Matthew 23:33: You Brood of Vipers!

The chapter in Matthew's Gospel from which this saying is quoted presents a series of woes pronounced against the scribes and Pharisees--or perhaps we should say laments uttered over them. The series may be regarded as an expansion of Mark 12:38-40, where the people who listened to Jesus as he taught in the temple precincts in Jerusalem during Holy Week were warned against "the teachers of the law [who] like to walk around in flowing robes and to be greeted in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows' houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely."

Most of the scribes (NIV "teachers of the law")--certainly most of those who appear in the Gospels--belonged to the party of the Pharisees. The Pharisees traced their spiritual lineage back to the pious groups which, in the days of the Maccabees, resisted all temptations to assimilate their faith and practice to pagan ways, and suffered martyrdom rather than betray their religious heritage. In the first century A.D. they are reckoned to have numbered about six thousand. They banded themselves together in fellowships or brotherhoods, encouraging one another in the defense and practice of the law. The law included not only the written precepts of the Old Testament but the interpretation and application of those precepts--what Mark describes as "the tradition of the elders" (Mk 7:3). They were greatly concerned about ceremonial purity. This concern forbade them to have social contact with Gentiles, or even with fellow Jews who were not so particular about the laws of purity as they themselves were. They attached high importance to the tithing of crops (that is, paying 10 percent of the proceeds of harvest into the temple treasury)--not only of grain, wine and olive oil but of garden herbs as well. They would not willingly eat food, whether in their own houses or in other people's, unless they could be sure that the tithe had been paid on it.

From their viewpoint, they could not help looking on Jesus as dangerously lax, whether in the sovereign freedom with which he disposed of the sabbath law and the food laws or in his readiness to consort with the most questionable persons and actually sit down to a meal with them. It was inevitable that he and they should clash; their conflict, indeed, illustrates the saying about the second-best being the worst enemy of the best.

The Pharisaic way of life lent itself to imitation by people who had no worthier motive than the gaining of a popular reputation for piety. The rabbinical traditions illustrate this fact: seven types of Pharisee are enumerated, and only one of these, the Pharisee who is one for the love of God, receives unqualified commendation. The New Testament picture of the Pharisees is generally an unfavorable one, but more so in the Gospels than in Acts. In Acts they are depicted as not unfriendly to the observant Jewish Christians of Jerusalem; the two groups had this in common (by contrast with the Sadducees): they believed in the resurrection of the dead.

The gathering together of the woes or laments regarding the Pharisees in Matthew 23 probably reflects the situation in which this Gospel was written, later in the first century, when the Pharisees and the Jewish Christians were engaged in polemical controversy with one another. That provided an opportunity to collect from all quarters criticisms Jesus had voiced against the Pharisees and to weave them together into a continuous speech, with its refrain (as commonly translated) "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!" Pharisees as such were not hypocrites, and Jesus did not say that they were; he was not the one to bear false witness against his neighbor. Hypocrite in New Testament usage means "play-actor"; it denotes the sort of person who plays a part which is simply assumed for the occasion and does not express his real self. The "hypocrites" in this repeated denunciation, then, are those who play at being scribes and Pharisees, who "preach but do not practice" (Mt 23:3 RSV), who assume the actions and words characteristic of scribes and Pharisees without being motivated by true love of God. The genuine Pharisee might disapprove of much that Jesus said and did, but if he was a genuine Pharisee, he was no play-actor. So we might render the recurring refrain of Matthew 23 as "Alas for you, hypocritical scribes and Pharisees!"--alas for you, because you are incurring a fearful judgment on yourselves.

But what about the "brood of vipers"? This expression was used by John the Baptist as he saw the crowds coming to listen to his proclamation of judgment and his call to repentance: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?" (Lk 3:7). He compared them to snakes making their way as quickly as possible out of range of an oncoming grass fire. In Matthew 3:7 John directs these words to Pharisees and Sadducees among his hearers. Jesus' use of the same figure may convey a warning that those who pay no heed to impending doom cannot escape "the judgment of Gehenna" (to render it literally). And if it is asked how they had incurred this judgment without being aware of it, the answer suggested by Matthew's context would be that by their unreality they were hindering, not helping, others in following the way of righteousness. (In Mt 12:34 those who charged Jesus with casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul--see comment on Mk 3:28-29--are similarly addressed as "You brood of vipers!")

Finally, Matthew himself apparently indicates that this hard saying, with its context, should be understood as lamentation rather than unmitigated denunciation. For at the end of the discourse, after the statement that the martyr-blood of all generations would be required from that generation (see comment on Mk 13:30), Matthew places the lament over Jerusalem ("O Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . .") which Luke introduces at an earlier point in Jesus' ministry. It is easy to see why Luke introduces it where he does: Jesus has been warned in Galilee that Herod Antipas wants to kill him, and he replies that that cannot be, since Jerusalem is the proper place for a prophet to be put to death (Lk 13:31-33). Then comes "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets . . ." (Lk 13:34-35 RSV). Actually, the lament would be chronologically appropriate if it were uttered at the end of Jesus' last visit to Jerusalem before the final one, for it ends with the words "You will not see me again until you say, `Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord' " (Lk 13:35; Mt 23:39). This may simply mean, "You will not see me until festival time." (T. W. Manson compares two people parting today and saying, "Next time we meet we shall be singing `O come, all ye faithful,' " that is, "Next time we meet will be Christmas.") But Luke and Matthew place the lament in contexts where it is topically appropriate; Matthew in particular, by placing it where he does (Mt 23:37-39), communicates something of the sorrow with which Jesus found it necessary to speak as he did about those who should have been trustworthy guides but in fact were leading their followers to disaster.

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Palestinian Talmud, tractate Berakot, 9.7.

T. W. Manson, "The Cleansing of the Temple," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 33 (1950-51), p. 279, n. 1. (He, however, accepted the setting of Lk 13:55 as original and supposed that Jesus was bidding temporary farewell to the people of Galilee, saying that they would next see him in Jerusalem.)