The Legal Legal System of Moses
Like the OP, many scholars see the conflict in Matthew 23:2-4 and the rest of Matthew (as well as Mark, Luke, and John) where Pharisees are presented as hypocrites and false teachers of the law. In his article on this passage Noel S. Rabbinowitz states:
Despite more than two centuries of scholarship, Matt. 23:2-4 continues to vex many scholars. How can Jesus command his disciples to practice all that the scribes and Pharisees teach, while at the same time accusing the Pharisees of hypocrisy and invalidating the word of God for the sake of their traditions? This dilemma leads Claude Douglas to conclude, “Either we must admit that Jesus greatly exaggerates the facts or else he contradicts himself.” 1
Matthew 23:2-4 is not the only place Jesus makes a statement about the scribes and Pharisees which appears to be contradictory:
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)
It is interesting how Matthew has presented the public teaching from Jesus by including statements about the scribes and Pharisees which appear to be positive and Matthew 23:2-4 is an inclusio drawing attention to this note of discord which began at the Sermon on the Mount.
Just as there is a straight-forward way (righteousness by faith) to resolve Matthew 5:20 without Jesus contradicting Himself, there is a straight-forward resolution to the conflict in Matthew 24:2-4, if the “Seat of Moses” is understood as referring to the legal system which Moses established:
13 The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening. 14 When Moses' father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” 15 And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God; 16 when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.” (Exodus 18:13-16) [ESV throughout]
17 Moses' father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. 19 Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, 20 and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. 21 Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. 22 And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23 If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.” (Exodus 17-23)
Before receiving the Law, Moses would sit alone to judge the people and his actions were two-fold:
- Decide on the dispute between one person and the other
- Make known the statutes of God and His laws.
Moses would “settle the matter” and teach the people the laws of God. Then Moses took the advice of Jethro and delegated his authority:
25 Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens.26 And they judged the people at all times. Any hard case they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves.
This is the heart of Rabbinic authority which is the “the power or right of deciding the Law, in dubious cases, or of interpreting, modifying, or amplifying, and occasionally of abrogating it, as vested in the Rabbis as its teachers and expounders.” [Rabbinical Authority] Now in the actual events the judges Moses established were specifically allowed to settle disputes, yet there is no mention of their authority to teach the statutes of God and His laws.
Under the new system, Moses would only hear cases brought to him by a judge. The new system did not allow an individual to take their matter directly to Moses. Rather it was the responsibility of a judge to do that when the matter was too difficult. If the judge felt competent, they would decide and their decision was binding. Moreover, since Moses acted before the Law was given, his system empowers a judge to make a decision using “their best judgment.” Logically a judge should be expected to follow the Law (once it was given) and/or not decide matters for which they were not qualified, but this was not a requirement from Moses. A judge who makes bad decisions does not release a party from those bad decisions; nor does it free the parties to take the matter to a different judge. Instead the bad judge is accountable for their decisions. For example:
they have grown fat and sleek.
They know no bounds in deeds of evil;
they judge not with justice
the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper,
and they do not defend the rights of the needy. Shall I not punish them for these things?
declares the LORD,
and shall I not avenge myself
on a nation such as this?” (Jeremiah 5:28-29)
This system appears to be unfair. Yet Jesus specifically taught things which addressed the potential unfairness:
Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. (Matthew 5:25)
The best way to resolve a dispute is to do so without taking the matter before a judge, especially one who follows their own traditions and is known to be a hypocrite. Nevertheless, if a person decides to take their dispute before their judge, they must do whatsoever their judge says to them.
Jesus also taught there was a way “to appeal” an unjust decision. The parable of the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8) shows the appeal process is to keep bringing the matter before the same judge until they render a just decision.
As noted in other answers, the language in Matthew 23:2-4 is different from Matthew 16 and while scholars generally do not see these differences as sufficient to remove the conflict solely on the basis of the different language, these differences are consistent with a separation of the process of rendering a decision which must be followed and the process of teaching the law:
Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matthew 16:12)
so do and observe whatever they tell you… (Matthew 23:3)
Jesus’ commands his disciples to do and observe whatever the scribes and Pharisees tell them (not whatever they teach) and in the context of the Seat of Moses this was limited only to the matters a disciple brings to the judge. The passage could be summarized as “if you choose to bring a matter before the Seat of Moses, you are bound by the decision you receive and do and observe whatever they tell you.”
Deuteronomy 17:8-11 which is often cited as the legal basis for the Rabbinic system is similar to Matthew 23 in that teaching is never specifically made a part of the process to resolve a dispute:
8 “If any case arises requiring decision between one kind of homicide and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another, any case within your towns that is too difficult for you, then you shall arise and go up to the place that the Lord your God will choose.9 And you shall come to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision. 10 Then you shall do according to what they declare to you from that place that the Lord will choose. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they direct you. 11 According to the instructions that they give you, and according to the decision which they pronounce to you, you shall do. You shall not turn aside from the verdict that they declare to you, either to the right hand or to the left. (Deuteronomy 17:8-11)
The basis for resolving the apparent conflict in Matthew 23 and Deuteronomy 17 rests on recognizing the difference on a binding decision given to resolve a dispute and the ability to teach the law in the absence of a dispute.
Teaching as Separate from Judgment
The “Seat of Moses” system may have a binding legal basis but since Moses acted before the Law was given, subsequent events must be considered. First, God spoke the Law directly to the people (Exodus 20:1-17), effectively making known His laws. Next, the people asked Moses to act as their intermediator with God. So Moses told all the people the Law from God, not just those who had disputes. This may give the appearance of vesting the teaching of the law in Moses legal system, but the Law places the responsibility to teach and preserve the Law with the Levites:
and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses.” (Leviticus 10:11) [c.f. Nehemiah 8:1-8]
In speaking of the tribe of Levi, Moses says:
They shall teach Jacob your rules and Israel your law… (Deuteronomy 33:10)
Therefore, what was implied when Moses established this system (settle disputes but do not teach the laws of God), is made specific by the giving of the law and the law itself. While the judge may have interpreted the law to justify or explain their ruling using the law, the system of resolving disputes did not empower them to engage in general instruction to teach the law to all people.
This is logical: the law should be taught to all people independent from the process of resolving disputes. In fact, knowing the law should eliminate or at least reduce the disputes between people who agree to follow the law. In those cases where a dispute exists and brought before a judge, the judgment only addresses the dispute.
Jesus and the Oral Tradition
Despite His condemnation of the scribes Pharisees, it is wrong to conclude Jesus also condemned the practice of halakhah, or the oral law:
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21-22)
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)
In both instances Jesus is giving His oral law which He means to take the place of the previous law. The scribes and Pharisees taught “do not murder” and “do not commit adultery” (which in this case are found in the law) both of which Jesus replaces with His halakhah (because your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees). There are fundamental differences between the principle of halakhah as applied by the scribes and Pharisees and Jesus. One is Jesus is not a hypocrite: He does what He says. The other is embellishments made by Jesus will cause a person to understand “the spirit of the law” while still obeying the original written law. A person who does not hate, will not murder; a person who does not lust in their heart, will not commit adultery. On the other hand the embellishments of the scribes and Pharisees voided the word of God:
…So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. (Matthew 15:6)
Throughout Matthew Jesus is presented as teaching. He begins by stating Jesus went into the synagogues and taught (4:23). He taught from the mount (5-7) and continued teaching in the synagogues (9:35) and the Temple (21:23). After His resurrection he commands the disciples to teach His halakhah:
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you… (Matthew 28:20)
These statements are additional evidence the function of teaching was not done from the Seat of Moses and Jesus expected His oral teachings to be taught to others by His disciples.
Also, some scholars mistakenly criticize Matthew’s inclusion of the Sadducees with the Pharisees and claim this shows Matthew’s lack of understanding of first century Judaism:
…Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (16:11-12)
The Sadducees rejected the oral traditions taught by the Pharisees and they also rejected any book outside of the Pentateuch, as Scripture. Clearly Jesus disputed this teaching of theirs:
And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven…An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” (Matthew 16:1, 4)
Ironically Jesus referred the Sadducees to examine the book of Jonah, which they did not accept as law, to understand the sign they demanded.
Therefore, the disciples were to beware of the teaching of the Pharisees which sought to make void the word of God by their wrong traditions and the teaching of the Sadducees which sought to make void the word of God by limiting the word of God to the Pentateuch.
Jesus does affirm the legal system Moses established to settle disputes and Matthew 23:2-4 can be paraphrased:
If you take a matter before the one sitting on the Seat of Moses, their decision is binding and you must observe whatever they tell you to do. However, they are hypocrites who do not follow what they teach. Since you do not know how they will rule, you should settle the matter yourself. If they give you an unjust decision, it is still binding and you do not have the ability to appeal to a different authority, but you can keep going back to the same judge in hopes they will rule fairly.
Finally, it is wrong to examine Matthew 23:2-4 without also considering what Jesus says immediately after:
8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. (Matthew 23:8-10)
Jesus also states the rabbinical system is coming to an end. People will no longer call anyone including the scribes and Pharisees “Rabbi” or look to them for instruction. They will have one instructor: the Christ. This too follows what Moses said:
15 “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen— 16 just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ 17 And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. 19 And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. (Deuteronomy 18:15-19)
In terms of Christian belief, the giving of the Holy Spirit who will not speak on His own but only the words He hears, will become a living halakhah directly from Christ Jesus.
1. Noel S. Rabbinowitz, Matthew 23:2-4: Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisees and Does He Endorse Their Halakhah?, JETS 46/3, September 2003, p. 423