What did Jesus mean by ”Do and observe whatever they tell you?” (Matt 23)

Refuting rabbinic objections to Christianity and Jesus and Messianic Prophecies
Did Yeshua command us to follow the traditions of the Rabbis? Did not Yeshua Himself tell us to listen to the rabbis and follow their laws in Matthew 23:2–3 which says, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you’”?
It is not wise to build a comprehensive and wide-reaching theology over a single verse, taken out of context. At this point, Yeshua is speaking before the New Covenant is made. After all, if Yeshua wanted us to follow the rabbis (Pharisees and scribes), He never mentions it anywhere else in the Gospels; neither do the apostles teach us to follow the rabbis. Yeshua demonstrates in His own life the exact opposite. He did not wash His hands according to the tradition of the Second Temple Period (Matt 15:1–9). Elsewhere He clearly states:

“You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” (Mark 7:9).

The idea that God despises man-made religious traditions as a means to gain His favor is not new. We see it throughout the Bible. For example, Isaiah writes:
The Lord said:

“Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden” (Isa 29:13–14).

Therefore, if Yeshua is suggesting in a single verse that we must obey the rabbis, He forgot to inform us which rabbinical sect to follow (e.g., the house of Shammai or the house of Hillel), for they represented opposing interpretations of the Law in Yeshua’s day. Furthermore, Yeshua would be in direct contradiction with the prophets and even with His own teaching in the same chapter, as we will see!
So, what was Yeshua talking about in this verse? Did “Moses’ seat” refer to rabbinic authority as some have argued? No! Rather, “Moses’ seat” referred to the physical place in the synagogue where the Scriptures were read.
Let us assume for a moment that it is now the Second Temple Period in Israel. We would not have our own copy of the Hebrew Scriptures, nor would there be any bookstores or internet. How would we, as Second Temple Period Jews, be exposed to the Hebrew Scriptures? There is only one way. We would have to go to a synagogue. It was at the synagogue—from “Moses’ seat”—that the Hebrew Scriptures were read. Support for this interpretation can be found in a village north of the Sea of Galilee called Chorazin (just ninety minutes from our Bible College).
In an ancient synagogue dating from the fourth century, archaeologists discovered something called “Moses’ seat,” a seat in the synagogue where the Hebrew Scriptures were read aloud. Though this inscription is from a later period, it is safe to assume this custom did not suddenly appear out of the blue in the fourth century. This was also affirmed by the Talmud Department of Bar-Ilan University.[1]
When Yeshua told the people of Israel to listen to the scribes and Pharisees when they read from Moses’ seat, He meant it in a literal way. And why was it so important to Yeshua that the people of Israel listen to the Scriptures being read? Yeshua knew that the Scriptures all pointed to Him: “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me” (John 5:46). Moses’ seat in the synagogue was the only place from which a Jewish person in the Second Temple period could hear Moses and the Prophets bear testimony concerning the Messiah: “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” (Deut 18:15). Yeshua wanted the people of Israel to listen to Moses, because Moses pointed to Him (Matt 19:16–21). The Messiah is the goal and purpose of the Torah in general, and the Law in particular.
Context is everything. Earlier we claimed that Yeshua would have been contradicting Himself if He were in fact requiring us to obey the rabbis (Pharisees and scribes). In exactly the same chapter (Matt 23), He describes them as “hypocrites” (v. 13), “children of hell” (v. 15), “blind guides” (v. 16), “blind fools” (v. 17), “full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (v. 28), “serpents” (v. 23), “a brood of vipers” (v. 33), and “murderers” (v. 35). Do we seriously think Yeshua commands us to follow them? Yeshua clearly states that they are respecting man-made traditions over God’s word! (Matt. 15:9, quoting Isa. 29:13). When Yeshua said, “but not the works they do,” it was with regard to those man-made traditions they promoted in the name of God (later called the “Oral Law”). So if anything, we would use Matthew 23, in its entirety, to suggest that Yeshua opposed man-made religion and traditions as a way to reach God. It is ridiculous to suggest that Yeshua was telling us to obey them! If He were, we would have an even bigger dilemma. For the Talmud directly opposes Yeshua. It says not only that Yeshua was a false prophet, but also that when Onkelos supposedly contacted Yeshua from the dead, through sorcery, to ask Him about His fate. Yeshua allegedly replied that He was suffering in Hell, “in boiling excrement” (Gittin, 57). It simply makes no sense that Yeshua would ask us to follow, or to give any credence to such teachings!
Furthermore, we would suggest there is a conceptual problem in the claim that Yeshua commands us to obey the traditions as a way of life. Yeshua spoke with razor- sharp precision: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit . . . . It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh [human acts or traditions] is no help at all” (John 3:6; 6:63). If we are going to worship and serve God in the Spirit, we cannot be reconciled to, or please God through, man-made traditions. For “God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). While there is nothing wrong in wearing a piece of rounded fabric on our heads (kippa or yarmulke), twisting a piece of dead animal’s skin around our arms (laying tefillin), or separating meat from milk (rabbinic kosher), this cannot change our hearts, earn points with God, or help us to better love other people. In contrast to eating a falafel, praying for the peace of Jerusalem, or singing HaTikvah in Hebrew, modern Judaism looks to the rabbinic traditions as the way to please God and be considered righteous before Him. In this sense, we can see how these traditions remove Yeshua from His God-ordained place: the One who makes us righteous before God. Therefore, for us as Jewish believers, mandatory obedience to the rabbinic traditions does not represent the faith of our fathers, but a rejection of Yeshua, our Messiah. Religiously following laws or rabbinic traditions as believers not only misses the Torah’s goal, but also confuses believers and non-believers. We cannot be “more Jewish” or draw nearer to God by following human traditions. If we think we can, then we are seeing the gospel and the purpose of the Torah through Rabbinic Judaism’s eyes and not through Yeshua’s eyes. This is exactly why Paul questioned the Jews[2] and gentiles of Galatia: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:3). They, just like the Sages of Rabbinic Judaism, did not understand the purpose of the Law.
* This blog is a chapter from our new book “Reading Moses, Seeing Jesus

[1] Prof. Hananel Mack of Bar-Ilan University’s Talmudic Department, in his paper, “The Seat of Moses,” affirms that the New Testament’s “Seat of Moses” is referring to the physical seat from which Scriptures were read, inside the synagogue. He bases this both on modern archaeological findings and on the ancient rabbinic commentary, Pesikta de-Rab Kahana.

[2] Some suggest Paul’s letter to the Galatians was directed only to a gentile audience, in that the Galatian churches were comprised of gentiles alone. However, we believe this not to be the case for four reasons: (1) According to 1 Pet 1:1 there were clearly Jews in the Galatian Church. (2) According to Josephus (Joseph ben Mattityahu 37–100 CE) there were Jews in the city of Galatia. (3) According to 2 Tim 3:16, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” In other words, we cannot “cherry-pick” prooftexts and leave Galatians out, simply because it does not fit our agenda. (4) Paul and Barnabas preached “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16). Acts does not record a single incident of Paul’s preaching to the Jewish people when at least some did not respond positively. The same pattern continued in the cities of Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe as well.

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