Also, why did Jesus call them vipers, snakes and actors?
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In the Scriptures, the word “Pharisee” appears only in the New Testament. And there, very little is said in regard to who they really were or what their teachings and manners were.
Some have, for whatever reason, tried to describe the Pharisees as “good and trustworthy” concerning their teachings and so on. Some have referred to the occasion when the apostle Paul in a certain special situation said “I am a Pharisee”, and tried to use that for proving that the Pharisees supposedly were “good people, after all”. But, that is not what Paul was saying.
What does the Bible say about the Pharisees? What kind of persons were they? And also: Why did Jesus call them vipers, snakes and actors? (Echidnôn, opheis and hupokritai, as the Greek text of the NT records it.) This article takes a closer look at what Jesus said about the Pharisees, and what the biblical record has to say about them. Even the matter of “Moses’ seat”, Matthew 23:2, will be sorted out.
There are different theories regarding the origin and meaning of the old Greek noun pharisaios (whence the English word “Pharisee”). Some have suggested that pharisaios might have meant “separatist” (in the religio-political context), possibly coming from the Hebrew word persahin, from the verb parash which meant “to separate”. Whether that is correct, is hard to say.
But, when it comes to the Pharisees and the word “separate”, we find an interesting passage in Luke 18. It could be that some of the Pharisees saw themselves as a “special” group, as if they were “better” than the “common people”.
Luke 18:9 And He also spoke this parable to some of those relying on themselves, that they are righteous, and despising the rest: 10 Two men went up into the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee was standing, praying these things to himself: God, I thank You that I am not as the rest of men, rapacious, unrighteous, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 12 I fast twice in the week; I tithe all things, as many as I get. 13 And standing at a distance, the tax collector would not even lift up his eyes to Heaven, but smote on his breast, saying, God, be merciful to me, the sinner! 14 I say to you, this one went down to his house having been justified, rather than that one. For everyone exalting himself will be humbled. And the one humbling himself will be exalted. (LIT, highlighting added)
By this parable, Jesus showed that persons of the Pharisee kind were false. Their “righteousness” or “piety” was only a theatre act, a show for the public.
The writer Josephus (a Jewish renegade general who went over to the Roman side) claimed that the Pharisees were more than 6000 in number. Maybe they were, maybe not. It is said that Josephus had been a Pharisee himself. And, even for other reasons, his statements are not always very reliable. – Let us read what Josephus wrote about the Pharisees, as an example of his unreliability. He claimed that the Pharisees supposedly
“live meanly, and despise delicacies in diet, and they follow the contract of reason; and what that prescribes to them as good for them, they do; and they think they ought earnestly to strive to observe reason’s dictates for practice. They also pay a respect to such as are in years […]”
(“Antiquities of the Jews”, book XVIII, chapter 1; translation by William Whiston.)
So, Josephus claimed that the Pharisees “lived meanly” and “paid respect to such as are in years”. In contrast to that, Jesus said that the Pharisees devoured widows’ houses. a Also, the New Testament shows that [at least some of] the Pharisees were lovers of money. b So, whom should we believe – Josephus, or Jesus and the Bible?
a Stated in Matthew 23:14. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation.” (NKJV)
b Stated in Luke 16:14. “Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided Him” (NKJV). The Greek text has philarguroi which simply meant “lovers of money”. So, at least those Pharisees loved money. The same is indicated even in other passages, for instance Matthew chapter 23.
A note: The Pharisees had made themselves the “religious authorities” of those days, in Judea. The article gs06.htm considers who really has “biblical authority” or “religious authority”. (That is, the question, who can speak for God?)
In the Greek text, the words in question are echidna, see Matthew 3:7, 12:34 and 23:33 and Luke 3:7, and ophis, see Matthew 23:33. Both refer to snakes.
Matthew 3:7 is the first bible-passage where the Pharisees are mentioned. It records something John the Baptist said to the Pharisees and to the Sadducees. We read:
Matthew 3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch him baptize, he denounced them. “You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed. “Who warned you to flee God’s coming wrath? (NLT04)
(The 1769 King James version has in this verse “vipers”, instead of “snakes”. The Greek text has echidna, which literally referred to a snake but was also used of treacherous persons.)
The following passage records how the Pharisees spoke evil of Jesus. Jesus told them off, making it clear who really were wicked. We read:
Matthew 12:23 The crowd was amazed and asked, “Could it be that Jesus is the Son of David, the Messiah?”24 But when the Pharisees heard about the miracle, they said, “No wonder he can cast out demons. He gets his power from Satan, the prince of demons.” 25 Jesus knew their thoughts and replied […] 33 “A tree is identified by its fruit. If a tree is good, its fruit will be good. If a tree is bad, its fruit will be bad. 34 You brood of snakes! How could evil men like you speak what is good and right? For whatever is in your heart determines what you say. 35 A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. (NLT04, highlighting added)
So, Jesus said that the Pharisees were evil, and he called them “a brood of snakes” (“an offspring of snakes”). Indeed, Jesus repeatedly described the Pharisees as something inherently wicked. Even John the Baptist castigated them.
A note: This does not mean that all who were associated with the Pharisean party, or had at some time been influenced by its teachings or been in favour of it, were wicked. Let us assume that Jesus and John the Baptist spoke those above-quoted words specifically to and regarding the men whom they were addressing on those particular occasions. This applies even to the next point.
Here is a bit more of the context.
Matthew 12:23 And all the crowds were amazed, and said, Is this not the son of David? 24 But hearing, the Pharisees said, This one does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, ruler of the demons. 25 But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, He said to them […] 34 Offspring of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good man out of the good treasure of the heart puts forth good things. And the evil man out of the evil treasure puts forth evil things. 36 But I say to you, that every idle word, whatever men may speak, they shall give an account of it in Judgment Day. 37 For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. 38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, Teacher, we desire to see a sign from you. 39 But answering, He said to them, An evil and adulterous generation c seeks a sign, and a sign shall not be given to it, except the sign of Jonah the prophet. (LIT, note sign added)
A similar passage is found in chapter 16:
Matthew 16:1 And coming, the Pharisees and Sadducees asked Him to show them a sign out of the heaven, tempting Him. 2 But answering, He said to them, Evening coming on, you say, Clear sky, for the sky is red. 3 And at morning, Today a storm, for the sky is red, being overcast. Hypocrites! You indeed know how to discern the face of the heaven, but you cannot the signs of the times. 4 An evil and adulterous generation c seeks a sign, and a sign will not be given to it, except the sign of Jonah the prophet. And leaving them, He went away. (LIT, note sign added)
c Matthew 12:39 and 16:4 – was Jesus talking about a “generation” as many bible-translators have made it seem, or about a special group of persons, a “kindred”?
In Matthew 12:34, the word in the Greek text is gennêma which meant “offspring” (gennêmata echidnôn, “offspring of snakes”), but in Matthew 12:39 and 16:4 the Greek text has genea. On those occasions, Jesus called the particular scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees whom he was talking to, as the Greek text has it, genea ponêra kai moichalis, in translation “an evil and unfaithful kindred”. Yes, “kindred” – read on.
The word “generation” which many bible-translations have in that verse, is copied this from the Latin text of the Catholic Vulgate version which translates the Greek word genea into Latin as generatio. – The old Greek noun genea had many different meanings, including “race”, “kindred”, “offspring”, “class” and “kind”, and secondarily even “generation”.
In the case of Matthew 12:39 and 16:4, it is obvious that Jesus was not talking about all people of that day and age. Nor is it likely that he would have referred to the Jews in general. It appears that the noun genea in the Greek text of those verses refers specifically to the persons whom Jesus was addressing on those occasions – that is, the particular scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees who asked for a “sign” (Matthew 16:1) and the ones who claimed that Jesus was of the Devil (Beelzebub, Matthew 12:24). It was those men Jesus called, as the Greek text records it, genea ponêra kai moichalis, “an evil and adulterous kindred” (Matthew 12:39 and 16:4).
Another passage which mentions that wicked genea, group or kindred – here, Jesus was talking to certain scribes and Pharisees:
Matthew 23:29 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, false ones! For you build tombs for the prophets, and adorn the tombs of the righteous. 30 And you say, “If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.” 31 So, you bear witness regarding yourselves, that you are the sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 And, you fill up the measure of your fathers. 33 Snakes! Offspring of snakes! [gennêmata echidnôn] How shall you escape the judgment of gehenna? 34 Because of this, behold, I send to you prophets and wise ones and scribes. And some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will flog in your synagogues and will persecute from town to town, 35 so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zacharias the son of Barachias, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 Amen, I say to you, all these things will come upon this kindred. [genea] (BPT)
Please note that Jesus was addressing certain scribes and Pharisees; it was on them (and past people of the same kind), that the blood of the righteous men was (is) to come. Obviously not on the whole generation of humans who lived on Earth at that time, Jews or non-Jews, but on the special group or “kindred” (Greek genea) which those particular Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes represented and were a part of.
(A note: Matthew 13:24-30 and 36-42 record how Jesus spoke a parable about one particular kindred which was headed for a fiery Judgment. The article fv10.htm has some notes on that matter.)
Matthew 16:6 And Jesus said to them, Take care to have nothing to do with the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (BBE)
Mark 8:15 And he said to them, Take care to be on the watch against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod. (BBE)
Luke 12:1 At that time, when thousands of the people had come together, in such numbers that they were crushing one another, he said first to his disciples, Have nothing to do with the leaven of the Pharisees, which is deceit. (BBE)
Please note that here, the word “leaven” referred to the teachings of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. This is explained here:
Matthew 16:12 Then they saw that it was not the leaven of bread which he had in mind, but the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (BBE)
So, Jesus warned about the Pharisees’ and the Sadducees’ teachings. Those teachings were bad, something to keep away from.
A note: The matter of “the seat of Moses” is considered a bit later in this present study.
A side-note: Many people have been caused to think that “leaven symbolised sin”, but the Bible does not say that. The article hz01.htm takes a closer look at the symbolism of leaven.
Jesus said to the Pharisees:
Matthew 23:13 But a curse is on you, scribes and Pharisees, false ones! because you are shutting the kingdom of heaven against men: for you do not go in yourselves, and those who are going in, you keep back. (BBE)
Matthew 23:15 A curse is on you, scribes and Pharisees, false ones! for you go about land and sea to get one disciple and, having him, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves. (BBE)
Right here, the point is that those scribes and Pharisees were lethal – they were harmful, deadly, poisonous as snakes. Several NT passages record how Jesus called them evil, offspring of snakes, an evil and adulterous kindred, and much more of that kind.
This with “Moses’ seat” – did the scribes and the Pharisees nevertheless have a “seat of Moses” of some kind, despite all that Jesus said about them? No, they did not. Those who have carefully read all of Matthew 23, and the rest of the New Testament, know that Jesus condemned the Pharisees, and warned people regarding their teachings.
Matthew 23:2 contains the words “chair of Moses”, but let us see how those words were meant, and what the context was.
Matthew 23:1 Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, 2 saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses (NASB77, highlighting and note sign added)
“Have seated themselves”. That is what the Greek text says. The scribes and the Pharisees acted as if they were judges or law-makers. They created countless rules of all kinds, and demanded people to follow them – “Observe, and do!” (Matthew 23:3.)
There is more on those verses in Matthew 23 a bit later. But first, let us consider, what was the “seat” that Moses had? – When Moses formally sat down (seated himself), he acted as a judge. We read:
Exodus 18:13 The next day Moses sat down to judge the people, and they stood around Moses from morning until evening. (HCSB, highlighting added)
Then, consider this: Moses had been appointed by God, but what about the scribes and the Pharisees? They had “seated themselves in the chair of Moses” – that is, they had manipulated themselves into a position of “authority” – but, it is clear that they did not have any such appointment from God.
Regarding Matthew 23:3: It was not that Jesus told people, “all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do”. No, the meaning of the Greek text of verse 2 and the first part of verse 3 appears to be something like this:
The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in “Moses’ seat”. Consequently, they demand you to follow all kinds of things, without limit – “Observe, and do!”
Point: Matthew 23:3 does not mean that Jesus told people to follow the Pharisees’ teachings. As other NT passages show, Jesus warned people about their teachings. So, it is obvious that in Matthew 23:3, the meaning of the words “Observe and do!” (Greek têreite kai poieite) is that the Pharisees demanded people to follow their teachings. – There is more on verses 1-4 and their translation, in appendix 1 at the end of this article.
Let us also consider this: Was there some “office of Moses” that was passed on from person to person, generation after generation? No, there was no such thing. But, Moses told the ancient Israelites that he would have a “successor”, one whom all must hearken and listen to. Let us read Deuteronomy 18:15-20 and Acts 3:22-23 and 7:37, concerning that matter.
Moses said to the ancient Israelites:
Deuteronomy 18:15 The Lord your God will raise up to you a Prophet from the middle of you, of your brothers, like to me; to him you shall listen; 16 According to all that you desired of the Lord your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, neither let me see this great fire any more, that I die not. 17 And the Lord said to me, They have well spoken that which they have spoken. 18 I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brothers, like to you, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak to them all that I shall command him. 19 And it shall come to pass, that whoever will not listen to my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him. 20 But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die. (AKJV)
Referring to the above-quoted words of Moses, the apostle Peter said, speaking of Jesus:
Acts 3:22 For Moses truly said to the fathers, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up to you of your brothers, like to me; him shall you hear in all things whatever he shall say to you. 23 And it shall come to pass, that every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people. (AKJV)
Likewise, Stephen cited Deuteronomy 18:15, regarding Jesus:
Acts 7:37 This is that Moses, which said to the children of Israel, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up to you of your brothers, like to me; him shall you hear. (AKJV)
Again, Jesus was the “second Moses”. There was the first Moses, and then Jesus the “second Moses”. There were no other “Moses-figures” between those two.
Let us now continue in Matthew 23, the chapter which contains the phrase “seat of Moses”. It records something that Jesus taught his own disciples. Read this with care and thought, and note especially verses 8 to 10:
Matthew 23: […] 4 “And they tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. 5 “But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries, and lengthen the tassels of their garments. 6 “And they love the place of honor at banquets, and the chief seats in the synagogues, 7 and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called by men, Rabbi. 8 “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 “And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 “And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. (NASB77)
Please all of that Scripture-quote one or two times more, with care and with thought.
Once again: Jesus was the “second Moses” – not the last one in a long row of “Moseses”, but the second one. – The scribes and the Pharisees did not have any “seat of Moses”. It is only that they had manipulated themselves into a position of “authority”, as if they had some “seat” of the kind that Moses had.
A side-note: There is no “third Moses”. Jesus the “second Moses” remains in his position. He does not have any mortal “deputies” or “vicars” here on Earth.
The article go08.htm has some notes on the former Moses and Jesus as the new Moses.
Other parts of Matthew 23 record that Jesus showed how the Pharisees were in it for money, and how they in their lust for money even de facto robbed widows – see Matthew 23:14 and even Mark 12:38-40 and Luke 20:46-47.
One example of how (in what way) the Pharisees “devoured widows’ houses”, is found in Matthew 15:1-6 and Mark 7:9-13 – the “corban” matter. The Pharisees lured people to neglect their ageing parents and give the monies that should have been used for caring for those parents, into the hands of the [Pharisee and Sadducee] priests.
In Matthew 15:5, the Greek word in question is doron, “gift”, but in the parallel passage Mark 7:11 it is korban, from the Hebrew qorban which referred to the Old Covenant’s sacrifices. Mark 7:11 means that the scribes and the Pharisees – some of them were priests – deceived people to give money to the priests, to the point that those people could no longer take care of their ageing parents. – This was one of the ways through which the scribes and Pharisees “devoured widow’s houses” (see Matthew 23:14, Mark 12:38-40, Luke 20:46-47).
Jesus also showed how the Pharisees were not interested in spiritual things but instead in the gold (money) that was in the picture. They were interested in what their gain from temple-matters might be. “The gift on the altar”, Matthew 23:19 – obviously, it must have been the priest’s portion of the sacrifices that the Pharisees were interested in. (Certain parts of the things that were sacrificed at the temple, were given to the priests, for their private use.)
Further, Jesus said that the followers of the Pharisees became twice as much bound for gehenna (destruction, death) than the Pharisees themselves. We read:
Matthew 23:15 A curse is on you, scribes and Pharisees, false ones! for you go about land and sea to get one disciple and, having him, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves. (BBE)
More: Verse 33 records that Jesus asked those particular Pharisees how they thought that they could escape the damnation of gehenna.
In short: The Pharisees had not received any authority from God. They were merely a religio-political party who had manipulated themselves into a position of “authority”.
(The article gs06.htm considers the matter of “biblical authority” or “spiritual authority”, who really has it – the question, “Who can speak for God?”.)
Matthew 12:14 Then the Pharisees went out and took council against him that they might destroy him. (JB)
Mark 3:6 And as the Pharisees went forth, they took counsel with the Herodians against him, to kill him. (JB)
John 11:47 Then the high priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, What shall we do? for this man does many signs. […] 53 So that from that day forth they took counsel together to kill him. (JB)
The end of those things was that Jesus was captured, and that the Jews at the behest of the priests demanded that the Roman government must kill him. And, it did.
(Many of the priests were Pharisees or Sadducees.)
A note regarding the word “Herodians” in Mark 3:6 which was quoted above: That word referred to a priestly party (sect, grouping, clique). Here is an excerpt from the article “Herodians” in the Jewish Encyclopedia (1901-1906):
Priestly party under the reign of King Herod and his successors; called by the Rabbis ‘Boethusians,’ as adherents of the family of Boethus, whose daughter Mariamne was one of the wives of King Herod, and whose sons were successively made high priests by him. They followed the Sadducees in their opposition to the Pharisees, and were therefore often identified with the former.
A side-note: It is said that in New Testament times, the high priest was often a Sadducee while the “second priest”, the segan who apparently controlled the practical things in the temple, was a Pharisee. – The article go13.htm has some notes on the Sadducees.
Was the apostle Paul a “Pharisee”, after his conversion? No, certainly not. In his earlier life, he had been taught by Pharisees and had been a supporter of the Pharisean party, but after his conversion he regarded his Pharisean past as “dung”. We read:
Philippians 3:5 Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; 6 Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. 7 But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. 8 Yes doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ (AKJV)
Verse 6: The Greek word that Paul used was skubalon, meaning such things as “dung”, “filth”, “refuse”. The context shows that he was talking about, among other things, his Pharisean past. He rejected those things of the past. Leaving them behind as refuse, he pressed on for the things ahead, for the high prize of the calling which he had received (Philippians 3:14).
Regarding the occasion when Paul said that he was “a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee” – this was when he was under accusation at the Jewish council. It is obvious that he mentioned his former party-affiliation merely for the purpose of dividing that council (which consisted of Pharisees and Sadducees), so that his life would be saved. And, he succeeded in that, see Acts 23:6-11 – the full story is recorded in 21:27 through 23:24. But, as Paul’s epistles show, he certainly was not in favour of the Pharisees or their teachings.
There is more in the “Pharisee chapter”, Matthew 23. – Some have claimed that Jesus supposedly “commended” or “praised” the Pharisees for their meticulous manner of exacting a tithe on certain things. Is that true? No. Jesus did not praise the Pharisees; he condemned them.
Here, it is good to know that the tithe was only on the Promised Land’s agricultural produce, and that it was the farmer who set aside the tithe and not the consumer. – It is not likely that the Pharisees would have been farmers. So, what does Matthew 23:3 then refer to? Well, either the Pharisees acted as watchdogs and made sure that farmers set aside a tithe even of the tiniest herbs, or then, the Pharisees meticulously “tithed” the produce of their own kitchen gardens. – Again, Jesus did not praise the Pharisees, as some have claimed. No, he castigated and condemned them. We read:
Matthew 23:23 A curse is on you, scribes and Pharisees, false ones! for you make men give a tenth of all sorts of sweet-smelling plants, but you give no thought to the more important things of the law, righteousness, and mercy, and faith (BBE, highlighting added)
Luke 11:42 But a curse is on you, Pharisees! for you make men give a tenth of every sort of plant, and give no thought to right and the love of God […] (BBE, highlighting added)
Another translation, with some of the context:
Matthew 23:23 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, actors! For, you exact a tithe of mint and dill and cummin but leave aside the weightier things of the Law: Justice, mercy and faith. It is those things d that you should have done, instead of leaving them aside. 24 You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! 25 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, actors, for you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. (BPT)
d “Those things”, verse 23 – that is, justice, mercy and faith.
Luke 11:42 But woe unto you, Pharisees! For, you exact a tithe on mint and rue and every herb but leave aside justice and the love of God. It is those things e that you should have done, instead of leaving them aside. 43 Woe unto you Pharisees, because you love the front seats in the synagogues and the salutations in the market places. 44 Woe unto you, for you are like concealed tombs and the people who walk over them are unaware of that. (BPT)
e “Those things”, verse 42 – that is, having justice and the love of God.
A note: The tithe was only on the Promised Land’s agricultural produce, nothing else. There was no tithe on wages or fish or wood or minerals, and craftsmen did not tithe their products. And again, it was the farmer who set aside the tithe and not the consumer. The article mm01.htm has some notes on the Old Covenant’s tithe system.
The meaning of the Greek words hupokritês and hupokrisis.
Jesus called the Pharisees, Sadducees and the scribes – as the Greek NT text records it – hupokritai; this can be seen in many NT passages, from Matthew 15:7 to Luke 11:44.
Here, it is good to know that the modern-day English word “hypocrite” does not have the same meaning as the old Greek noun hupokritês, plural hupokritai. Normally, the noun hupokritês meant “an actor”, “a stage player”.
Matthew 23:13 “But alas for you, you scribes and Pharisees, play-actors that you are! You lock the doors of the kingdom of Heaven in men’s faces; you will not go in yourselves neither will you allow those at the door to go inside. (PH72)
Again, normally the old Greek noun hupokritês meant “a stage player”, “an actor”. For instance a kômikos hupokritês was an amusing actor, or an actor playing a part in a kômôidia, comedy. (For more on the old Greek words hupokrisis, hupokritês and hupokrinomai, see appendix 2 at the end of this article.)
Apparently, the theatres in Judea were of the Greek kind, in New Testament times. (Palestine had for a long time been under Greek influence, before NT times.) In such theatres, the actors often played god-roles, each actor representing some “deity”. Through this, an actor became “one who gives an answer”, like an oracle, as if he spoke for some god.
(Clarification: Even the verb hupokrinomai was used of the actors – “to speak in dialogue”, hence, “to play a part”, “to give an answer on the stage”. See appendix 2.)
So, in a theatre of that old Greek type, the actors represented “the deity”, and so, they announced “the words of the gods”. – It could be that Jesus actually referred to this. For, not only did the Pharisees put on an act in the meaning “pretence”; they even acted as if they somehow were “representatives of God”.
More: In theatres of the Greek kind, the actors wore masks in front of their faces, hiding their real selves. The masks indicated which “god” each actor represented. It could eventually be that on one occasion when Jesus spoke of the Pharisees, he referred to the (covering) masks that actors used. We read:
Luke 12:1 At that time, when thousands of the people had come together, in such numbers that they were crushing one another, he said first to his disciples, Have nothing to do with the leaven of the Pharisees, which is deceit [Greek, hupokrisis]. 2 But nothing is covered up, which will not come to light, or secret, which will not be made clear. (BBE, comment added)
The BBE has “deceit” in verse 1; many other translations have “hypocrisy”. The Greek word in question is hupokrisis which among other things referred to “the act of a stage player” – and again, in the ancient Greek theatre the actors wore masks which “represented deity” and at the same time hid (covered) the actor’s real self.
So, it could be that even Luke 12:1 contains an indirect reference to the Greek type of theatre where the actors wore covering masks and often acted as “representatives of the gods” or as “oracles speaking for the gods”. For, in a similar manner the Pharisees “put on a mask” and acted as if they “represented God” and as if they were his “spokesmen”.
Regarding Luke 12:1 – Jesus mentioned the “leaven” of the Pharisees. On other occasions, he connected “leaven” even with the Sadducees and Herod. This matter might not be easy to understand, for there is confusion in regard to the symbolism of leaven. The article hz01.htm has more on that subject, but consider this: What did the Pharisees and Sadducees and Herod have in common? This: They all deceived, manipulated and used the people of Israel. Just as some of the pharaohs had done when the Israelites lived in Egypt.
(The article hz01.htm has more on the symbolism of leaven in different contexts.)
Summarising this point: It appears that when Jesus called the Pharisees hupokritai, he was calling them actors. And, when he said that the Pharisees performed hupokrisis, it could be that he meant that they were just like the actors of the Greek type of theatre were in those days: Persons pretending to be something that they were not, and acting as if they were “gods”, or “oracles” speaking for the gods (hupokrinomai).
But yes, the word hupokritês could also be used of persons who did not literally work as actors but merely pretended to be something that they were not. That is precisely what the Pharisees did. One example of this is that they acted as if they sat “in the seat of Moses”, though they did not have any such “seat”. (This matter was discussed earlier in this article.)
The Pharisees were wicked. They deceived, manipulated and used the people of Israel. Jesus warned about them and their teachings, and compared them with whitewashed tombs and death and snakes.
The Sadducees were another sect (party), separate from the Pharisees, but they were not praised for their deeds, either. The article go13.htm has some notes on the Sadducees.
See also the “recommended reading” section, after the appendixes below.
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As was noted in the main part of this article, Jesus warned people about the teachings of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. But, verse 3 in Matthew 23 might confuse casual bible-readers. For, many bible-translators have made it seem that Jesus told people to follow the Pharisees’ teachings.
Checking the wording in the Greek text can help one to understand what that passage most probably meant. Here is the Byzantine Greek text of Matthew 23:2-3, transcribed into the English alphabet and with phrase-translations:
2 legôn (saying,) epi tês môseôs kathedras (“On Moses’ seat”) ekathisan (have sat down) hoi grammateis kai hoi pharisaioi (the scribes and the Pharisees.) 3 panta oun (And so, all manner of [things]) hosa an (much, countless) eipôsin humin têrein (they tell you to observe, [saying]) têreite kai poieite (“Observe, and do!”) kata de ta erga autôn mê poieite (But do not do as they do,) legousin gar kai ou poiousin (for they teach but they do not do [those things].)
A note: The structure and word-order of old Greek was different from that of modern English. Another note: It could be that the Greek text of Matthew 23 is a translation – a record of a conversation in Aramaic, translated into Greek. But, the Greek text is what we have.
Here is an English translation of verses 1-4:
Matthew 23:1 Then spoke Jesus to the crowds, and to his disciples, 2 saying, The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves “on a seat of Moses”. 3 And so, they demand you to follow all kinds of rules, without limit f [saying]: “Observe, and do!” – But, do not do as they do, for they do not do the things they teach. 4 They tie up heavy loads and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves do not touch those burdens with one finger. (BPT)
f Verse 3, “without limit”: The Greek text has hosa an (hosos + an). In old Greek, the word hosos had many meanings, among them (of size), “as great as”, “as much as”, “as long as” – and, it was also used to denote indefinite size or number. It is appears that in the case of Matthew 23:3, the phrase hosa an us used in the meaning “countless”. For, the Pharisees invented countless rules, “without limit”, and then they demanded people to follow them – “Observe, and do!”
Anyone who reads all of chapter 23 in the book of Matthew with care and with thought, should be able to see that Jesus was not telling anyone to follow the Pharisees or their teachings. Also: When we read more in the context, we see that Jesus made it clear to his disciples that they were not to follow men or men’s teachings. We read:
Matthew 23:8 “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 “And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 “And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. (NASB77)
What Jesus said, as recorded in Matthew 23:8-10 and elsewhere, left no place or justification for the scribes and the Pharisees and their doings and teachings.
Here is what the Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell and Scott (Clarendon Press, 1889) has on those words:
I. in ionic a reply, answer, Hdt.
II. in attic the playing a part on the stage, the actor’s art, Arist.
2. an orator’s delivery, declamation, id=Arist.
3. metaph. the playing a part, hypocrisy, Phocyl.
I. an interpreter or expounder, Plat., Luc.
II. one who plays a part on the stage, a player, actor, Ar., Plat., etc.
2. metaph. a pretender, dissembler, hypocrite, NTest.
I. to reply, make answer, answer, Hom., Hdt.
2. to expound, interpret, explain, Od., Ar.:—the attic word in this sense is ἀπο-κρίνομαι.
II. of actors, to answer on the stage: hence to play a part, τὴν Ἀντιγόνην ὑποκέκριται Dem.; ὑπ. τὸ βασιλικόν to take the king’s part, Arist.; ὑποκρ. τραγῳδίαν, κωμῳδίαν to play a tragedy, a comedy, id=Arist.; absol. to play a part, be an actor, id=Arist.
2. to represent dramatically: hence to exaggerate, Dem.
3. metaph. to play a part, to feign, pretend, c. inf., id=Dem.
For the verb hupokrinomai, the more extensive Greek-English Lexicon by the same authors has such definitions as “reply, make answer”, “speak in dialogue, hence play a part on the stage”. (And also, “feign”, “pretend”, “deceive”, and even, “separate gradually”, “subject to inquiry”, “interrogate”, and so on.)
Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → gs09.htm
What does the Bible say about authority? Who has biblical, spiritual or religious authority on the human level? Who can speak for God? → gs06.htm
Jesus warned about false prophets, deceivers and deception. He said that many would be deceived. → ho09.htm
Moses – Jesus the Second Moses – parallels between Moses and Jesus – the seat of Moses – Jesus, Moses and Elijah. → go08.htm
What does the English language word and concept “doctrine” literally mean? Likewise, the terms “dogma”, “creed” and “tenet”, what do they signify? → gs08.htm
“Amateur bible students” versus “professional theologians”. The actual meaning of such words as “clergy”, “laity” and “scholar”. → hs07.htm
Matthew 16:19, the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and “bind” and “loose”. What did the word “keys” depict or symbolise, and what kind of binding and loosing was Jesus talking about? → ih07.htm
What does James 3:1 mean and refer to? → ha07.htm
What does the Bible say about titles of men, in the religious context? → ia08.htm
Power among Jesus’ disciples. What powers were given to the apostles, and to the saints in general? Also: Did the apostle Peter receive some special powers? → ha09.htm
Who were the Sadducees, and what were their teachings? Also: Who were the Herodians and the Boethusians? → go13.htm
What does the word “righteous” really mean? What does the Bible say about righteousness? → mg08.htm
Worshipping God. What does the Bible say about worship, in connection with the New Covenant? → ia04.htm
A study on the phrases “the snare of the Devil” and “the love of money is the root of all evil”. Jesus and Paul warned that those who proclaimed the Good Message, could become spiritually unfruitful. → gm08.htm
What is the truth about tithing, the concept of giving “tithes” and “offerings” to a church? In connection with the New Covenant: Is tithing biblical or unbiblical, right or wrong? → mm01.htm
The Days of unleavened bread, their symbolism and prophetic message, and what leaven symbolised. → hz01.htm
What is the Kingdom of God? Where is it located? Does it exist already, or is it only going to be established in the future? Or, is it merely something “in the hearts of men”? → ho01.htm
Matthew 13, the parable of the darnel or “tares”, the wicked seed sown by the Enemy. → fv10.htm
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