“Woe to You . . . Hypocrites!” Re-reading Matthew 23:13-36 -- By: Andrew R. Simmonds

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 166:663 (Jul 2009)
Article: “Woe to You . . . Hypocrites!” Re-reading Matthew 23:13-36
Author: Andrew R. Simmonds


“Woe to You . . . Hypocrites!”
Re-reading Matthew 23:13-36

Andrew R. Simmonds

Andrew R. Simmonds is an attorney with D’Amato & Lynch, New York, New York.

Each of Jesus’ woes against the scribes and the Pharisees in Matthew 23 takes a highly stylized form of commendation immediately followed by a clarifying refutation. The first part builds up and the second part puts down. Thus while against the scribes and the Pharisees, the woes are all triggered off of their merits. Jesus mocked His opponents with their own words or acts.1 But for the technique to work, the person being attacked should be praiseworthy (otherwise there is no place for the buildup).2 The woes are not like the ordinary polemical genre of the day, an all-out frontal attack.3 Lacking many of the insults of the topos,4 the technique is a reminder that “absent friends can be as conspicuous as present ones.”5

In this method, according to Quintilian, a person censures another by means of pretended praise.6 The difference between the

pat on the back and the shove is the amount of force involved.7 Aristotle noted that a similar technique was used by “thoroughly skillful and unscrupulous prosecutors.”8 By mixing up a person’s merits with what is bad, accusers do their best to make use of the person’s merits in order to damage them.

Jesus’ woes each begin with positive statements, commendations that build up: (1) You hold the keys (23:13). (2) You willingly traverse the sea and land to make but one convert.9 (3) You (claim the power to) legislate the validity of oaths (vv. 16-22). (4) You are scrupulous in your tithes (vv. 23-24). (5) Your appearance is radiant (vv. 27-28). (6) Like a whitewashed tomb you are resplendent (v. 27). (7) You build tombs for the prophets and adorn memorials of the righteous (v. You must have a subscription and be logged in to read the entire article.
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