Pharisees and Religious Hypocrisy – Matthew 23:1-12

Matthew 23 is an intense condemnation of the Pharisees for their religious hypocrisy. In a previous post I warned that this is not anti-Semitism. Jesus is a Jewish prophet chastising his own people for their religious hypocrisy. By excelling at certain practices but the Pharisees have missed out on the greatest commandments. Jesus is focused on the Pharisees for two reasons. First, they have attacked him the most during his ministry, and second, they are the closest to Jesus theologically. Many Pharisees were looking forward to the Messiah and preparing for his arrival, unlike the Sadducees (for example).

Seat of Moses Chorazim

The Pharisees sit in Moses’s seat (23:2). The one who sits in Moses’s seat speaks with the authority of Moses. For years pastors have reported that there was a stone chair in the Temple and the synagogues for the reader to sit as he read the Torah. There is a stone chair in the synagogue at Chorazim, for example. Nolland considers Jesus referring to these stone seats a ‘reasonable conjecture,” but Jesus is using whatever the “seat of Moses” was as a metaphor for teaching with Moses’s authority (Matthew, 923).

Some scholars consider the reference to Pharisees “in the seat of Moses” as an exaggeration. The Pharisees only represented a small part of Jewish teaching and theology in the first century. A Pharisee might claim they were the correct interpreters of the Law, but they were not the only interpreters.

By way of analogy, Christian pastors sometimes say, “you are the only Bible some people will read,” meaning you represent the Bible to people who are not ever going to read and study it for themselves. In the world of first century Judaism, Pharisees were “the only Torah some people will ever read.”

Even though the Pharisees teach the law, Jesus’s disciples should not act like them because “For they preach, but do not practice.” They are hypocrites (Matthew 23:3). Jesus did not teach his disciples to disobey the Law, but he did regular challenge the Pharisee’s interpretation of the Law (Sabbath, 12:1-8; handwashing, 15:1-9; fasting, 9:14; corban, 15:3-9). Jesus is saying something like, “When they teach the Torah, listen to them, but watch out for their distinctive traditions that go beyond the Torah.” [Analogy: Protestants reading Catholic writers?]

The Pharisees require a heavy burden, but do not help to lift it (23:4). This cannot mean the Pharisees are making rules they themselves are unwilling to keep since the rest of this paragraph is about Pharisees living out their own traditions to honor themselves.

The Pharisees seem unwilling to help people carry the heavy burden they require of them. Consider the rabbinical discussion of grounds for divorce. For some, the only ground for divorce is the woman’s unfaithfulness, for others a divorce was permissible if the woman (or, spouse) offended in any way (not just sexual unfaithfulness). The former is unwilling to broaden their interpretation of the Law to help people in a desperate situation. There are other examples of interpretations which were “heavy” as opposed to “light.”

Jesus draws a contrast the burden he asks his followers to bear and the Pharisees. In Matthew 11:28-29 Jesus says his burden is light. Was Jesus telling his disciples they were not required to bear the burden of the Law, or that they did need to follow all the purity traditions of the Pharisees?

tallits and tefillin

Jesus lists several examples religious hypocrisy and  practices of the Pharisees (23:5-12).

  • Phylacteries (23:5a). Tefillin (singular, tefillah; Greek, φυλακτήριον) are leather bands worn on the head and the left arm during prayer (Aristeas 159; Antiq. 4.213), usually the shema (Deut 6:4-6). Prior to the exile these commands were taken figuratively (memorize Scripture?), but after the return from exile the tradition developed to literally “bind the scripture.” To “broaden the strips” may mean to make them larger so people can see them, or it may mean to wear them for longer periods of time.
  • Tassels (23:5b). Tassels are tzitzit (Hebrew צִיצִת). The four corners on an undergarment were to be frayed, each fray was to represent the individual commands of the Law.  Numbers 15:37-38 and Deuteronomy 22:12 command the use of tassels. The Pharisees made them as large as possible to show that they were far more spiritual than the average person.
  • Honored seats (23:6). Specifically, the best seats at a banquet (cf. Luke 14:7-14) and in the synagogues (James 2:1-4). Honored seats were reserved for the best people, the wealthy and the powerful. But the followers of Jesus are not to seek the best seats, but rather be like servants.
  • The title rabbi (23:7). The term rabbi was the normal term for a teacher in in first century Judaism.  Rabbi comes from the Hebrew word rab, meaning great. Rabbi means something like “my great one,” indicating the importance of the rabbi. Although this is anachronistic, it is possible to draw the analogy to a professor with a PhD insisting on students using the title “doctor.” Professors love to be greeted in public as “Doctor.” The title rabbi develops into an affectionate title used for a Jewish teacher, like calling the leader of a local church pastor (shepherd), as opposed to “reverend” (the revered one).

Jesus and his disciples  used tefillin and tzitzit. In Matthew 9:20, the woman reached out and touched the tassels on Jesus’s robe. He allowed others to call him rabbi and he seems to have taken the honored seat at meals. For each of these examples, Jesus’s objection is Pharisees using an otherwise neutral practice to draw attention and honor to themselves. He does not tell his disciples to avoid such things, but to not draw attention to themselves by being servants.

6 thoughts on “Pharisees and Religious Hypocrisy – Matthew 23:1-12

  1. I agree with much of this post, but there is a section that may need clarification. ‘The Pharisees require a heavy burden, but do not help to lift it (23:4)’. What I noticed in my studies, the handicaps of the day did not stand a chance, for as in my last post concerning ‘ [hypocrisy of the Pharisees; Matthew 23’], it was noticed in all four Gospels, they were looking for physical signs that deemed those as unfit for the kingdom of Heaven. It didn’t matter how hard these poor unfortunate ones tried to be perfect in their lives, as long as those imperfections don’t clear up, they were still deemed unclean and damned. There were also some whom were stuck in in the same loop, such as, ‘Once a sinner, always a sinner’. These are the burdens the Pharisees were placing upon the innocent, no matter how hard they tried to impress them, for their forgiveness.

  2. I think it’s nothing new to note the similarities of Matthew and the letter of James. When the church was gaining support, many priests became believers (Acts 6:7) and later Zealots (21:20.) The priests were mainly Sadducees and their original opposition came from the Pharisees.

    Woodrow Nichols

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