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The Pharisees Sat in Moses’ Seat

Then Yeshua said to the crowds and to the disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore, whatever they may tell you do and keep; but do not do according to their works; because they say and do not.” (Matthew 23:1-3)

The three verses above contain clues that reveal a great deal about the real Yeshua and his Jewish world. The first clue reveals a great deal about the two groups that gathered to hear him – the crowds and the disciples. The information recorded in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke) also reveal a great deal about Yeshua as a rabbi. There can be little doubt that this was how most of the Jewish people viewed Yeshua. However, it is important to understand that being a rabbi before 70 CE in Judea and Galilee was very different from being an American rabbi today. Pay close attention to the underlined words below:

There were hundreds and perhaps thousands of such rabbis circulating in the land of Israel in Jesus’ day. These rabbis did not hesitate to travel to the smallest of the villages or the most remote parts of the land. They would often conduct their classes in the village square or out under a tree (Safrai, ibid, 965). In some instances, classes would be conducted in someone’s home. Often these classes were small. The rabbis did not hesitate to teach as few as four or five students. According to custom, one could not charge for teaching the Scriptures, so the itinerant rabbi was dependent upon the hospitality and generosity of the community . . . The rabbi’s stay in the community might last from only a few days to weeks, or even months. However, for the long term student (“disciple”), learning from a rabbi meant traveling, since the rabbi was always moving from place to place. If one wanted to learn from a rabbi, one had to “follow after him.” 1

The disciples of a rabbi – his “talmid” – would accompany the teacher on all his travels and tasks . . . talmidim (plural) were expected to be at the service of the rabbi . . . This, of course, was part of their continuing education. 2

Now let’s update the opening of the above account to include the above information:

“Then Yeshua said to the crowds and to the talmidim . . .”

Those gathered before Yeshua were members of the public and his talmidim, so it is important to watch for points that would be important to each group. I would have liked to have been with his talmidim when they gathered later and discussed what Yeshua taught that day. After all, the talmidim traveled with him from town to town with Yeshua. They would listen to him teach large public crowds and then be taught as members of his small inner circle who had the privilege of being taught by him daily.

Now let’s look at the next clues in the above verse:

“The scribes and the Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat.”

Yeshua would have called these two groups the SOFERIM (scribes) and the PERUSHIM (Pharisees). The PERUSHIM is the party (sect) representing the religious views, practices, and hopes of the kernel of the Jewish people in the time of the Second Temple and in opposition to the priestly Sadducees. They were accordingly scrupulous observers of the Torah as interpreted by the SOFERIM, or Scribes, in accordance with tradition. The Pharisees formed a league or brotherhood of their own ("HABURAH"), admitting only those who, in the presence of three members, pledged themselves to the strict observance of Levitical purity, to the avoidance of closer association with the 'AM HA-AREZ (“the people” [the ignorant and careless boor]), to the scrupulous payment of tithes and other imposts due to the priest, the Levite, and the poor, and to a conscientious regard for vows and for other people's property. They called their members "HABERIM" (brothers), while they passed under the name of "Perishaya," or "Perushim." The aim and object of the Torah, according to Pharisaic principles, are the training of man to a full realization of his responsibility to God and to the consecration of life by the performance of its manifold duties: “the one is called "'OL MALKUT SHAMAYIM" (the yoke of the Kingship of Heaven [God]) and the other "'OL HAMIZWOT" (the yoke of His commandments). 3 The last two phrases appear in Yeshua’s teachings too.

Our next clue is the phrase “sat in Moses’ seat.” What was “Moses’ seat”? It was the name given to a special chair of honor in synagogues where an authoritative teacher of the Torah sat. The teacher in practice exercised the authority of Moses in teaching and explaining the words of the Torah. The picture below is a “seat of Moses” that was unearthed at the synagogue in the city Chorazim. 4

The last clue is the underlined word in the following translations:

The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. (King James Version)

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat. (American Standard Version)

Dr. Robert Lindsey recognized the importance of this clue:

The verb “sit” in Greek is an aorist. So, to be consistent with the grammar one should translate that the scribes and Pharisees “sat” on Moses’ seat.”

The New American Standard reads, “have seated themselves on the chair of Moses.”

Excellent! The translators recognized a Hebraism! The Greek translator simply had followed the patter that an aorist in Greek replaces the simple past tense in Hebrew although the Hebrew verb may or may not represent a simple past in meaning.

This idiom of “sitting” occurs in the Old Testament. Examples are:

Then sat Solomon upon the throne of David his father; and his kingdom was established greatly. (1 Kings 2:12)

And say, Hear the word of the Lord, O king of Judah, that sat upon the throne of David, thou, and thy servants, and thy people that enter in by these gates. (Jeremiah 22:2)

To sit on the seat of somebody” means literally “to take over his authority.” It is a Hebraism. It is a Hebraism that shines through despite the fact that a Greek translator has translated the verb as simple past. Most English translators have felt compelled to do something with it. They cannot write, “The scribes and Pharisees sat on Moses’ seat”, so they have written “sit.” Once again this is a strong indication that Hebrew stands behind the Greek. 5

When we see the words of the Synoptic Gospels through the lens of the Jewish culture of the Real Yeshua, we find an abundance of clues that help us see the words through his eyes. Here, they shed light on the Hebrew though beneath the Greek words and give us new insights to the relationship of Yeshua to the PERUSHIM and SOFERIM.

I hope that you found this blog informative and it helped you more accurately understand the Real Yeshua -- who is very different from the many “theological Jesus’s” created by Gentile theologians centuries after Yeshua was crucified.

If you found this informative and would like see more blogs like it, I am going to ask you to do two things:

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Thank you & SHALOM!

5 The Jesus Sources: Understanding the Gospels by Robert L. Lindsey © 1990 HaKesher, Inc., Tulsa, OK; pp. 51-52.


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