Thursday, May 12, 2005

Refutation of James White: Moses' Seat, the Bible, and Tradition, Part V (vs. James White)

[White's words will be in blue; my former words in green]

[originally uploaded by Dave Armstrong on 12 May 2005]

Links to other sections:

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part VI
Parts VII & VIII

The eight parts of my reply are in response to the eight parts of White's critique: the part numbers correspond. Hence, I am now replying to White's Part V.

* * * * *

At this point Armstrong opines,

It reminds me of the old silly Protestant tale that the popes speak infallibly and ex cathedra (cathedra is the Greek word for seat in Matthew 23:2) only when sitting in a certain chair in the Vatican - because the phrase means literally "from the bishop's chair" - whereas it was a figurative and idiomatic usage). (sic)

(pp. 47-48)

Of course, I have never made such a statement, . . .

I never stated that he did; but only that his sort of reasoning here reminded me of that particular instance of mistaken Protestant reasoning. They misunderstood ex cathedra to be referring always to a literal chair (rather than to authority). White is doing roughly the same thing, by limiting the usage in Matthew 23 to the synagogues. Thus, my analogy was quite apt.

. . . but the fact remains that in the context of the condemnation of the Pharisees in Matthew 23, the identity of "Moses' seat" and its function in synagogue worship is central.

White (as we have seen so often) simply assumes his interpretation, and proceeds onward, without seeming to realize that he needs to establish the validity of his premises first. He can't just assume that Moses' seat refers strictly to the literal seat in the synagogues, from which the Pharisees taught. In my book, shortly after this, I cited both The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary and The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, in favor of my position as to what the term meant. Without proper definitions, discussions go nowhere. So White is off on his tangent of restricting the term to synagogue teaching, and is off-base, because his definition is faulty to begin with. But perhaps White would claim that those two works know not the slightest thing about biblical exegesis, either (as he habitually claims about me).

If one allows the function of Moses' seat to be removed from the discussion (as Armstrong does), you lose the connection with the condemnation of the Pharisees: the reason they are hypocrites is because they should know better: they read from the Scriptures on a regular basis, and then turn around and do away with that teaching by their traditions, and those traditions result in actions that are contrary to the Word.

A particular function in a synagogue is not required for the condemnations of Jesus to make sense. They need not read the Scripture in a synagogue to know what it teaches. We agree that their traditions in some (or many) cases ran contrary to Scripture. But they don't have to read in the synagogue for that to be the case. Nor do they have to not accept extra-biblical tradition for it to be the case. And white still is neglecting to see that Jesus told people to obey their teachings. These teachings included extra-biblical tradition, because the Pharisees believed in oral tradition, received by Moses at the same time he received the Ten Commandments. He can't overcome this, no matter how hard he tries.

This is why you do as they say in the context of the synagogue worship, but you do not do what they do.

This is eisegesis (reading into the text), in my opinion, relying upon the already highly-questionable definition of Moses' seat that White has been utilizing. No such qualification is in the text itself, restricting it to synagogue worship. So White has a bad definition, and desperate exegesis, to shore up an already abysmally-weak position.

Since we know Christ held men accountable to have known the Corban rule was contrary to God's Word, and the Pharisees taught this, even claiming it came from Moses, then clearly we must allow the limitation of the function of Moses' seat to stand. And this Armstrong will not allow.

It's not up to me to "allow" or disallow. I'm only going by the definition of the term that the scholars who have properly studied such things have given me. We can't redefine terms whatever way we like them, like a wax nose.

He misconstrues the proper recognition of the synagogue context of Moses' seat, and hence the limitation of its purview, with a woodenly literalistic idea about whether one is standing or sitting. He writes,

Jesus says that they sat "on Moses' seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you." In other words, because they had the authority, based on the position of occupying Moses' seat, they were to be obeyed. It is like referring to a chairman of a company or committee. He occupies the "chair"; therefore he has authority. No one thinks he has the authority only when he sits in a certain chair reading the corporation charter or the Constitution or some other official document.

(p. 48)

Notice the importance of this to Armstrong's argument: he must create an authority that resides in the Pharisees separate from their place in the worship of God's people in the synagogue. So, instead of the biblical limitation of their authority to the role they have taken in the synagogue, Armstrong speaks of the Pharisees (who are about to be condemned roundly) as having an inherent authority, and hence they are to be obeyed. Yet in Matthew 23, what is to be obeyed is not an inherent authority in the scribes and Pharisees, but, as the "therefore" of v. 3 shows us, the reason for obedience is the seat of Moses, not an authority separate from it. But having missed this distinction, Armstrong continues, "Yet this is how White would exclusively interpret Jesus' words." No, White would not force Jesus into internal contradiction, ignore the fact that He holds His disciples and the crowd accountable for exercising judgment on the deeds of the Pharisees (even those deeds they based upon "tradition"), and rip this section out of its role as the introduction not to the lauding of the scribes and Pharisees, but their condemnation.

This is just more building of a house of cards on top of the fallacies already listed. Catholic apologist "Matt1618" - responding to Protestant apologist Ron Rhodes - (Reasoning From the Scriptures with Ron Rhodes), illustrates the weakness of such a position:

His words are practice and observe whatever they tell you. How can Rhodes say that this is not authoritative? . . . Here Jesus legitimizes this tradition. Yes, he later castigates the Pharisees because they don’t practice what they preach. But he binded them to whatever they told them. Thus, it is an authoritative statement that binds people to obey them, even if they can be hypocrites. ’Whatever’, makes it another authoritative source that followers must obey.

Rhodes even tried to use the Corban rule of Matthew 15, just as White did, but (also like White) inconsistently, as "Matt1618" notes:

I see the double standard of Rhodes. In the earlier chapter when he mentioned Matthew 15 to say that tradition had no binding authority, he did not balance that by mentioning Matthew 23 at all, when Jesus said that whatever they tell you to do from Moses’ seat, you obey them. Now, when Jesus legitimizes that authority, he mentions Matthew 15. If he was going to use Matthew 15 to help give insight to Matthew 23, he should have given us Matthew 23 to give insight to Matthew 15. But Rhodes does not do that. Of course, what Jesus condemned is non-legitimate traditions, that caused people to disobey commandments in Matthew 15. That was an illegitimate tradition. However, in Matthew 23 he recognized the binding authority of another tradition. Apparently, Jesus as God accepted a tradition that was binding on believers as noted in this passage.

. . . the Pharisees cannot trace themselves back to Moses. However, there is authority recognized by the Jewish tradition that had passed on this authority to the Pharisees and scribes. We also see that this Moses’ seat referred to the right to interpret the Mosaic law. Jesus validated that right, independent of Scripture. The acceptance of succession is also noted. The Pharisees are seen as legal successors. This gives precedence for succession of the apostles. By the way, Jews had no concept of Sola Scriptura.

"Matt 1618" then cites two Protestant statements on Moses' seat, from fellow Catholic apologist Steve Ray's copious research:

Sitting on ‘Moses seat’ referred to a place of dignity and the right to interpret the Mosaic law. The scribes were the successors and the heirs of Moses’ authority and were rightfully looked to for pronouncements upon his teaching . . . Jesus does not appear to challenge this right”. Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Walter A. Elwell [Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 1988], 2:1498, as quoted in Stephen Ray, Upon This Rock, [San Francisco, Ca, Ignatius Press, 1999], p. 47, fn. 62.

DA Carson writes "Moreover, 'to sit on X’s seat' often means to succeed X" (Exod 11:5;12:29; 1 Kings 1:35, 46; 2:12; 16:11;2 Kings 15:12; Ps. 132:12; crf. Jos Antiq. VII, 353 [xiv.5] XVIII, 2 [i.1]. This would imply that the 'teachers of the law' are Moses’ legal successors, possessing all his authority - a view the scribes themselves held...Panta hosa ('everything') is a strong expression and cannot be limited to 'that teaching of the law that is in Jesus’ view a faithful interpretation of it'; they cover everything the leaders teach, including the oral tradition as well' Gaeberlein, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 8:472), as quoted in Stephen Ray, ibid., p. 47 fn. 62.

Steve Ray added, right after this:

Carson later dismisses the whole passage by relegating it to irony, which even James White rejects.

(p. 47, footnote 62)

New Testament exegete Floyd V. Filson concurs with the same general understanding of Moses' seat:

The scribes, mostly Pharisees, copied, taught, and applied the Mosaic Law. They were pledged to obey and teach both the written law and the oral tradition, which they claimed was an integral part of the Law, received through a direct succession of teachers going back to Moses . . . Moses' seat [was a] synagogue chair which symbolized the origin and authority of their teaching. Jesus does not challenge their claim; he seems here to approve it.

(A Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew, New York: Harper & Row, 1960, 243; emphasis my own)

But continuing with his misunderstanding he cites from the Eerdman's Bible Dictionary, likewise seemingly not understanding that the definition offered is not at all contrary to what I have written.

That's not true. It referred to a general judicial authority. Here is the citation (which White curiously omitted, seeing that he made a big deal out of my not citing all of his words). Readers can decide for themselves what it entails:

References to seating in the Bible are almost all to such as a representation of honor and authority . . .

According to Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees occupy "Moses' seat" (Matt. 23:2), having the authority and ability to interpret the law of Moses correctly; here "seat" is both a metaphor for judicial authority and also a reference to a literal stone seat in the front of many synagogues that would be occupied by an authoritative teacher of the law.

(p. 48 of my book; Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, edited by Allen C. Myers, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987; English revision of Bijbelse Encyclopedie, edited by W.H. Gispen, Kampen, Netherlands: J.H. Kok, revised edition, 1975; translated by Raymond C. Togtman and Ralph W. Vunderink, 919-920)

The ISBE is likewise noted, and its definition, "It is used also of the exalted position occupied by men of marked rank or influence, either in good or evil." Of course, in this case, it is in reference to evil men, as the rest of Matthew 23 demonstrates. Armstrong continues,

White makes no mention of these considerations, but it is difficult to believe that he is not aware of them (since he is a Bible scholar well acquainted with the nuances of biblical meanings). They do not fit in very well with the case he is trying to make, so he omits them. But the reader is thereby left with an incomplete picture.

(p. 49)

Actually, it is Armstrong who has the incomplete understanding of my own position, as has been demonstrated. On that basis he, seemingly, accuses me of purposefully omitting these "considerations" so as to strengthen my case, or worse, deceive my readers.

I'm only pointing out that one's bias can lead one to many strange tactics, in order to avoid a conclusion that one doesn't want to accept. I've never made an accusation of deliberate deception with regard to White (or almost any other theological opponent, for that matter), but White had no scruples about accusing me of that very thing in the earlier dialogue we engaged in concerning my book. I guess this is a bit of projection, which is misplaced, to put it mildly.

In the next section Armstrong comes out fully with his insistence that Jesus was here binding Christians to the oral traditions of the Pharisees, and this will certainly provide the fullest basis for the complete rejection and refutation of his reading of Matthew 23.

Not all oral traditions; only those which are consistent with the Bible. In other words, I was trying to demonstrate that such traditions exist, that they are positively mentioned in the Bible, and practiced by Jesus and the apostles, and that, therefore, sola Scriptura is contradicted.

But I wish to pursue White's argument that the Pharisees' authority was strictly confined to the synagogues. For example, we have the incident of St. Paul and the high priest. High priests (or any priests) had little directly to do with the synagogue, by definition, because they offered sacrifice, and that was done at the Temple. Yet they had authority. In this case, Ananias, the high priest, was a Sadducee, and, according to ISBE, a scoundrel: "lawless and violent . . . haughty, unscrupulous, filling his sacred office for purely selfish and political ends" (vol. 1, p. 129). But Paul thought he had authority. Here is what I wrote in my book, on page 50:

Paul shows the high priest, Ananias, respect, even when the latter had him struck on the mouth, and was not dealing with matters strictly of the Old Testament and the Law, but with the question of whether Paul was teaching wrongly and should be stopped (Acts 23:1-5). A few verses later Paul states, "I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees" (23:6) and it is noted that the Pharisees and Sadducees in the assembly were divided and that the Sadducees "say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge them all" (23:7-8). Some Pharisees defended Paul (23:9).

So here is a case of the high priest, who sacrifices at the Temple, being granted authority by the Apostle Paul. So much for White's argument that Jesus granted authority only to Pharisees in synagogues who read the Bible in services, in Moses' seat. Secondly, he was a scoundrel, which disposes of White's continual reiteration that Jesus strictly limited Pharisaical authority, because some of them were bad men, and because He sternly rebuked them for hypocrisy. Thirdly, the Sadducees were on a lower theological plane than the Pharisees, and adopted "liberal" or dissenting views on may doctrines which Pharisees and Christians alike accepted, as noted above. But Paul still thinks they have authority! Fourth, Paul had rebuked this man (for having him struck) in much the same terms that Jesus had rebuked the authorities:

God shall strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?"

(Acts 23:3)

After he was informed that it was the high priest (23:4), Paul (for some odd reason) quickly changed his tune:

I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, "You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people."

(Acts 23:5)

A what???!!! I thought these people had no authority other than to sit and read the Bible publicly??? Obviously, being a "ruler" of a people entails more than that. So the analogy to Jesus' rebuke of the Pharisees is very close. And this time it has nothing whatsoever to do with synagogues, and the person is in an even higher position of authority than the Pharisees (in fact, he was the president of the Sanhedrin when Paul appeared before it).

Shortly afterwards, "some of the scribes of the Pharisees' party" defended Paul:

We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?

(Acts 23:9)

Now how can all this be squared with White's scenario? I dare say that it cannot be. Likewise, his commentary on Jesus' statements about tMoses' seat is based on a woefully inadequate understanding of the power that the Pharisees yielded, and on related passages such as this one.

As to the general nature of Pharisaic authority, character, and Jesus' relationship to them, the Internet article, WHO WERE THE PHARISEES AND THE SADDUCEES?, by Bryan T. Huie, is a storehouse of useful, fascinating information. Pharisaical teaching in synagogues included the oral law:

They followed ancient traditions inspired by an obscure text in Deuteronomy, "put it in their mouths", that God had given Moses, in addition to the written Law, an Oral Law, by which learned elders could interpret and supplement the sacred commands. The practice of the Oral Law made it possible for the Mosaic code to be adapted to changing conditions and administered in a realistic manner.

By contrast, the Temple priests, dominated by the Sadducees . . . insisted that the law must be written and unchanged. . . . they would not admit that oral teaching could subject the Law to a process of creative development.

(Paul Johnson, A History Of The Jews, New York: Harper & Row, 1987, 106)

Dr. Brad Young, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, writes of the oral law:

The Oral Torah clarified obscure points in the written Torah, thus enabling the people to satisfy its requirements. If the Scriptures prohibit work on the Sabbath, one must interpret and define the meaning of work in order to fulfill the divine will. Why is there a need for an oral law? The answer is quite simple: Because we have a written one. The written record of the Bible should be interpreted properly by the Oral Torah in order to give it fresh life and meaning in daily practice. . . . Moreover, it should be remembered that the Oral Torah was not a rigid legalistic code dominated by one single interpretation. The oral tradition allowed a certain amount of latitude and flexibility. In fact, the open forum of the Oral Torah invited vigorous debate and even encouraged diversity of thought and imaginative creativity. Clearly, some legal authorities were more strict than others, but all recognized that the Sabbath had to be observed.

(Jesus the Jewish Theologian, 105)

And he states, concerning Jesus' view of the Pharisees:

Many scholars and Bible students fail to understand the essence of Jesus' controversial ministry. Jesus' conflict with his contemporaries was not so much over the doctrines of the Pharisees, with which he was for the most part in agreement, but primarily over the understanding of his mission. He did sharply criticize hypocrites . . .

A Pharisee in the mind of the people of the period was far different from popular conceptions of a Pharisee in modern times . . . The image of the Pharisee in early Jewish thought was not primarily one of self-righteous hypocrisy . . . The Pharisee represents piety and holiness. . . . The very mention of a Pharisee evoked an image of righteousness . . .

While Jesus disdained the hypocrisy of some Pharisees, he never attacked the religious and spiritual teachings of Pharisaism. In fact, the sharpest criticisms of the Pharisees in Matthew are introduced by an unmistakable affirmation, "The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice" (Matt. 23:2-3). The issue at hand is one of practice. The content of the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees was not a problem . . . The rabbis offered nearly identical criticisms against those who teach but do not practice . . . Unfortunately, the image of the Pharisee in modern usage is seldom if ever positive. Such a negative characterization of Pharisaism distorts our view of Judaism and the beginnings of Christianity . . . The theology of Jesus is Jewish and is built firmly upon the foundations of Pharisaic thought . . .

(Ibid., 100, 184, 187, 188)

John D. Keyser writes:

As a result of the harsh portrayal in the New Testament of these teachers of Jewish law, the very name Pharisee has become synonymous with hypocrisy and self-righteousness." He goes on to say that many modern scholars "have failed to realize that the Pharisaic religion was divided into TWO SEPARATE SCHOOLS - the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel. The group that Christ continually took to task in the New Testament was apparently the School of Shammai - a faction that was very rigid and unforgiving in their outlook"

("Dead Sea Scrolls Prove Pharisees Controlled Temple Ritual!", p. 1)

Huie adds:

Although Pharisees were frequently the adversaries of Christ, it should also be noted that not all their interactions were hostile. Pharisees asked him to dine with them on occasion (Luke 7:36; 11:37; 14:1), and he was warned of danger by some Pharisees (Luke 13:31). Additionally, it appears that some of the Pharisees (including Nicodemus) believed in him, although they did so secretly because of the animosity of their leaders toward Christ . . . the New Testament records that there were Pharisaic Christians in the early Church. Acts 15:5 shows some of the Pharisees who had accepted Christ as the Messiah voicing their opinion on the circumcision question. Some commentators believe that the zealous Jews mentioned in Acts 21:20 were actually Christian Pharisees. And Pharisaic scribes on the Sanhedrin council stood up for the apostle Paul when he was brought before them in 58 A.D. (Acts 23:9) . . . In Acts 23:6, Paul publicly declared, "I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee" (Acts 23:6). It is very telling that more than twenty years after his miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul still claims to be a Pharisee. This alone should be proof that, on a basic level, Pharisaism and Christianity did not conflict . . . In Philippians 3:5, Paul states that he was "concerning the law, a Pharisee." In verse 6, he goes on to say that he was "concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless."

In presenting St. Paul's speech before the Sanhedrin, Luke depicts:

. . . Christianity and Pharisaism as natural allies, hence the direct continuity between the Pharisaic branch of Judaism and Christianity. The link is expressed directly in Paul's own testimony: he is (now) a Pharisee, with a Pharisaic heritage (23:6). His Pharisaic loyalty is a present commitment, not a recently jettisoned stage of his religious past (cf. Phil 3:5-9). His Christian proclamation of a risen Lord, and by implication, of a risen humanity (Acts 23:6), represents a particular, but defensible, form of Pharisaic theology "

(Harper's Bible Commentary, 1111)

The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters adds more fascinating information about Paul, Pharisaism, and the oral law:

As a further cause for boasting in Philippians, Paul claims to be a Pharisee. Here the term was defined with precision. The expression 'as to the Law a Pharisee' refers to the oral Law. . . . Paul thereby understood himself as a member of the scholarly class who taught the twofold Law. By saying that the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat (Mt 23:2), Jesus was indicating they were authoritative teachers of the Law. . . . In summary, Paul was saying that he was a Hebrew-speaking interpreter and teacher of the oral and written Law

("Jew, Paul the", 504)

Historian Paul Johnson concludes similarly concerning Jesus' closeness in doctrine to the Pharisees:

He was closer to the Pharisees than to any other group . . . Jesus openly criticized the Pharisees, especially for 'hypocrisy'. But on close examination, Jesus' condemnation is by no means so severe or so inclusive as the Gospel narrative in which it is enclosed implies; and in essence it is similar to criticisms levelled at the Pharisees by the Essenes, and by the later rabbinical sages, who drew a sharp distinction between the Hakamim, whom they saw as their forerunners, and the 'false Pharisees', whom they regarded as enemies of true Judaism.

(Ibid., 126)

Jewish historian Abba Eban states largely the same thing, from his religious perspective:

Jesus was a Pharisaic Jew . . . He meticulously kept Jewish laws, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem on Passover, ate unleavened bread, and uttered a blessing when he drank wine. He was a Jew in word and deed.

. . . He himself declared in the Sermon on the Mount that he "had not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it." Nourished by the ideas of Pharisaic Judaism, he stressed the Messianic hope . . .

Early Christianity is closer to Judaism than the adherents of either religion have usually wished to admit. Both Christian theologians and Orthodox Jews have underestimated the original Judeo-Christian affinity. It was only gradually that Christianity severed its connection to the Jewish community and became transformed into a gentile religion.

(My People: The Story of the Jews, New York: Behrman House, Inc. / Random House, 1968, 104-106)

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