Book: Judaism— Revelation of Moses Or Religion of Men?

The people worship Me in vain, teaching for doctrine the traditions of men.”

If we are to understand Judaism and evaluate its claim to represent the “religion of the Old Testament”—the way of life God gave through Moses—then we must understand its historical context. While the seeds of Judaism were sown long before Jesus' time—even as far back as the Jews' exile in Babylon—it is in first-century Palestine that we get the clearest picture of the movement's Pharisaic roots. As will be emphasized throughout this book, Judaism—by the admission of the Jews' own scholars and rabbis—is Pharisaism. As we will see, the New Testament, though dismissed by Jews, provides a highly credible perspective on Judaism-in-the-making, allowing us to see right into the very heart of the religion.

If Judaism is anything, it is a religion of contradiction. An interesting similarity exists between Judaism and mainstream Christianity that best illustrates the point. As a religious system, Christianity appropriates the name of Christ while frequently contradicting what Jesus actually taught. This can be seen, for example, in the Orthodox observance of Sunday, while Jesus Himself kept and upheld the seventh-day Sabbath. Nominal Christianity insists that commandment-keeping is annulled under the New Covenant, whereas Christ unambiguously affirmed the Law (Matt. 5:17-19). Likewise, as will be shown, Judaism claims to follow the written Torah as delivered through Moses, yet broadly contradicts the spirit and intent (and frequently the letter) of the Law through man-made traditions.

The Jews' religion of Jesus' day was similar to today's Christianity in another important aspect: it was anything but unified. Numerous sects and divisions dotted the religious landscape of first-century Judea—all claiming to originate with Moses, and each having its own set of beliefs.

Readers of the New Testament will likely be familiar with the major sects of first-century religion in Palestine: the scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees. Other groups included the Zealots, Herodians and Essenes—with many more minor offshoots. Before taking a look at each of the major players, we should first understand two key points. First, it is incorrect to view Judaism as the sum total of ancient Jewish religion. Rather, only the faction known as Pharisaism can be rightly labeled as Judaism. As will be brought out in detail, Judaism traces its origin directly to the dominant sect of the Pharisees. “The Jewish religion as it is today traces its descent, without a break, through all the centuries, from the Pharisees [with their scribal leaders]. Their leading ideas and methods found expression in a [mass of] literature of enormous extent, of which a very great deal is still in existence [as the Talmud]” (Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, “Pharisees,” p. 474; emphasis added).

Second, the average Jew of Christ's day was simply not interested in religion. In fact, it can be demonstrated that less than five percent of the total Jewish population in Palestine was directly associated with any of the major religious groups. Ernest Martin writes that “the overwhelming majority in Palestine had no direct membership in [the] religious denominations of Judaism [that is, first-century religion in general] and in most cases were not particularly religious at all” (Is Judaism the Religion of Moses?, p. 3). Like Christian “churchgoers” today, first-century Jews involved themselves in “religion” only occasionally—such as during the festival seasons of Passover, Firstfruits and Tabernacles. While many Jews occasionally attended Sabbath services at a local synagogue, the vast majority of Jews in no way considered themselves to be “members” of any religious group.

In Essential Judaism, George Robinson writes that the religious sects of that day “represented a small minority of the population of the Jewish world, probably no more than five percent in total.....” (p. 320). He continues: “The Pharisees were the largest of the ..... [religious] formations; [Jewish historian] Josephus puts their number at 6000, although contemporary scholars believe that figure to be inflated” (p. 321). The second largest group at that time was the Essenes (not mentioned in the New Testament) who, according to Josephus, numbered at around 4000 (Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII, i, 5).

The Sadducees were a “small elite group whose numbers included the High Priest” (Robinson, p. 321). Martin puts their number at less than 3000. The remaining minor groups—such as the Zealots, Herodians, etc.— had comparably few in number. Most historians estimate that the total Jewish population of Palestine in Jesus' day was approximately three million. Thus, less than five percent of the Jews of Palestine actually belonged to the top religious sects, indicating a clear lack of interest in religion.

It is also worth noting that, relative to the Jewish population, there were few synagogues in Palestine. For example, Martin writes that, based on historical data, there was only one synagogue in Capernaum. Located in the area of Galilee, Capernaum was a significant city in New Testament times with a considerable Jewish population. Judging from archeological remains, the Capernaum synagogue—one of the larger ones in Palestine—could seat no more than 500. Martin contends that this ratio of few synagogues to large numbers of Jews is typical throughout Palestine, and is proof that relatively few Jews actually attended synagogue services (pp. 5-6).

Those Jews who did attend the synagogues on occasion—mostly from among the am ha-aretz, or the “Common People of the Land”—did so to hear the Scriptures read. But this does not mean that they endorsed or followed the teachings of any particular group. For example, the leaders of the synagogues were, for the most part, Pharisees. But the average attending Jew had no desire to practice the sect's strict, disciplinary regulations—and neither were they compelled to do so. Martin writes: “The Common People who did attend the synagogue services . were not required to hold to the teachings of the Pharisees. The Pharisees exercised little real authority over the religious life of the people.” He adds that there was “little exercise of any central religious authority” during Christ's day, and that it was “only over the lives of the 'pious' that the Pharisees saddled [their] harsh religion” of strict rules (p. 5).

While many were drawn to the piety of the Pharisees and generally held the scribes in high regard, there was, however, little desire to emulate either group. Thus, many “dabbled” in religion to one degree or another, but few actually associated themselves with any particular sect. Still, overall, the Pharisees had the tacit support of the people.

The Pharisees—Progenitors of Judaism

In terms of influence, the most important sects of first-century religion were the Pharisees and Sadducees—the Pharisees being the most prominent. As we will see, much of the Pharisees' influence was due in no small part to their close association with the scribes—that mystical clique of scholars held in the highest esteem by the people. The Essenes were second in numbers to the Pharisees, but exercised little influence. Robinson notes that the Essenes were a “monastic group ..... [who rejected both the Sadducees and the Pharisees] as corrupt, and sought refuge from the daily world by withdrawing from society” (p. 321). Living mostly in the Dead Sea area, members of this antisocial sect were ascetics, and, as a group, are not mentioned in the New Testament. The apostle Paul denounces asceticism as a lifestyle in Colossians 2:21-23.

The Pharisees, who had the support of the Common People and controlled the synagogues, were fierce rivals of the Sadducees, who controlled the Temple. The key tenet of the Pharisees—and one that caused considerable controversy—was their insistence on following a so-called “oral law.” Robinson writes that the Pharisees were the “foremost exponents of the idea of the Oral Torah, which would [by about 500 AD] become the Talmud, as an adjunct to the Written Torah.” Through their oral law, the Pharisees “brought the [ritual] purity laws, [which] previously applied only to the priestly caste, into the Jewish home . [and established] boundaries of behavior, setting themselves apart from the general Jewish population in areas as diverse as food, dress, commerce, marriage and worship” (pp. 320-321).

According to Joachim Jeremias, the Pharisees “formed closed communities” (called a haburot) organized under the leadership of a scribe who served as an authority on the Scriptures. He writes that the Pharisees were not simply “men living according to the religious precepts laid down by Pharisaic scribes . they were members of religious associations.” (Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, p. 247). The influence of the Pharisees was not limited to the haburot, however, but reached into the greater community through the synagogue, which the scribes and Pharisees controlled.

Martin asserts that the Pharisees are best described as a religious fraternity or association, bound together in communal living to perform certain religious customs and traditions. “It is important to note that the Pharisees were merely an association of men who had bound themselves together to keep the Levitical laws of purity.... [But] they had not bound themselves to accept any [particular] creed or set of doctrines” (p. 10). In fact, it comes as a surprise to many that there was considerable diversity among the various Pharisaic communities when it came to doctrine. William Smith, author of Smith's Bible Dictionary, writes, “In the time of Christ [the Pharisees] were divided doctrinally into several schools, among which those of [rivals] Hillel and Shammai were the most noted” (p. 508, “Pharisees”). Hillel and Shammai were both scribes, or “doctors of the law,” with the Shammai school being rigidly conservative and the Hillel school being more yielding or liberal. (Whenever we see Jesus interacting positively with Pharisees— such as with Nicodemus—it most likely involves those from the Hillel school.) Apparently, there was considerable latitude when it came to what Pharisees could believe or teach—as long as they abided by the commonly-held Pharisaical code of laws and traditions.

Martin adds that “no creed existed in the synagogues ruled by the Pharisees. [Thus] almost every opinion was tolerated.” (p. 11). This lack of unity was a primary reason the scribes and Pharisees were unable to teach with power and authority—a flaw duly noted by those Jews who attended the synagogue. “And they [the Jews] were astonished at His [Jesus'] doctrine; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes [teach]” (Mark 1:22).

The Pharisees first came into prominence in the second century BC following the Maccabean struggle against Syrian oppression. The sect owes its “origin to the Hasidim of Maccabean times,” writes Jeremias (p. 259). The Hasidim were the pious of the Common People who were rigidly opposed to the sweeping changes taking place in the Jewish nation under the influences of Hellenism. “It is from this time we first hear of the Perushim or Pharisees, 'those who separated themselves,' a religious party which repudiated the royal religious establishment, with its high priest [and] Sadducean aristocrats . and placed religious observance before Jewish nationalism” (Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, p. 108). Jewish historian Solomon Grayzel suggests that Perushim comes from a Hebrew root word meaning “to separate”—referring to the sect's desire to have as little as possible to do with Greeks or Jews who had adopted Hellenistic customs (A History of the Jews, pp. 76-77).

In his Jewish New Testament Commentary, David Stern adds that “those whose main concern was not the [Temple] sacrifices but the [written] Torah were called Hasidim.... The successors to the Hasidim were known as P'rushim, which means 'separated ones,' because they separated themselves from worldly ways and worldly people. The P'rushim not only took the Tanakh to be God's word to man, but also considered the accumulated tradition handed down over centuries by the sages and teachers [scribes] to be God's word as well—the Oral Torah—so that a system for living developed which touched on every aspect of life” (p. 18; “Matt. 3:7”; emphasis added).

The Pharisees' connection to the Common People was central to their success. According to Robinson, the Pharisees were the only group with a “popular base” (Essential Judaism, p. 321), and Josephus notes that the “Sadducees [those primarily of the priesthood] [were] able to persuade none but the rich, and [had] not the populace obsequious to them, but the Pharisees [had] the multitude on their side” (Antiquities of the Jews, XIII, x, 6). Jeremias writes that “the Pharisees were the people's party; they represented the Common People as opposed to the aristocracy on both religious and social matters. Their much-respected piety and their social leanings toward suppressing differences of class gained them the people's support and assured them, step by step, of victory” (p. 266).

Here, Jeremias refers to the Pharisees' religious victory over the aristocratic Sadducean party—a triumph enjoyed for much of the first half of the first century AD, but complete only after the destruction of the Temple. The political arena, however, was another matter. Jeremias notes that “the Pharisees' influence on politics and the administration of justice in Palestine before 66 AD [the start of the first Jewish revolt against Rome] must not be exaggerated. Their only real importance during this time was in the realm of religion, and here they, not the Sadducees, were supreme” (p. 263).

The Scribes—Venerated Leaders of the Pharisees

Frequently in the New Testament we see the scribes mentioned along with the Pharisees, almost as if the two were inseparable. The reason is that the scribes, by the first century AD, formed a considerable subset of the Pharisees. Robinson writes: “The Pharisees included in their ranks many of the scribes, the men who [from post-exilic times] copied the proceedings of the Sanhedrin and the religious courts” (p. 321). Martin notes that many scribes “adhered to the Pharisaical rules of piety and, in fact, represented a particular group within the Pharisees. They were the scholarly Pharisees— sometimes called 'doctors of the law' [see Luke 5:17, etc.]” (Is Judaism the Religion of Moses?, p. 25).

It was during the Babylonian Exile, according to Johnson, when the Jews, bereft of their Temple, “turned to their writings—their laws, and the records of their past. From this time we hear more of the scribes. Hitherto, they had simply been secretaries . writing down the words of the great. Now they [were becoming] an important caste, setting down in writing [in a rough, preliminary form] oral traditions [in addition to] copying the precious scrolls brought from the ruined Temple.....” (p. 82; emphasis added). This statement offers considerable insight not only into the origins of the “doctors of the law,” but also into the beginnings of the oral law. As we will see in following chapters, the seeds of both were sown in the period of the Exile—only to be nourished throughout post-exilic times and brought to fruition during the inter-testament period. By the second century BC, the scribes—who because of their Levitical heritage once operated in close association with the priesthood—had moved well beyond their ancient role as copyists to become the primary teachers of the Pentateuch. As a distinctly “religious” party made up of highly-educated individuals devoted to copying, guarding and interpreting the Scriptures, the scribes found themselves in conflict with a Hellenistic priesthood, and thus resorted to an alliance with the People of the Land. Eventually, the overwhelming majority of scribes became aligned with the Pharisees, successors of the Hasidim.

Indicating their strong historical connection, Grayzel says that the “party of the scribes ..... became known as the Pharisee party” (p. 76). This, however, is not entirely correct. As a unique sect, the scribes long predate the Pharisees; yet, as we will see, the scribes' rise to power was codepend-ent on the dominance achieved by the Pharisees. Indeed, in terms of mindset, doctrine and practice, most scribes were virtually indistinguishable from the Pharisees. Jeremias admits that the composition of the Pharisaic community was “clouded in obscurity,” and that the Pharisees “were so closely linked with the scribes that it is difficult to separate them . [particularly] since the scribes' rise to power marked the rise of the Pharisees also” (pp. 246, 252). Critical of scholarship that fails to make a distinction between scribes and Pharisees, Jeremias adds that the problem is amplified by the way Matthew and Luke in particular often lump the two groups together (p. 246, footnote 1; see, for example, Matt. 5:20; 12:38; 15:1; 23:2-29; Mark 2:16; 7:1, 5; and Luke 5:21, 30; 6:7; 11:44, 53; 15:2).

Jeremias notes an important distinction in how Jesus reacted to the Pharisees as opposed to the scribes. To be sure, Christ pulled no punches— but He was careful not to confuse their behavior, addressing specific faults as they applied to each group. For example, Jesus reproached the Pharisees primarily for (a) emphasizing their traditional laws of purity while hypocritically remaining impure inwardly (Luke 11:39-40), and (b) for emphasizing tithe-paying while hypocritically failing to exercise righteous judgment and the love of God (verse 42). Jeremias contends that these reproaches have “nothing to do with a theological education [i.e., a specific creed]; [rather] they are leveled at men who [ostensibly] led their lives according to the demands of the religious laws of the Pharisaic scribes [but in reality failed to do so]” (pp. 253-254).

In contrast, Jesus reproached the scribes for (a) imposing strict religious laws on others while neglecting to keep those same laws themselves (Luke 11:46); (b) being quick to condemn to death those sent by God (verses 47-51); (c) withholding vital knowledge from the people while making no use of it themselves (verse 52); and (d) excessive pride and vanity— demonstrated by their pious dress, love for public salutations, demand for the chief seats (particularly in the synagogues), and tendency to make long public prayers for show (Luke 20:46-47; Mark 12:38-40). While many of these same faults definitely apply as well to the Pharisees (e.g., Luke 11:43), these reproaches are, according to Jeremias, largely a reflection of the “scribal education” of such “teachers of the law” (Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, p. 253).

While the majority of scribes clearly belonged to the party of the Pharisees, not all “teachers of the law” were Pharisees. Jeremias adds that we “must not underestimate the number of teachers [scribes] who did not belong to a Pharisaic haburot [community]” (p. 256). Some scribes, he says, could actually be found among the Sadducees, and a number of priests were scribes. While only a minority in the haburot, the scribes were nonetheless the “leading faction among the Pharisees. The laity who joined the Pharisaic communities and undertook to observe the Pharisaic laws on tithes and purity were far more numerous.” (pp. 257-258).

Jeremias also brings out the synergetic relationship that existed between the Pharisees and the scribes—an association particularly vital to the Pharisees (so important, in fact, that one wonders how they could function effectively without the scribes' scholarly leadership.) Recalling the sect's roots among the Hasidim, he writes that the Pharisaic community was “mostly composed of petty commoners, men of the people with no scribal education” (p. 259)—yet they lived “according to the religious precepts laid down by Pharisaic scribes” (p. 247, emphasis added). As models of piety, the party of the Pharisees represented “the ideal life which the scribes, [those] men of divine and secret knowledge, had set before them” (p. 267). According to Jeremias, “the leaders and influential members of Pharisaic communities were scribes” (p. 254), and the “Pharisaic communities especially gave their scribes unconditional obedience, and Pharisaic scribes were [among all first-century scribes] by far the most numerous” (p. 243, emphasis added).

This much is clear: As self-appointed guardians of Scripture and its proper observance, the Pharisees were quite dependent on the scholarly leadership of the scribes—who, in turn, benefited from their association with the Pharisees due to the sect's “popular base.” There is every indication that the scribes played a pivotal role in the development of Pharisaic thought—which gradually morphed into Judaism. As we will later examine, the scribes and Pharisees largely share a similar evolution—both slowly arose to positions of influence near the same time, and both were usurpers of authority; more importantly, together they gradually created a theology that revolved around a so-called “oral Torah.”

Central to the relationship between the scribes and the Pharisees is the fact that they both despised the Sadducees. This attitude can be traced back to the inter-testament period when both the scribes and the Hasidim (progenitors of the Pharisees) had nothing but contempt for a materialistic priesthood thoroughly corrupted by the Hellenistic movement of the second and third centuries BC.

Sadducees—Guardians of the Temple

If the Pharisees were “the separatists,” then the Sadducees, as John Phillips suggests, were “the moralists” (Exploring the World of the Jew, p. 37). By “moralist,” Phillips refers to the sect's strict adherence to the written Torah. In contrast to the Pharisees, he writes that the Sadducees “were never a large party numerically, but they made up for that in other ways. They were, for the most part, wealthy, aristocratic and influential. [Because of their elitist, Hellenistic past, they] were the materialists, the secularists of the day.... They opposed the Mishnah [codified oral law] and had no use for the cumbersome oral tradition so dear to the Pharisees. They interpreted the Law literally and severely” (p. 36). Jeremias adds that the “Sadducees formed a tightly closed group, with an elaborate tradition of theology and doctrine; they kept strictly to the exact text of Scripture.” (p. 232).

“Sadducee” is based on the Hebrew Zadok, a righteous priest during King David's time (I Kings 1:32); many take the term to mean “Sons of Zadok.” According to Jeremias, the Sadducean party was made up of “chief priests [including the High Priest] and elders, the priestly and the lay nobility” (p. 230), and were in charge of the rites in the Temple in Jerusalem. Robinson adds that the sect “believed in the Written Torah and only the Written Torah and . in the primacy of the hereditary [Aaronic] priestly caste” (Essential Judaism, p. 321).

In spite of their loyalty to the Scriptures, the Sadducees were not without faults. They denied the scriptural reality of a resurrection for the dead as well as the existence of an angelic realm (Acts 23:8)—and Christ included them with the Pharisees in warning His disciples of the “leaven [doctrine] of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt. 16:1-12).

The Sadducean party's adversarial position on the “oral law” created enormous tension between themselves and the Pharisees. Jeremias writes that the Sadducees “held strictly to the literal interpretation of the Torah . and thus found themselves in direct opposition to the Pharisees and their oral [law] which declared that the rules for purity for priests were binding on the pious laity too” (p. 231). He adds: “The conflict . dominated the profound religious revolution of [what would become] Judaism between the Maccabean wars and the destruction of Jerusalem” in 70 AD (p. 266). Robinson adds that in first-century Palestine the “lines within the Jewish community became sharply drawn around this issue” (p. 320).

Though still powerful and influential (at least in political circles), the Sadducees gradually lost more and more authority to the Pharisees. Jeremias writes that “a large number of important posts hitherto held by [Sadducean] priests and laymen of high rank, had, in the first century AD passed entirely, or predominantly, into the hands of [Pharisaic] scribes” (p. 237). Ultimately, the Jewish uprising against Rome in 66 AD and the subsequent destruction of the Temple “marked the [complete] decline of the lay nobility and of Sadducean influence, which had grown from the union of the priestly and the lay nobility. The new and powerful ruling class of the [Pharisaic] scribes had [already long] overtaken the ancient class of priestly and lay nobility, founded on the privileges of birth” (p. 232; emphasis added).

Nowhere was this more obvious than in the Sanhedrin, the supreme judicial assembly of post-exilic Jewish religion. The Sanhedrin “grew out of the union of . non-priestly heads of families, representatives of the 'secular nobility,' with the priestly aristocracy” (Jeremias, p. 223). Consisting of seventy-one members, the Sanhedrin of Jesus' day “fell into three groups: the chief priests who, in the person of the High Priest, held the presidency, the [Pharisaic] scribes, and the elders [the non-priestly nobility]” (p. 222). The priests and elders of the Sanhedrin were virtually all members of the Sadducean party, while the Pharisaic party in the Sanhedrin was “composed entirely of scribes” (p. 236).

The Pharisees did not always have a voice in the Sanhedrin. Made up originally of only the aristocracy—that is, the chief priests and nobility— the Sanhedrin admitted Pharisees for the first time under the rule of Queen Alexandra (76-67 BC), who held Pharisaic views (Jeremias, p. 223). “The decline of [the Sadducees'] power dates from the time of Alexandra; under her the Pharisees gained a foothold in the Sanhedrin, and the mass of the people rallied more and more to them.... [By the early part of the first century AD] the Pharisees, relying on their large number of supporters among the people, saw their power in the Sanhedrin becoming stronger and stronger” (p. 232). Jeremias adds that while the Sadducees controlled the Sanhedrin by a narrow margin, the growing influence of the Pharisees ultimately made itself felt, and those “high priests with Sadducean sympathies had to accustom themselves to withholding their views in council, and [were eventually compelled to submit] to carrying out [certain of] the Temple rites according to Pharisaic traditions” (p. 159).

In their fall from favor with the Common People, the Hellenized Sadducean priesthood abrogated their God-ordained responsibility to teach the Scriptures. By Jesus' day, the Pharisees, with their scribal leadership, had usurped much of that role and occupied “the seat of Moses”—leaving the Sadducees with only the administration of the Temple and its rituals. According to Phillips, the Sadducees compounded the problem in that they “denied the existence of angels, the truth of the resurrection, the immortality of the soul, and a future life” (Exploring the World of the Jew, p. 36). These doctrines were quite unpopular, so the Sadducees had few followers from among the Common People.

The priesthood's original position, however, is clear from Scripture. In matters of controversy, the children of Israel were to come to the priest and the judge in Jerusalem. “If a matter is too hard for you [the local judge] in judgment ..... being matters of strife [controversy] within your gates, then you shall arise and go up to the place [Jerusalem] which the LORD your God shall choose. And you shall come to the priests, [of the] the Levites, and to the judge that shall be in those days, and ask. And they shall declare to you the sentence of judgment” (Deut. 17:8-9).

Just before his death, Moses prophetically blessed each of the tribes of Israel. Of Levi—and thus referring to the priesthood—he said: “[Levi shall] teach Jacob Your judgments, and [teach] Israel Your Law. Let them [the priests] put incense before You, and whole burnt sacrifice on Your altar” (Deut. 33:10). In the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (a critical period which we will cover in detail later), “the Levites [under the direction of Ezra the priest] caused the people to understand the Law.... And they read distinctly from the Book of the Law of God. And they expounded the meaning and caused them to understand the reading” (Neh. 8:7-8). Apparently, this was the first time scribes—non-priestly Levites—had been used to officially teach the Torah. As we will later explore, this move may have inadvertently encouraged the scribes to eventually usurp the priesthood's God-ordained role as teachers of the Scriptures.

Clearly, it was God's intention that the priesthood was to teach the Law to His people. The prophet Malachi is unmistakable when he says that “the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and the people should seek the Law at his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts” (Mal. 2:7).

How, then, did the Sadducean priests of Jesus' day—who should have been teaching the Torah—forfeit that responsibility to the scribes and Pharisees? During the period of Syrian rule over Judah—a most difficult time in Jewish history which we will cover in detail in a later chapter—the priesthood had become corrupt and unfaithful in their duties. Instead of teaching the people God's laws and commandments, the priesthood had become chief proponents of Hellenism (Greek ways of life).

Ernest Martin writes: “Following the Maccabean victory [over the Syrians] there were many priests who were ready and willing to resume their ancient, God-given role as teachers and expounders of the Law. But there were also the lay teachers who . had made a notable contribution to the Maccabean cause at a time when many priests were outright Hellenists....” (“Between The Testaments,” from Tomorrow's World, p. 23). These “lay teachers”—scribes and Hasidic laymen—organized themselves into what became the Pharisees and rejected the sole authority of the priesthood to teach God's laws. “With the passage of time ..... these [scribal] Pharisaic lay teachers succeeded in convincing the people that they were right and that the priests were wrong” (p. 42).

Religiously speaking, very few Jews were Sadducees. According to Martin, the sect's “materialistic concept of Scripture and the fact that they were mainly priests . rich and [politically] influential” made them unpopular with the Common People. Overall, they were “rigidly exclusive and insignificant in numbers” (Is Judaism the Religion of Moses?, p. 13).

The “Oral Torah”—Defining Element of Pharisaic Judaism

The concept of a so-called oral Torah surreptitiously given to Moses is at the very heart of Judaism—and, as we have seen, was at the center of the rivalry between the Pharisees and Sadducees. According to Grayzel, the idea of an oral law may have originated with the question of how to interpret the written Torah, particularly in an environment of rapid social and cultural change. He explains: “Essentially, the two parties differed on how to apply [religion] to the new problems of their [Hellenistic] age, and how to [best] interpret the [written] Torah, which was the basic authority of Jewish life” (A History of the Jews, p. 78). The problem was not the validity of Scripture—for both parties held it in the highest esteem. The problem was one of interpretation. Grayzel continues: “The Sadducees were in favor of a strict interpretation of the Torah ..... [and taught that the Jews were] to abide by every word written in the Torah, no less and no more.... The Pharisees [with their scribal leaders] were for a liberal interpretation for the Torah ..... [and] wanted to extend [its] principles to every possible phase of life.” Grayzel takes the position that, in one sense, “the Pharisees made [what would become] Judaism much easier [i.e., liberalized] by regarding biblical laws as principles. This enabled them to amend many practices to conform more closely to the changing needs of national life” (p. 78; emphasis added).

The idea of “extending the principles of the Law to every area of life” is obviously biblical. In fact, Jesus came, at least in part, for that very purpose—for He did “not come to abolish [the Law], but to fulfill [the Law]” by showing how it could be applied in principle. It should be evident to even the novice Bible student that throughout Matthew five Christ adds to the written Torah a new spiritual dimension, sometimes referred to as the spirit of the Law (much more will be said about this in Chapter Six). What the scribes and Pharisees attempted to do was perhaps commendable, but there was just one problem: They lacked what Scripture calls a heart—”Oh, that there were such a heart in them that they would fear Me and keep all My commandments always” (Deut. 5:29). This “heart”—a mind yielded to and led by the Spirit of God—would have enabled them to see beyond the “letter of the law” and to discern the spirit and intent of the law as well. As we will later see, without having the spirit of the living God to guide them, these ancient “teachers of the law” not only misinterpreted the Law, they went on to add to the Scriptures via their alleged oral traditions.

Notice this telling comment by Jewish historian Moses Shulvass: “Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees opposed a rigid interpretation of the Pentateuch Law. To them, the Holy Writ was a 'living [i.e., flexible] Torah,' valid for all times and never in conflict with the time. By using the God-given power of reason and special methods of interpretation, various Pentateuch laws could be reinterpreted and modified to harmonize with the advanced ideas of each generation” (A History of the Jewish People, Vol. I, p. 94; emphasis added). What “God-given power of reason”? What “special methods of interpretation”? Can God's laws really be “modified”? Again, the scribes and Pharisees did not have the “heart” to understand and apply the Scriptures the way God intended—but, indeed, “there is a way which seems right to a man, but the end thereof is the way of death” (Prov. 14:12).

Inspired by their long-cherished traditions, the scribal leaders of the Pharisees ultimately sought to “improve” upon God's laws by rationalizing that there in fact existed an “oral Torah” given to somehow complement the written Torah. Grayzel writes: “If they could find little support for their proposed laws in the Written Torah, they argued that there was also an Oral To-rah, or teaching, a set of traditions which had been handed down to them by the scribes of former days, who in turn must have received them by tradition from their predecessors, [going] all the way back to Moses” (p. 78; emphasis added).

As quoted earlier, David Stern, in his Jewish New Testament Commentary, agrees: “The P'rushim not only took the Tanakh to be God's word to man, but also considered the accumulated tradition handed down over centuries by the sages and [scribal] teachers to be God's word as well— the Oral Torah—so that a system for living developed which touched on every aspect of life” (p. 18; “Matt. 3:7”; emphasis added). Johnson adds this: “The practice of the Oral Law made it possible for the [written] Mosaic code to be adapted to changing conditions” in Jewish life (A History of the Jews, p. 106; emphasis added).

In order to employ the so-called “oral law” in an effort to “amend” or “adapt” the Mosaic code, one would have to first presume that the “oral law” was equal to if not superior to the Law itself. As we will see, this is the very premise that made it possible for the “oral Torah” to eventually take precedence over the very Law of God. Rooted in disbelief, the Jews simply did not accept the absolute exclusive nature of the Scriptures. In this regard, Phillips writes: “The Pharisees were devoted to the oral law of the great rabbis [scribes], which later would be inscribed as the Mishnah (an early form of the Talmud). They were convinced that the Mishnah held the key to all the hidden depths of the [written] Torah, as well as having the answer to all the needs and problems of mankind. Their lofty aspirations degenerated eventually into dogmatism.... It was perhaps inevitable that in time they would come to regard the oral tradition of the rabbis [scribes] as of equal authority with the written Law of Moses.....(Exploring the World of the Jew, p. 36; emphasis added).

Of course, the Sadducean temple priests—insisting that the written Torah was forever unchangeable—were adamantly opposed to the idea that any such alleged “oral teaching could subject the Law to a process of creative development” (Johnson, p. 106; emphasis added).

This “process of creative development” is well described by Solomon Landman in his book, Story Without End—An Informal History of the Jewish People. He writes that certain teachings had “come into Jewish life as a result of the interpretations of the [written] Torah that the learned schoolmasters [scribes] and elders of the community had made from time to time. For the Holy Scriptures had been written centuries before and did not deal specifically with every new situation Jews had to face.... By applying the spirit of the [written] Torah”—but without the Spirit of God to guide them—”[these self-proclaimed teachers] arrived at new regulations to cover the specific situation. These decisions [came to be] called the Oral Law, and were studied in the schools along with the Torah, the Written Law, thus becoming part of the religious tradition of the Jews. Most people accepted them as extensions of the Torah.... The makers of the Oral Law felt it their duty to build a ' fence around the Torah,' to make rules that would keep the religion pure and the people holy” (p. 74; emphasis added).

Such traditions were “minute and vexatious extensions of the Law” and “had long been gradually accumulating” (Smith's Bible Dictionary, p. 508; “Pharisees”). Smith adds: “While it was the aim of Jesus to call men to the Law of God itself as the supreme guide of life, the Pharisees, upon the pretense of maintaining [the Pentateuch] intact, multiplied minute precepts and distinctions to such an extent that the whole life of the [pious] Jew was hemmed in and burdened on every side by instructions so numerous and trifling that the [written] Law was almost if not wholly lost sight of” (p. 508; emphasis added).

As a “fence around the Law,” the oral law was, in theory, intended to prevent one from transgressing against the Pentateuch. However, by “fencing in” the written Torah with minute regulations, one is also relieved of the responsibility of spiritual discernment—of applying the spiritual intent of the Law to various situations. Again, applying the “principles” of the Law requires the guidance of God's Spirit, which was not generally available under the terms of the Old Covenant. Thus, as we will cover in detail later, the “oral law”—as a massive, complex code designed to regulate human conduct—is in a very real sense a humanly-devised substitute for a sound conscience led by the Spirit of God.

Judaism, of course, has never been able to substantiate the existence of an “oral Torah.” The whole idea is based on tradition. Robinson writes that the sages of old “believed that there had been [an] oral interpretation of [the] Torah, almost from the moment Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets in his hands. After all, was it not said [by the sages] that God had given the Oral Law to Moses on Sinai as well as the [written] To-rah . [and] that the Almighty had whispered it into his ear?” (Essential Judaism, p. 313).

The Scriptures, however, are not silent on the matter. As we will see in Chapter Five, numerous biblical passages prove that such an oral law could never have come from God via Moses. For example, just before the children of Israel were to pass over the Jordan into the Promised Land, Moses recopied the Law (Deut. 31:9). Note that in verse 24, Moses “completed writing the words” of the laws of God in a book, and that “they were finished.” The Law was complete. This same “finished” law would be used “as a witness” against Israel in her sins (verse 26)—thus, it was the only law God would (or could) use in judging His people. The existence of any other law would have undermined God's righteous judgment and nullified the entire written Torah!

Long before the development of the “oral Torah,” the prophet Isaiah warned Israel to look only to “the Law [Torah] and to the testimony [of the prophets]! If they [who teach—such as the rabbis—] do not speak according to this [written] Word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:20). This passage leaves no wiggle-room for proponents of an oral law— for it unequivocally declares that there is one and only one standard, the written Word of God.

We should, as well, not overlook the obvious fact that long after the death of Moses, the Jews' so-called oral law was subject to centuries of revision and expansion. So much for God “whispering into Moses' ear.”

Serpents, brood of vipers!”

We can learn much about first-century religion in Judea by simply studying Jesus' interaction with the Jewish religious leaders of the day. In fact, the gospels contain numerous accounts of various “conflicts” between Christ and the scribes, Pharisees, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Sadducees. Moreover, the substance of these conflicts provides vital insight into the “hearts and minds” of the Jewish leaders.

It seems that Jesus had considerably more negative encounters with the scribes and Pharisees (who, as we have seen, were largely inseparable) than He did with the Sadducees. There may be several reasons for this. First, as has been shown, the party of the Pharisees had a great deal more influence over the Common People than did the Sadducees. Thus they posed the greater danger, particularly in leading people away from true Torah observance and toward humanly-devised traditions. Also, the Pharisees were quite aggressive in proselytizing—”for you [Pharisees] travel the sea and the land to make [even] one proselyte” (Matt. 23:15). Perhaps the biggest reason, however, was that the scribes and Pharisees sat “in Moses' seat” (Matt. 23:2)—a position acquired surreptitiously, yet one that carried the serious responsibility of judging the people (see below).

Specifically, Jesus upbraided the Sadducees for their disbelief of the resurrection—candidly stating, “You do err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). The matter proved to be a persistent sore spot for the Sadducees, for which they continued to persecute the apostles (Acts 4:1-3). The “chief priests” who plotted to kill Jesus (Matt. 26:3-4) were no doubt Sadducees (see Acts 5:17). Thus, while the Sadducean party is not mentioned by name in this regard, its leaders were obviously co-conspirators with the Pharisees in Jesus' death. Both parties feared that Christ's growing popularity and influence would somehow lead to Roman intervention and a subsequent loss of their political status (John 11:47-48).

In one of the rare moments when the two rival parties were willing to lay aside their differences long enough to unite in action, the Pharisees and Sadducees came to where John was baptizing. More than just curious, they were no doubt planning a confrontation—and were particularly concerned about John's message of a coming “kingdom.” John, however, took the first shot, calling them a “brood of vipers” (Matt. 3:7)—an expression Jesus Himself later used of the religionists. Right in the presence of the crowds gathered for baptism, John exposed the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders, challenging them to bring forth “fruits worthy of repentance” (verse 8). John warned them: “And do not think to say within yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father' “—i.e., don't assume that being of Abraham's seed guarantees a right relationship with God or entrance into the Kingdom of God. Emphasizing that there is no substitute for genuine repentance and obedience to the Pentateuch, he adds, “For I tell you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham”—a not-so-subtle warning that those who fail to measure up can be replaced. Indeed, “already the axe is striking at the roots of the trees [the corrupt religious leadership]; therefore every tree that is not producing good fruit is [to be] cut down and thrown into the fire” (verses 9-10). Jesus would later proclaim a similar warning, saying “every plant that My heavenly Father has not planted shall be rooted up” (Matt. 15:13; see below).

The message was not lost on the Pharisees and Sadducees, who no doubt winced under the sting of John's powerful indictment.

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”

In His numerous encounters with the scribes and Pharisees, Christ primarily focused on their vanity and spirit of hypocrisy—though certainly not ignoring their false teachings. It should be noted that Jesus' criticism of these religionists dealt mainly with their hypocritical practices, as opposed to content. When Christ did criticize the content of their message, it was not their handling of the Scriptures that He called into question—it was their “traditions of men” which they held to be equal to the Law of Moses. Such traditions often had the effect of nullifying the Word of God.

Comparing them to “whited sepulchers” which outwardly appear beautiful but inside were full of “all uncleanness,” He bluntly told them that they too “outwardly appear to men to be righteous,” but were actually “full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:27-28). When once dining with a Pharisee, Jesus declined to participate in the Pharisees' pre-meal “hand-washing” ritual. Noting their concern, He used the opportunity to emphasize their hypocrisy: “Now, you Pharisees [are quick to] cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are full of greediness and wickedness” (Luke 11:39). On another occasion He likewise broached the subject: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, but within you are full of extortion and excess. Blind Pharisees! First cleanse the inside of the cup and the dish, so that the outside may also become clean” (Matt. 23:25-26).

Calling attention to their selfishness and obsession with the physical, Jesus upbraided the scribes and Pharisees for having neglected “justice and the love of God” (Luke 11:42). Their overall concern with the external led naturally to a neglect of the “weightier” matters of the Law—those that dealt with the spirit. On another occasion He similarly warned them: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithes of mint and anise and cumin, but you have abandoned the more important matters of the Law—judgment, and mercy and faith. These you were obligated to do, and not to leave the others undone” (Matt. 23:23). Jesus then summed up the religious leaders' hypocrisy by stating that they would go to extremes to avoid swallowing a gnat—the smallest of creatures—but would willingly “swallow a camel” (verse 24).

Jesus continually exposed the scribes' and Pharisees' hypocrisy in the way they adhered in many cases to the letter of the Law while conveniently ignoring or misapplying the spirit of the Law. A good example is found in Luke 14:1-6, where Jesus is again eating a meal with scribes and Pharisees—this time on the Sabbath. Knowing they were watching His every move, Jesus drew their attention to a man among them who had an affliction known as dropsy. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” he asked. The religionists kept silent. Jesus proceeded to heal the man and send him on his way. He then asked, “Who among you shall have an ass or an ox fall into a pit, and will not immediately pull it out on the Sabbath day?” Again, they were silent, unable to reply—because they were trapped by their own hypocrisy. They knew full well that to rescue an “ox in the ditch” was good and right even on the Sabbath—something they would not hesitate to do. Would not the spirit of the Law then permit doing good on the Sabbath for someone suffering from a disease? Of course, the answer was obvious—but the scribes and Pharisees were bound by their oral traditions which included countless Sabbath “prohibitions.” (Similar accounts are found in Matthew 12:9-13 and Luke 13:10-17.)

The religious leaders of Jesus' day had what Paul calls a “form of godliness” (II Tim. 3:5)—one that is based on the physical, on outward appearances, on presentation—yet devoid of any true spiritual depth. William Smith writes that “the Pharisees sought mainly to attract the attention and to excite the admiration of men.... Indeed the whole spirit of their religion was summed up, not in confession of sin and in humility, but in proud self-righteousness.” (Smith's Bible Dictionary, p. 508; “Pharisees”). He adds that “true piety consisted not in forms, but in substance, not in outward observances, but in an inward spirit. The whole system of Pharisaic piety led to exactly [the] opposite.” (p. 508).

In particular, Jesus took the scribes to task for their pretentiousness. “Beware of the scribes, who take pleasure in walking around in [long] robes, and in [conspicuous] salutations in the marketplaces, and in [having] the chief seats in the synagogues and the chief places in the feasts” (Mark 12:38 -39). Matthew includes the Pharisees, adding this: “And they do all their works to be seen by men. They make broad their phylacteries and enlarge the borders of their garments.... And they love . to be called by men, 'Rabbi, Rabbi' “ (Matt. 23:5, 7). Phylacteries and tassels (borders) were worn by many men according to the instructions in Exodus 13 and Numbers 15. Christ was simply pointing out that these religionists had flamboyantly embellished these symbols in order to impress others.

In addition to making “long prayers” for show, Jesus also indicts them for “devouring the houses of widows” (Mark 12:40). Since these self-proclaimed religious leaders were dependent on financial contributions from their patrons, widows in particular were vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. “These,” He added, “shall receive the greater condemnation.”

Teaching “Traditions of Men”

Most notable of these “blind leaders of the blind” was their adherence to “traditions of men”—which were based on the Jews' so-called oral law. Jesus was asked, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread” (Matt. 15:2). This, of course, had nothing to do with good hygiene—or the official rituals held at the Temple—but referred to traditional ritual hand washings. The scribes and Pharisees were apparently puzzled and concerned that Jesus had neglected to teach such traditions to His disciples. As He often did, Christ answered their question with a question of His own. Turning the tables on them, He asked: “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, saying, 'Honor your father and your mother'; and, 'The one who speaks evil of [his] father or mother, let him die the death.' But you say, 'Whoever shall say to [his] father or mother, “Whatever benefit you might [have expected to] receive from me is being given [instead] as a gift to the temple,” he [then] is not at all obligated to honor his father or his mother [in caring for their needs]' “ (verses 3-5). In this passage we begin to see how the scribes and Pharisees had “made void the commandment of God for the sake of [their] tradition” (verse six). Caring for elderly parents—and not treating them with contempt—is all part of the Fifth Commandment. However, according to this Jewish “tradition,” one could simply dedicate to God whatever portion of his money or goods that should have been used to support his parents. This became a means of circumventing the clear responsibility of children toward their parents. Jesus continued: “Hypocrites! Isaiah has prophesied well concerning you, saying, 'This people draw near to Me [God] with their mouths, and with their lips they honor Me; but their hearts are far away from Me. But they worship Me in vain, teaching for doctrine the commandments [traditions] of men' “ (verses 7-9).

In a parallel account, Mark says that in “leaving the commandment of God, you [scribes and Pharisees] hold fast the tradition of men…. Full well do you reject the commandment of God, so that you may observe your own tradition” (Mark 7:8-9). These religious leaders were guilty of “nullifying the authority of the Word of God” by their traditions (verse 13), which, as Jesus pointedly brings out, had been “passed down.” In other words, the scribes and Pharisees had received their traditions from previous generations as part of the transmission of the so-called “oral Torah.”

It is no wonder then that Charles Pfeiffer, in his Old Testament History, writes: “To the Pharisee [of Christ's day] ..... tradition was not simply a commentary upon the Law, but was ultimately raised to the level of Scripture itself” (p. 596; emphasis added). Thus we can begin to understand why Jesus said, “There is one who accuses you, even Moses…. And if you do not believe his writings, how shall you believe My words?” (John 5:45-47)—and, “Did not Moses give you the Law, and [yet] not one of you is [genuinely] practicing the Law?” (John 7:19).

Every plant which My Father has not planted”

Of considerable concern for the Jewish religious establishment was Jesus' growing popularity among the Common People and, in particular, His message about a coming “kingdom.” Fearing Roman intervention in the matter, the Jewish leadership—both Pharisaic and Sadducean—stood to lose their status quo. Thus the scribes and Pharisees (and at times the Sadducees) opposed Christ at every turn, often plotting how they might “entangle Him” with His own words (Matt. 22:15) or catch Him breaking one of their “regulations” so they could level an “accusation against Him” (Luke 6:7)— and ultimately have Him “legally” put to death. More than once Jesus provoked the scribes and Pharisees into taking up stones, only to narrowly escape through the crowd (John 8:59; 10:31; 11:8).

Perhaps at no time did Christ raise the ire of the scribes and Pharisees more than when He questioned their fidelity to Abraham. Jesus said, “I know that you are Abraham's seed; but you are seeking to kill Me, because My words do not enter into your minds [that is, Jesus' words were unfathomable because of their unbelief]. I speak the things that I have seen from My Father, and you do the things that you have seen from your father” (John 8:37-38). Bristling, they replied, “Our father is Abraham!” Christ then said, “If you were [spiritually] Abraham's children, you would do the works of Abraham. But now you seek to kill Me, a man who has spoken the truth to you.... [Rather] you are doing the [evil] works of your [spiritual] father” (verses 39-41). As the Pharisees began to seethe with anger, Jesus cut right to the heart of their problem: “You are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father you desire to practice” (verse 44). The encounter ended with their failed attempt at stoning Him (verse 59).

Later that same day Jesus healed a blind man. Afterwards, He said: “For judgment I have come into this world so that those who do not see might see, and [that] those who see might become blind” (John 9:39). Picking up on Jesus' insinuation, some of the Pharisees who were listening mockingly asked, “Are we also blind?” Jesus said to them, “If you were [truly] blind, you would not have sin. But now you say, 'We see.' Therefore, your sin remains” (verses 40-41).

Clearly, the scribes and Pharisees were spiritually blind (Matt. 15:14). But because they claimed to “see”—to understand exactly what they were doing as occupants of “Moses' seat”—Christ held them fully accountable. They rejected the truth when it was presented first by John the Baptist—”But the Pharisees and the doctors of the Law had set aside [rejected] the counsel of God concerning themselves.....” (Luke 7:30). These religionists would be held accountable as well because of Jesus' works. Notice this powerful indictment from John 15:22: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have had sin; but now they have nothing to cover their sin.” Verse 24: “If I had not done among them the works that no other man has done, they would not have had sin; but now they have both seen [understood] and [yet] hated both Me and My Father.”

The Sadducees, scribes and Pharisees all heard repentance preached by John, but rejected it; they witnessed Jesus' powerful works, but denied them. In their vanity and lust for prestige and power, the religious leaders of first-century Palestine had abrogated their responsibility—for indeed they had “shut up the kingdom of heaven before men” (Matt. 23:13). Not only had they become disqualified from a place in that kingdom, but they were also hindering “those who [were to be] entering” that kingdom—the Jews. Thus, the kingdom of God was “taken from” them and “given to a nation that produces the fruits” of that kingdom (Matt. 21:43). This “nation” refers to converted believers, those Paul identifies as spiritual Jews (Rom. 2:29).

As indicated in Matthew 21:45, the chief priests (Sadducees) and the Pharisees knew Jesus was speaking about them. On another occasion, Christ made it clear to His disciples that “every plant” not planted by His Father would be “rooted up” (Matt. 15:13). Indeed, John the Baptist had previously warned the scribes and Pharisees that the axe was already “striking at the roots of the trees” (Matt. 3:10).

There is no question that the religious leaders of Jesus' day knew full well that they had been “weighed in the balance” and found lacking. They rejected the truth when it was shown to them—and even rejected the Messiah Himself. Thus, they would bear their sin.

"The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' seat”

No discussion of first-century Jewish religion would be complete without a careful look at Jesus' statement in Matthew 23 concerning the scribes' and Pharisees' occupation of “Moses' seat.” Jesus makes the profound as well as paradoxical assertion that the scribes and Pharisees “sit in Moses' seat” (verse two). He then says to the Jews, as well as to His own followers, that they are to observe and do whatever the scribes and Pharisees command them (verse three). An enigmatic statement to say the least, given that the remainder of Matthew 23 is a scathing indictment of the scribes' and Pharisees' corruption, outlined in seven successive “woes” covering their hypocrisy, greed, vanity, hatred, etc., and culminating in Jesus' exclamation, “You serpents, you offspring of vipers, how shall you escape the judgment of Gehenna [fire]?” (verse 33).

A dichotomy seems to exist: Are we really to understand Jesus' words—”all that they tell you, observe and do”—literally? If so, what are we to make of Jesus' stinging renunciation of the scribes and Pharisees, not only here, but as seen in numerous other encounters? Was Jesus inconsistent in His teachings—was He telling His followers to obey the dictates of the Jewish leadership in one breath while instructing them to reject their religious traditions in another?

Some view “Moses' seat” as a seat of judgment from which religious rulings were handed down. A religious “supreme court”—called the Great Beth Din—existed alongside the Sanhedrin in first-century Palestine (the Sanhedrin had by then become almost entirely civil in function). According to Ernest Martin, the Sanhedrin was “represented [by] both Sadducees and Pharisees, but the Great Beth Din was composed only of the scribes ..... and Pharisees—the most eminent of religious leaders.....” (Is Judaism the Religion of Moses?, p. 93).

Martin says the first Beth Din was formed under Moses when his father-in-law Jethro advised him to assign God-fearing men to assist in judging the children of Israel (Ex. 18). Only the most difficult cases were to be brought to Moses (verse 22). Thus, the “seat of Moses” was established to handle disputes in accordance with the precepts of God's Law (p. 94).

Moses later ordained that the same “seat of judgment” be perpetuated in Israel as the nation began to settle into the Promised Land. “If a matter is too hard for you [locally] in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, being matters of strife within your gates, then you shall arise and go up to the place [Jerusalem] which the LORD your God shall choose. And you shall come to the priests, the Levites, and to the judge that shall be in those days, and ask. And they shall declare to you the sentence of judgment. And you shall do according to the sentence which they declare to you from that place which the LORD shall choose. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they tell you. According to the sentence of the law which they shall teach you and according to the judgment which they shall tell you, you shall do. You shall not turn aside from the sentence which they shall show you, to the right hand or the left” (Deut. 17:8-11).

Notice the striking similarity between Moses' command and Jesus' instructions—”whatsoever they bid you [to] observe, that observe and do” (KJV). Christ appears to be paraphrasing Deuteronomy 17 in acknowledging the authority of the Great Beth Din. Thus, Jesus was actually saying that whatever judgments the scribes and Pharisees were handing down in their official capacity from the Beth Din (“Moses' seat”), those decisions must be followed. But, as Martin brings out, such judgments and decisions applied to the Jews as a whole—and were entirely separate from the frivolous and often contradictory traditions promoted by the scribes and Pharisees to their own followers. “There was a difference between the ordinary, independent teachings of the Pharisees which varied from time to time . and the commands which came from Moses' Seat. The commands from Moses' Seat did not entail matters of opinion among differing Pharisees, but rather they involved decisions of community importance which affected the whole of the Jewish nation.... Christ is not telling His disciples to obey the ordinary [tradition-based] teachings of the Pharisees, but He is commanding them to obey every command that came from Moses' Seat” (p. 92). For Jesus to do otherwise would have contradicted Moses.

Obviously, any time there is a conflict between what God says in His Word and what any man says—regardless of his position or level of authority—God is to be obeyed. For example, Peter and John were commanded by the Jewish leaders to abstain from preaching Christ in the area of Jerusalem—and were ultimately brought before a council (Acts 5:27-28). The Greek word here for council is not specific, and could refer to the Sanhedrin or the Beth Din. Note that Peter responds not by denying their authority, but by upholding God's higher authority. “We are obligated to obey God rather than men” (verse 29).

Other scholars contend that the “seat of Moses” was in first-century Judea representative of authority to teach the Scriptures. In fact, a literal seat existed in the major synagogues designated as “Moses' seat”—reserved for the elite scribal Pharisees. In his Jewish New Testament Commentary, David Stern writes, “The particular place in the synagogue where the leaders used to sit was known metaphorically as the seat of Moses or as the throne of [the] Torah, symbolizing the succession of teachers of [the] Torah down through the ages” (page 67; “Matt. 23:2”). But could the corrupt scribes and Pharisees really be credible teachers of the Torah?

A proper understanding of Matthew 23:2-3 reveals that there is no contradiction at all. In fact, Jesus' puzzling statement creates an important contrast between authority to judge according to the Law on the one hand, and the scribes' and Pharisees' man-made traditions on the other.

Christ did not address whether the scribes and Pharisees rightly belonged in Moses' seat—only stating that they indeed occupied it. As will be covered fully in upcoming chapters, the scribes and Pharisees surreptitiously presumed the role of teachers of the Scriptures when that responsibility was abrogated by the priesthood. But regardless of how they came to occupy “Moses' seat,” Jesus clearly affirmed their position—but not their example. He said, continuing: “But do not do according to their works; for they say and do not” (verse three). What Jesus was saying is simply this: The scribes and Pharisees occupy the judgment seat of Moses; insofar as they hand down judgments or teachings based on the written Torah, abide by those edicts and teachings. But do not follow their example—for as hypocrites they say one thing, and do another. He then refers broadly to their legal minutia of oral traditions—an altogether too difficult and unnecessary burden which they required of their patrons, yet, in their hypocrisy, failed to perform themselves (verse four).

Thus, Christ was actually contrasting the Mosaic Torah against the so-called oral law of the scribes and Pharisees—validating the Law of God while once again citing the Jewish leaders on their “traditions of men.” This contrast served to set the stage for Jesus' subsequent seven “woes” against the scribes and Pharisees.

Again, it must be pointed out that Jesus' criticism of these religionists dealt primarily with their hypocritical practice—as opposed to their handling of the written Torah. Their real problem was their “traditions of men,” which they held to be equal to Scripture and which often contradicted the laws of God, making them of no effect (Mark 7:13). The scribes' and Pharisees' preference for their traditions over the Scriptures frequently led to their failure to obey even the letter of the Law. This is why Jesus warned them, “Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who [already] accuses you, even Moses [whom they claimed to follow].... Did not Moses give you the Law, and [yet] not one of you is [genuinely] practicing the Law?” (John 5:45; 7:19).

At no time did Jesus question the scribes' and Pharisees' authority as occupants of Moses' seat—and He never condemned anyone for being a Pharisee. But He did challenge their self-righteous piety that lacked the appropriate corresponding works. Thus, Jesus cautioned His followers to shun the scribes' and Pharisees' self-righteous and hypocritical practices. In fact, Jesus elsewhere warned that “unless your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees”—who were held in high regard by the Common People—”there is no way that you shall enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). Christ's message was clear: True righteousness must be based on the heart, the inward spirit, and must spring from a genuine desire to obey God's laws fully, in both their letter and intent.

Viewed as a whole, Matthew 23 may be seen as a sort of lament, where Jesus grieves over the fact that the Jewish leadership had utterly failed in representing the true “religion” of Moses to the people—even to the point of rejecting their long-anticipated Messiah. Indeed, it is at the end of this strongly-worded chapter that we see Christ's love and compassion for His people. Using Jerusalem as representative of the Jewish leadership, He says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who have been sent to you, how often would I have gathered your children together, even as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you refused! Behold, your house is [now] left to you [spiritually and physically] desolate” (verses 37-38). On another occasion Christ wept over Jerusalem, saying, “If you had known, even you, at least in this your day [of opportunity and judgment], the things [that would have made] for your peace; but now they are hidden from your eyes [because of your unbelief]. For the days shall come upon you [in 69-70 AD] that your enemies shall cast a rampart about you, and shall enclose you around and keep you in on every side, and shall level you to the ground, and your children within you; and they shall not leave in you a stone upon a stone, because you did not know the season of your visitation” (Luke 19:41-44).

In the interest of fairness, it must be noted that some first-century Jewish leaders were genuinely seeking God. A certain scribe, for example, came to Jesus privately and said, in all sincerity, “Master, I will follow You wherever You may go” (Matt. 8:19). John the Baptist's father, Zacharias, a priest, and his mother, Elizabeth, were both “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord” (Luke 1:5 -6). And, of course, Joseph “of Arimathea”—an “esteemed member” of the Sanhedrin (Mark 15:43)—who petitioned Pilate that he might take and bury Jesus' body. A secret “disciple of Jesus” (John 19:38), Joseph was a “good and righteous” (Luke 23:50) leader “waiting for the kingdom of God” (Mark 15:43). As a member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph no doubt voiced his concern that the long-anticipated Messiah had appeared—only to be ignored and ostracized. It is also certain that he attempted to defended Jesus as He was being falsely accused and condemned by the corrupt council.

Nicodemus—a Pharisee and probably a scribe—came to inquire of Jesus under the cover of night. Later, Nicodemus defended Christ (John 7:50-51) and assisted with His burial (John 19:39). And then there was “a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and reverent, waiting for the [messianic] consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him” (Luke 2:25); and there was “Anna, a prophetess” who served God “day and night with fastings and supplications” (verses 36-37).

Roughly two decades after Jesus' death and resurrection, there were “those who believed [in Christ], who were of the sect of the Pharisees” (Acts 15:5). The apostle Paul, of course, boldly used his status as a Pharisee as a means of self-defense when standing before the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:6)—though it is certain he no longer continued in many of the sects' practices after his conversion.

These—and there were no doubt more—were the rare exceptions.

By the middle of the first century AD, Pharisaism—which would become Judaism—was a rapidly developing system of religion. One, final stage in its development remained—the period following the destruction of the Temple, which would result in the establishment of rabbinic Judaism and the compilation of the oral traditions as the Mishnah.

But already, in Jesus' day, “the synagogues and the chief outward forms of [what would soon become] Judaism were in [the] hands” of the scribes and Pharisees (Phillips, Exploring the World of the Jew, p. 37). As occupants of “Moses' seat,” the scribes and Pharisees were the power behind mainstream Jewish religion. The question is, How did they get there?