Okay, suppose you are a Wycliffe Bible translator and you’ve come to John 6:35 where Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life.” But there is a problem: the culture for whom you are translating doesn’t have bread. In fact, they never have seen or tasted bread. As a translator, what do you do now? This was the question facing one translator in Papua New Guinea. The Dani people had no bread of any sort. Now, if this was some verse tucked away in Nahum, no one would really care (I know, I just threw Nahum under the bus and for that I am sorry; but really, when was the last time you read Nahum?). But this was in John’s gospel, and Jesus’ words here were extremely important. Jesus was declaring that he was the true manna from heaven and that, by believing in him, the hungry souls of people would be satisfied. He alone can fill the deepest hunger and the innermost longings of our hearts. That is kind of an important idea to communicate. Plus, this is the first of seven “I am” statements in John. You can’t skip it, and you can’t downplay it. You have to translate it. But what if it makes no sense? This translator looked for a dynamic equivalent, something that would make sense to his audience and be true to John’s intent. Since bread in John’s culture was a staple item used in every meal to provide much-needed nourishment, this translator looked for something in his audience’s culture that served the same purpose. Hence, the translation: “I am the sweet potato of life.”
Is it possible that Matthew, when he was writing his gospel, was facing a translation problem? Consider that Matthew wrote at the very earliest in the late 60’s, but possibly much later (modern scholars believe the gospel was composed between 80-90 AD). If that is true, one question we might want to ask is: who was causing the most problems for Matthew’s church in those years (by that I mean, who was harassing the church the most?). Unsurprisingly, most scholars would argue that the chief opponents of Matthew’s church’s were those from the party of the Pharisees. Think about the opponents in the book of Acts and in Paul’s letters. These were men who held to a strict obedience to the law and the need to keep the boundary markers and were zealous in wanting all Jews everywhere to live like them. These opponents also strongly disproved of Jews who had left the faith of their fathers and were disregarding the law. In other words, they disapproved strongly of Matthew’s church which was comprised almost entirely of Jewish Christ followers. Ask anyone in Matthew’s church who the biggest pain in the neck was; and they would answer almost unanimously, the Pharisees. Today, we would have to say the problem is not someone outside of the church, but inside. Kyle Idleman says this well: “The biggest threat to the church today is fans who call themselves Christians but aren’t actually interested in following Christ. They want to be close enough to Jesus to get all the benefits, but not so close that it requires anything from them.” Amen to that!
Back in Jesus’ day, the main opponent of Jesus could not be narrowed down to one particular Jewish group. Instead, the Jewish leaders from all the various parties seemed to oppose Jesus (but not the Jewish people). But that is hard to translate, especially when your community is comprised almost entirely of ethnic Jews. And so, to communicate to his audience the intensity of Jesus’ adversaries, Matthew translated “Jewish leaders” into something that would convey all the intensity of the struggle between the church and its opponents. He translated “Jewish leaders” into “Pharisees.” The Jewish Annotated New Testament writes: “Matthew’s Pharisees may represent rival Jewish scribes competing for community loyalty following the Roman War of 70 AD, and thus Matthew’s Gospel may provide a look into the tensions existing between Jesus’ followers and other Jews in the late first century.”
Am I 100% sure this is the best explanation? No, but it does make a lot of sense. The Pharisees as Jesus’ chief opponents in Matthew’s gospel seem more devious and determined than in Mark’s gospel. Matthew alone has a whole chapter devote to pronouncing woe on the Pharisee. Throughout Matthew, the Pharisees constantly harass Jesus over matters of law keeping. Even the word, “rabbi,” which has a positive connotation in the other gospels, has a negative connotation here (see, especially how Judas greets Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane to betray him in Matthew 26:49 with the words, “Greetings, Rabbi”). Oh, by the way, in the late first century, the rabbis and the Pharisees were nearly indistinguishable. This would also make sense of why “good Pharisees” were thrown under the bus along with the bad in Matthew 23. We read “Pharisees,” but we should be thinking “Jewish leaders who were actively opposing Jesus.” This also explains why Mark, Luke and John all fail to have an equivalent section of woes to the Pharisees during holy week, but do speak of how the Jewish leaders opposed Jesus.
Again, am I confident that this is the proper way to read Matthew 23? Not completely. In fact, lots of people disagree with this whole notion that Matthew was inserting the Pharisees of his day into the story of Jesus some 50+ years earlier. But there are others who agree. Stephen Westerholm in The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels hint at this: “Pharisees, the epitome of such religiosity, are always hostile to Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, and the attention paid to their teaching witnesses to its relevance for Matthew’s readers (especially chap. 23).”
However, there is another way to lessen Jesus’ vitriol against the Pharisees in Matthew 23 so that the Pharisees do not come across as the worst of the worst (which is not how history represents them). We can see Jesus’ comments as part of an intramural debate, in this case, between him and the Pharisees, which in Jesus’ day got rather heated. Debates between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the Essenes and the temple priests, and any other political entity against any group were intense. Stephen Westerholm writes: “Competition with rival groups was fierce and, fueled by the fervor of religious conviction; as a result, mutual denunciations were harsh. The tone of pre-70 debates found in rabbinic literature, the polemic against opponents found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the controversies and condemnations which fill the pages of the Gospels all attest to the bitter divisiveness which marked and marred pre-destruction Judaism.” Even within Phariseeism itself, there were bitter debates! Craig Keener writes: “Pharisees were not all of one kind; and the later rabbis, who generally considered themselves spiritual heirs of the Pharisees, report criticisms of several sorts of Pharisees whose hearts were not right (e.g., ‘the bruised Pharisee,’ who kept bumping into things because his eyes were closed to avoid seeing a woman). Rabbinic literature regularly condemns hypocrisy and demands proper motives.” And the writings found in Qumran are filled with condemnation against the “wicked in Israel,” promising that God will judge them as if they were Gentiles. In other words, while we may be shocked and uncomfortable with the language of Matthew 23, it was not out of the ordinary for divergent groups seemingly to lambast each other in a war of words to win others to their cause. The prime reason Jesus speaks the way he does in chapter 23 is because the Pharisees have failed to respond to Jesus’ message of the kingdom. But it went beyond that, but not beyond what was typical for that day between rival perspectives. But it must always be kept in mind that the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus – all Jews – stood for very different visions of the role of Israel and its responsibilities in the world. These were deeply held views that mattered greatly. The fate of the nation depended upon their winning these debates. No wonder they spoke so passionately about their perceived differences.
What we read in Matthew 23 is Jesus taking on the role of an Old Testament prophet. His words were harsh, but the situation was dire. And in the first-century, social situations were always binary. Everyone was either your friend or your enemy. That also explains why everything in Matthew 23 sounds so Jewish. It was. It was a debate between two competing Jewish visions that was played out according to first-century Jewish social rules. It may seem out of place and even rude to us, but it wouldn’t have seemed terribly out of place for them. It was just polemic. That’s Matthew 23 in a nutshell.
One of my favorite movies, My Cousin Vinny, tells the story of a lawyer and his girlfriend. Throughout the movie, they argue and argue and argue. And their arguments are heated and loud and emotional. Now, if that is all you saw of their relationship, you would believe that they hated each other. But if you watch the whole movie, you would know that they truly loved each other. All you need to do is to see their arguments in context. I’m not saying Jesus loved the Pharisees, but once you see their disputes in context, it’s not as bad as you first believed.