In the twenty-third chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Jesus pronounces “woes” – a series of judgments – on the scribes and Pharisees. A scribe, or sofer, was originally a royal official – a literate and intelligent person – who was responsible for recording the daily life of the courts. By the time of Ezra (538 B.C.), they were primarily teachers of the Law of Moses (Ezra 7:6). As for the Pharisees, the Perishaya, they were a religious party of the separate, the holy, and the undefiled, scrupulously following the Law of Moses as it was taught by the scribes. The two groups tended to work together.
While the writings in the New Testament about the Pharisees are typically considered an angry polemic, they are often in line with criticisms of the Pharisees in the Talmud, much of which was assembled just a few centuries after Christ out of older material.
There are seven kinds of religious people: Religious on the shoulder, religious on credit, religious balancing, religious “what is the deduction,” religious “I shall do it when I realize my guilt,” religious from fear, religious from love. Religious on the shoulder, he carries his deeds on his shoulder. Religious on credit, “give me credit that I can perform commandments.” Religious balancing, he commits one sin and observes one commandment and balances one against the other. Religious “what is the deduction,” what I have that is what I am using to deduct for doing a commandment. Religious “I shall do it when I realize my guilt,” I committed that sin and therefore I shall do this good deed to counteract it. Religious from fear, like Job. Religious from love, like Abraham. No one is beloved as much as the religious from love, like Abraham. – Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 5:5
As a summary, there are seven types of Pharisees, but only one is pleasing to God. The first six fail because of pride, ego, legalism that isn’t much more than moral bookkeeping, defensiveness, stinginess, and fear. The seventh kind of Pharisee, the one who actually pleases the Lord, loves God just as Abraham did. This is a kind of justification that St. Paul would approve of, though St. Paul focused on Abraham’s faith (Rom. 4:1-12), rather than the patriarch’s love for God, though the two certainly overlap.
The scribes and Pharisees, as recorded in the Jewish Talmud, claimed Mosaic authority for their interpretation of the Law. Jesus did not disagree with them at all, which is worth noticing. He did not question their place as the teachers of Israel. What he did disagree with was their pride and their hypocrisy. He prefaces all of those many “woes” with a curious admonition to the disciples.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” – Matthew 23:1-3.
This is worth giving a bit more context. After the earthly life of Jesus, his Jewish followers would continue to worship in the synagogues for about ninety years, and this passage takes that situation into account. What we call Christianity today has its roots in Judaism, and for a long time, Jewish believers would worship in the synagogue on Saturdays and then gather again with their fellow followers of “the Way” (Acts 9:2) on Sundays, the day of resurrection. Traditionally, Gamaliel II, grandson of the Pharisee who instructed St. Paul, is said to have encouraged the writing of the Birkat ha-Minim, a benediction pronounced upon heretics. This would result in the Jewish believers, the Nazerene sect, (Acts 24:5), being unwelcome in the synagogues and shunned by Jewish society in general, since heretics were considered worse than Gentiles. The very same benediction also contained a condemnation of Rome, the world power that oppressed them (Jews and Christian, p. 9). If Gamaliel II was involved, the prayer against the heretics would have been composed some time before the Sanhedrin leader’s death in A.D. 118. While not enforced – simply because no mechanism existed to do so – over the next century the Birkat ha-Minim in the synagogues of Palestine became common. At that point, the ability for Jesus worshipers to participate in the life of the synagogue and obey the Pharisees in good conscience would come to a definite close. The earliest Church Father who seems to be familiar with the Birkat ha-Minim was Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century. He mentions Christ being cursed in the synagogues and after their prayers (Dialogue XVII, CXXXVII).
To return to the Gospel passage at hand, it is important to reiterate that Jesus does not question the authority of the scribes and Pharisees to teach the people. As mentioned earlier, the scribes had been teachers of Israel for some five hundred years. Their place was legitimate. What Jesus questioned was their pride, their opulence, their hypocrisy, and an accountant’s approach to worshiping God that was dead spiritually. When he refers to the authority of the scribes and Pharisees, he says that they “sit on Moses’ seat,” which was the presidential seat in the synagogue (Vermes, Authentic, p. 71). Such seats, carved out of stone, have been found by archaeologists. According to Jesus, the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees needed to be completely embraced, even if they did not practice what they preached. Jesus came to fulfill the Law of Moses, but he did not preach against it, or even the teaching of those who were plotting his death. This was a very important piece of direction for the Jewish believers of those early years, as they struggled to maintain their ethnic, religious, and cultural identity even as they embraced the message of their messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.
Dunn, D.G., Jews and Christians: the Parting of the Ways, Eerdmans, 1999.
Guggenheimer, Heinrich W., The Jerusalem Talmud, translation and commentary, De Gruyter, 1999-2015. <https://www.sefaria.org/texts/Talmud/Yerushalmi>
Justin Martyr, “Dialogue With Trypho,” Dods, Marcus, and Reith, George, tr., Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Roberts, Alexander, Donaldson, James, and Coxe, Cleveland A., eds., Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0128.htm>.
Kohler, Kaufmann, “Pharisees” The Jewish Encyclopedia, Funk & Wagnalls, 1901. <https://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12087-pharisees>
Singer, Isadore; Seligsohn, M; Bacher, Wilhelm; Eisentstein, Judah David, “Scribe,” The Jewish Encyclopedia, Funk & Wagnalls, 1901. < https://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/13831-sofer>
Vermes, Geza, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, Penguin Books, 2004.
20 May 2022