Matthew 23
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. Matthew 23:1-39. A Discourse to the Disciples respecting the Pharisees and the Jewish Nation

The strength and weakness of the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:1-12).

Only a part of this discourse appears in the other Synoptics; for this portion cp. Mark 12:38-40; Luke 11:43-46; Luke 20:46-47.

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples,
Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat:
2. sit in Moses’ seat] i. e. succeed him as teachers. For sitting as the posture of a teacher cp. ch. Matthew 5:1.

All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.
For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.
4. they bind heavy burdens] Impose the grievous enactments of the Law. Cp. “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (ch. Matthew 11:30).

But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments,
5. phylacteries] Greek φυλακτήρια = “defences,” and in late Greek “amulets” or “charms.” The Hebrew name, tephillin, which is still in use, signifies “prayers.” They were slips of parchment inscribed with four portions of the Law (Exodus 12:3-16; Deuteronomy 6:5-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21) enclosed in little cases or boxes made of calf-skin, and fastened by leather straps to the left arm and on the forehead, in accordance with a literal interpretation of Exodus 13:16 and Deuteronomy 6:8. To make the phylacteries, or rather the cases which contained them, broad and conspicuous was to assume a character of superior piety, for the phylacteries were symbols of devotion.

Jesus does not prohibit the practice of wearing phylacteries, but the ostentatious enlargement of them. It is thought by many that our Saviour Himself wore phylacteries.

enlarge the borders of their garments] Strictly, the fringe of the talith, or cloak: another instance of ostentation; the blue threads in the fringe, the colour of the sky—were a type of heavenly purity. Our Lord Himself wore the fringed talith (see ch. Matthew 9:20); the offence of the Pharisees consisted in enlarging the symbolical fringes.

And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues,
6. the uppermost rooms] i. e. “the most honourable seats.” The Jews, like the Romans, reclined at meals on couches, called triclinia—each containing three seats—and each seat having its special dignity. The seats on the triclinia are here called “rooms.”

And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.
7. to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi] Literally, great [one], lord. This title, with which the great doctors of the law were saluted, was quite modern, not having been introduced before the time of Hillel. The true teaching on this point is found in the Talmud, “Love the work but hate the title.”

But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.
8. be not ye called Rabbi] The emphasis is on “ye,” which is expressed in the Greek. Ye as Scribes of the Kingdom of Heaven must not be as the Jewish Scribes.

And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.
Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.
10. masters] Rather, leaders, guides, it is not the same word as in Matthew 23:8.

But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.
11. Cp. ch. Matthew 20:26-27.

Seven woes denounced against the Scribes and Pharisees. 13–36.

And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.
13. ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men] In allusion to the symbolic “key of knowledge” given to the Scribe on admission to the order. They use their keys to shut rather than to open the doors of the Kingdom.

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.
14. ye devour widows’ houses] i. e. “consume their substance,” by illegal exaction or by working upon their religious feelings; a common form of rapacity. The Vatican and Sinaitic MSS. omit this verse, which occurs Mark 12:40, and Luke 20:47.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.
15. compass] “go about,” “traverse.” The word is used of our Lord’s “circuits” in Galilee, ch. Matthew 4:23; Matthew 9:35.

proselyte] Literally, one who approaches, hence, “a worshipper,” (cp. Hebrews 10:1), “a convert.” The Pharisee, St Paul, carried with him into his new faith the same zeal, with a higher motive. He describes (2 Corinthians 11:26) “the perils by water, perils in the city, and perils in the wilderness,” which this eager “compassing of land and sea” brought to him.

Judaism has been classed among the non-missionary religions. This is true at the present day, and through most of its history. Indeed, Rabbinical sayings display jealousy of proselytes. On the other hand, John Hyrcanus imposed Judaism on Edom at the point of the sword (1Ma 5:65-66). The conversion is recorded of whole tribes in Arabia, and on the shores of the Caspian. Also, it appears from the Acts that the number of proselytes in Asia Minor and in Greece was considerable. And in later days Solomon Malco, a Portuguese Jew, was burnt to death under Charles V. on a charge of proselytizing. Probably the proselytism in the text is connected with the charge of rapacity; the Pharisees seeking to convert wealthy Gentiles, over whom they obtained influence.

child of hell] Rather, Song of Solomon of Gehenna.

twofold more the child of hell than yourselves] In accordance with a tendency in new converts to exaggerate the external points of the creed which they adopt, Gentile proselytes strained to the utmost the worst features of Pharisaism.

Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!
16. the gold of the temple] i. e. the offerings made to the Temple, called “Corban,” or “devoted;” the use of that word made an oath binding, see ch. Matthew 15:5.

Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?
And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty.
Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?
Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon.
And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein.
And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.
23. ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin] “Mint and rue and all manner of herbs,” (Luke 11:42.) Zeal in paying tithes was one of the points of reform under the Maccabees.

anise] Greek ἄνηθον, either=“anise” as in E.V., or “dill,” a plant similar in appearance, and used like anise as a sedative medicine and for cooking purposes.

cummin] See Isaiah 28:25; Isaiah 28:27, where the special method of beating out cummin seeds is named. “It is used as a spice, both bruised to mix with bread, and also boiled in the various messes and stews which compose an Oriental banquet.” Tristram, Nat. Hist. of Bible.

weightier matters of the law] The distinction between great and small precepts of the law is found in the Talmud. Schöttgen gives many instances, p. 183. One saying is: “Observance of the lesser precepts is rewarded on earth; observance of the greater precepts is rewarded in heaven.”

judgment, mercy, and faith] “Judgment and the love of God” (Luke).

Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.
24. strain out a gnat] A correction for the reading of E. V. “strain at a gnat;” the reading in the text appears in the earlier editions of the English Bible from Tyndale to Bishops’ Bible. See Cambridge Paragraph Bible, Introd., Appendix A. The reading of the E. V. is not a misprint, as some have thought; “to strain at” meant, to strain the wine on the occurrence of a gnat.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.
25. are full] Observe how swiftly and naturally Eastern speech passes from the figurative to the literal. The outside of the cup and platter is the external behaviour and conduct of the Pharisee, the inside of the cup is his heart and real life.

extortion] The same Greek word is translated “ravening,” Luke 11:39. Instances of this sin are alluded to Matthew 23:14-15. See notes.

excess] Opposed to sobriety and self-control. Luke in the parallel passage has “wickedness.”

Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.
26. that which is within the cup] Rather, the inside of the cup. Cp. Mark 7:4.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness.
27. like unto whited sepulchres] In Luke the comparison is to “graves that appear not,” by walking over which men unconsciously defile themselves. To avoid this ceremonial defilement the Jews carefully whitewashed the graves or marked them with chalk on a fixed day every year—the fifteenth of Adar. The custom still exists in the East. One of the spiteful devices of the Samaritans against the Jews was to remove the whitewash from sepulchres in order that the Jews might be contaminated by walking over them.

Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous,
29. build the tombs of the prophets, &c.] Luke 11:47-48. A portion of the Temple-offerings was devoted to this purpose. See Lightfoot, Hor. Hebr. ad loc.

And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.
Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets.
31. witnesses unto yourselves] You call yourselves children, and indeed you are children of those who slew the prophets. You inherit their wickedness in compassing the death of the Prophet of the Lord.

Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers.
Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?
33. generation of vipers] See note ch. Matthew 3:7.

the damnation of hell] Rather, the judgment of Gehenna.

Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city:
34. I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes] Marking the continuity of the Christian with the Jewish Church.

ye shall kill and crucify] Kill, directly as Stephen (Acts 7:59), indirectly as James (Acts 12:2), and crucify, by means of the Roman power, as Symeon, second Bishop of Jerusalem (Eus. H. E. iii. 32).

scourge in your synagogues] See note ch. Matthew 4:23.

from city to city] As Paul pursued Christians to Damascus; as he was himself driven from Antioch in Pisidia, from Iconium, from Philippi, and from Thessalonica.

That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar.
35. from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias] If the reading “son of Barachias” be retained (it is omitted in the Sinaitic MS.) a difficulty arises; for the Zacharias, whose death “in the court of the house of the Lord” is recorded 2 Chronicles 24:20-22, was the son of Jehoiada. The words, however, do not occur in Luke 11:51, and are possibly interpolated. Zechariah the prophet was a son of Barachias: but of his death no record is preserved. Another explanation has been offered. At the commencement of the Jewish War with Vespasian a Zacharias, son of Baruch, was slain in the Temple by two zealots (Jos. B. J. iv. 5. 4). Accordingly many commentators have thought that Jesus spoke prophetically of that event. The coincidence is remarkable, but the explanation is hardly probable.

The space from Abel to Zacharias, son of Jehoiada, covers the whole history of the Jews; for the Jewish Canon, not being arranged in order of time, closed with the second book of Chronicles.

ye slew] The present generation shares in the guilt of that murder.

Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!
33–39. The Fate of Jerusalem

37. Jerusalem, Jerusalem] From Luke 13:34, it appears that our Lord spoke these words in a different connection at an earlier period of His ministry. For the pathetic reiteration of the name, cp. ch. Matthew 27:46. The Aramaic form for Jerusalem in the text appears here only in Matthew; it is the usual form in Luke. Probably the very form—Aramaic, not Greek—employed by our Lord is retained.

killest … stonest] Recalling the precise expressions of ch. Matthew 21:35.

as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings] Schöttgen ad loc. observes that converts to Judaism were said to come “under the wings of the Shechinah.” That thought may be contained in the words of Christ. Many times by His prophets He called the children of Jerusalem to Himself—the true Shechinah—through whom the glory of the latter house was greater than that of the former.

ye would not] Note the change to the plural.

Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.
38. your house] i. e. Jerusalem, rather than the Temple.

desolate] Omitted in the Vatican Codex, but too strongly supported to be removed from the text.

For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.
39. For explains “desolate” of Matthew 23:38. The Temple is desolate, for Christ, who is the Lord of the Temple, leaves it for ever.

till ye shall say] Till, like the children in these Temple-courts, ye recognise Me as the Messiah. See ch. Matthew 21:15. The words of Jesus, and the place, and the anger of the Scribes, may have recalled to some the scene in which Jeremiah, on the same spot, denounced the sin of Israel, called them to repentance, and foretold the destruction of the Temple: “then will I make this house like Shiloh” … “and all the people took him, saying, Thou shalt surely die,” Jeremiah 26:1-8.

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