In Matthew 23 Jesus goes into a lengthy rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees. In verses 13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29 (some translations omit 14), He begins by saying:

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!..." (ESV)

Is it clear that Jesus is calling the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites? Or is it possible that while He is focused on the scribes and Pharisees, He is including others who are hypocrites but are not a scribe or Pharisee?

Note – some view "hypocrite" as problematic since there may not have been an Aramaic or Hebrew word with that meaning. This fails to consider the nature of oral communication. There is nothing restricting a person's vocabulary to their own language. The Greek hypokritai is used in the Septuagint (Job 34:30 and 36:13) indicating the word was present before the birth of Christ. The absence of an Aramaic equivalent to hypocrite (if this was the case) could be seen as a reason to believe that Jesus used hypokritai.

2 Answers 2


As a stub answer that someone can fill out later with a Masters' thesis, it's improbable that there are three classes being addressed here (scribes, Pharisees, and hypocrites).

If the author had intended there to be three terms, there are two common Greek idioms for that with fancy names: one would be "polysyndeton", having an "and" between each of the enumerated terms, and the other would be "asyndeton", having no "and" at all. You can see two examples of polysyndeton in verse 23, "mint and dill and cumin", and "justice and mercy and faithfulness". There's no fancy name for "a and b [and omitted] c" because it's not a common rhetorical figure.

Instead, the audience would have understood "hypocrites" to be modifying a previous noun. The only real syntactic ambiguity would be whether it applies to both scribes and Pharisees or only the latter, but the semantics are pretty clear there that it's both.

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    "Modifying a previous noun" -- technically in apposition, I think. Perhaps that's a type of modification, but nouns modifying nouns in Greek (and many other languages) generally involves a genitive construction. (+1)
    – Susan
    Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 23:53

Strictly speaking, Jesus could not have called anyone a hypocrite, as the word did not exist either in Aramaic or Hebrew. The word 'hypocrites' comes from the Greek ὑποκριταί, which refers to a play-actor. Frank Stern (A Rabbi Looks at Jesus' Parables, page 81) explains that Jesus might have said the equivalent to 'sinners' or 'wicked people' - but the translation into Greek and then Latin and English ought to be 'sinners' or 'wicked people'. We now know that Matthew was written in Greek, so its author was using a word his readers would understand, not a word Jesus would have used.

Matthew 23:13-15: But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.

This is clearly a reference to corrupt religious leaders, who take from widows, make great pretence at prayer and go to extraordinary lengths to win converts to the Jewish faith but leave them in the lurch. From what we know of first-century Judaism, verses 23-29 can be a description of some Pharisees, more so than of scribes.

  • Possibly of interest with regard to your first paragraph: The Hebrew/Aramaic Background of Hypocrisy in the Gospels.
    – Susan
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 7:14
  • @Susan. For Hebrew ḥanef there is now also this: jstor.org/stable/4145899?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents (if you have access to jstor).
    – fdb
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 11:54
  • חָנֵף (chânêph): hypocritical, godless, profane, hypocrite, irreligious Brown-Driver-Briggs'. Hebrew does have a word for hypocrite.
    – user6503
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 16:07
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    Conceptualinertia and Bʀɪᴀɴ - please note that the whole point of the article linked in the first comment (available in full on Google books) is to update understanding of this issue ("The sense of pretended and self-assumed virtue, simulation and deceit, 'hypocrisy' in the traditional sense, clearly became present in Palestinian Jewish life in the later centuries before Christ .... Hebrew/Aramaic terms including חנף were thus understood.”), updated further in the article linked by fdb. @fdb The connections with ἔθνη, Abraham, etc. are fascinating, thank you!
    – Susan
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 20:37
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    @DickHarfield - A word unique to the Greek language does not preclude its use by someone speaking Aramaic. For example, a geometry teacher presenting new ideas introduced by the Greeks is not prevented from using the Greek word(s) as well. If there is no Aramaic equivalent to "rhombus" the logical conclusion is to use "rhombus," as we do today. There is no rule that prevents a person from speaking a word from a “foreign language” to describe something understood by that word. Nor is there a requirement to develop an Aramaic word that has the same meaning. Commented Dec 17, 2015 at 4:45

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