As mentioned in my prior post, recently on my Facebook page, a Hebrew Christian began taking exception to positions I hold while expressing a wide range of views contrary to the kind of Messianic Judaism I favor. I told him I was going to take his objections and statements and respond to them one by one on my blog. This blog post is the first of what will be a considerable series involving lots of work. Still, this series will illustrate the contrast between a certain brand of Messianic Jewish conviction and what I term the Hebrew Christian position.  While Hebrew Christians see the proper home for Jesus believing Jews to be in the Church, Messianic Jews insist on a deeper engagement with Jewish community and therefore form Messianic synagogues and even participate in synagogues in the wider Jewish world. My interlocutor is Mr Koenig.  His comments were part of a Facebook informal discussion, not an article or even a blog, so don’t expect his rhetoric to be polished, which is something he is well capable of under other circumstances.  He imagines that many of my views would be pretty standard for Jewish believers who attend churches, as opposed to messianic congregations, and for evangelical scholars and commentators, and that my view may be common in messianic congregations at this point, but likely would be viewed critically at any evangelical seminary like Dallas or Talbot. I think he is right in his assessment, although there are evangelical scholars whose findings definitely support this Messianic Jewish perspective.  Early on our discussion involved the text in Matthew 23 which reads as follows:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. (Matthew 23:1-3 ESV)

To this passage, Mr. Koenig said,

So you want to pound on Jesus saying the rabbis are in Moses’s seat, and we must do what they say to do. But you want to pick and choose and reject the rabbinic glosses that are just silly, like keeping separate dishes based on a command that just says not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk, or perhaps Corbin rules that are just a loophole to avoid honoring mother and father. But then you must think Jesus only wanted us to one [obey?] the rabbis when the rabbis’ teaching meets some extrinsic standard. But then why did Jesus say do what they say when what they say is biblical. Maybe you are trying to place too much weight on that one somewhat obscure saying. If it means what you say, then why should there be caveats and carve outs where the rabbis are obviously wrong? Also, how could the apostle john say later that we don’t need anyone to teach us, since we have the annointing of the spirit within us, if really we do need the rabbis to teach us and interpret the law for us, and tell us how, in effect, we are to follow Jesus.

In response to his accusations, I see at least four issues:

  1. Is there a clear undestanding available for Matthew 23:2-4 such that we are compelled to deal with it if we claim to honor the Bible as God’s directive to us?
  2. Does the Newer Testament hold that we don’t need human teachers at all?
  3. Are the rabbis’ interpretations of Torah “just silly” or is there another way we should look at things?
  4. Did Yeshua tell us to follow rabbinic halakha in principle with some exceptions, and can we live with that?

Today I will begin answering the first question, and for the most part I will be summarizing  the excellent article on this passage by Dr. Rabinowitz, “Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisees and Does He Endorse Their Halakhah?” while adding some comments of my own. The text from Matthew 23:2-4 is especially remarkable in view of Yeshua’s conflict with the Pharisees and Scribes throughout the gospel of Matthew. However, this very disparity is a sign of the authenticity of the passage because when copyists or other corrupt biblical texts it is generally in the direction of harmonizing the text in question with other texts with which it appears to be dissonant. However, this text was and remains dissonant with the common understandings of other Matthean texts about the role of the Torah, and the vact that it has survived so long as a beacon to many and a bone of contention to others, can only be due to Divine foresight. If this were a corrupted text its rough ages and dissonance would have been smoothed out long ago. Let’s examine first, what is the seat of Moses? Four possbilities have been offered:

  1. An actual piece of synagogue furniture
  2. A metaphor for having assumed the role of the Law’s interpreters
  3. A specially designed chair to hold the Torah when it not being read from in the syangogue
  4. The social position of the Pharisees as those with the authority to interpret the Law

Seat of Moses in Ancient Chorazin Synagogue

Rabinowitz favors the  first interpretation.  Archaeologisits have found five stone seats facing the congregation where the teacher might teach from have been found in five different locales both in the Land and in the Diaspora. Likely there were many other such seats made of wood which have long since become dust, but these ancient relics remain as mute testimony to the reasonableness of this interpretation. The second option, even though figurative, coalesces with the first. Yes, there was an actual seat, “the Seat of Moses” in synagogues where authorized teachers sat to teach Torah, and one could speak of the Pharisees sitting in Moses’ Seat as a metaphor for this role.


Muslim Mosque Teaching Chair

I would add that this idea has echoes that have remained to this day. In Muslim culture, imams sit on a chair near a pillar of the mosque to teach while their students sit on the floor. This is “the teaching chair.”  The Universities of Europe picked up on this custom, so that from Medieval times to the present day, we speak of people holding “the Chair of Jewish Studies” or “The George Eldon Ladd Chair of New Testament Theology” etc.  Why do we refer to “chairs?”  Because of the association with this ancient Middle Eastern custom of teachers sitting in chairs associated with their authority to teach.

Finally, in the Roman Catholic world, when the Pope makes binding doctrinal pronouncements, he is said to be speaking “ex cathedra.” The Catholic Encyclopedia to be found at the website fills us in: “Literally ‘from the chair’, a theological term which signifies authoritative teaching and is more particularly applied to the definitions given by the Roman pontiff. Originally the name of the seat occupied by a professor or a bishop, cathedra was used later on to denote the magisterium, or teaching authority. The phrase ex cathedra occurs in the writings of the medieval theologians, and more frequently in the discussions which arose after the Reformation in regard to the papal prerogatives.”

The third choice, that the chair was a place where the Torah itself was placed, has its proponents as chairs have been found with holes to hold the wooden rollers of the Torah. However, in the arhaeological examples used to support this theory,  these holes are not evenly spaced  and the model is underrepresented in the archaeologcial data. In fact, it is first attested to in the 16th century, and for these reasons is of dubious value. Rabinowitz views the fourth position to be even less likely, that is, that “’the Seat of Moses’ is a metaphor used by Jesus to describe the Pharisees’ role within the synagogue. . . . ‘their social position as people who control accessibility. They are the ones who know and are able to tell others what Moses said.’” (Mark Powell, “Do and Keep What Moses Says [Matthew 23:2-7], JBL 114 [1995].  Rabinowitz says that this is implausible because it is “unlikely that Matthew’s messianic community would be completely dependent upon the Pharisees for their access to the Scriptures.” After considering all the possible positions, Rabinowitz says, “We return to our earlier assertion that the Seat of Moses was a physical piece of synagogue furniture upon which authorized teachers of the Torah sat.” And as we said earlier, the parallel and ancient custom found in the Muslim world and in the Roman Catholic world, as well as in university practice make this to be an entirely reasonable and credible likelihood.

 The meaning of Matthew 23:2

PhariseesInterpreting this text requires one to determine “how Jesus can command the disciples to do what The Pharisees command and then issue a blistering vitriol against them for their hypocrisy and false reaching.” Rabinowitz considers three important interpretations represented in the literature.

  1. Past authority view, which holds that the Pharisees formerly occupied this seat but no longer. But then how can one make sense of Yeshua’s admonition to do what they say now?
  2. Presumption view, which holds that “the Pharisees acted with great presumption and assumed the mantle of Moses’ teaching authority illegitimately. This is how the NASB interprets the passage, “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses” (428).  D.A. Carson takes a similar view, but this view creaes more problems. If the Pharisees have usurped or presumed authority by taking their seat in the Seat of Moses, why would Yeshua urge his disciples to do as they say?
  3. Establish culpability view. Some commentators suggest that Jesus is only setting the Pharisees up for their greater culpability, highlighting their failure to honor their (presumed?) role as Torah teachers, making them therefore deserving of God’s judgment and dismissal.  Such interpreters see the point of verse three to be the second half: Do not do as they do.” But this still fails to account for the command Jesus gives for us to do as they say.

Rabinowitz rightly suggests that all of the foregoing views are “driven by a set of unwarranted and negative presuppositions about Pharisaic Judaism,  Furthermore, these intepretations fail to provide a logical basis for the commands in verse 3. We still do not know why the disciples should observe whatever the scribes and Pharisees thell them.” I would underscore what he said about “unwarranted and negative presuppositions about Pharisaic Judaism. This is the default position of Christian theologizing even in the conservative evangelical world. I cannot remember ever hearing a Christian preacher or teacher on religious radio speak about the Pharisees and their Judaism except in a negative manner. The evidence is overwhelming that this is the default position. Rabinowitz concludes that “a more straightforward reading of this verse [is] in order. We know that the seat of Moses was an actual chair in the synagogue where authorized teachrs of the Torah sat. when Jesus states that the Pharisees sit in the seat of Moses, he means this both literally and figuratively. Taken at face value, and when read in conjunction with verse 3a, this verse seems to suggest that the scribes and Pharisees where authorized and legitimate teachers of the Torah” (429-430). He further states that the verb form ekathisan (seated) functions like a Semitic stative perfect and should be understood as “the scribes and Pharisees have sat down and they are still sitting there.”

Does Yeshua Endorse the Halakha of the Pharisees?

Indeed, does he give here a blanket endorsement of Pharisaic authority?

Rabinowitz suggests three issues to be dealt with in answering this question.

  • What is the basis of Jesus command to obey the Pharisees? A concession to the reality of Pharisaic dominance and authority in Second Temple Judaism? However, Yeshua doesn’t merely concede this state of affairs: he instructs his disciples to obey them as a matter of policy.
  • Lightfoot suggests that this refers to civil as opposed to doctrinal authority.  “Christ here asserts the authority of the magistrate.  But this argument imposes a later distinction between civil and religious authority that did not exist in first century Judaism. Pharisaic authority and its halakhic expressions were huge and pervasive at this time, as is evident from archaeological evidences of the numerous mikva’ot, stone vessels, and ossuaries for the reburial of bones dating from that time, all related to Rabbinic halakhah. Indeed, much of my dissertation work studied the Pharisees as precursors of the modern rabbi. By the time of Yeshua, the Pharisees had instiutionalized a paradigm called “The Three Crowns:” The crown of Torah, the crown of Kingship, and the crown of Priesthood, that is, the three modalities by which God mediated his authority to Israel. The Pharisees had established themselves as the custodians of the crown of Torah, and taught that the crown of Torah was greater than the other two and encompassed them.  On our present point, this tells us that the Pharisess had incorporated civil authority (the crown of kinship) under the crown of Torah of which they were custodians. Imaginging that the crown of civil authority or of governance could be separated out from rabbinic authority is just that, an imagining. But it does not reflect the facts on the ground.

While the concession argument has some merit, it fails to resolve its tension with Jesus’ command to obey the Pharisees in whatever they tell us to do. Similarly, why would Yeshua direct the disciples to obey those whose authority he rejects.

  • Rabinowitz insists that the only interpretation that makes sense is a straightforward one: “the disciples are to recognize the teaching authority of the scribes and Pharisees because they sit in the Seat of Moses” (432). This is a hard pill to swallow to those committed to negating the authority of the rabbis, but the text is too plain and its associations too strong to avoid this interpretation.

His command to do what the Pharisees teach invokes Deut 17:11, the very text upon which the authority bof the Sanhedrin, the Sages, and later rabbis is based. In verse 11, Moses instructs the Jewish people to submit to the legal rulings of the priest or the judge of each generation: According to the terms . . .’ of the law which they teach you, and according to the verdict which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside from the word which they declare to you, to the right or to the left.’

Jesus’ command to do and keep whatever the Pharisees say clearly echoes this text, and it is simply untenable to imagine that his choice of words is accidental. Similarly it is untenable to imagine that the oral society to which he was speaking did not “get” the association he was drawing. Despite how disappointing and vexing it is for some to even imagine that Jesus is endorsing the authority of the rabbis to instruct His disciples in Jewish life, the text is stubbornly explicit, and the allusion to Deuteronomy 17:11 seals the issue and its interpretation.

What does Jesus mean by “all things?”  Is this to be taken literally or figuratively?

Several scholars take Yeshua’s words here to be ironic, actually sarcastic. In this case, Yeshua means the opposite of what he is saying: he means “I suppose you could say that the Pharisees sit in Moses Seat: but, oh yeah, don’t do what they say, for God’s sake!” This is how Jeremias and D. A. Carson see it—as biting sarcasm.  But such scholars confuse “irony” with “exaggeration.” While Yeshua may be exaggerating when he says “all things” he is not denying the imperative to obey what the Pharisees teach. In irony, on the other hand, he could be doing that. An exaggeration is essentially true, even if overstated. Jesus is here overstating, that is, exaggerating, when he says that we are to do all things they tell us to do, but on the basis of what else he has said up to this point, it makes no sense to imagine that he was dismissing the relevance and authority of the rabbis’ teaching. He strongly adheres to the opposite. Rabinowitz puts it nicely for us,

The Pharisees were guilty of false teaching and hypocrisy but they were not guilty of usurping their position as Israel’s authoritative teachers. The disciples are to follow the teaching of the Pharisees in principle, but they are not to follow a particular teaching that clearly contradicts the expressed or implied intent of Scripture.  The “point” Matthew wishes to make is that the multitudes and disciples should practice what the Pharisees tell them, but they should not practice all that the Pharisees actually do.

 “All things.” The Torah and the halakha of the Pharisees?  

Some authorities categorically reject that Yeshua could have been speaking of the halakha and the oral tradition.  Robert Banks, in Jesus and the Law, insists that Jesus draws a sharp distinction between Torah and rabbinic halakha, and presents Jesus “in unrelieved opposition” to the latter. Robert H. Stein also insists that the disciples were to obey the Older Testament Law but not the oral traditions. But Rabinowitz asks, and I agree, if such a bifurcation is possible. “Can exegesis so neatly separate application and practice?” I would add that this sharp division between Oral Law and written Law is alien to the Jewish way of thinking.

Years ago, I. Howard Marshall, prominent evangelical scholar spoke at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena. I don’t remember the topic, but I do remember challenging him on a statement he made. He represented the apostles as engaged in a “Back to the Bible” kind of movement. In my question, I responded, “Aren’t you retrojecting back onto the apostles post Reformation categories?” He gave some sort of answer, to which a prominent academic at Fuller said to me, “Your question was better than his answer.”  And it was. And as Rabinowitz reminds us, “Jesus did not say, ‘practice what they say about what is written’; he said ‘practice what they say.’” Jesus’ own practice of the oral tradition adds additional weight to his intending at least some halakhic traditions in his category of “what they say.”

Even though Matthew presents Yeshua differing with the Pharisees on matters of interpretation, his gospel nevertheless presents Yeshua as adhering to the halakha of his day. Rabinowitz says, “[Douglas] Moo is most certainly correct when he states that ‘the verdict that there is no evidence that Jesus kept any of the oral law cannot be sustained.’”  I would go further and state that Yeshua was essentially halachically observant, and differed with the authorities not on the propriety of halachic living but on some of the interpretations they favored, especially where he saw their intepretations violating the Great Commandment to love God with all our hearts, souls and minds, and the one like it, to love our neighbor as ourselves. It was when he perceived the balance between these two commandments to be awry that Yeshua differed, and sometimes strongly. I will continue this and get to Mr Koenig’s other questions listed at the top of this blog in a subsequent posting. Stay tuned. But first a concluding comment.

Concluding Comment: 

When I discussed this text with Mr Koenig on my Facebook page he dismissed the text as “difficult” and “obscure.” What makes the passage “difficult” is not that it is obscure: it is easy to understand. What makes it “difficult” is that it clearly contradicts the prevailing understanding of other texts. An “obscure” text is one like the one in 1 Corinthians where Paul speaks of some people “baptizing for the dead.” This is a strange and obscure text because there is nothing else to relate it to and we don’t know what he is talking about. But this Matthew text is very clear. That it appears to contradict prevaliling understandings of other texts is one of its strongest recommendations.  Eldon Epp and Gordon Fee in their Studies in the Theory and Method of New Testament Textual Criticism tell us that in figuring out whether a text in the Bible is accurately recorded, “The reading is less likely to be original that shows a disposition to smooth away difficulties.” In other words, in textual criticsm, difficult texts that do not harmonize with what we are used to are more likely to be reliable because doctoring of texts takes place when people try and smoothe out apparent discrepancies. I would say the same in matters of doctrinal progress: it is only by questioning prior understandings that we grow. I consider it unwise to only search the Bible for corroborations of what I already think I understand. Here we are discussin the difference between deductive reasoning (looking for corroboration of prior conclusions) and inductive reasoning (being open to the text challenging prior assumptions and certitudes). I absolutely favor the latter. I will say though that on the other hand, Mr Koenig has a point, that we are obliged to consider texts against the background of other texts. And the Bible is stuffed with texts wherein Jewish faithfulness to God is linked to obedience to Torah commands. This is not a minor teaching, it is a foundational assumptions of the Torah, the Writings, and the Prophets. But it doesn’t stop there: obdience to Torah is greately extolled in the Newer Testament as well, as in this same Book of Matthew, where Yeshua says this:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20 ESV)

What do we do with this text? Is this too “obscure and difficult?” And Luke/Acts is at pains to repeatedly emphasize Torah obedience as a mark of Jewish piety under the New Covenant, from the beginning of Luke/Acts, with Zechariah and Elizabeth walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless, to the end of the book with Paul attesting to the Jewish elders in Rome that he had never violated Jewish custom, and everything in between. We repeatedly see Torah obedience as characteristic of the Messianic Jewish piety, including that of the Apostle to the gentiles. And this emphasis recurs again and again in the book, as in the case of Stephen’s martyrdom speech where he critiques his executioners for having receive the Torah as given by angels and not having kept it. When all of these emphases are added together,  from Matthew’s Yeshua, from Luke/Acts, and the entire Older Testment, we have a context where our interpretation of the text in Matthew 23:1-3 is entirely appropriate and indeed “sound doctrine.” What if the exegetical tradition of dismissing Jewish Torah obededience as passé and irrelevant is what is obscure and difficult. What then?