Matthew 23 is the most controversial in the gospel because Jesus uses strong language to condemn the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Although the passage is regularly dismissed as created by a Christian author as an anti-Jewish condemnation of the Pharisees, Jesus’s critique of the Pharisees, scribes and teachers of the Law is consistent with other Second Temple Jewish writers.
Many readers are offended by Jesus’s strong language and consider the whole chapter as an invention of Matthew. Jesus calls the Pharisees are called “hypocrites, blind guides, sons of Hell, sons of murderers, guilty of innocent blood, a brood of vipers that would not repent and would not escape the fires of Gehenna.” At the end of this chapter, Jesus declares the Temple itself is under judgement and will be destroyed soon. Surely the loving and compassionate Jesus would never condemn the Pharisees like this!
Claude Montefiore called Matthew 23 the most unchristian chapter in the Gospels and cannot be attributed to Jesus. “In its unhistoric violence it overreaches itself. I doubt whether Jesus, even in the heat of controversy, would have made such sweeping assertions” (The Synoptic Gospels, 2:725) Montefiore concludes Matthew 23 “has admittedly been largely edited by Christians, by men who thought that the Pharisees had killed ‘their Saviour,’ and who also had perhaps personally suffered at their hands” (The Synoptic Gospels, 2:735). Bernard Bamberger called Jesus’s description of the Pharisees “biased, unfair, and even libelous” (Proselytism in the Talmudic Period, 272). Both Jewish scholars are reacting to the perception of anti-Semitism in Matthew 23. Certainly, this chapter was used to fuel hatred of the Jews often in Church history.
This judgment speech is a response to the Pharisees throughout the whole book of Matthew. In Matthew 21, teachers of the Law questioned Jesus’s authority, even though he has clearly demonstrated that his authority comes from God and that he is the Messiah. He refuses to answer and delivers three parables that indicate that the kingdom of God has already arrived, and the people entered the kingdom are people who the Pharisees called “sinners” (Matt 9:10). Pharisees and other members of the religious aristocracy try to trap Jesus, but they fail.
Three observations on the harsh, anti-Jewish rhetoric. First, there are many parallels between Jesus in Matthew 23 and other Second Temple Jewish literature. Jesus stands in a tradition of harsh critiques of some practices of early Judaism by Jewish writers. Do people accuse the Qumran community of anti-Semitism?
Second, some of the critique of the Pharisees appear throughout Matthew, even in the Sermon on the Mount. For example, Matthew 7:3-5 has the same attack on hypocrisy as 23:25-26. The Sermon on the Mount is usually lauded as the heart of Jesus’s teaching, but Jesus concludes by warning his listeners that many who call him Lord will not enter the kingdom of God, he called these people “workers of lawlessness.”
Third, there are similar harsh critiques in other Jewish literature. A common criticism of the priesthood of the first century is that they were corrupt. The Testament of Levi condemned the priesthood, accusing them of “who are idolaters, adulterers, and money-lovers, arrogant, lawless, voluptuaries, pederasts, and practice bestiality” (17.11). Psalms of Solomon 8 also blames the priesthood for Judea’s problems. The Essenes criticized the Temple and the priesthood, especially the “wicked priest” who may have been an “enemy” of the sect’s own Teacher of Righteousness (1QpHab 12.8). The Damascus Document (CD 4.17-5.11, 6:15-16). My point here is that Jewish writers attacking other Jews for hypocrisy is nothing new by the time of Jesus, and to be honest, Jesus might be less harsh that other Second Temple writers!
My approach to this passage is to read Jesus’s words as prophet in the tradition of Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 7 the prophet condemns the hypocrisy of his generation. Jeremiah stood at the gate of the Temple and condemned people going up to worship because their hearts were not right with God, despite properly performing rituals. The Jewish people relied on religious practice the temple rather on doing the heart of the Law, caring for widows, orphans, and immigrants. This s the same situation for Jesus in Matthew 23, the Pharisees represent people who rely on religious observance and miss what God really wants from them.
Rather than an anti-Semitic attack on Jews (or Pharisees in particular), Jesus is acting as a Jewish prophet critiquing the Judaism of his day with the goal of reforming it rather than replacing it with something new.