Tithing and Purity Laws – Matthew 23:23-26

The next two of the seven woes in Matthew 23 concern two common religious practices, tithing and ritual purity. Although Jesus specifically has Jewish practice in mind, it is not difficult to apply this teaching to Christian practice.

Jesus Tithing

Tithing (23:23-24). The practice of tithing is common in the Old Testament (Lev 27:30-33; Deut 12:6-9; 14:22-29; 26:12-15). The general principle is that the first tenth of one’s produce should be set aside for the Lord. To not pay one’s tithe is like “robbing the Lord” (Malachi 3:6–12). There is some tension between the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy with respect to the issue of the tithe. Deuteronomy requires a tithe on all produce every year except for the Sabbath year. This tithe, however, could be enjoyed by the family which produced it by selling it and spending the money in Jerusalem during a feast. In this way they gave a tenth by contributing to the economy of Jerusalem (Deut 14:22-27). Every third and sixth year the tithe was to go to the poor and needy.

The Law specifies tithes on some produce, generally food. But there was no tithe required for wild herbs (although this is debated in the Mishnah, see m. Ma’as. 4:5). The general principle seems to be, if you planted it, you tithe on it. To be sure the proper tithe was paid, a Pharisees would take each item that they produced, even these tiny seeds and herbs, and divide out the tenth to give to the temple.

m,Ma’as. 4:5 4:5 One who husks barley removes the husks [from the kernels] one by one, and eats [without tithing]. But if he husked [a few kernels] and placed [them] in his hand, he is required [to tithe]. One who husks parched kernels of wheat sifts [the kernels] from hand to hand, and eats [without tithing]. But if he sifted [the kernels] and placed [them] inside his shirt, he is required [to tithe]. Coriander which [the farmer] sowed [in order to harvest its] seed [for future sowing]—its leaves are exempt [from the removal of tithes if they are eaten]. [If he] sowed it [in order to harvest its] leaves [for use as an herb]—[both] the seeds and the leaves are subject to the law of tithes. R. Eliezer says, “Dill is subject to the law of tithes [in regard to its] seeds, leaves and pods.” But Sages say, “Nothing is subject to the law of tithes [in regard to both its] seeds and leaves save cress and field rocket alone.”

The real problem is that the Pharisees make sure they tithe properly, but overlook justice, mercy, and faithfulness (maybe alluding to Micah 6:8?). For Jesus, it does not matter if you pay all the tithes you owe if you do not take care of the poor, the widows, orphans and immigrants. Doing justice, mercy, and faithfulness are weightier commandments. This might use the language of the Pharisees when they determined which commandment was more important when there was a conflict of duty.

The Pharisees are “straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel” Jesus makes a humorous analogy to point out the absurdity of the Pharisees’ practice of tithing.   This is usually explained as straining one’s soup to avoid eating a gnat. The κώνωψ word can refer to a mosquito, both are unclean food (Lev 11:41, m. Sabb. 20:2) but not even noticing an entire camel is floating in the same bowl! The Greek word διϋλίζω refers to straining wine, LXX Amos 6:6, but a bowl of soup works in a modern context since modern wine does not need to be strained.

Does the word gnat (κώνωψ) sound like camel (κάμηλος)? Not really, but in Aramaic gnat is qlm, camel is gml. Similar, enough to make this a playful, memorable phrase. The contrast is between a very tiny bug and a very large animal (cf., Matt 19:24, the camel through the eye of a needle). In the Sermon on the Mount, the hypocrite points out the speck in someone’s eye while missing the plank in their own (Matt 7:3-5).

What good is Pharisee purity about tithing if they neglect the things that God really desires (Micah 6:8)?

Purity Laws (23:25-26). Jesus dealt with the Pharisee’s purity traditions in Matthew 15:1-20. In that passage he also called the Pharisees hypocrites and declared only what comes out of a person makes them unclean. By the first century there was a complex system established for the cleaning of eating utensils, plates, bowls, etc. The Pharisee would not eat from plates that had not been properly cleaned, to do so would render them ceremonially unclean.

Ironically Jesus says the Pharisees are only cleaning the outside of the bowl and ignoring the inside. The outside looks clean, but the inside is still filthy, full of greed and self-indulgence. This is similar to the conclusion in Matthew 15:16-20, what comes out of a person defiles, not what goes in.

Commentaries usually object that the Pharisees were not known for their greed or self-indulgence. This is true of the Temple aristocracy who became rich and powerful by their service to the temple. Archaeology of priestly homes near the Temple Mount support this conclusion and there are similar condemnations of the Temple aristocracy in other early Jewish literature (the Dead Sea Scrolls especially). The Testament of Moses (also known as Ascension of Moses) has a similar condemnation, probably written by a Pharisee and directed at the Sadducees:

As. Mos. 7.6–10 But really they consume the goods of the (poor), saying their acts are according to justice, (while in fact they are simply) exterminators, deceitfully seeking to conceal themselves so that they will not be known as completely godless because of their criminal deeds (committed) all the day long, saying, ‘We shall have feasts, even luxurious winings and dinings. Indeed, we shall behave ourselves as princes.’ They, with hand and mind, will touch impure things, yet their mouths will speak enormous things, and they will even say, 10 ‘Do not touch me, lest you pollute me in the position I occupy.

In the Testament of Levi 14:5-8, the chief priests abuse their office for personal gain:

Testament of Levi 14:5-8 You plunder the Lord’s offerings; from his share you steal choice parts, contemptuously eating them with whores. 6 You teach the Lord’s commands out of greed for gain; married women you profane; you have intercourse with whores and adulteresses. You take gentile women for your wives and your sexual relations will become like Sodom and Gomorrah. 7 You will be inflated with pride over your priesthood, exalting yourselves not merely by human standards but contrary to the commands of God. 8 With contempt and laughter you will deride the sacred things.

Although it is easy for a modern, Christian reader to read this section of Matthew 23 and smugly condemn first century Jewish religious practice as legalistic and hypocritical, that is not what Jesus intended nor why Matthew included this in his Christian gospel. Christians are just as hypocritical with respect to giving money to a Christian ministry working in Africa (for example), then hating the immigrant or doing nothing to help the poor in their local community.

What are other examples of how Jesus’s words could be applied in a modern church context?

Seven Woes – Matthew 23:13-22

Beginning in Matthew 23:1, Jesus delivers a prophetic woe-speech in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets. Although the details of the speech focuses on the Pharisees and their traditions, these seven woes can be applied to any religious hypocrisy.

Angry Jesus Seven WoesBefore looking at the seven woes, where is Matthew 23:14? In the KJV, Matthew 23:14 reads “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.” All modern translations omit the entire verse, it was probably added to Matthew 23 based on Mark 12:40 and Luke 11:47. In some manuscripts the line appears before verse 13, in others it appears after.

Shutting the Kingdom in People’s Faces (23:13). The first woe imagines the kingdom of heaven as a walled city that can be locked to prevent unauthorized entry. In Matthew 16:19 Jesus gives the “keys to the kingdom” to Peter, for example.

The Pharisees have shut the door to the kingdom for some people in two ways. First, they consider some people unworthy of the kingdom, the “the tax collectors and other sinners.” Second, they may be preventing people from hearing Jesus’s teaching, effectively “shutting the door” on people who want to enter the kingdom. Previously Jesus has described the outsiders entering the kingdom, or the Pharisees not entering or entering last. Matthew 8:10-12, many will come from the east and west to enter the kingdom before the Pharisees.

Corrupting Converts (23:15). There is very little evidence Jews did anything like evangelism in the first century. However, proselytes did exist. Nicolas of Antioch (Acts 6:5), there were “devout converts in Antioch (Acts 13:43), and Izates (in Josephus) are examples. It is possible this refers to God-fearing Gentiles, people like Cornelius who were attracted to the ethics and practices of Judaism but did not fully convert by submitting to circumcision.

If they do make a convert, the new convert is “twice the son of hell” that the Pharisee is. If the Pharisee is a hypocrite, the new convert is even more severe and strict than even the Pharisees. Often new converts are zealous

Swearing Oaths (23:16-22). Jesus calls the Pharisees blind guides and will be called blind three more times in the chapter. In Matthew 15:14 he called them blind guides in a discussion of hand washing. Romans 2:19 says some Jews considered themselves “guides for the blind,” although Paul also says they are hypocritical. Jesus taught on swearing oaths in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:33-37).  Although the Law permitted oaths, Jesus tells his disciples to not to swear oaths at all, but to “let your yes be yes.” For Jesus and his disciples, all oaths are binding: if you promise something, you must fulfill that promise.

As in the Sermon on the Mount, the problem was not swearing an oath, but finding ways to set the oath aside. Jesus gives two sets of conditions as examples. If one swears by the temple, the oath can be set aside, but swearing by the gold of the temple the oath is binding. It is not clear what “gold of the temple” refers to, possibly the “wealth of the temple.” If someone swears by the altar, the oath can be set aside, but if one swears by the gift on the altar, it is binding.

m.Nedarim 1:3 He who says, “Not— unconsecrated produce shall I not eat with you,” “Not-valid [food],” and, “Not pure,” “[Not] clean [for the altar],” or “Unclean,” or “Remnant,” or “Refuse”—is bound. [If he said, “May it be to me] like the lamb [of the daily whole offering],” “Like the [temple] sheds,” “Like the wood,” “Like the fire,” “Like the altar,” “Like the sanctuary,” “Like Jerusalem”— [if] he vowed by the name of one of any of the utensils used for the altar, even though he has not used the word qorban—lo, this one has vowed [in as binding a way as if he had vowed] by qorban. R. Judah says, “He who says, ‘Jerusalem,’ has said nothing.”

The Pharisees may have regarded an oath made in anything other than the name of the Lord or his attributes as not binding. If you swear a binding oath, it must be in the name of the Lord. If this is the case, then verse 20-21 points out the hypocrisy, if one swears by the temple, then are in fact swearing by God because God dwells in it; if one swears by heaven or the throne of God, one swears by God since he dwells there.

The first three of the seven woes may have shocked and offended the original audience. Modern readers are often surprised that Jesus harshly condemned hypocrites, usually because they tend to think of Jesus as teaching pure love as a non-confrontational preacher of kindness. But Jesus is not saying it is wrong to make converts or swear oaths. The problem is the hypocrite focuses so much on traditional practices they miss the grace God is extended to sinners, inviting them to wedding banquet as well.

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.