There is a verse in the New Testament that has tripped up many Believers. For a long time, people have sought ways to get around it. That verse is Matthew 23:3.
1 Then Yeshua spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, 2 saying: "The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the seat of Moses; 3 therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.
All throughout the Gospels, the Pharisees are called "vipers," "whitewashed tombs," "hypocrites" and other names as well. Why on earth would Yeshua tell us to "do and observe" all that they tell us?
There are two leading theories on this, which I will give before giving my own. The first, and more prominent theory, is that the seat of Moses was a place within the Synagogue.
Proponents of the first theory state that in Moses' seat, the Pharisees could only read the Written Torah, and were not allowed to give an interpretation of it until they stood up from Moses' seat. Therefore, Yeshua was telling Believers to listen and obey them as long as they read from the Written Torah, but NOT to obey them in their own interpretations of that.
The second theory is actually a textual one. It is based on the Shem Tov Hebrew Matthew. If you're unfamiliar, the Shem Tov Hebrew Matthew is a Medieval-time translation of the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew. Those that support this version's authenticity claim it is a copy of a Hebrew original Matthew. This is not the article that seeks to debate this, but to put it simply, the Shem Tov Matthew is merely a copy from Latin and Greek sources, into the Hebrew language. In fact, it was not even found as a singular manuscript, but was in a collection called "The Touchstone." This collection was filled with anti-Catholic material, and was used by Shem Tov ben Isaac ben Shaprut (after whom the manuscript was named) to debate Catholic priests and monks in the 1300s, with the purpose of disproving Christianity.
There are nine known manuscripts of the Shem Tov Matthew, and of the nine, two (2) read the following for Matt. 23:3:
"3 therefore all that he tells you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them."
Interesting, right? The primary proponent of theory number two, Karaite scholar Nehemiah Gordon, claims that this means Yeshua was telling His disciples to "do all that he [Moses] tells you to do."
Well this, too, seems to clear it up. So which theory, then, is correct? Perhaps both? After all, they both seem to be indicating that what it truly means is obeying Moses (meaning the Torah) and not the words of mere men. So perhaps, in a way, both theories are correct.
The problem with theory one, is that there is no evidence that the "seat of Moses" was the sole place of reading Torah in the Synagogues. Further, there is no evidence that in the "seat of Moses" one could was required to only read Torah, and not give any personal interpretation or instruction.
I have heard this theory many times, and always ask, "how do you know that the one sitting in the seat of Moses was only allowed to read Torah?" Not once have I gotten a response that proves anything. I've gotten a lot of conjecture, but that is all. So this theory is not provable at all.
What is more, is that this is completely contrary to the example of Yeshua in Luke 4, and common Jewish practice. In Luke 4, Yeshua goes into the synagogue to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. It says in verse 16 that He "stood up to read" the scroll, and says in verse 20 that he "sat down." Verse 21 shows that, after sitting back down, Yeshua began to speak. So this is completely CONTRARY to the theory that one was "sitting in Moses' seat" to read, as it is opposite what Yeshua did. Yeshua STOOD UP to read, and SAT DOWN to speak. If this was opposite to the customs of His day, we should find the Scribes and Pharisees and other Jews opposing Him for it, and for breaking tradition, as they so often accused Him and His talmidim. However, we find none of this.
For the second theory, we need not look very hard at the evidence to find that something is off. First of all, we should always be cautious and wary of an unbeliever's interpretation of the NT writings. (Because if you didn't know, Nehemiah Gordon does not believe Yeshua is the Messiah).
While it is true, that 2 of the 9 manuscripts of the Shem Tov Matthew DO say, "he" instead of "they," there is virtually no further support for this. The Greek manuscripts that are hundreds of years older than the Shem Tov read "they." As do the Syriac Aramaic manuscripts, some of which are hundreds of years older than the Shem Tov. Even the Old Syriac and the Old Latin read, "they." (Though there is question whether or not one particular manuscript of the Old Latin reads "he" or "they.")
Not only this, but 7 of the 9 manuscripts of the Shem Tov read, "they" and NOT "he." And even more, all subsequent copies of the Hebrew Matthew (such as the Munster and the DuTillet) also read, "they." So the support simply isn't there for this argument.
So what, then, could the "seat of Moses" be? Well, simply put, it is the "Seat" of Moses. Think of it in modern terms. When there is an election in the United States, we say, "oh there are 3 senate seats that are up for re-election." It is an idiomatic expression. It does not mean that the literal seat or chair of a certain senator is up for re-election, it means that the office or position of the senator is.
The seat of Moses refers to a specific position within the community: that of the judge. In ancient times, it was customary for elders, judges, and leaders of the people to sit at the city gates to judge the people. We find evidence of this all throughout the Tanakh, but here are a few examples.
23Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land. – Prov. 31:23
8So the king arose and sat in the gate. When they told all the people, saying, "Behold, the king is sitting in the gate," then all the people came before the king. Now Israel had fled, each to his tent. – 2 Sam. 19:8
7"When I went out to the gate of the city, When I took my seat in the square, 8The young men saw me and hid themselves, And the old men arose [and] stood. 9"The princes stopped talking And put [their] hands on their mouths; 10The voice of the nobles was hushed, And their tongue stuck to their palate. – Job 29:7-10
There are other examples, but we'll consider these. In Proverbs, the mention of the husband being "known in the gates" means that he is well-respected by the elders and judges. In Job, Job is talking about the former glory he had, and how he took a seat in the square at the gate of the city, and even the elders and princes and nobles respected him greatly.
In 2 Samuel, this incident is right after the death of Absalom, David's son, who tried to usurp and overthrow David. There is still more to this if we turn back a few chapters. In 2 Sam. 15, we find that Absalom would stand at the road that led to the city gate. Here he would draw people away from seeking judgment from the king, and attempt to render judgment himself. Why would he "stand by the side of the road leading to the city gate" (verse 2) unless this was where everyone seeking the king's judgment would go?
Indeed, there is yet still more to consider.
8"If any case is too difficult for you to decide, between one kind of homicide or another, between one kind of lawsuit or another, and between one kind of assault or another, being cases of dispute in your courts, then you shall arise and go up to the place which YHWH your Elohim chooses. 9So you shall come to the Levitical priest or the judge who is [in office] in those days, and you shall inquire [of them] and they will declare to you the verdict in the case. 10You shall do according to the terms of the verdict which they declare to you from that place which YHWH chooses; and you shall be careful to observe according to all that they teach you. 11According to the terms of the law which they teach you, and according to the verdict which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside from the word which they declare to you, to the right or the left. 12The man who acts presumptuously by not listening to the priest who stands there to serve YHWH your Elohim, nor to the judge, that man shall die; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel. 13Then all the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously again." – Deut. 17:8-13
One chapter before this, YHWH says,
18“You shall appoint judges and officers in all your gates that YHWH your Elohim is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment." – Deut. 16:18
So the judges are to judge the people, and are to be appointed "at the gates." Now looking in most versions, you'll probably notice that it says "towns" or "cities" and not "gates." However, if you look up the Hebrew, you'll find the word שער (sha'ar) which means "gates" and not "town." It is also the word used in all three examples above (2 Sam., Prov. And Job) for "gates."
But what does this have to do with Moses?
13The next day, Moses took his seat to hear the people’s disputes against each other. They waited before him from morning till evening. – Ex. 18:13
Moses' seat was the place where judgment was passed down. In like manner, after they entered the land, as Deut. 16 commanded, they were to set up judges. Due to their custom, these judges would judge the people, and would sit at the gates of the city.
This was also the place to go for public witnesses of transactions.
Gen. 23 says that when Abraham bought the field of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite he was "at the gate of the city" when he called men to be witnesses to the transaction.
Ruth 4 tells us that when Boaz sought to redeem Ruth and the property of Elimelech, he went to the gates of the city. He did this because it was a huge transaction, and needed witnesses of the "elders of the city" (verse 2). So in these (and other) examples, we discover that the gates of the city was the place where judgment was rendered by the leaders. These leaders were also of high reputation, and thus would serve as perfect witnesses to a public transaction.
So overall, we find that those sitting in Moses' seat are the judges. These were to be elders and priests. In Yeshua's time, these positions were held by the ruling elite, which were the Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. This was the entire Senhedrin, or "religious court." This is why He commanded His followers to "observe and do" whatever the Pharisees commanded them to do, when they were in Moses' seat. Because, when they were "in the seat of Moses" it meant that they were trying cases according to Torah. Thus, as YHWH commanded in Deut. 17, "all that the judge commands you shall do." In this case, the Scribes and Pharisees were the judges, and were required to judge the cases according to Torah. However they decided, the judgment handed down was to be obeyed.
Hopefully this offers a little bit of clarity. You may be thinking that this still sounds similar to theory one, and I admit, it does indeed! However, the difference is the FUNCTION of the seat of Moses. It was not the place where one sat down to simply read the Law, but was rather the place where one sat down to judge ACCORDING to the Law.
I hope and pray this study has blessed you.
Be Berean. Shalom.