The Gospels on the Pharisees V

(continued from here)

15.) Mt 22.15-22 / Lk 20.20-26 / Mk 12.13-17
Taxes to Caesar. Mt presents, at this point, the Pharisees now planning to “entangle [Jesus] in his talk” (22.15), sending some of their own disciples and some Herodians to do so. Lk has the instigators as scribes and chief priests, following from the previous pericope in Lk. Mk retains the Pharisees and Herodians of Mt. It’s interesting that the Herodians appear in Mt only here, involved in a question with overtly political ramifications, while they are utterly absent throughout the rest of Mt. In Mk they appear here, and also in 3.6, curiously, at the end of the incident of Jesus’ healing the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath (see my note 6, above). However, in this case, the outcome in all three parallels is relatively positive: wonder/amazement on the part of hearers at Jesus’ skillful answer, even despite his explicitly calling them hypocrites in Mt, and with this evaluation of them imputed to him by the narrator in Lk and Mk.

16.) Mt 22.34-40 / Lk 10.25-28 / Mk 12.28-34
The Great Commandment. The shortest account is that of Mt, a simple question and answer without commentary on the part of Jesus or his interlocutor. Lk’s account poses a different question (“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 10.25), and the entire pericope is displaced relative to its position in Mt and Mk. Indeed, the pericope in Lk appears to be a different incident, as the initial question differs, and it is then followed by another question from Jesus, and the scribe then answers with the OT quotations, to which answer Jesus gives an approving response. Mk appears to conflate Mt and Lk, particularly so as to keep the approval of Jesus at the end, though in a different formulation (cf Lk 10.28 and Mk 12.34). Mt and Mk both begin with the scribe’s question (a lawyer from among the Pharisees in Mt, one of the scribes in Mk) which is then answered by Jesus. Mt ends the pericope there, while Mk includes a recapitulating affirmation from the scribe, whose positive response is then in turn affirmed by Jesus. An interesting change in perspective is discernible between Mt and Mk. In Mt, Jesus proclaims “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (22.40). However, this becomes in Mk part of the scribe’s affirmation “[This pair of laws] is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (12.33). There is a whiff of supersession of the sacrificial system in Mk that is entirely absent from Mt, likely to be attributed to the later, more Gentile context of the audience of Mk.

17.) Mt 22.41-46 / Lk 20.41-44 / Mk 12.35-37
The Question about the Son of David. Here we find some interesting narrative tricks in process amongst the three parallel pericopes. First comes Mt, a pericope immediately following upon the “Great Commandment” pericope described above. The audience is still the Pharisees. In Lk, however, with the displacement of the “Great Commandment” pericope, at the end of the dispute with the Sadducees over the resurrection (not covered in these notes: see Mt 22.23-33; Lk 20.27-40; Mk 12.18-27), Lk inserts a response from the scribes (20.40), following with the “Son of David” pericope in verse 41: “But he said to them…,” thus addressing this pericope to the scribes. Mk, on the other hand, inserted a clean break between the “Great Commandment” pericope and the “Son of David” pericope with 12.34b: “And after that no one dared to ask him any question.” A similar statement occurs at Lk 20.40, and at Mt 22.46. It appears that Lk placed his statement at 20.40 because that is the end of the last pericope in his set in which Jesus is asked a question, as the case is in Mk. Both appear to have found the placement of Mt’s similar statement awkward, as it follows the end of a pericope in which Jesus asks the question. Interesting, too, are the different audiences. In Mt, it is still the Pharisees around whom he asks, and they then answer, followed by Jesus making an objection through a Scriptural citation, an interesting and classically rabbinic practice. This is altered, however, in Lk, who has Jesus ask the scribes, “How can they say…?” (20.41), and Mk follows this format in having Jesus question the crowd “How can the scribes say…?” (12.35). In both, he continues with the same Scriptural citation as an objection, but the argumentation is no longer preserved, the questions having become merely rhetorical. Again, Mt appears more authentic and earlier than Lk and Mk.

18.) Mt 23.1-39 / Lk 20.45-47, etc / Mk 12.37b-40
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” This entire chapter of Mt 23 is devoted to a fascinating list of apparent halakhic rulings of the Pharisees (and those scribes following their lead) with which Jesus vehemently disagrees. As Pickup notes (p. 102), in Mt Jesus addresses the “crowds and his disciples” in that order, which Lk turns into “in the hearing of all the people he said to his disciples” (20.45), following with a drastically shortened account of Mt’s pericope, which Lucan abbreviation is then followed by Mk. The halakhic disagreements are displaced by Lk into Lk 11.37-54, where they likewise are presented in a different order, in the narrative setting of dinner at a Pharisee’s house, with the remnants of some halakhic argumentation on handwashing (see my note 9, above). It appeas that Lk wanted to keep the particularly halakhic distraction to a minimum, so he relegated only the more interesting rhetoric in Jesus’ argumentation into the earlier context of Lk 11, keeping the nearly unrecognizable remnants of Mt’s detailed halakhic objections and argumentation in one place. The fragment of this discourse left in place in Lk 20.45-47 and Mk 12.37b-40 is likewise simply a warning about the scribes, not the scribes and Pharisees as in Mt, apparently wishing to focus on the scribes as the official teachers of the law, rather than those responsible for the content of that instruction, which would have been the Pharisees. In addition, Mt 23.37-39, the climactic conclusion of this chapter in Mt, is completely displaced to another context in Lk (13.34-35), again demonstrating a fondness for the arrangement of Jesus’ sayings into discrete gnomic utterances more in keeping with Gentile conceptions of proper rhetoric for a philosopher, rather than the halakhic argumentation of a Judean teacher of the law. But this passage in Mt is tied to its immediately preceding context by the words “prophet” and “blood”, in addition to being the climactic point of this chapter, a hair’s breadth away from explicitly prophesying Jesus’ soon forthcoming death. Such is completely out of place in Lk.

Regarding the very difficult Mt 23.2-3, Pickup says (p. 106):

Is is possible to understand Jesus to be saying that the people should follow the scribes and Pharisees’ teaching of the Scriptures, but just not their behavior or the halakha of their oral traditions? I believe that it is, since this is exactly what we have seen throughout our analysis of Matthew’s gospel. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ objection to the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees was not that their teaching of Scripture per se was wrong, but that their application of it failed to adequately fulfill the principles of the Law. Their level of righteousness (i.e., righteous behavior) was what was inadequate (5:20), not what the people heard from them regarding what Scripture said. Jesus objected to the actions of the scribes and Pharisees. Angry epithets, lustful looks at women, bills of divorcement, vows made in vain, acts of personal vengeance, and unloving behavior all failed to measure up to the moral principles of Scripture that the scribes and Pharisees themselves taught. Thus, Matthew’s Jesus says in the present discourse, “…Do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (v. 3).

That is really the only sensible reading in context. Likewise, such a proclamation and such a diatribe would have sealed anyone’s fate: telling the people at large, through popularity with whom the Pharisees gained all their influence in wider affairs, to ignore the Pharisees’ halakhic program would’ve been perceived as a direct attack on their foundational support among the people, mentioned by all sources. And while the Pharisees are not depicted as involved in the arrest, trial, sentencing and execution of Jesus, this may be taken as their response to such confrontational speeches on the part of Jesus: they neither came to his defense nor did they attempt to ameliorate the sentence.

It also seems to me that this chapter Mt 23 would have been most shocking in its indictment of Pharisaic rulings for another reason. The objections are coming not through argumentation, as in Mt 15, but by fiat, from a man who speaks and acts with authority—heavenly authority some believed, but not all. This, I think, would have frightened not a few hearers, and rightly so. It is exactly this confrontation between the prophetic and the professional that is depicted, in various clarities, throughout the gospels.

19.) Mt 26.6-13 / Lk 7.36-50 / Mk 14.3-9 / Jn 12.1-8
In a rather rare case, this particular pericope, The Anointing by the Woman, is present in all four gospels in parallel forms, though there are differences. Mt and Mk are nearly identical, with John close to them, while Lk’s version is so different and so displaced (the other three gospels all place this even late in Jesus’ life, explicitly six days before the crucifixion in Jn, while Lk places it years earlier) as to perhaps indicate a separate incident. In any case, it is only in Lk’s version that there is mention of a Pharisee, Jesus’ host, named Simon. Interestingly, both Mt and Mk also have the host as Simon, but call him a leper (Mt 6.6; Mk 14.3) and place the event in Bethany. Jn places it in Bethany as well, (2.1-2) but in the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, who is the woman who anoints Jesus. The Pharisees Simon in Lk appears to be concerned with the ritual purity status of the woman who is touching Jesus (7.39). Though it is not explicitly stated, and Lk is not as careful with such details as is Mt, the concern of Simon appears to be transmission of uncleanness from the sinful woman to Jesus (perhaps exacerbated through the presence of the liquid medium of her tears and the ointment?). As mention of Pharisees and this theme of uncleanness is lacking in the other parallels, which thereby do appear to reflect a different situation being depicted, there is no further elaboration on the presence of the Pharisees in the parallels.

This concludes the set of parallel pericopes in which Pharisees are mentioned in at least one of the gospels. This was an intersting little project. After a bit more research, I’ll be presenting some information related to the above on how different passages in the gospels have been misread regarding the Pharisees. One thing, I think, is clear from the above: the Gospel according to Matthew preserves a more accurate record of first century proto-halakhic dispute than do either Luke or Mark, both of which show a clear tendency towards altering passages for the benefit of their Gentile audiences. The way that pericopes found in Matthew were edited, being shortened or rearranged or scattered in Luke and Mark, leads to the inescapable conclusion that Matthew was the earliest Gospel and Luke and Mark used it as a source. For an author like Matthew (for lack of any better name) with such sensitivity to the traditions of first century Judean halakhic dispute, there is no way that he would treat Mark and Luke (for it would require knowledge of both) as a kind of halakhic treasury (which they certainly aren’t) to pull random bits of phrases and arguments together and construct whole perfect examples of halakhic argumentation out of them, placing them in the mouth of Jesus. Rather it is more sensible to see the original whole arguments abbreviated by Luke and Mark as later alterations for later, different audiences with later, different interests.


  1. Thanks for your reflections. In following various discussions over the last 10 years, I have tended to a similar conclusion – Matthew, then Luke, then Mark – not so much conflating as performing a radical summary with of course his own unique signature. My detail form a study I did 5 years ago begins here

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