surprise? Now there are passages that are called the “minor agreements” between Matthew and Luke, and this might be one of them. These are explained away in some manner as…whatever. Yes, there could have been another source that Matthew and Luke–but not Mark–used, but how many of these sources are we supposed to swallow? I think Q is one too many. If there is no other source, then how do we explain (or, how do they explain) the agreement on the first word, “seizure”, when two of the three uses of the word in the NT are found in the corresponding passages in Matthew and Luke? Actually, the explanation is very simple: Luke read Matthew. He didn’t copy Matthew verbatim, but he had a copy and he used it as a source.

Problem solved. Except for all those people who want to believe in Q.


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 June 5, 2016, in Chapter 23, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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