Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
The Catholic Verses: Matthew 23:1-3 (Part I)
01/22/2005 - James WhiteThis will be my final installment in response to Dave Armstrong's The Catholic Verses. It is not that there are not many more passages that could be addressed, it is just that there is so very little actual exegesis in the book that the real essence of its self-enunciated claim to provide a defense of the Roman Catholic exegesis of the text of Scripture has already been refuted, repeatedly, and there is no reason to proverbially beat the dead horse. For example, in the sections relevant to soteriology I would be more than happy for someone to compare the "exegesis" offered by Armstrong with the relevant sections of The God Who Justifies.
But I promised to address the one section Armstrong had sent to me prior to the publication of the book. He had even invited me to interact with him on the topic, but I declined, in light of the character of his presentation (which we will note below). I refer to his section on pp. 43-53 on Matthew 23 and "Moses' Seat." Like the section on Luke 1:28, clearly Armstrong is drawing from his many Internet articles, cobbling together the most serious attempt mounted in the work. If he does not succeed here, he truly succeeds nowhere in The Catholic Verses.
Matthew 23:1-4 1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, 2 saying: "The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; 3 therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. 4 "They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.
Here begins the longest sustained condemnation of the spirit and practice of Pharisaism in all of Scripture. Indeed, so strong, so compelling is the condemnation here that this passage was embarrassing to many Continental New Testament scholars in post World War II Europe. For most in less conservative circles this passage is considered a later polemic of the Christian church, reflecting a reality many decades removed from the ministry of Jesus. But in reality Matthew 23 "fits" perfectly right where it is. Its broad outlines have been seen throughout the Gospel in the conflict with the Jewish leadership, and it then forms the foundation of the judgment coming upon Jerusalem that appears in chapter 24. The section to which Mr. Armstrong refers begins a long litany of woes pronounced upon the hypocritical attitudes of the scribes and Pharisees. It is, in essence, the introduction to the blistering section that is Matthew 23.
I had briefly commented on this passage in The Roman Catholic Controversy, and it is to the following that Armstrong responds in The Catholic Verses:
The final passage we will examine presents the idea of "Moses' seat." Some modern Roman Catholics present this passage as substantiation of the idea of a source of extra-biblical authority receiving the blessing of the Lord Jesus. It has been alleged that the concept of "Moses' seat" is in fact a refutation of sola scriptura, for not only is this concept not found in the Old Testament, but seemingly Jesus gives His approbation to this extra-Scriptural tradition. But is this sound exegesis? Is this passage being properly understood?
First, we note that the passage has spawned a plethora of differing understandings amongst scholars. But a few items immediately remove the Roman apologist's interpretation and application from consideration. First, "Moses' seat" refers to a seat in the front of the synagogue on which the teacher of the law sat while reading from the Scriptures. Synagogue worship, of course, came into being long after Moses' day, so those who attempt to make this an "oral tradition" going back to Moses are engaging in wishful thinking. Beyond this, we are here only speaking of a position that existed at this time in the synagogue worship of the day. Are we truly to believe that this position was divine in origin, and hence binding upon all who would worship God? It certainly doesn't seem that the New Testament Church understood it that way.
We first note interpreters such as Jeremias and Carson view this passage as engaging in biting irony. The Jewish leaders have presumed to sit in Moses' seat, as suggested by Merx, Moulton, and Zahn, focusing on the use of the aorist tense of the verb "to sit." They sat themselves in this place, but improperly. Such an understanding is certainly in line with the biting attack that follows immediately in the rest of the chapter.
But I am more prone to accept Gundry's understanding, in which he rejects the satirical interpretation and instead notes,
So long as sitting in Moses' seat qualifies the speaking of the scribes and Pharisees, "all things whatever" does not include their interpretative traditions, but emphasizes the totality of the law. "Therefore" establishes the qualification. They do keep their traditions. But they do not practice what they speak while sitting on Moses' seat. Hence their traditions are not in view. Though elsewhere Matthew is concerned to criticize the scribes' and Pharisees' interpretations of the law, here he is concerned to stress the necessity of keeping the law itself. As usual, his eye is on antinomians in the church. (Robert Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), pp. 454-455.)
Indeed, the Lord's unwillingness to become an "ecclesiastical rebel" is in perfect harmony with the Scriptural teaching on the subject of authority in the church. There was nothing in the tradition of having someone read from the Scriptures while sitting on Moses' seat that was in conflict with the Scriptures, and hence, unlike the corban rule which we saw earlier in Matthew 15, Jesus does not reject this traditional aspect of Jewish synagogue worship. He does not insist upon anarchy in worship in the synagogue anymore than His apostle Paul would allow for it in the worship of the church at Corinth. It is quite proper to listen to and obey the words of the one who reads from the Law or the Prophets, for one is not hearing a man speaking in such a situation, but is listening to the very words of God. Indeed, when Ezra read the law to the people in Nehemiah chapter 8, the people listened attentively, and cried "Amen! Amen!" at the hearing of God's Word. And who can forget the result of Josiah's discovery of the book of the covenant in 2 Chronicles 34? It is proper to have men in positions of authority in the synagogue, just as in the Church. But Jesus points out that the listener is still to exercise a critical eye, for he is not to imitate the evil behavior of those who have been entrusted even with the sacred duty of leading the people of God in worship.
To leap from Jesus' refusal to overthrow the form of synagogue worship that was present in His day to a wholesale endorsement of extra-scriptural, oral traditions is to make a leap of monumental proportions. And in light of the passages we have already examined that refute the need for such an extra-scriptural rule of faith, I suggest that the use of this passage by Roman apologists is in error.
In our next section we will review Armstrong's case on Matthew 23 and "Moses' Seat."