The Seat of Moses – 21 Years Since the Discovery

The Seat of Moses – 21 Years Since the Discovery

In 1995 I was given a copy of an interesting article written by Mark Allan Powell of Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus Ohio. This article, (Do and Keep What Moses Says) was published in the prestigious Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL 114/3 (1995) 419-435]. It proposed an alternate interpretation of Matthew 23:2-3.

By the fall of 1996, I had almost forgotten about Mark Powell’s article, and perhaps would have never looked at it again if I had not studied the Hebrew Matthew contained in the polemical treatise of a Spanish Jew named Shem Tob ben Isaac ben Shaprut. This treatise was composed in 1380 and had become the latest work of New Testament scholar George Howard of the University of Georgia. In 1987, Dr. Howard had published this Hebrew Matthew text in “The Gospel of Matthew According to a Primitive Hebrew Text, Mercer University Press“. Eight years later, Dr. Howard revised and re-published this text under the title, Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, Mercer University Press. This later edition is the one that I had obtained, and the one that led me to discover a variant text that could shed some light on the subject at hand.

I wrote an article on this particular reading and submitted it to the then presiding editor over the Journal of Biblical Literature. At the time I was told that the article was “not really suitable for publication in JBL.” The editor wished me well and said that she hoped that my rejection did not diminish my interest in the Journal of Biblical Literature. It certainly did not. This journal is a very fine publication, and frankly my article was not as “academic” as the term is strictly defined. I posted the article on the web and it was discovered by Nehemia Gordon, who was doing research on this subject for a book that he was writing. The article was referenced in a couple of footnotes in his work – The Hebrew Yeshua Vs the Greek Jesus, Hilkiah Press 2005 (see pp. 49 and 53). Nehemia gave me credit as being the first to notice the variant reading discussed in this article, which I have revised and posted below 20 years after it was originally written. It is my belief that the subject has become more relevant today since an ever increasing number of Christians are being “drawn” to the Jewish/Hebraic roots of their Faith.

The Seat of Moses

Perhaps no other passage in Matthew’s Gospel stands more at variance with the book’s overall theology than Matthew 23:2-3.[i] The difficulty which these words have presented to scholars was described by Jack Dean Kingsbury when he said, “To date, no scholarly proposal for resolving these apparent contradictions has proved entirely satisfactory.”[ii]

In 1995, while engaged in a study of Shem Tob’s[iii] Hebrew Matthew, I discovered a variant reading which deserves a place in this discussion. Although Shem Tob’s Matthew text was preserved within a Jewish Polemic treatise dating only to the Middle Ages, Professor George Howard has effectively argued that, “the evidence suggests that the Matthew text predates the fourteenth century.”[iv] Shem Tob’s Matthew is the earliest known complete copy of the Gospel in the Hebrew language. It is replete with puns, alliterations, and word connections which far exceed what is found in the Greek texts.[v]

The lack of a definitive solution to the interpretation of Matthew 23:2-3 based upon Greek sources suggests that we consider other sources for a possible explanation. I propose that the variant reading found within Shem Tob’s text provides the solution to these apparent contradictions.

Mat. 23:2 (RSV) [The Scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;]

Whether taken literally or metaphorically, the “seat of Moses” is generally understood to represent authority to teach Moses.[vi] In Greek Matthew, the Pharisees and Scribes sit upon the seat of Moses, and so most interpretations assume that “they” are the inheritors of this authority – a fact which even Jesus apparently admits. The Jesus of Greek Matthew follows his own apparent admission of the authority of these leaders with a charge for his disciples to follow the teachings of these Jewish leaders.

Mat. 23:3a (RSV)[so practice and observe whatever they tell you;]

Based upon the above reading, it would appear that Jesus demands adherence to the teachings of the religious leaders; this is a most puzzling command when Matthew is viewed as a whole. Here it would seem that the real error of these leaders is hypocrisy (Mt 23:3b ff). Matthew, however, clearly points out that these leaders are not hypocrites in the sense that the word is often understood as saying one thing while doing something else. Matthew’s Jesus finds fault with the teachings AND actions of these leaders. Matthew’s Jesus assigns the following words of Isaiah to the religious leaders of his day:

And 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 of men learned by rote; therefore, behold, I will again do marvelous things with this people, wonderful and marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid.’” (RSV) (Isaiah 29:13-14; cf Matthew 15:8)

According to Matthew’s Jesus, the religious leaders teach commandments of men which make void the commandments of God (15:6). Their teachings are plants which will be uprooted (15:13) since they were not planted by God, but by an enemy (13:37-39). Their teachings placed emphasis on human ordinances which affected the outer man while leaving the inner man untouched (23:25-28). Their teachings miss the deeper spiritual truth which Moses intended; they “strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel” (23:24). Jesus considered the teachings of these leaders to be leaven, which left unchallenged, would leaven the whole (16:11-12). The leaders erred because they “knew not the Scriptures” (22:29). Their traditions had led them away from true loyalty, truth, and faithfulness – the weightier matters of the Torah (23:23). Indeed, the Pharisees and Scribes practiced what they preached. The problem, according to Matthew’s Jesus, was that they preached the wrong things. Hypocrisy then, as Powell notes, is a conflict between the “inward nature observed by God and the outward appearance observed by others” (Powell, p. 423).

A New Proposal Matthew 23:2-3 as translated from Shem Tob’s Hebrew Matthew text:

“Upon the seat of Moses the Pharisees and Sages sit, and now, all which HE (Moses) will say[vii] unto you-keep and do; but THEIR ordinances and deeds do not do, because THEY say and do not.”

The Hebrew of Shem Tob’s Matthew allows for a clear distinction to be made between what HE (Moses) says and what THEY (the religious leaders) say. While admitting that the Pharisees and Sages “sit upon Moses’ seat,” the Hebrew of Shem Tob’s Matthew does not demand that the people and his disciples do and keep what THEY say. Rather by using the singular – “He will say,” his hearers are directed to keep and do whatever Moses says unto them, but NOT to do according to the ordinances and deeds of the religious leaders. This proposed solution, based upon a variant reading found within Shem Tob’s Hebrew Matthew text fits within the interpretive framework of Matthew as a whole, and it provides a sensible solution to the apparent contradictions which the Greek texts present to scholars.[viii]

A version of this article was accepted and published in 2010 on the website, The Bible & Interpretation. Check it out by clicking here.


[i] For a thorough discussion of the complexities of this passage, see the article by Mark Allan Powell entitled, Do and Keep What Moses Says (Matthew 23:2-7); JBL 114/3 (1995) 419-435.

[ii] Matthew as Story [2d ed.; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988]. Quoted by Powell, Do and Keep What Moses Says, p. 419.

[iii] By Shem Tob, I make reference to the Hebrew Manuscript of Matthew which was found preserved in the Jewish polemical treatise titled Even Bohan. This treatise was the work of one Shem Tob ben Isaac ben Shaprut, a Spanish writer who composed his work in 1380. The work was first published by George Howard of the University of Georgia in 1987 under the title, The Gospel of Matthew according to a Primitive Hebrew Text, Mercer University Press. Eight years later a second and fully revised edition was published and re-titled, Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, Mercer University Press, 1995. Both editions contain the Hebrew text and a detailed analysis.

[iv] In both editions of George Howard’s work, he argues that the text predates the fourteenth century and that Shem Tob received his text from earlier Jewish scribes, but beyond this, he does not attempt to date the text.

[v] For a detailed study of the puns, alliterations, and word connections, see Howard; Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, (pp 184-190)

[vi] The phrase “seat of Moses” has been the subject of much discussion. The idea that this phrase denotes ruling authority may find support within the Torah itself. See Exodus 18:13.

[vii] Two of the nine manuscripts of Shem Tob’s text preserve the reading יאמר (he will say). Howard employs both of the texts which read the singular in his book; Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, (p.112 Hebrew text). One is catalogued Ms.Add. no. 26964. British Library, London. The other text which reads, “he will say” is Ms. Opp. Add. 4· 72. Bodleian Library, Oxford. All other manuscripts read יאמרו. For a list of all manuscripts, see Howard, Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, (p. xii). The Old Latin Manuscript ff2 also reads the singular at this point [dixerit].

[viii] Professors George Howard and James D. Tabor have been instrumental in my studies of the Hebrew language and the Hebraic Matthean tradition. Their research related to the field of Christian origins was the catalyst of the present study.


A Glutton and a Drunkard – Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls?

A Glutton and a Drunkard – Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Dr. James Tabor, Ross Nichols and Simcha Jacobovici in Israel.

Dr. James Tabor, Ross Nichols and Simcha Jacobovici in Israel – March 2016.

In March of 2016, three-time Emmy winner for Outstanding Investigative Journalism, director, producer, and New York Times Best selling author, Simcha Jacobovici, stirred the religious community when he suggested that a Dead Sea Scroll fragment (4Q541) might be referring to Jesus of Nazareth in an article called, Jesus Discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls. He closed that article suggesting that “if” this is the case, then, “maybe some other fragments are also referring to him.” And so, to test his theory, Simcha set out to study another Dead Sea Scroll fragment (11QT54) that mentions crucifixion. He wrote of this continued investigation in an article titled, Jesus and Paul in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Initially he saw no obvious connection between this DSS fragment (11QT54) and Jesus. Simcha writes:

When I looked at “11QT54,” at first it seemed to be a straightforward quotation from the Book of Deuteronomy (21:18) legislating how to deal with a “rebellious” son who is a “glutton and a drunkard”….nothing to do with Jesus. But then came the eureka moment.

What was that Eureka moment? It was a connection between the Torah’s “glutton and drunkard,” and a saying preserved within the gospel tradition. I shared this connection with Simcha in a private meeting in Israel based upon my own studies of two versions of Matthew, preserved in Hebrew.

In Simcha’s words;

Recently, my friend Ross Nichols pointed out to me the connection between the “glutton and drunkard” line in the Gospels and the passage in Deuteronomy that uses the same terms.

Whether one can agree with the conclusions of the present writer, or with Simcha, it is to the ancient sources that we must go in order to discover the intended meaning of ancient authors. It would seem that the saying preserved in the gospels, referencing a glutton and drunkard, may in truth have nothing to do with eating or drinking, but rather a charge made clear only by looking to its use in the ancient Torah of Moses.

The Original Article – A Glutton and a Drunkard

In the well known gospel account of the wedding at Cana, Jesus is recorded as performing a miracle in which he changes water into wine. Many have debated on whether or not the wine was fermented. Did Jesus drink fermented drink? In one gospel passage, his enemies are reportedly calling him a “drunk and a glutton.” In this blog post I will show that the charge most likely has nothing at all to do with drinking. The source of the name calling can be shown to be the Torah of Moses and may have more to do with a charge of rebellion against authority than with having too much to eat and drink.

Deuteronomy chapter twenty-one contains a passage that could shed some light on our understanding of the events that led to the execution of Jesus of Nazareth. Within this passage is a charge that was made against Jesus by some of his religious rivals, and recorded in the canonical Gospels – though it has gone unnoticed by most students of the life of Jesus.

RSV Deuteronomy 21:18 “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they chastise him, will not give heed to them, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, 20 and they shall say to the elders of his city, `This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard (זולל וסבא – zolel v’soveh).’ 21 Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

This law is considered in the Talmud [i]. There it is stated that the “law of the ‘rebellious son’ has never occurred, and never will occur…”. In the rabbinical discussion mentioned above, the rabbis conclude that this passage in the Torah pertains to the partaking of a meal by the offender; a meal they called the meal of the rebellious son [ii].It is doubtful whether the exact legislative discussion, defined in Jewish literature was well known in the first century, but the text of Deuteronomy certainly was. The Temple Scroll, found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, contains this very passage [iii]. We also know from the canonical gospels that this charge of being a rebellious son was made by some against Jesus. We do not possess evidence from the gospels that his mother or father ever brought him before the elders of ‘his city’ with this claim. We do however meet from time to time with family confrontations in the gospels, most of which are explained as examples of hyper dedication on the part of Jesus to perform his father’s business [iv]. This dedication to religion over family obligations is also spoken of in the scrolls. [v]

At any rate, Jesus says himself that this charge was being laid against him by some unidentified source.

RSV Matthew 11:19 the Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, `Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”

This text is also found in the Q source (7:34). The Hebrew text of Shem Tob’s Matthew, as well as the Du Tillet Hebrew Matthew [vi] both read זולל וסבא – zolel v’soveh in accordance with Deuteronomy 21:20. It is preserved in such a way that it hardly remains noticeable as a direct link to the charge indicated in the Torah. First, we are inclined to take the charge of the unidentified ‘some’ as a scornful reference to Jesus’ eating habits [vii]. While the eating habits of Jesus were unlike those of his ascetic cousin John, the text in Matthew 11:19 is more likely referring to the prevalent view of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day that he was a rebel.

Perhaps there are other sayings preserved within the New Testament corpus that are yet to be uncovered that will shed new light on the views of the religious authorities that led to the execution of Jesus. While blasphemy is normally understood to be the motivator of several attempted ‘stonings’ of Jesus (Mark 16:64; Matthew 26:65-66; John 19:7; John 8:59; 10:31-33) perhaps there were other factors such as rebellion against parental and religious authority that led the Jews to a negative appraisal of his self-proclaimed task.

End Notes

[i] Sanhedrin 71a

[ii] The meal had to be witnessed by two witnesses besides the parents (Yad, Mamrim 7:7). The Jewish literature also records that the following circumstances must be met in order to fit the sentence described in Deuteronomy 21:18-21;

  1. (1)  The son stole money from his father.
  2. (2)  The son purchased 50 dinar of meat, eating it rare outside his father’s property- and in bad company.
  3. (3)  The son had to drink 1⁄2 log (approx. 5 oz.) of wine with the meal. (Yad, Mamrim 7:2; Sanh. 70a)

[iii] 11Q19-20, column 64

[iv] Luke records how Jesus remained in Jerusalem while his parents were returning home. This apparently caused some dispute with the young lad, who retorted, “Don’t you know that I am about my Father’s business?” One could also include various accounts scattered throughout the texts that show some disparity between Jesus and his close kin. Examples would include Mark 3:30-35 and similar texts; John 2:4 etc.

[v] 4Q175 “…who said of his father and mother, ‘I knew them not;’ he ignored his kin, and did not acknowledge his children. For he observed your word, and kept your covenant.”

[vi] Shem Tob’s Hebrew Matthew is published in Hebrew and English with a critical apparatus in, Howard, G. (1995). Hebrew gospel of Matthew (2nd ed.). Macon, GA: Mercer University Press. For the Du Tillet text see: Trimm, J.S. (1990). B’sorot Matti, the good news according to Matthew from an old Hebrew manuscript. Hurst, TX: Hebrew / Aramaic New Testament Research Institute.

[vii] Proverbs 23:20-21 speak of being a ‘glutton and a drunkard’ and even associates the true path as being obedient to parents (v. 22).

Reference / Further Reading:

Jacobovici, S., (2016) Jesus Discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls