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Bible Commentaries

Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges
Matthew 23



Other Authors
Verses 1-7


They are the successors of Moses, Matthew 23:2; but they say and do not, 3–7.

Only a part of this discourse appears in the other Synoptics; for this portion cp. Mark 12:38-40; Luke 11:43-46; Luke 20:46-47.

Verses 1-36


Each division is marked by its special beauty of poetical form.

Verse 2

2. ἐπὶ τῆς ΄ωϋσέως καθέδρας ἐκάθισαν. i.e. succeed him as teachers. For sitting as the posture of a teacher cp. ch. Matthew 5:1.

Verse 3

3. ποιήσατε. ‘Do the special act enjoined.’ τηρεῖτε, ‘continue to observe.’

Verse 4

4. δεσμεύουσινκινῆσαι αὐτά. The picture is of the merciless camel- or ass-driver, who makes up (δεσμεύειν) burdens, not only heavy but unwieldy and so difficult to carry, and then placing them on the animals’ shoulders, stands by indifferent, raising no finger to lighten or even adjust the burden.

The three steps or degrees in the triplet answer to three points in the Pharisaic condemnation. They make hard rules, they impose them upon others, and themselves fail to observe them. Contrast with this the Saviour’s invitation ch. Matthew 11:30, ὁ ζυγός μου χρηστός, καὶ τὸ φορτίον μου ἐλαφρόν ἐστιν.

δεσμεύειν, is to tie in bundles, as corn into sheafs: ᾤμην ὑμᾶς δεσμεύειν δράγματα ἐν μέσῳ τῷ πεδίῳ, Genesis 37:7. That this is the correct force of δεσμεύειν, rather than that of binding on the shoulder (Schleusner), appears partly from the parallelism which requires the three acts, and partly by the thing meant—the procedure of the Pharisees.

Verse 5

5. τὰ φυλακτήρια. Literally, ‘defences,’ and in late Greek ‘amulets’ or ‘charms.’ The Hebrew name, tephillin, which is still in use, signifies ‘prayers.’ They were slips of parchment inscribed with four portions of the Law (Exodus 12:3-17; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21) enclosed in little cases or boxes made of calf-skin, and fastened by leather straps to the left arm and on the forehead, in accordance with a literal interpretation of Exodus 13:16 and Deuteronomy 6:8. To make the phylacteries, or rather the cases which contained them, broad and conspicuous was to assume a character of superior piety, for the phylacteries were symbols of devotion.

Jesus does not prohibit the practice of wearing phylacteries, but the ostentatious enlargement of them. It is thought by many that our Saviour Himself wore phylacteries.

μεγαλύνουσιν τὰ κράσπεδα. Strictly, the fringe of the tallith, or cloak: another instance of ostentation; the blue threads in the fringe the colour of the sky—were a type of heavenly purity. Our Lord Himself wore the fringed tallith (see ch. Matthew 9:20); the offence of the Pharisees consisted in enlarging the symbolical fringes.

τὰ κράσπεδα. Cp. Theocr. II. 53, τοῦτʼ ἀπὸ τᾶς χλαίνας τὸ κράσπεδον ὤλεσε Δέλφις. The singular is rare.

Verse 6

6. τὴν πρωτοκλισίαν. The most honourable place at the triclinium. It was at this period the Jewish custom for men to recline at meals in Roman fashion on couches (triclinia), each containing three seats, and each seat having its special dignity. See Becker’s Gallus Excursus 2., Hor. Sat. II. 8.

τὰς πρωτοκαθεδρίας. ‘The chief seats;’ the same word is translated ‘uppermost seats’ (Luke 11:43), and ‘highest seats’ (Luke 20:46). They were seats or ‘stalls’ placed in the highest part of the synagogue in front of the ark containing the roll of the law, and opposite to the entrance. The Elders sat facing the people, a fact which gives force to πρὸς τὸ θεαθῆναι τοῖς ἀνθρώποις. See Dr Ginsburg’s Art. in Bib. Educator, Vol. II. pp. 263, 264. The poor had no seats in the synagogue. From James 2:1 foll. we learn that the same evil distinction soon invaded the Christian Church: Σὺ κάθου ὧδε καλῶς, καὶ τῷ πτωχῷ εἴπητε· Σὺ στῆθι ἐκεῖ, ἢ κάθου ὑπὸ τὸ ὑποπόδιόν μου. James 2:3.

Verse 7

7. τοὺς ἀσπασμούς. The customary greetings. The article is disregarded in A.V.

ῥαββί. Literally, my great [one], lord. This title, with which the great doctors of the law were saluted, was quite modern, not having been introduced before the time of Hillel. The true teaching on this point is found in the Talmud, ‘Love the work but hate the title.’

Verse 8

8. ὑμεῖς δὲ μὴ κληθῆτε ῥαββί. The emphasis is on ὑμεῖς. Ye as Scribes of the Kingdom of Heaven must not be as the Jewish Scribes.

ὑμεῖς ἀδελφοί ἐστε. How completely the Church accepted her Founder’s words may be seen by the frequent use of ἀδελφοὶ in the Epistles, and the very rare use of διδάσκαλοι, though it appears from 1 Corinthians 12:13 that διδάσκαλος was adopted as a title in the Christian Church.

One result has been the levelling of all distinctions in Christ; another the sense of a common brotherhood, slowly spreading, not yet perfect in achievement, gradually making slavery impossible, gradually linking nations in a common sympathy.

Verses 8-11


Verse 10

10. καθηγητής. ‘A guide,’ then a dignified name for ‘a teacher,’ used in this sense by Plutarch of one who did not care to be called a παιδαγωγός and so adopted the more high-sounding title of καθηγητής· τροφεὺς Ἀλεξάνδρου καὶ καθηγητὴς καλούμενος. Strabo, p. 674, says of one of the Stoic philosophers at Tarsus, καίσαρος καθηγήσατο καὶ τιμῆς ἔτυχε μεγάλης. In the N.T. the word does not occur again. It is discarded as a title. In Soph. Greek Lex. it is said to be used for an abbot or prior of a monastery in a Synaxarion (see note ch. Matthew 18:20). καθηγητὴς is modern Greek for ‘professor.’

Verse 11

11. Cp. ch. Matthew 20:26-27.

Seven woes denounced against the Scribes and Pharisees. 13–36. The leading words are ὑποκριταίτυφλοίμωροί.

Verse 13

13. The textus receptus here inserts the words which stand for certain in Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47. Rejected on decisive evidence here.

Verse 14

14. κλείετε τὴν βασιλείαν τῶν οὐρανῶν. In allusion to the symbolic ‘key of knowledge’ given to the Scribe on admission to the order. They use their keys to shut rather than to open the doors of the Kingdom.

Verse 15

15. περιάγετε, ‘go about,’ ‘traverse.’ The word is used of our Lord’s ‘circuits’ in Galilee, ch. Matthew 4:23; Matthew 9:35.

προσήλυτον. Literally, one who approaches, hence, ‘a worshipper,’ (cp. Hebrews 10:1), ‘a convert.’ The word occurs in three other passages Acts 2:11; Acts 6:5; Acts 13:43. Elsewhere proselytes are called οἱ σεβόμενοι, εὐλαβεῖς and οἱ φοβούμενοι θεόν. The word occurs in no classical author. It is used in the LXX. for ‘one who comes,’ i.e. a stranger (Hebr. ger), like the classical ἐπήλυτος and ἔπηλυς. Cp. Exodus 12:48, νόμος εἷς ἔσται τῷ ἐγχωρίῳ καὶ τῷ προσελθόντι προσηλύτῳ ἐν ὑμῖν. The passage shows the word would easily pass from the meaning of ‘stranger’ to that of one who conforms to the law—a convert. The Pharisee, St Paul, carried with him into his new faith the same zeal, with a higher motive. He describes (2 Corinthians 11:26) ‘the perils by water, perils in the city, and perils in the wilderness,’ which this eager ‘compassing of land and sea’ brought to him.

Judaism has been classed among the non-missionary religions. This is true at the present day, and through most of its history. Indeed, Rabbinical sayings display jealousy of proselytes. On the other hand, John Hyrcanus imposed Judaism on Edom at the point of the sword (1 Maccabees 5:65-66). The conversion is recorded of whole tribes in Arabia, and on the shores of the Caspian. Also, it appears from the Acts that the number of proselytes in Asia Minor and in Greece was considerable. And in later days Solomon Malco, a Portuguese Jew, was burnt to death under Charles V. on a charge of proselytizing. Probably the proselytism in the text is connected with the charge of rapacity; the Pharisees seeking to convert wealthy Gentiles, over whom they obtained influence.

The decrees recorded by Tacitus and Suetonius against the introduction of Jewish rites point to the same spirit of proselytism: ‘actum et de sacris Ægyptiis Judaicisque pellendis,’ Tacit. Ann. II. 85. The result was the deportation of 6000 ‘libertini generis’ to Sardinia. ‘Extimas cæremonias Ægyptios Judaicosque ritus compescuit (Tiberius)’, Suet. Tib. 36.

υἱὸν γεέννης διπλότερον ὑμῶν. In accordance with a tendency in new converts to exaggerate the external points of the creed which they adopt, Gentile proselytes strained to the utmost the worst features of Pharisaism.

υἱὸν γεέννης. ‘Subject to the doom of Gehenna,’ i.e. either [1] to the severest sentence known to the Jewish law—to be slain and then flung into the accursed valley of Hinnom; or [2] worthy of being cast into the Gehenna of the after world—that division of Sheol (Hades) into which the accursed were thrown. But the two thoughts were so closely connected in the Jewish mind as scarcely to be separable. In neither view should the expression be literally pressed. Oriental speech delights in strong expressions, and the absence of superlatives in Hebrew necessitated the use of such phrases. Comp. ‘a son of death,’ i.e. ‘worthy of death,’ or ‘doomed to die.’

Observe the contrast between Matthew 23:14-15. The Pharisee suffers not those who are entering the kingdom to come in, to their salvation—whereas he spares no effort to bring in a single proselyte, to his ruin. The verbal correspondence between τοὺς εἰσερχομένουςεἰσελθεῖν and προσήλυτον is probably not unintentional though it does not appear to have been noticed.

Verse 16

16. ὀμόσῃ ἐν τῷ ναῷ. In classical Greek the thing on which the oath is taken is in the accusative or genitive with κατά. (τι or κατά τινος.) ναός, the ‘holy place,’ not as in A.V. the temple.

ἐν τῷ χρυσῷ τοῦ ναοῦ, i.e. the offerings made to the Temple, called ‘Corban,’ or ‘devoted;’ the use of that word made an oath binding, see ch. Matthew 15:5. Tacitus (Hist. Matthew 23:8) says of the Temple at Jerusalem: ‘illic immensæ opulentiæ templum.’

Verse 17

17. ἁγιάσας for ἁγιάζων. The aorist, which is well established, gives a more accurate sense.

Verse 18

18. θυσιαστηρίῳ, ‘altar of sacrifice.’ This word is an instance of the care taken to exclude certain heathen associations from Jewish and Christian religious thought. βωμὸς is used once only in N.T., Acts 17:22, and then of a pagan altar. In the LXX. θυσιαστήριον is used of the altar of Jehovah except Judges 6:25, where the altar of Baal is called θυσιαστήριον. The altar ‘Ed’ is called βωμός, this however being not a sacrificial altar but ‘a heap of witness.’ The two words are distinguished, 1 Maccabees 1:54, ᾠκοδόμησαν βδέλυγμα ἐρημώσεως ἐπὶ τὸ θυσιαστήριον· καὶ ἐν πόλεσιν Ἰούδα κύκλῳ ᾠκοδόμησαν βωμούς. Elsewhere βωμὸς is used of the ‘high places’ of paganism, ἀπολεῖται καὶ Δηβὼν οὗ ὁ βωμὸς ὑμῶν, Isaiah 15:2. Josephus does not observe the distinction; he uses βωμὸς of the altar in the temple.

Verse 19

19. μωροὶ καὶ before τυφλοί. The omitted words were probably inserted from Matthew 23:17. They occur in the important MSS. B and C.

Verse 23

23. ἀποδεκατοῦτε τὸ ἡδύοσμον καὶ τὸ ἄνηθον κ.τ.λ. ‘Mint and rue and all manner of herbs,’ (Luke 11:42). Zeal in paying tithes was one of the points of reform under the Maccabees.

ἀποδεκατοῦν. Unclassical, [1] ‘to pay tithes,’ here and Luke 18:12, ἀποδεκατῶ πάντα ὅσα κτῶμαι. [2] ‘to exact tithes,’ καὶ τὰ σπέρματα ὑμῶν καὶ τοὺς ἀμπελῶνας ὑμῶν ἀποδεκατώσει, 1 Samuel 8:15 and Hebrews 7:5.

According to Lightfoot (Hor. Hebr. ad loc.) the tithes required by law were: [1] A fifth for the priests. [2] A tenth of the remainder for the Levites. [3] A further tenth of the remainder either to be eaten at Jerusalem or to be redeemed. Other views however are taken; see Smith’s Bib. Dict. III. 1517. These payments would be often evaded, and to be able to say ἀποδεκατῶ πάντα ὅσα κτῶμαι implied an exceptional strictness.

τὸ ἄνηθον, either = ‘anise’ as in E.V., or ‘dill,’ a plant similar in appearance, and used like anise as a sedative medicine and for cooking purposes.

τὸ κύμινον. See Isaiah 28:25; Isaiah 28:27, where the special method of beating out cummin seeds is named. ‘It is used as a spice, both bruised to mix with bread, and also boiled in the various messes and stews which compose an Oriental banquet.’ Tristram, Nat. Hist. of Bible.

τὰ βαρύτερα τοῦ νόμου. The distinction between great and small precepts of the law is found in the Talmud. Schöttgen gives many instances, p. 183. One saying is: ‘Observance of the lesser precepts is rewarded on earth; observance of the greater precepts is rewarded in heaven.’ The rival schools differed in their classification. Note, therefore, the Saviour’s enumeration of the ‘weightier precepts,’—κρίσις, ἔλεος, πίστις. Cp. Luke 11:42, παρέρχεσθε τὴν κρίσιν καὶ τὴν ἀγάπην τοῦ θεοῦ. (ἔλεος and πίστις represent two aspects of ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ.)

Verse 24

24. διϋλίζοντες. Wetstein quotes from Galen: εἶτα ἄρας ἀπὸ τοῦ πυρὸς καὶ διυλίσας εἰς ἕτερον ἀγγεῖον ἐᾷ ψυγῆναι.

The sense of contrast and the humour of the illustration are brought out by the antithetic position of the words. In the first respect the illustration, ch. Matthew 7:3-5, is somewhat similar; for the contrast of opposites cp. ch. Matthew 13:31 and Matthew 19:24.

Verse 25

25. παροψίς, ‘a side dish on which viands are served.’ The classical meaning is ‘a side dish’ in the sense of the viands themselves. See Lob. Phryn. 176. The word was introduced into Latin: ‘quam multa magnaque paropside cenat.’ Juv. Sat. III. 142.

ἔσωθεν δὲ γέμουσιν κ.τ.λ. Observe how swiftly and naturally Eastern speech passes from the figurative to the literal. The outside of the cup and platter is the external behaviour and conduct of the Pharisee, the inside of the cup is his heart and real life.

ἐξ ἁρπαγῆς καὶ ἀκρασίας, ‘of rapacity and incontinence.’ ἀκρασία occurs also 1 Corinthians 7:5. It is opposed to ἐγκράτεια, Arist. Eth. Nic. VII. 4. 2. ἐκ is either [1] redundant, denoting that out of which the vessel is filled, and helping out the meaning of the genitive (comp. the gradual introduction of de to express the Latin genitive, resulting in the French genitive with de), or [2] denotes result, ‘are full as the result of’ &c. With either meaning cp. John 12:3, ἡ δὲ οἰκία ἐπληρώθη ἐκ τῆς ὀσμῆς τοῦ μύρου.

Verse 26

26. φαρισαῖε τυφλέ. The change to the singular number indicates a personal and individual self-examination.

τυφλέ. Schöttgen notes that certain among the Pharisees veiled their faces in order that no glimpse of the wicked world or of evil men or of any other thing might tempt them to sin. Sometimes they even injured themselves by self-imposed blindness; these were called Pharisæi percutientes vel illidentes. This would give point to the expression in the text and be another sign of that earnest humour that results from a profound sense of the discrepancy between things as they really are and as they seem to be.

Verse 27

27. τάφοις κεκονιαμένοις. In Luke the comparison is to ‘graves that appear not,’ by walking over which men unconsciously defile themselves. To avoid this ceremonial defilement the Jews carefully whitewashed the graves or marked them with chalk on a fixed day every year—the fifteenth of Adar. The custom still exists in the East. One of the spiteful devices of the Samaritans against the Jews was to remove the whitewash from sepulchres in order that the Jews might be contaminated by walking over them.

Verse 29

29. κοσμεῖτε τὰ μνημεῖα τῶν δικαίων. Lightfoot (Hor. Hebr. ad loc.) quotes from the Jerusalem Gemara: ‘They do not adorn the sepulchres of the righteous, for their own sayings are their memorial.’ Yet it appears, on the same authority (Lightfoot, Hor. Hebr.), that a portion of the Temple-offerings was devoted to the purpose of building the tombs of the prophets. So that the Jews with a show of reverence disobeyed the noble precepts of their own traditions.

Verse 30

30. ἤμεθα. The same form occurs Acts 27:37 and Galatians 4:3 (אD*) and Ephesians 2:3 (אB). In the classics ἤμεθα is not found, and the instances of the sing. ἤμην (the usual form in N.T.) are rare and doubtful. See Veitch, p. 195.

Verse 31

31. μαρτυρεῖτε ἑαυτοῖς. You call yourselves children, and indeed you are children of those who slew the prophets. You inherit their wickedness in compassing the death of the Prophet of the Lord. See note ch. Matthew 3:7.

Verse 32

32. καὶ nearly = ‘and so.’ See Dr Moulton’s note, Winer, p. 540, cp. Philippians 4:9; Philippians 4:12.

Verse 33

33. γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν. See note ch. Matthew 3:7.

Verse 34

34. ἀποστέλλωπροφήτας καὶ σοφοὺς καὶ γραμματεὶς. Marking the continuity of the Christian with the Jewish Church.

ἀποκτενεῖτε καὶ σταυρώσετε. Kill, directly as Stephen (Acts 7:59), indirectly as James (Acts 12:2), and crucify, by means of the Roman power, as Symeon, second Bishop of Jerusalem (Eus. H. E. III. 32).

μαστιγώσετε ἐν ταῖς συν. See note ch. Matthew 4:23.

ἀπὸ πόλεως εἰς πόλιν. As Paul pursued Christians to Damascus; as he was himself driven from Antioch in Pisidia, from Iconium, from Philippi, and from Thessalonica.

Verse 35

35. ἐκχυννόμενον. For the form see ch. Matthew 10:28 crit. notes.

ἀπὸ τοῦ αἵματος Ἄβελ κ.τ.λ. If the reading υἱοῦ Βαραχίου be retained (it is omitted in the Sinaitic MS.) a difficulty arises; for the Zacharias, whose death ‘in the court of the house of the Lord’ is recorded 2 Chronicles 24:20-22, was the son of Jehoiada. The words, however, do not occur in Luke 11:51, and are possibly interpolated. Zechariah the prophet was a son of Barachias: but of his death no record is preserved. Another explanation has been offered. At the commencement of the Jewish War with Vespasian a Zacharias, son of Baruch, was slain in the Temple by two zealots (Jos. B. J. IV. 5, 4). Accordingly many commentators have thought that Jesus spoke prophetically of that event. The coincidence is remarkable, but the aorist ἐφονεύσατε is decisively against the explanation. The deed had already been accomplished.

The space from Abel to Zacharias, son of Jehoiada, covers the whole written history of the Jews; for the Jewish Canon, not being arranged in order of time, began with Genesis and closed with the second book of Chronicles.

ἐφονεύσατε. The present generation shares in the guilt of that murder.

μεταξὺ τοῦ ναοῦ καὶ τοῦ θ. ‘Between the sanctuary and the altar.’ Even the priests were not allowed at all times to tread that sacred part of the Temple Courts.

Verse 37

37. Ἱερουσαλήμ, Ἱερουσαλήμ. From Luke 13:34, it appears that our Lord spoke these words in a different connection at an earlier period of His ministry. For the pathetic reiteration of the name, cp. ch. Matthew 27:46.

Ἱερουσαλήμ. See note ch. Matthew 2:3. The Aramaic form for Jerusalem appears here only in Matthew; it is the usual form in Luke. The use of the termination -ὴμ in this one passage by St Matthew indicates the exact reproduction of our Lord’s words. Probably the very form—Aramaic, not Greek—employed by our Lord is retained. Cp. the use of the Hebrew form Σαοὺλ rather than Σαῦλε, Acts 9:4; Acts 26:14, for the same reason.

ἀποκτείνουσαλιθοβολοῦσα. Recalling the precise expressions of ch. Matthew 21:35.

ὑπὸ τὰς πτέρυγας. Schöttgen ad loc. observes that converts to Judaism were said to come ‘under the wings of the Shechinah.’ That thought may be contained in the words of Christ. Many times by His prophets He called the children of Jerusalem to Himself—the true Shechinah—through whom the latter glory of the house was greater than the former.

οὐκ ἠθελήσατε. Note the change to the plural.

Verses 37-39


Verse 38

38. ὁ οἶκος ὑμῶν, i.e. Jerusalem, rather than the Temple. ὑμῶν, ‘yours,’ no longer God’s.

ἔρημος. Omitted in the Vatican Codex, but too strongly supported to be removed from the text.

Verse 39

39. γὰρ explains ἔρημος of Matthew 23:38. The Temple is desolate, for Christ, who is the Lord of the Temple, leaves it for ever.

ἕως ἂν εἴπητε. Till, like the children in these Temple-courts, ye recognise Me as the Messiah. See ch. Matthew 21:15. The words of Jesus, and the place, and the anger of the Scribes, may have recalled to some the scene in which Jeremiah, on the same spot, denounced the sin of Israel, called them to repentance, and foretold the destruction of the Temple: ‘then will I make this house like Shiloh’ … ‘and all the people took him, saying, Thou shalt surely die,’ Jeremiah 26:1-8.


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Bibliography Information
"Commentary on Matthew 23:4". "Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges". 1896.

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Monday, June 1st, 2020
the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
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