By January 24, 2016 Read More →

Moshe Weinfeld. “The Jewish Roots of Matthew’s Vitriol.” Bible Review 13, 5 (1997).

Coin of Alexander JannaeusThe Evangelist Matthew considered himself and his followers Jews. The gospel writer saw himself as being involved in a Jewish struggle, as he and the emerging rabbinic movement vied for leadership. Anthony Saldarini, in his excellent BR article on the Gospel of Matthew 23, correctly portrays Matthew’s attack on the “scribes and Pharisees” as an intra-Jewish dispute.a

In fact, Saldarini was more right than even he may have realized. Not only was the dispute internecine, Matthew’s specific criticisms of the scribes and Pharisees are deeply rooted in contemporaneous Jewish tradition. Pharisees were reproached as hypocrites in rabbinic sources as well as in Matthew.b In the Talmud, Pharisees are criticized for showing off their religious devotion in every possible way: One is castigated for “carr[ying] his piety on his shoulder,” another for looking for tasks to perform merely to prove that he observes everything possible.1

The Dead Sea Scrolls contain similar accusations. The Pharisees are called “seekers after smooth things” and are compared with “lying interpreters” and “seekers of deceit.” They are depicted as hypocrites “who by their false teaching and their lying tongue and a deceitful lip lead many astray.”2

Much of this enmity toward the Pharisees finds its source in a rebellion against the Jewish king Alexander Yannai (Jannaeus) in 88 B.C.E. In this struggle, the Pharisees sided with the rebels in an assertion of their own power. They even called in the Greek king of Syria, Demetrius III, to join their side. That is why Yannai crucified hundreds of Pharisees when the rebellion ended.

Not only the contents of Matthew’s accusations but even their structure is rooted in Jewish tradition. The so-called Woes (“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees…”) of Matthew 23:13–36 are written in a common form of Jewish admonitions.

Jewish polemics, like the Gospel of Matthew, often contrast practice and preaching. Scribes and teachers of Torah who do not follow their own prescriptions are called “hypocrites in regard to Torah.” A rabbinic proverb refers to “those who preach well but do not practice well.”3

Matthew and the rabbis also share the view that the dichotomy between preaching and practice will lead to divine disfavor. In Matthew 23:13, the scribes and Pharisees are “locked out” of the kingdom of heaven because of their hypocrisy. Similarly, in a rabbinic source: “A man who possesses learning without the fear of heaven is like a treasurer who is entrusted with the inner keys but not with the outer; how is he to enter?”4

The unfortunately common juxtaposition of ceremonial piety, on the one hand, and oppression of the underprivileged, on the other, is as clearly condemned in rabbinic literature as it is in Matthew. The following is from a rabbinic text Ecclesiastes Rabbah:

They wrap themselves in cloaks and put phylacteries on their heads. Of them it is written, “Behold, the tears of the oppressed, with none to comfort them.” Says God, “It is mine to punish,” as it is said: “Cursed be they who do the work of the Lord deceitfully.”
1:9; quoting Jeremiah 48:10

Similarly, another rabbinic source reads, “You are not to put on phylacteries and wrap yourself in your [fringed] cloak (tallit) and then go forth and commit transgression.”5

In short, accusations of hypocrisy leveled against the Pharisees in rabbinic literature are the same as in the Gospels. The very actions denounced in rabbinic literature are denounced in the same terms in Matthew. This form of critique was clearly prevalent in Judaism at the time Christianity was taking shape as a religious movement.

Comments are closed.