What Does “Woe” Mean in Matthew 23?

Matthew 23 is a prophetic judgment speech condemning the Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders for their hypocrisy. This is not the first time Jesus speaks against the Pharisees. In Matthew 15:1-9 he dismisses their traditions of handwashing and in Matthew 16 he warns his disciples about the “the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Now Jesus uses the word “woe” to draw attention to specific aspects of their hypocrisy. What does the word “woe” mean?

Woe unto You Scribes and Pharisees

The word woe (οὐαί, הוֹי) is sometimes translated “alas” in English, giving it the idea of despair, or a sense of hopelessness. The word carries the connotation of mourning and is an onomatopoeia, a word that comes from a sound. Even today, people mourn in the Middle East with a whooping sound. Women at a funeral, for example, wail dramatically.

In this case, the word is drawn from the Old Testament Prophets. Both Isaiah 5:8-30 or Habakkuk 3 have a series of woe-statements pronouncing judgment. In Isaiah 6:5, the prophet sees the throne of God and says, “Woe is me!” because he has seen the holy God (and he expects to be destroyed as a result!)  Other prophets use the word to announce doom on some people who are under God’s judgment. A woe is therefore something like a curse. In Matthew 23, Jesus makes a prophetic announcement that the Pharisees and other religious leaders are under a curse because of their hypocritical practices.

Lists of woe sayings are common in Jewish literature. Deuteronomy 28:15–19 has a series of four woes on those who do not obey the word of the Lord. There are three in in 1 Enoch 100:7–9 and five in 1 Enoch 96:4-8; 99:11-16, seven in 1 Enoch 94:6-7. Like Matthew 23, there are seven woes in 2 Enoch 52:1-14; 9 and eight in 1 Enoch 98:9-99:2. Here are a few examples from 1 Enoch:

1 Enoch 98.9 Woe unto you, fools, for you shall perish through your folly! You do not listen to the wise, and you shall not receive good things.

1 Enoch 98.11 Woe unto you obstinate of heart, who do evil and devour blood! From where (will you find) good things that you may eat, drink, and be satisfied?

1 Enoch 98.13 Woe unto you who rejoice in the suffering of the righteous ones! For no grave shall be dug for you.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave a series of “blessed are” statements, these woes are the counterpart to those beatitudes. Luke has only four beatitudes, but they are mirrored by “four cursed are you” sayings in the next paragraph. Matthew begins Jesus’s public teaching with blessings and ends his public teaching with a series of curses. Maybe in a modern context, we want avoid the word woe, or worse, curse. If a beatitude is “happy are you when this is the case…” the woe-sayings are “unhappy are you when this is the case…”

Were all the Pharisees and religious leaders bad? Matthew 23 leaves the reader with that impression. He does not portray any of the religious leaders in a positive light. The Gospel of Luke more positive and in Acts the Pharisee Gamaliel defends the apostles. Later, Luke says there are many Pharisees who have accepted Jesus as Messiah (Acts 15:1-2), including rabbi Saul. In John, the pharisee Nicodemus talks with Jesus, defends him against accusations and helps bury Jesus. But Matthew is clear: the Pharisees are hypocrites who have rejected Jesus as the Messiah and they are to blame for judgment falling on Jerusalem (Matthew 24-25).

The Pharisees and scribes are made to be the representatives of all Jews. By condemning the Pharisees, Jesus is does not approve of Sadducees, the Essenes, or any other group. Other than Jesus’s followers, they are guilty of rejecting the Messiah.

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.

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.

Is the Messiah the Son of David? – Matthew 22:41-46

After questions about taxes and the resurrection,  Jesus asks the Pharisees about the Messiah. The Pharisees say the Messiah is the Son of David.

Jesus and Pharisees

That Jesus is the son of David is a consistent theme throughout the book of Matthew. In 21:9 Jesus is called the Son of David as he enters Jerusalem, a clear messianic title at that time. When asked, the Pharisees respond (accurately) that the Messiah is the Son of David. Reading Matthew from the beginning, we know that Jesus is the son of David (Matthew 1:1, 1:17). But the Pharisees refuse to accept that Jesus is the son of David!

To follow up their answer, Jesus quotes Psalm 110:1, an important Psalm which implies the Messiah will be the son of David. Patriarchal society gives the father ultimate respect, so one would expect the son of David to be subservient to David. But that is not the case in Psalm 110. Jesus points out that David is speaking “in the Spirit”, or under inspiration.  He is not speaking falsely, he is telling the truth, that the Messiah, his son, is above him as Lord.

Psalm 110 is an important messianic psalm in the New Testament. Who is the first Lord in Psalm 110? The word is Yahweh, the second lord is Adonai, In the original context, this might be God saying to David, I have anointed you as king; alternatively, it could refer to Solomon, the son of David who is seated alongside David on his through, anointed with oil, brought into Jerusalem on a donkey, and inaugurates a kingdom of peace and prosperity. Sitting at the right hand, alluding to enthronement at the ascension of Jesus.

How can the Messiah be a “son of David” and a high priest since he is not from the tribe of Levi? He is a priest in the order of Melchizedek. Melchizedek was a king of Salem and priest of the Most High God who blessed Abraham (Genesis 14). Since he is appears in Genesis  without  any introduction fascinating some later writers and he became a messianic figure (see this post in Melchizedek in Hebrews 7). Melchizedek was the king of Jerusalem in the age prior to the Davidic Kingdom. Since David captured Jerusalem as his capitol, he became a king in the line of Melchizedek.  As the son of David, Jesus is both a king (in the line of David) and a priest (in the line of Melchizedek).

This son of David will put “enemies will be under his feet.” This cannot refer to Solomon, although he experienced peace and prosperity (foreshadowing the future kingdom). The apocalyptic imagery of 110:6, judging the nations and heaping up the dead. This cannot refer to the reign of Solomon, David, or any other king of Israel or Judah.  Philippians 2:5-11 echoes this, since Jesus is obedient to the father, he is exalted to the very highest place (the right hand of the father is not mentioned, but he is seated), and given a name that is above every name.

Jesus’s response to the Pharisees goes back to the original question in Matthew 21:23-27: Where does the authority of the Son of David come from?  This returns to the question in Matthew 21:23-27, where did Jesus get his authority? Jesus demonstrates his authority throughout Matthew, by the way he teaches, through his miracles, etc. Now he asks the Pharisees to give an answer: where that authority comes from?

Pharisees are speechless with this question, and they do not dare to ask him any further questions.  They likely have enough to convict him of heresy, they would not want the crowds to become any more convinced of Jesus’ claims.

The conflict with the Jewish leadership is over and they have been silenced. They are now afraid to ask Jesus any questions! Jesus then turns to his disciples and the crowds and condemns the Jewish leadership (and the Pharisees in particular) for their utter hypocrisy as leaders of Israel.

Marriage and the Resurrection – Matthew 22:23-33

After the Pharisees attempted to trap Jesus with a question about paying taxes to Caesar, some  Sadducees ask Jesus a theological question about the resurrection.

Marriage and the Resurrection

The Sadducees are known in the New Testament as the group that denied the resurrection, afterlife, and angels. The believed that when the body died, so did the soul.  As a result, they were more interested in the present time, and were the group that seized political power in Jerusalem. One of the reasons that they could deny the resurrection is that they held the Pentateuch to be the Scripture, almost to the point of denying the rest of scripture authority.  In the five books of Moses, there is little teaching concerning the resurrection

The Question: A woman had seven husbands who died, so who is her husband in the resurrection?  The question is based on the practice of Levirate marriage in the Law (Deut 25:5-10). A man who had a brother die childless (without a male heir) to marry the widow.

The point was to keep the property within the family and to carry on the family name. This was practiced before the Law (Judah’s son in Gen 38). Boaz acts as a kinsmen redeemer for Ruth. The question assumes this woman was a childless widow who married each of seven brothers, all dying before providing an heir.

This unfortunate situation is fictional, although perhaps based on Tobit 3:7-9.

Tobit 3:7–9 (NRSV) On the same day, at Ecbatana in Media, it also happened that Sarah, the daughter of Raguel, was reproached by one of her father’s maids. 8 For she had been married to seven husbands, and the wicked demon Asmodeus had killed each of them before they had been with her as is customary for wives. So the maid said to her, “You are the one who kills your husbands! See, you have already been married to seven husbands and have not borne the name of a single one of them. 9 Why do you beat us? Because your husbands are dead? Go with them! May we never see a son or daughter of yours!”

Like a parable, the details of the story do not matter as much as the application the Sadducees want to make to the resurrection of the dead. The Law requires these extra marriages, but does that not make for a messy situation if all these husbands are raised from the dead?

If a woman marries seven times in this life, who is her husband in the afterlife?  This is an argument which reduces the opponent’s position to an absurdity. If the situation is absurd, then the argument is dismissed

Jesus’s answer dismisses the Sadducees. They do not understand God’s power. They are wrong (ESV), translating πλανάω. “You are deceived,” Jesus says, because you do not know the Scripture. A Sadducee claims to know the scripture, but because they limit their practice to the Pentateuch, they rejected the resurrection as taught by the Pharisees.

Since the key verse in the Hebrew Bible is Daniel 12:2, It is likely the Sadducees rejected Daniel as authoritative for doctrine and practice. Jesus says if the Sadducees accepted the whole Old Testament, they would not have a problem with the resurrection of the dead. Robert Gundry suggested, “the Sadducees denied the existence of angels lends sarcasm to Jesus’ comparing the absence of marriage in the society of the resurrected with the absence of marriage among angels” (Matthew 446).

But the bigger problem is limiting the power of God. They do not accept resurrection because they do not believe God can/will raise corruptible flesh into incorruptible. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:55, “we shall be changed” into something different than what we are like now.

Jesus’s answer to their absurd situation is to state that in the resurrection, we will be different. Jesus does not say here that we will be changed into angels, only that with regards to reproduction, we will be like the angels, who do not marry. The idea that people would reproduce in eternity is ridiculous, immortal beings reproducing is almost a logical contraction.

m.Ber. 17A F A pearl in the mouth of Rab: “The world to come is not like this world. In the world to come there is neither eating nor drinking nor procreating nor give and take nor envy nor hatred nor competition. But the righteous are enthroned with their crowns on their heads, enjoying the splendor of the Presence of God. For it is said, ‘And they beheld God and [it was that that they] ate and drank’ (Ex. 24:11).”

Does this mean that we will not have feelings toward our spouses in heaven?  We can’t tell from this passage, the meaning of marriage in this life will not be there in the afterlife, we will not live lives like we are living now.  All the definitions we have for things will be tossed, and a new life, altogether different will be lived.

The second half of his answer is to prove the resurrection from the Pentateuch, the scripture held authoritative by the Sadducees. The scripture Jesus uses is from Exodus 3:6, God declares that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If God is the God of these men, then they must be alive since he is the God of the living. This argument seems thin, but the idea that God would declare himself the God of dead people is silly, he is the God of those who are alive, and those men he mentioned are alive with him.

Matthew 22:34 says Jesus silenced the Sadducees. The verb (φιμόω) means they were unable to answer him, as if they were muzzled. This is the same word Matthew used for the unprepared guest at the wedding banquet when he was questioned by the king (22:12).