The Hypocrisy of the Pharisees – Matthew 23

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.

Angry pharisees

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.

3 thoughts on “The Hypocrisy of the Pharisees – Matthew 23

  1. Actually, in my research, I gradually found this telling off by Jesus to be spot on; let me explain.
    Let’s draw our attention to Matthew 12; 22-27, Mark 3; 22 and Luke 11; 15-19. They all refer to an unfortunate individual who was both blind and dumb and apparently, this was because he was possessed, as so is indicated by both the writers of those Gospels (for they wrote it that way) and by the response given by the Pharisees themselves. The comment the rulers made about Jesus, was my issue, saying, ‘This man does not cast out devils except by Beelzebub, the prince of devils’. Jesus knew, this poor soul’s afflictions are not because of demons, which confirms the issue, that the rulers did. Now that point is portrayed in three Gospels. So, let’s move on to John 9; 1-34. In verses 1-2, the disciples ask Jesus a very strange question which goes; ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?’ I didn’t care how Jesus answered that question, I put myself in the disciple’s place and wanted to know why he would even ask it in the first place! (Not many of us look at the story from the crowd’s point of view).
    I mean, to make my point more open, besides this individual, how many others of that time, felt the same way?? If you bypass what Jesus says, just for sake of observation, carry on reading after him and follow the rest of that episode on up to verse 34, and please pay attention how the Pharisees end their dispute with the man who was born blind. Tell me if you don’t see the reason that disciple was asking such a wrenching question and/or how many others would also, for that matter??
    There are two questions to consider; 1) why were there so many coming to Jesus to be healed and 2) why was Jesus having so many disputes with the Pharisees. These two questions are connected.
    I’m not saying there weren’t any real sinners to be reckoned with. But by the inclusion that the unfit ones are also sinners, was all together wrong! They were looking for physical signs that deemed these unfortunate ones as unfit to be accepted into the kingdom. Let’s take the paralytic they were lowering down through the roof, because they could not find a way in, in Luke 5; 18-26. Jesus’ first words were, “Man, your sins are forgiven you”. But the Pharisees start bickering, “Who can forgive sins but God only?” Even if this man was never able to walk the rest of his life, at least he knew, because he was forgiven, he was no longer hell bound, by the condemning decisions drawn by his own religeous leaders.
    At least the true sinners could reconcile themselves if they chose to do so, while the handicaps are never able to be rid of their afflictions, thus doomed to the death and beyond the grave. Because without that forgiveness of their sins, (by their faith definition), hell shall be their final destination. Try dwelling on that concept for even just a little while, as though you were the one with the affliction, back in that time! It’s not only throughout your life. Put yourself on that death bed knowing your dying,….. Overwhelming isn’t it!?
    So when we re-examine the rash words Jesus’ has for the Pharisees in Matthew 23 just before he conducts his Last Supper, it brings more twisted rulings out in front, that these misguided leaders have also been wrongly enforcing upon the innocent, within their own house of Israel. When he spoke of being kind to your enemies, he wasn’t talking about the Romans, he was referring to the high strung, unrelenting atmosphere that was building up among themselves. Let me put it to you this way. God forbid, your wife gave birth to a new baby boy and he has a cleft lip. Back in that day, who do you suppose is going to ask, ‘Who sinned, you or the child, that he should be born this way??’

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