Woe To The Scribes And Pharisees: Part Three

In our closing section of this particular discussion [1], it is worthwhile to discuss the melancholy nature of the origin of conflict between the biblical worldview of Christianity and the Talmudic worldview of the scribes and Pharisees that formed the basis of much of Judaism.  While this is a large subject that I have written about before in various ways [2], today I would like to focus on the nature of Christian and Jewish conflict that we find in Matthew 23.  Ultimately, when we look at the Gospels and the nature of the conflict between Jesus Christ and His followers and the scribes and the Pharisees, we find a paradoxical aspect of this conflict that does not correspond with the later conflict between Hellenistic Christianity and Judaism that continues on to this day, and it is worthwhile to contrast these two different disagreements.

It is no exaggeration to say that Matthew 23 has some very unpleasant things to say about the scribes and Pharisees.  Matthew 23:6-12 tells us:  “They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’  But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren.  Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.  And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ.  But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.  And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  And then there is the whole litany of woes pronounced against the scribes and Pharisees in the following verses:  thirteen through seventeen:  “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation.  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.  “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.’”  

Or how about this series of woes in verses twenty-five through thirty?  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and[l]self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also.  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.  Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’”

There is no question that there was a great deal of hostility between Jesus Christ and the scribes and Pharisees from the beginning.  This hostility was fully returned by the scribes and Pharisees and their successors to this day, to the point where some decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ there was a series of “blessings” that was put into the synagogue service that made it impossible for a genuine believer of Christ to attend Sabbath services at the synagogue, which marked the final break between Jewish Christians who still maintained fidelity to God’s law according to the example of our Lord and Savior and those Jews who rejected the message of salvation that came with Christ.  Yet it is equally clear with a fair reading of these verses that the nature of the disagreement between Jesus Christ and the scribes and Pharisees that began in the Gospels and continues in the Talmud and in contemporary discourse between mainstream Jews and messianic Jews and other law-oriented Christians is a disagreement over insiders over who counts as part of a particular group.  To be sure, throughout history there have been others, like the karaites, whose hostility to the oral Torah has been shared with followers of Jesus Christ, but these internal critics to Judaism have been few and far between, and while the hostility between these groups has often been fierce, it has been the ferocity of those who are close but not close enough to get along.

An entirely different sort of division exists between Hellenistic Christianity and Judaism.  Although Hellenistic Christianity considers the Old Testament to be scripture, it does not consider any sort of obedience to OT law to be necessary.  There is no attempt to distinguish between the oral Torah or the written Torah, no attempt to obey the biblical Sabbath, no concern for clean and unclean meats, no appreciation of the kal vahomer argumentation found in the Gospels, or anything of the sort.  Hellenistic Christians claim to follow Christ, but they do not recognize the Jewish nature of Jesus Christ, rather having viewed him through the lens of Hellenistic dualism and a desire to rid Christianity of those elements that strike them as backwards and legalistic.  There is no question of insider status for the Hellenistic Christian, who instead insults those Christians who do follow the law even in part as being “Jewish,” as if that was a bad thing.  For such Christians, the failure to adopt the Trinity or the holding to the seventh day Sabbath are enough to keep someone from being viewed as a Christian at all, and there is no conception of Christianity as having sprung from a vibrant and contested Second Temple Judaism at all.

All too often the interfaith discussion regarding the relationship between Christianity and Judaism has only looked at either Judaism (especially in its Orthodox, but also in its Conservative and Reform forms) and various flavors of Hellenistic Christianity (be it Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant).  Completely missing in the discussion has been those who hold to biblical Christianity.  Yet this absence is not accidental, for whether someone considers themselves a Messianic Jew or a Jewish Christian or any other term that indicates someone seeks to follow Christ as He lived on this earth as it is written in the Gospels and the other books of the Renewed covenant scriptures, one finds oneself in a position that makes both Jews and Christians simultaneously uncomfortable.  And making other people uncomfortable is often a good sign that one is doing something very important and worthwhile, if not always pleasant.  After all, to Jews, the existence of law-abiding people who reject the oral Torah and affirm Jesus as the Messiah present those who view the Talmud as important with a reminder of the distance between Jewish religion and biblical religion, and this is an awkward reminder.  Equally awkward is the reminder that such believers give to Hellenistic Christians about the wide gulf between biblical religion and the traditions of mainstream Christianity.  In both cases, people would prefer that such awkward reminders of ancient apostasy simply did not exist.

Yet this disagreement refuses to go away because Matthew 23 at its heart is an internal polemic that every faith has to wrestle with, and indeed that every follower of God has to wrestle with as well.  Where is the source of authority?  Is it with people or with God?  Is it with scriptures that remain ever valid even if they require additional interpretation and understanding to address the concerns of following generations, or is it with some sort of principle that allows a faith to evolve with the times and avoid presenting believers with unpleasant truths that go against the contemporary zeitgeist?  Is there any place in the requirements of faith for traditions that spring from heathen sources, no matter how popular those may be?  How rigorous an adherence to the dictates of written scripture is required for one to be a true follower of God?  These are not easy questions to answer, and many people simply do not want to even ask them, because to ask the questions is to put oneself in the uncomfortable place of realizing that we do not come to God as lawyers who can outsmart God’s laws, nor do we come as judges and critics of the scripture who can smooth away unpleasant or difficult aspects of what God requires of us, but we come to God as defendants who know we are guilty and are hoping for a merciful pardon that we do not deserve, or come as unrepentant sinners who face our judgment without the smallest desire to be right with God or with others at all unless they will conform to our ideas of how the universe should be.

[1] See, for example:



[2] See, for example:









About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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