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In Matthew 23:1-3, Jesus tells the people that the scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' seat and he tells them to do what they say. What does Jesus mean by Moses' seat? And why does he tell the people to do what they say but elsewhere claims the Pharisees teach the traditions of men?

Matthew 23

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. (NASB 1995)

Mark 7

1 The Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, 2 and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; 4 and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) 5 The Pharisees and the scribes *asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” 6 And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:

‘This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me. 7 ‘But in vain do they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’

8 Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” (NASB 1995)

So, my question is, why did Jesus instruct the people to do what they say (because they sit in Moses' seat) yet claim they followed the traditons of men?

EDIT: I have since discovered that the Pharisees sat in Moses' seat in the synagogues across Palestine and those that ran the Temple sat in Aaron's seat. I was taught this many years ago but had forgotten it. The Pharisees ran the synagogues and they were in favor with the people because they were down to earth and in touch with the common man. The priests that were in control of the Temple were predominately the Sadducees when Jesus walked the earth and they sat in the seat of Aaron,but about twenty years after Jesus died the Sadducees lost their control of the Temple and thereafter the holidays were run according to Pharisee custom.

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The seat of Moses has two related meanings.

  • It refers to an actual seat or throne in which the head rabbi of a synagogue sat, especially when he gave judgments on halakhic (legal) issues.

A "seat of Moses" in an ancient synagogue in Chorzin

  • Underlying this physical "seat" is the doctrine of Oral Torah, which the Pharisees taught. It held that the Torah revealed to Moses is further expressed in later generations by the prophets and rabbinical sages.

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus supported obedience to the Torah and Oral Torah. Jesus himself exemplified this principle in giving his own halakic rulings, such permitting his disciples to eat with unwashed hands, teaching Jews to pay both Roman and Jewish taxes, allowing healing on the Sabbath, forbidding divorce, etc. These were issues that were not resolved directly by Moses, so rabbis, including Jesus, needed to clarify them. On the other hand, he criticized "the Pharisees" generally for not practicing what they preached. So he told his disciples to do what they say but not what they do. (However, he did not mean to do everything they say because there were major disagreements among the two major Pharisaic schools - see below.)

Regarding the quote from Mark 7, the issue of hand-washing is a good example of Oral Torah. The OT itself required that priests wash their hands before sacrificial meals, but says nothing of this custom for the daily meals of the general population. Pharisees (though perhaps some disagreed) developed the tradition that this should be done by all Jews for all meals, in order to prevent inadvertently defiling oneself. Jesus took a "liberal" position on this matter, as he did on the question of Sabbath healing and commerce with Gentiles (but not on divorce). However, we should also be aware opinions on halakha differed widely among rabbis, as evidenced in their debates as preserved in the Talmud. On most halakhic matters Jesus might seen as following the tradition of the broad-minded Rabbi Hillel, while on the question of divorce, he sided with Hillel's rival, Shammai.

The OP asks "why did Jesus instruct the people to do what they say (because they sit in Moses' seat) yet claim they followed the traditions of men?"

ANSWER: Jesus must have said hundreds of things to his disciples about such things in various settings. A saying issued in the shadow of the Temple or major synagogue (Mt. 21-23) might carry a different emphasis than one made in a Galilean grain field (Mk. 6-7). But it's not as if one quote contradicts the other. Mark included the "traditions of men" quote to emphasize the Pharisees' hypocrisy. Matthew, who wrote for a Jewish audience, included a quote in which Jesus recognized the Pharisees' authority to issue halakic judgments from the Seat of Moses while warning that they often did not practice what they preach.


Note: It may be useful to recall that Paul likewise taught that one should obey existing leaders, although he was thinking of Roman officials, not rabbinical judges.

Romans 13:1 Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God. 2 Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves.

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There are two separate but related issues in the passages quoted.
Matthew 23 talks about respecting the leadership and the teaching of the law but ignoring the behavior of the leadership because leadership does not do what they teach.

Mark 7:5 and following, starts with leadership complaining about the disciples not following the man-made traditions. Jesus points out that their man-made rules are more important to them than following the law and that some of their man-made rules actually go against the law.

This issues are related in that:

  1. they both fail to focus on what is really important.
  2. In both cases leadership is failing to live up to their office.

Looking at the context of the verse in question.
Matthew 23

1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

5 “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

Verse 1 - "sit in Moses' seat" the teachers of the law and the Pharisees held a position of authority and the role is to be respected as well as the teaching.
However, "do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach"
This is another way of saying:
Matthew 5

20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Their leadership only cared about appearances and feeding their pride rather than on pleasing God.
Jesus is telling the crowd, and his disciples that they should respect the office and be obedient to the law but not mimic the behavior of their leadership.

Looking at Mark 7 we see the Pharisees and the teachers making up rules to support their own interests.
Notice that the Pharisees and teachers assert that the issue they have is with the disciples not following "the tradition of the elders" which is not law.

5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 7 They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.

8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

9 And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 11 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

It was not the law that was being broken but the traditions created by men that were being ignored. Jesus goes on to point out that "you have a fine way of setting aside the commends of God in order to observe your own traditions"
The leadership was concerned with their own self-serving rules rather than pleasing God.

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  • Matthew 5:20, which you quote above, is interesting. Jesus said our righteousness must SURPASS the righteousness of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. I assume by the way he said it he is claiming a high bar with the righteousness of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. I read this verse many times and I was always taught how corrupt the Pharisees were so I used to think Jesus was using a low bar for our righteousness to exceed but now I don't believe that to be the case. Thanks for your thoughtful answer. Jul 25, 2023 at 15:09
  • since Jesus is using the level of Pharisee righteousness as a high bar and not a low bar then despite their wickedness they must have been, on the outside at least, VERY righteous. Jul 25, 2023 at 15:11
  • @SaberTruthTiger The Pharisees and teachers of the law missed the mark. The target would be following the law of God. "Missing the mark" is the definition of sin. Sinning is not a high bar - sinning is not righteous.
    – David D
    Jul 25, 2023 at 16:34
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The NIV translation of Matthew 23:3 might offer a more accessible interpretation.

So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.

The NASB translation: "do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds" does not endorse blindly following the Pharisees' instruction. Jesus' caution, "they say things and do not do them", underscores the need for discernment. While the Pharisees possess authority to interpret the law (Moses' seat), individuals are advised to evaluate their teachings carefully before adhering to them.

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