seated themselves in the seat of Moses: Or “appointed themselves to Moses’ place,” by presumptuously claiming his authority as interpreters of divine law.
heavy loads: Evidently referring to rules and oral traditions that were burdensome for people to keep.
budge them with their finger: This expression may refer to the unwillingness of the religious leaders to lift even one small regulation to make things easier for those on whom they imposed heavy loads.
the scripture-containing cases that they wear as safeguards: Or “their phylacteries.” These small leather cases containing four portions of the Law (Ex 13:1-10, 11-16; De 6:4-9; 11:13-21) were worn by Jewish men on their forehead and left arm. This practice had its origin in a literal interpretation of God’s direction to the Israelites at Ex 13:9, 16; De 6:8; 11:18. Jesus criticized the religious leaders because they enlarged their scripture-containing cases in order to impress others and because they wrongly considered them to be charms, or amulets, that would protect them.
lengthen the fringes: At Nu 15:38-40, the Israelites were commanded to make fringes on their garments, but for show, the scribes and Pharisees make theirs longer than anyone else does.
front seats: Or “best seats.” Evidently, the presiding officers of the synagogue and distinguished guests sat near the Scripture rolls at the front of the synagogue, in full view of the congregation. These seats of honor were likely reserved for such prominent individuals.
marketplaces: Or “places of assembly.” The Greek word a·go·raʹ is here used to refer to an open area that served as a center for buying and selling and as a place of public assembly in cities and towns of the ancient Near East and the Greek and Roman world.
Rabbi: Literally meaning “my great one,” from the Hebrew word rav, meaning “great.” In common usage, “Rabbi” meant “Teacher” (Joh 1:38), but it came to be used as an honorary title. Some learned men, scribes and teachers of the Law, demanded to be addressed by this title.
father: Jesus here prohibits the use of the term “father” as a formalistic or religious title of honor applied to men.
Christ: This title is derived from the Greek word Khri·stosʹ and is equivalent to the title “Messiah” (from Hebrew Ma·shiʹach), both meaning “Anointed One.” In Bible times, rulers were ceremonially anointed with oil.
the Christ: Here the title “Christ” is preceded by the definite article in Greek, evidently as a way of emphasizing Jesus’ office as the Messiah.
leaders: The Greek word is a synonym for “Teacher,” found in verse 8, and here it conveys the idea of those who provide guidance and instruction, spiritual leaders. It was likely used as a religious title.
Leader: Since no imperfect human can be the spiritual Leader of true Christians, Jesus is the only one rightly bearing this title.
the Christ: Here the title “Christ,” meaning “Anointed One,” is preceded by the definite article in Greek. This is a way of indicating that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the one who had been anointed in a special sense.
minister: Or “servant.” The Bible often uses the Greek word di·aʹko·nos to refer to one who does not let up in humbly rendering service in behalf of others. The term is used to describe Christ (Ro 15:8), ministers or servants of Christ (1Co 3:5-7; Col 1:23), ministerial servants (Php 1:1; 1Ti 3:8), as well as household servants (Joh 2:5, 9) and government officials (Ro 13:4).
minister: Or “servant.”
Woe to you: This is the first in a series of seven woes pronounced on the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, in which Jesus identifies them as hypocrites and blind guides.
hypocrites: The Greek word hy·po·kri·tesʹ originally referred to Greek (and later Roman) stage actors who wore large masks designed to amplify the voice. The term came to be used in a metaphoric sense to apply to anyone hiding his real intentions or personality by playing false or putting on a pretense. Jesus here calls the Jewish religious leaders “hypocrites.”
shut up: Or “shut the door to,” that is, prevent people from entering.
A few manuscripts add the words: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you devour widows’ houses and for a pretense offer long prayers; on this account you will receive judgment more abundantly.” However, the earliest and most important manuscripts do not include this verse. Similar words, though, can be found at Mr 12:40 and Lu 20:47 as part of the inspired text.
proselyte: Or “convert.” The Greek word pro·seʹly·tos denotes a Gentile who has converted to Judaism, which included circumcision for male proselytes.
a subject for Gehenna: Lit., “a son of Gehenna,” that is, someone who is deserving of eternal destruction.
Fools and blind ones!: Or “You blind fools!” In Biblical usage, the term “fool” generally refers to an individual who spurns reason and follows a morally insensible course that is out of harmony with God’s righteous standards.
tenth of the mint and the dill and the cumin: Under the Mosaic Law, the Israelites were to pay the tithe, or a tenth, of their crops. (Le 27:30; De 14:22) Although the Law did not explicitly command that they give a tenth of herbs like mint, dill, and cumin, Jesus did not contradict the tradition. Rather, he reproved the scribes and Pharisees for focusing on minor details of the Law while failing to promote its underlying principles, such as justice and mercy and faithfulness.
who strain out the gnat but gulp down the camel: The gnat and the camel were among the smallest and the largest unclean creatures known to the Israelites. (Le 11:4, 21-24) Jesus uses hyperbole, combined with a degree of irony, in saying that the religious leaders filter their beverages so as not to be ceremonially defiled by a gnat, while they completely disregard the weightier matters of the Law, an action comparable to swallowing a camel.
whitewashed graves: It was a custom in Israel to whitewash graves as a warning so that those passing by would not accidentally become ceremonially defiled through contact with a burial place. (Nu 19:16) The Jewish Mishnah (Shekalim 1:1) says that this whitewashing was done annually, one month prior to the Passover. Jesus used this expression as a metaphor for hypocrisy.
lawlessness: The Greek word rendered “lawlessness” includes the idea of violation of and contempt for laws, people acting as if there were no laws. As used in the Bible, it suggests disregard for God’s laws.
tombs: Or “memorial tombs.”
fill up the measure of your forefathers: Or “finish off the works that your forefathers started.” The literal meaning of this idiomatic expression is “to fill up a measure that someone else has started to fill.” Jesus is not commanding the Jewish leaders to finish what their ancestors started. Rather, he is using irony in foretelling that they would kill him, as their ancestors killed God’s prophets of former times.
Gehenna: This term comes from the Hebrew words geh hin·nomʹ, meaning “valley of Hinnom,” which lay to the W and S of ancient Jerusalem. (See App. B12, map “Jerusalem and Surrounding Area.”) By Jesus’ day, the valley had become a place for burning refuse, so the word “Gehenna” was a fitting symbol of complete destruction.
Serpents, offspring of vipers: Satan, “the original serpent” (Re 12:9), is in a spiritual sense the progenitor of opposers to true worship. Jesus, therefore, justly classified these religious leaders as “serpents, offspring of vipers.” (Joh 8:44; 1Jo 3:12) They caused deadly spiritual harm to those who were influenced by their wickedness. John the Baptist also used the expression “offspring of vipers.”
public instructors: Or “learned persons.” The Greek word gram·ma·teusʹ is rendered “scribe” when referring to Jewish teachers of the Law, but Jesus is here speaking about his disciples who are to be sent out to teach others.
synagogues: See Glossary, “Synagogue.”
from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah: Jesus’ statement embraced all the murdered witnesses of Jehovah mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, from Abel, listed in the first book (Ge 4:8), to Zechariah, mentioned at 2Ch 24:20, Chronicles being the last book in the traditional Jewish canon. So when Jesus said from “Abel to . . . Zechariah,” he was saying “from the very first case to the last.”
son of Barachiah: According to 2Ch 24:20, this Zechariah was “the son of Jehoiada the priest.” It has been suggested that Jehoiada may have had two names, as is the case with others in the Bible (compare Mt 9:9 with Mr 2:14), or that Barachiah was Zechariah’s grandfather or an earlier ancestor.
whom you murdered: While these Jewish religious leaders did not actually kill Zechariah, Jesus held them accountable because they had the same murderous disposition as their ancestors.
between the sanctuary and the altar: According to 2Ch 24:21, Zechariah was murdered “in the courtyard of Jehovah’s house.” The altar of burnt offering was in the inner courtyard, outside of and in front of the entrance to the sanctuary. (See App. B8.) This would correspond with the location Jesus mentioned for the incident.
Truly: Greek, a·menʹ, a transliteration of the Hebrew ʼa·menʹ, meaning “so be it,” or “surely.” Jesus frequently uses this expression to preface a statement, a promise, or a prophecy, thereby emphasizing its absolute truthfulness and reliability. Jesus’ use of “truly,” or amen, in this way is said to be unique in sacred literature. When repeated in succession (a·menʹ a·menʹ), as is the case throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus’ expression is translated “most truly.”
Look!: The Greek word i·douʹ, here rendered “look!,” is often used to focus attention on what follows, encouraging the reader to visualize the scene or to take note of a detail in a narrative. It is also used to add emphasis or to introduce something new or surprising. In the Christian Greek Scriptures, the term occurs most frequently in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and in the book of Revelation. A corresponding expression is often used in the Hebrew Scriptures.
house: That is, the temple.
is abandoned to you: Some ancient manuscripts add the word “desolate.”
A phylactery is a small leather case containing strips of parchment on which four passages of Scripture are written, namely, Ex 13:1-10, 11-16; De 6:4-9; 11:13-21. Some time after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, the custom arose for males to wear Scripture-containing cases during morning prayer, except on festival days and the Sabbath. The photo shows an actual phylactery dating from the first century C.E. It was found in one of the Qumran caves. The drawing shows what such a phylactery may have looked like when new.
This reconstruction, which incorporates some features of the first-century synagogue found at Gamla, located about 10 km (6 mi) northeast of the Sea of Galilee, gives an idea of what an ancient synagogue may have looked like.
The reconstruction shown in this animation is partly based on the ruins of a first-century synagogue in Gamla, a city located about 10 km (6 mi) northeast of the Sea of Galilee. No synagogues from the first century have survived intact, so the exact features are uncertain. This depiction includes some of the features that were likely present in many synagogues of that time.
1. The front, or best, seats in the synagogue may have been located on or near the speaker’s platform.
2. The platform from which a teacher would read from the Law. The exact location of the platform may have varied from one synagogue to the next.
3. Seating along the wall may have been occupied by people with status in the community. Others might have sat on mats on the floor. The synagogue in Gamla seems to have had four rows of seats.
4. An ark, or chest, in which sacred scrolls were kept may have been located on the back wall.
The seating arrangements in the synagogue were a constant reminder to those in attendance that some had greater status than others, a topic often debated by Jesus’ disciples.
In the first century, a common way of dining was to recline at the table. Each person would rest his left elbow on a cushion and eat using his right hand. According to the Greco-Roman custom, a typical dining room had three couches set around a low dining table. The Romans called this kind of dining room a triclinium (Latin from a Greek word meaning “room with three couches”). Although this arrangement traditionally accommodated nine people, three to a couch, it became common to use longer couches to accommodate even more people. Each position in the dining room was traditionally viewed as having a different degree of honor. One couch was the lowest place of honor (A), one was the middle (B), and one was the highest (C). The positions on the couch differed in importance. The person dining was considered to be above the one to his right and below the one to his left. At a formal banquet, the host typically sat at the first position (1) on the lowest couch. The place of honor was the third position (2) on the middle couch. Although it is not clear to what extent the Jews adopted this custom, it appears that Jesus alluded to it when teaching his followers the need for humility.
The Valley of Hinnom, called Gehenna in Greek, is a ravine to the south and southwest of ancient Jerusalem. In Jesus’ day, it was a place for the burning of refuse, making it a fitting symbol of complete destruction.
The Valley of Hinnom (1), called Gehenna in the Christian Greek Scriptures. The Temple Mount (2). The first-century Jewish temple complex was located here. The most prominent present-day structure on the temple mount is the Muslim shrine known as the Dome of the Rock.
From ancient times, mint has been used in medicine and for flavoring food. The Greek word he·dyʹo·smon, “mint,” (literally, sweet-smelling) likely embraced the various known kinds of mint found in Israel and Syria, including the common horsemint (Mentha longifolia). Dill (Anethum graveolens) is cultivated for its aromatic seeds, which are valued as a spice for flavoring foods and as a medicine for treating stomach ailments. The cumin plant (Cuminum cyminum) is of the carrot or parsley family and is best known for its pungently aromatic seeds, used in Middle Eastern and other countries as a spice for flavoring bread, cakes, stews, and even liquors.
In Jesus’ day, the camel was the largest domesticated animal in the region. The Arabian camel (Camelus dromedarius), thought to be the one generally referred to in the Bible, has only one hump. The first mention of the camel in the Bible relates to Abraham’s temporary residence in Egypt, where he acquired a number of these beasts of burden.
Both John the Baptist and Jesus called the scribes and Pharisees “offspring of vipers” because they inflicted spiritual harm that was like deadly poison to unsuspecting people. (Mt 3:7; 12:34) Here pictured is the horned viper, distinguished by a small pointed horn above each eye. Other dangerous vipers native to Israel are the sand viper (Vipera ammodytes) of the Jordan Valley and the Palestine viper (Vipera palaestina).
The most terrible instrument for scourging was known as a flagellum. It consisted of a handle into which several cords or leather thongs were fixed. These thongs were weighted with jagged pieces of bone or metal to make the blows more painful.
Jesus painted a touching word picture, likening his concern for the people of Jerusalem to the protectiveness of a hen that is sheltering her young with her wings. This illustration, as well as Jesus’ reference to a son who asks his father for an egg (Lu 11:11, 12), indicates that the domestic hen was common in first-century Israel. Though the Greek word orʹnis, used at Mt 23:37 and Lu 13:34, could refer to any bird, wild or domesticated, in this context it is understood to refer to a hen, the most common and useful of the domestic fowl.