Directing his words to his disciples in the hearing of the multitude, Jesus told them to watch out for the scribes, many of whom would have been Pharisees. In pronouncing “woe,” grief, or distress for the scribes and Pharisees, he called attention to their wrong attitude and practices. (Matthew 23:1, 13; Mark 12:38; Luke 20:45, 46)
It is noteworthy that the first-century Jewish historian Josephus did not hold back from making unfavorable comments about the Pharisees in the time of Herod the Great. He called them a “cunning sect,” and spoke of them as having caused mischief and greatly opposed kings. (Antiquities, XVII, ii, 4) Yet, he, at the age of 19 and after having made an examination of the sects among the Jews (Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes), “began to conduct [himself] according to the rules of the sect of the Pharisees.” (Life, 2)
Therefore, the strong language Jesus used should not occasion surprise. Earlier, while a guest in the home of Simon (a Pharisee), he had made some of the same or similar expressions. (Luke 11:39-52)
The scribes and Pharisees had seated themselves on the “seat of Moses,” occupying the position of teachers of the law. When it came to the instruction that was based on the law, Jesus told those who were listening to observe it but not to follow the practices of the scribes and Pharisees. This is because, although teaching what the law said, they did not act in harmony with their words. (Matthew 23:2, 3)
The scribes and Pharisees imposed heavy burdens on the people, loading them down with harsh and unreasonable regulations and restrictions that went far beyond what the Mosaic law outlined. When they saw how difficult their added commands had made it for the people, they did nothing to rectify the situation. As Jesus said, they were unwilling to lift a finger to move the burdens. (Matthew 23:4)
The scribes and Pharisees were chiefly concerned about how they appeared in the eyes of others. The aim underlying all the “works” they performed was a desire to be seen, impressing others with their devotion to God. They used larger phylacteries than their fellow countrymen, and wore garments with longer fringes than the rest of the people. (Matthew 23:5)
In the Dead Sea area, phylacteries dating from either the first century BCE or the first century CE have been found. They are small leather cases measuring between a half inch to one inch and a quarter in length and less than a half inch to one inch in width. Usually, strips of parchment with neatly written minute characters from Exodus (13:1-10; 13:11-16) and Deuteronomy (6:4-9; 11:13-21) were folded to fit into tiny compartments in the small leather cases. If the ancient phylacteries are representative of those commonly used when Jesus was on earth, the ones the Pharisees had were noticeably larger. They also wore garments with larger fringes. According to the Tosefta (Berakhot, 6:25), the phylacteries on a man’s head and on his arm, as well as the mezuzah on his doorpost and the “four fringes” on his garment meant that he was surrounded by the commandments, and these would protect him.
The scribes and Pharisees dressed in fine robes, not in the common attire of workers. They wanted to be greeted respectfully in the marketplaces, to be acknowledged as godly men and called “Rabbi” (literally, “my great one” or “Teacher”), and to be honored with the front seats in the synagogues. These front seats faced the audience and were reserved for synagogue officials and notable guests. At meals and banquets, the scribes and Pharisees desired to recline in the foremost positions on the couches that were arranged on three sides of the table. (Matthew 23:6, 7; Mark 12:38, 39; Luke 20:46)
Jesus told his disciples that no one among them should be called “Rabbi,” for they had only one teacher (Jesus himself). All of them were brothers, indicating that no one was to lift himself up as being of superior rank. As brothers, they were not to call any man among them “father.” They had only one Father, the heavenly one. The disciples were not to call any individual their “instructor,” for they had only one instructor, the Christ. To him alone, they were to look for direction and guidance. The greatest among them would be identified by his being a servant, laboring among them in a loving and unassuming manner. To impress upon the disciples the importance of conducting themselves like lowly servants, Jesus said, “The one who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:8-12)
When pronouncing “woe” for the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus called them “hypocrites.” They were like actors on a stage who played a role but whose face was hidden by a mask. Their true identity was concealed by an outward appearance of piety. Instead of helping fellow Jews to be in a state of preparedness to be part of the realm where God is Sovereign, they shut them out of the “kingdom of the heavens.” This they did by maligning and opposing Jesus, the one whom his Father had appointed as king. They created a climate of fear and intimidation, making it difficult for others to put faith in Jesus. The unbelieving scribes and Pharisees refused to go into the kingdom. By their attitude, words, and actions, they cowed others into fearfully holding back from becoming Jesus’ disciples. (Matthew 23:13)
Many later manuscripts include another pronouncement of woe (Matthew 23:14) that is found in Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47. Jesus denounced the scribes and Pharisees for devouring the houses of widows and making a pretense with long prayers. Writing regarding certain Pharisees during the reign of Herod the Great, Josephus referred to them as men “who valued themselves highly” for being skilled “in the law of their fathers” and made others believe that God had “highly favored” them. (Antiquities, XVII, ii, 4) The strong language Jesus used suggests that they influenced widows to give of their resources to a degree that jeopardized their livelihood. The long prayers would have served to impress these widows, prompting them to respond to the scribes and Pharisees as men whom God highly favored.
The scribes and Pharisees insisted on observing the tradition of the elders, which led to undue stress on appearances. In the Tosefta (Berakhot, 3:20), mention is made of Haninah the son of Dosa who, though bitten by a poisonous lizard, continued to pray. His students reportedly later found the lizard dead at its hole.
For what they did to widows, influencing them in ways that meant loss instead of compassionately looking out for their welfare, the scribes and Pharisees would face a more severe divine judgment than would others for their wrongs. (Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47)
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites,” Jesus continued. They crossed land and sea, doing everything possible, to make one proselyte or convert. That convert would then be worse off than before, coming to be twice as much a “son of Gehenna” than they were. (Matthew 23:15) As a convert, he would be even more rabid than they in his attachment to the traditions that nullified God’s law and be even less inclined to put faith in Jesus. For the proselyte, there would be an even greater likelihood of grave loss. As a person whom God rejects, he would be thrown into Gehenna or tossed like a carcass unfit for burial into a dump where fires burn continually and maggots feed on whatever the flames do not consume. (Isaiah 66:24)
Again pronouncing “woe” or grief for the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus called them “blind guides.” They provided others with the wrong direction that, when followed, contributed to spiritual ruin. An example of this involved their teaching about oaths. They maintained that a person who swore by the sanctuary was not bound by the oath, nor was one who swore by the altar. If, however, he swore by the gold of the sanctuary or the offering on the altar, the oath was binding. With questions, Jesus exposed them as being senseless and blind. “Which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that sanctifies the gold?” “Which is greater, the gift [offering] or the altar that sanctifies the gift?” Summing up the right view of oaths, Jesus continued, “He who swears by the altar swears by it and everything on it, and he who swears by the sanctuary swears by it and by him who dwells in it [by God whose temple it was], and he who swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who is seated on it.” (Matthew 23:16-22)
Ancient Jewish sources indicate that not all formulas used in swearing had the same binding force. According to the Tosefta (Shebuot, 2:16), he who referred to himself as being subject to an oath “by the Torah” was liable, whereas one who said “by heaven” was exempt.
Verses 23, 25, 27, and 29 of Matthew 23 start Jesus’ denouncement with the words, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites.” His exposure is not focused on their beliefs or doctrines but on the serious flaws of their inner life.
They tithed mint (an aromatic plant), dill (a plant of the carrot family, the aromatic seeds of which are used for seasoning), and cummin (also a plant of the carrot family having aromatic seeds that are used for seasoning), but they “neglected the weightier matters of the law,” justice, mercy, and faith. (Matthew 23:23)
Ancient Jewish sources set forth many rules about tithing. According to the Tosefta (Maaserot, 3:7), the seeds and leaves of coriander and mustard plants were subject to the law of tithes. There were sages, however, who did not consider that tithing applied to the leaves of the mustard plant. These examples illustrate that seeds used for seasoning were tithed.
The scribes and Pharisees did not treat others with impartiality but looked down on those who did not conduct themselves according to the tradition of the elders, thereby failing to uphold justice. (John 7:47-52) Their abundant rules and regulations imposed a burden on the people. In their failure to respond reasonably and humanely to fellow Israelites whose lot was very difficult as subjects of a foreign power, they demonstrated themselves to be lacking in mercy or compassion. Although they knew what was contained in the Scriptures, they did not respond in faith to Jesus, the very one to whom the Scriptures pointed as the promised Messiah and the prophet greater than Moses. By failing to conduct themselves in harmony with the spirit of the law, with its emphasis on justice, mercy, and obedience, the scribes and Pharisees proved themselves to be unfaithful (faithfulness or fidelity also being a meaning that the Greek word for “faith” [pístis] can convey).
Jesus upheld the law that required tithing, referring to tithing as being among the things not to be neglected. Foremost, though, he placed acting with justice, mercy, and faith. (Matthew 23:23) When scrupulously tithing but disregarding the weightier matters of the law, the scribes and Pharisees manifested themselves as blind guides, persons whose example could not be trusted. As Jesus said, “Blind guides, you strain out the gnat but swallow the camel.” (Matthew 23:24)
Both the gnat and the camel were unclean for food according to the Mosaic law. By attending to minutiae while neglecting the truly important things, the scribes and Pharisees acted like persons who filtered out the tiny gnat but then swallowed something unclean as large as a camel.
They were very concerned about outward appearances and ceremonial cleanness. According to ancient Jewish sources, merely intending to do something that would make a utensil unclean did, in fact, do so. (Tosefta, Kelim Baba Batra, 3:13)
Jesus decried the emphasis the scribes and Pharisees placed on externals while overlooking the more important matters involving the deep inner self. He spoke of them as cleaning the exterior of the cup and the dish, being scrupulous about ceremonial cleanness. The inner self, though, was defiled, filled with plunder or greed and self-indulgence or intemperance. (Matthew 23:25)
Instead of compassionately responding to those in need, the scribes and Pharisees were guilty of causing widows to give what they actually needed to live, thereby robbing them. Though wanting to appear as pious and to be highly honored, the scribes and Pharisees were willing to rob others of dignity, calling them accursed and ignorant of the law. In their inordinate desire for honor and praise from others, they showed themselves to be intemperate. Their focus on themselves and appearances made them self-indulgent, which led to their serious failure to be loving, compassionate, just, and impartial.
Jesus called upon the “blind Pharisee” to change, first cleaning the interior of the cup and the dish so that the exterior might become clean. With moral purity existing in the deep inner self, the whole person would be clean. (Matthew 23:26)
The scribes and Pharisees resembled whitewashed burial places, which on the outside appeared attractively clean but contained the bones of the dead and everything else that was unclean. (Matthew 23:27) According to the law, anyone who touched a grave would be ceremonially defiled for seven days. (Numbers 19:16)
The whitewashing of graves or tombs identified them as places of uncleanness, making it possible for people to avoid inadvertently walking over them or getting too close to them and becoming ceremonially unclean. Ancient Jewish writings indicate that defilement could even result from an implement that one carried and which passed over a grave. According to the Tosefta (Ahilot, 15:12), a man was pronounced unclean because part of the goad he carried on his shoulder overshadowed a grave.
Like whitewashed tombs, the Pharisees appeared to be righteous or upright to others but in their inmost selves they were filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:28) In attitude, word, and action, they were not the pious ones they seemed to be, for they were woefully lacking in love and compassion for the needy and afflicted fellow Israelites in their midst. They were guilty of lawlessness, for they did not live up to the law’s requirements to act justly, compassionately, and faithfully.
The scribes and Pharisees built the burial places of the prophets and beautified the tombs of righteous ones. (Matthew 23:29) This suggests that they endeavored to locate where prophets and others known for their uprightness were buried. They then may have built tombs they considered more suitable to honor the prophets and, with decorative motifs, beautified the burial places or monuments of those known for their godliness.
The scribes and Pharisees maintained that they would not have participated with their “fathers” in shedding the blood of the prophets. Jesus pointed out that, by making this claim, they testified against themselves, admitting that their “fathers” killed the prophets. He then told them, as persons who were the children of murderers and so just like them, to fill up the measure of their fathers. This filling up would refer to their completing the record of bloodshed for which they would face the culminating judgment. (Matthew 23:30-32)
The scribes and Pharisees may have felt that they were distancing themselves from the sin of their ancestors, making amends by building the burial places of the prophets who had been unjustly killed. They, however, failed to consider the reason for their forefathers’ murderous hatred of the prophets and did not recognize that, in their desire to kill Jesus, they revealed themselves as having the same murderous disposition.
Rightly, he referred to them as “serpents,” vipers’ offspring. Their murderous fathers or ancestors could be compared to poisonous snakes, and they were just like them as part of their brood. He provided a serious warning with the question, “How can you flee from the condemnation of Gehenna?” (Matthew 23:33) How could they, with their murderous disposition, possibly escape the most severe judgment, being tossed like worthless carcasses on a garbage heap to be consumed by fire or maggots? (Isaiah 66:24)
To reveal the kind of persons they were in reality, Jesus would send them prophets, sages and scribes (knowledgeable men). The response of the scribes and Pharisees to those sent would expose them as deserving of punitive judgment. Some of those sent they would kill and crucify; others they would scourge in the synagogues and persecute in one city after another. (Matthew 23:34)
In this manner, they would add to the record of bloodguilt that began with the murder of Abel and continued to grow for centuries thereafter. A notable case from later centuries was the murder of Zechariah who reproved the people for transgressing God’s law. By the command of King Joash, Zechariah was then stoned and died “between the sanctuary and the altar.” (2 Chronicles 24:20-22; see the Notes section for additional comments about Matthew 23:35.) The unbelieving scribes and Pharisees would be held to account for the entire record of bloodshed (all the blood unjustly spilled from that of Abel to that of Zechariah). They and the rest of the unbelieving generation would experience this, which is what happened during the Roman military campaign that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem. (Matthew 23:35, 36)
As on a previous occasion (Luke 13:34, 35), Jesus called Jerusalem “the killer of the prophets and stoner” of those whom God had sent. Despite what the inhabitants of Jerusalem had done over the centuries and what the prominent ones of the nation were about to do to him, Jesus felt great compassion for the people. Often he had wanted to gather them like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, providing care and protection. The majority, however, did not want this, rejecting him and persisting in unbelief. (Matthew 23:37)
Therefore, their “house” would be left or abandoned to them. (Matthew 23:38) Likely the “house” refers to the temple, and a number of translations make this specific in their renderings. “Look! There is your temple, forsaken by God and laid waste.” (REB) “And now your temple will be deserted.” (CEV) Without a sacred status, the temple would eventually come to ruin, and so would the city.
As for the people, they would not see Jesus again until they acknowledged him as “blessed” and as coming in God’s name or as his representative. (Matthew 23:39) Seemingly, Jesus referred to his future return in glory. At that time, believers would welcome him, acknowledging him as the blessed representative of his Father, but all who persisted in unbelief would lament. With their “house” having been left to the unbelieving Jews, neither it nor they would have any special standing with God. Nevertheless, the people would not be debarred from accepting Jesus in faith and coming to be among those who would recognize him as coming in his Father’s name.
In the Court of the Women, where (according to ancient Jewish sources) 13 trumpet-shaped chests lined the surrounding wall and where people put their monetary offerings and contributions, Jesus had seated himself and observed the wealthy putting many coins into the chests. Among those contributing, he saw a widow. Her attire must have revealed that she was very needy. Yet she contributed two lepta. These two coins had very little value, not even being enough to buy one sparrow for a meager meal. (Matthew 10:29, where the price of two sparrows is mentioned as being one assarion or eight lepta [four quadrantes]) Jesus, however, recognized the great worth of her contribution, telling his disciples that she had given more than all the others. The rich had contributed just a little from their great abundance, but the destitute widow had given everything she had to live on. (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4) Her contribution was a bountiful expression of the her love for God, whose house the temple then still was.
On his way out of the temple precincts, the disciples approached Jesus and, impressed with the grandeur of the entire complex, directed his attention to the buildings—the beautiful stones and the costly gifts that served as ornamentation. One of them exclaimed, “What stones and what buildings!” (Matthew 24:1; Mark 13:1; Luke 21:5)
The Jewish historian Josephus personally saw the temple before its destruction and provided details about its magnificence. In his Antiquities (XV, xi, 3), he wrote that “the temple was built of stones that were white and strong, and each of their length was twenty-five cubits [37.5 feet, based on a cubit of 18 inches], their height was eight [12 feet], and their breadth about twelve [18 feet].” In another account, he referred to some of the stones as being “forty-five cubits [67.5 feet] in length, five [7.5 feet] in height, and six [9 feet] in breadth.” According to him, the front of the temple was covered with heavy gold plates, which, “at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor.” The brilliance was so intense that those who looked at the temple had to “turn their eyes away.” From a distance, the structure looked like a “mountain covered with snow,” for the parts that were not overlaid with gold were exceptionally white. “Spikes with sharp points” protruded from the top of the temple. These spikes served to prevent pollution from birds sitting on the top. (War, V, v, 6)
Tacitus (c. 55 to c.117 CE), a Roman historian, also indicated that the temple was an impressive structure, one of “immense wealth.” It “resembled a citadel, and had its own walls, which were more laboriously constructed than the others. Even the colonnades with which it was surrounded formed an admirable outwork. It contained an inexhaustible spring; there were subterranean excavations in the hill, and tanks and cisterns for holding rain water.” (Histories, Book V, translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, and edited by Moses Hadas)
Jesus told his disciples that not a stone would be left remaining upon a stone. Everything would be cast down. (Matthew 24:2; Mark 13:2; Luke 21:6)
Jesus’ words were fulfilled when the Roman armies under the command of Titus destroyed Jerusalem. Although Titus did not want the temple to be destroyed, a Roman soldier, according to Josephus, snatched burning materials and, being lifted by another soldier, “set fire to a golden window, through which there was a passage to the rooms that were round about the holy house.” When a messenger informed Titus about the fire, he hurried to the temple area and ordered the soldiers to put out the flames, but his words could not be heard above the din. (War, VI, iv, 3-7)
In his comments about Vespasian, the ancient Roman historian C. Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 71 to c. 135 CE) wrote: “After an obstinate defence by the Jews, that city [Jerusalem], so much celebrated in the sacred writings, was finally demolished, and the glorious temple itself, the admiration of the world, reduced to ashes; contrary, however, to the will of Titus, who exerted his utmost efforts to extinguish the flames.” (English translation by Alexander Thomson; revised and corrected by T. Forester)
It is probable that the “Zechariah son of Barachiah” referred to in Matthew 23:35 is the Zechariah who was killed during the reign of King Joash. If this identification is correct, “Barachiah” may have been another name for Jehoiada. The original reading of fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus and a few later manuscripts do not include the words “son of Barachiah.” Whether this is a reflection of the original reading or an attempt to correct a seeming error cannot be established with certainty.
The postexilic prophet Zechariah was the “son of Barachiah” (Zechariah 1:1, LXX), leading some to conclude that he is the one referred to in Matthew 23:35. This does not appear to be likely, for there is no indication that he was murdered “between the sanctuary and the altar.” Furthermore, the remnant that had returned from exile responded favorably to his message and that of his contemporary Haggai.
Among those who deny that Jesus said these words, the view has been advanced that Zechariah is the eminent citizen whom two zealots killed in the temple precincts after he was acquitted of false charges. (Josephus, War, IV, v, 4) This occurred many years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and so does not harmonize with the setting in which the words of Matthew 23:35 were spoken.