Matthew 23:2–4: Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisees and Does He Endorse Their Halakhah? -- By: Noel S. Rabbinowitz

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 46:3 (Sep 2003)
Article: Matthew 23:2–4: Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisees and Does He Endorse Their Halakhah?
Author: Noel S. Rabbinowitz


Matthew 23:2–4:
Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisees and Does He Endorse Their Halakhah?

Noel S. Rabbinowitz

[Noel Rabbinowitz is a doctoral student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2825 Lexington Rd., Louisville, KY 40280.]

Despite more than two centuries of scholarship, Matt 23:2–4 continues to vex many NT scholars. How can Jesus command his disciples to practice all that the scribes and Pharisees teach, while at the same time accusing the Pharisees of hypocrisy and of invalidating the word of God for the sake of their traditions? This dilemma leads Claude Douglas to conclude, “Either we must admit that here Jesus greatly exaggerates the facts or else he contradicts himself.”1

There is, we believe, a better solution to this seeming contradiction. The purpose of this paper is to suggest that Jesus does affirm the authority of the Pharisees and that for this reason he endorses their exposition of the Torah and their halakhic teachings in principle. This is not a blanket endorsement of all their teachings, but a qualified affirmation of the Pharisees in their role as teachers of the Law of Moses.

I. Does Jesus Affirm the Authority of the Pharisees?

Matthew 23:2 is indeed remarkable in light of the fact that throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is clearly in opposition to the Pharisees. He rebukes them for invalidating the word of God for the sake of their traditions (Matt 15:1–7) and calls them “fools” (Matt 23:17), “hypocrites” (Matt 15:6; 23:29) and “blind guides” who lead people astray (Matt 15:14; 23:16, 24).

How are we to square Jesus’ clear and unequivocal repudiation of the Pharisees and their teachings with Matt 23:2? We are faced with the difficult but important task of reconciling these two apparently conflicting realities.

1. The “Seat of Moses.” Our first order of business must be to determine the meaning of the phrase “the Seat of Moses” (τη̑ς Μωῢσέως καθέδρας). The precise meaning of the term remains a subject of much debate among scholars. Resolving this question is important, because it has direct bearing upon our understandin...

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