Jesus said: “The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: whatsoever they bid you, that do!” What did Jesus mean? What was “Moses’ seat?” What was its authority? – and what about that authority today?
What did Jesus mean? This command has perplexed many people. The example Jesus gave while on earth was clearly against the tradition and commandments of the Pharisees. Christ openly repudiated not a few of them, claiming them as nothing more than the commandments of men (Mark 7:7).
He rejected, for example, the Pharisaic commandments when he healed on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6). When He and His disciples got some handfuls of grain to eat on the Sabbath day, the Pharisees told Him he broke their law (Luke 6:1-2). Christ also rejected the traditions of the elders which required the ritualistic washing of the hands before meals (Luke 11:37-38). Christ and His disciples did not fast each Monday and Thursday according to the laws of the Pharisees (Matt. 9:14; Luke 18:12).
Does this mean that in some parts of Scripture, Christ taught His disciples, by example and by commandments, not to acknowledge the traditions of the Pharisees, and then in Matthew 23:2-3 He commands them to observe them all? Does this mean that the teachings of Christ are inconsistent? Not at all! The key is to understand the difference between the Jewish traditions and the authority vested in certain leaders when they sat on Moses’ seat.
The teachings of Christ are completely consistent! He was not commanding His disciples to reject Jewish traditions in one breath and then to obey them in another. Even so, to obey every single teaching issued by the Pharisees would have been impossible of fulfillment! Imagine trying to observe one teaching from the School of Hillel and another completely opposite teaching from the School of Shammai.
What, then, did Jesus Christ mean?
The important point to note in Matthew 23 is that Christ told His disciples to obey everything the scribes and Pharisees issued from Moses’ seat! These laymen had seated themselves on Moses’ sea of authority in place of the Levites. Even so, they were to be obeyed when acting in that capacity. There was a difference between the ordinary independent teachings of the Pharisees which varied from time to time – and were often contradictory with one another – and the commands which came from Moses’ seat. The commands from Moses’ seat did not entail matters of opinion among differing Pharisees, but rather they involved decisions of community importance which affect the whole of the Jewish nation. The commands from Moses’ seat were not enacted exclusively for the Pharisees, as were the pharisaic commands. They were for all Jews. Christ is not telling His disciples to obey the ordinary teachings of the Pharisees, but He is commanding them to obey every command that came from Moses’ seat.
In New Testament times there were two organizations under the Romans which were governing the Jews. One was called the Sanhedrin. This body of men has already been mentioned. The Sanhedrin was the successor to the Great Assembly, the governing body among the Jews in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. The Great Assembly was composed only of priests, but the Sanhedrin, which was established after the period of religious anarchy, was composed of laymen and priests alike. The functions of the Sanhedrin were similar in many ways to the older Great Assembly, but there was one main difference in New Testament times. The Sanhedrin had gravitated to being more or less a civil Supreme Court among the Jews, while the Great Assembly had been both civil and religious.
That brings us to the second organization among the Jews in Christ’s time. This organization was attached to the Sanhedrin, at least in principle, but did not form an integral part of the Sanhedrin. This was called the Great Beth Din – which means in English the Great House of Religious Judgment: This was the religious Supreme Court of the land, while the Sanhedrin was primarily the civil Supreme Court. There was a major difference between the two. In the Sanhedrin there were represented both Sadducees and Pharisees, but the Great Beth Din was composed only of the scribes – the authoritative copiers of the Bible – and Pharisees – the most eminent of religious leaders, the Doctors of the Law (Herford, Judaism in the New Testament Period, pp. 153-154).
“The Great Beth Din. . . . . was entirely Pharisaic and composed of ‘doctors of the law’” (ibid., p.153).
There were minor civil and religious courts among the Jews throughout the land, but in Jerusalem were both the Sanhedrin – the civil Supreme Court, and the Great Beth Din – the religious Supreme Court. Both these organizations were of national importance to all Jews everywhere.
“The Great Beth Din, as the final court of appeal, was undoubtedly a body of experts, the most eminent and experienced teachers of the time” (ibid., p. 157).
The scribes and Pharisees that sat in this religious Supreme Court – the Great Beth Din – were the religious judges over the entire nation of the Jews. When they issued a decision in their official capacity as members of the Great Beth Din that decision was mandatory on all Jews. Thus it was the scribes and Pharisees who were members of the Great Beth Din who sat in Moses’ seat!
Only very few Pharisee sat in this religious Supreme Court; the majority of the Pharisees had nothing to do with its function. This was the organization to which Christ was referring when he commanded His disciples to observe all they commanded even if their commandments were burdensome and hard to bear. He said to obey all the commands issued from Moses’ seat!
We have clear proof from the Jewish history, in Rosh Hashanah 25a, 25b, that only members of the Great Beth Din were sitting in Moses’ chair of authority. What was commanded from the Great Beth Din was, in the Old Testament congregation, of the same authority as Moses. And, when we understand what kind of decision emanated from this religious Supreme Court, we can easily perceive why such authority was given to it.
One of the major tasks of the Great Beth Din was to proclaim each year the proper time for the beginning of the calendar year: The Great Beth Din had to give their learned and authoritative approval before the calendar year could officially begin. The mathematical calculations used to determine when the year began were understood by many, but the authoritative pronouncement of its beginning had to come officially from the Great Beth Din – from Moses’ seat.
“It (the Great Beth Din) had entire charge of the calendar system, and hence became the religious and national center not only of Palestine, but also of the Diaspora (the dispersed Jews)” (Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. III, p. 114).
The Great Beth Din also determined the settlement of religious matters that were two difficult for individuals to ascertain on their own. It was to this organization, the Supreme Court – those in Moses’ seat – that Christ was referring when he told His disciples and the multitudes to observe all their commandments.
How plain! The decisions of the Great Beth Din affected all Jews, and were unlike those varying and conflicting teachings issued by the various Pharisaical Schools which were designed mainly for the Pharisees only to observe.
The organization of the Supreme Court of Israel goes back to Moses. He was the first ruler, under God, of a Great Beth Din. Notice Exodus 18:13-26. In this section of Scripture we find that many of the Israelites were coming to Moses with their various problems. They were completely overburdening Moses with their many problems - wanting to understand the will of God in particular matters, Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, told Moses that the proper thing to do was to ordain local judges (local Beth Dins) over the people and that only the most difficult cases should be brought to Moses.
“So Moses hearkened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And they judged (in court) the people at all seasons: the hard cases they brought unto Moses, but every small matter they judged themselves” (Ex. 18:24-26).
This was the same manner in which the Jews were being judged in the time of Christ. There were the lower courts of judgement for minor questions and also the Supreme Court – Moses’ seat!
As long as Moses was alive, he sat, under God, in the highest chair in the Supreme Court. It was he, and the other few leaders of Israel, who anciently determined when the calendar years would begin. He and the others in the Supreme Court also judged what the will of God would be in the hardest cases of disagreement among the people.
The Supreme Court did not cease with Moses. Moses was the first to sit in that highest seat of authority in the Supreme Court. But after him were to come others who would assume the same authority – others who were to sit in Moses’ seat.
Just before his death, Moses ordained that the Supreme Court be perpetuated in Israel. In Deuteronomy 17:8-13 you will notice the express commands of God, issued through Moses, concerning the duties of the judges of Israel who were to sit in the place of Moses after his death. They were to carry on the same form of organization set up by Moses, and the people of Israel were to obey explicitly whatsoever was issued from the Supreme Court as though it were from Moses himself! Notice the instructions to the Israelites as recorded in Deut. 17:8-11.
“If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, being matters of controversy within thy gates (within Israel): then shalt thou arise, and get thee up into the place which the Lord thy God shall choose; and thou shalt come unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days, and enquire; and they shall shew thee the sentence of judgment: and thou shalt do according to the sentence, which they of that place which the Lord shall choose shalt shew thee. And thou shalt observe to do according to all that they inform thee: according to the sentence of the law which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgment which they shall tell thee, thou shalt do: thou shalt not decline from the sentence which they shall shew thee, to the right hand nor to the left.”
Notice in striking similarity of the language used by Christ in Matthew 23:2-3. Following the pattern of Deuteronomy, He said the scribes and Pharisees “sit in Moses’ seat”: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do.” Christ was paraphrasing Deuteronomy 17:10-11!
Yes, as long as the decisions of the scribes and Pharisees were issued from Moses’s seat – in the capacity of religious judges, making decisions for the whole of the people – all those decisions had to be obeyed.
If Christ had told the multitudes and His disciples to disobey the decisions of the religious Supreme Court established by God, he would have violated a fundamental teaching of Scripture. Therefore, Christ commanded the people to respect in every way the decisions which came from Moses’ seat – all of them.
While Moses was still alive, he and the other elders of Israel formed the Supreme Court; but the command of God said that the decisions of the judges “in those days” – at later times – were also to be observed just as the Israelites had obeyed the decisions of Moses. God said that no Israelite was to decline either to the left or to the right from observing the decisions of Moses’ seat.
The next ruler of the Supreme Court after Moses was Joshua. He was ordained to sit in the same chair of authority as Moses (Deut. 34:9). Many others followed Joshua on down to Ezra and Nehemiah (Rosh Hashanah, 25a, 25b). And in the days of Christ, there were some of the eminent leaders of the Jews also sitting in Moses’ seat such as Gamliel who instructed Paul.
The decisions of the religious Supreme Court were not the commandments of men enacted by the Pharisaic Schools. The Pharisaic commandments were mainly intended for the Pharisees themselves or those who desired to follow their way. But, the decisions of the Great Beth Din affected all the Jews. The Zealots, Herodians, Sadducees, and other sects were to follow the decisions issued by the Great Beth Din.
As long as Jewish Christians attended Sabbath services in synagogues and were thus part of the religious Jewish community, they had to obey the Great House of Judgment – Beth Din. This ceased when Jewish Christians were forced to flee Jerusalem after the Roman army surrounded the city in 66 A.D. Thereafter, Christians in Judaea were forced to live separate from their Jewish neighbors.
These facts of history show that the authority of the Great Beth Din always exceeded that of the Pharisaic Schools alone. The independent teachings of the Pharisees were never issued from Moses’ seat. The only authority of the Great Beth Din today is in the matter of the continual preservation of the written Word of God – the Bible – in Hebrew. God has committed this responsibility to them as leaders of the Jewish community.