“Leaven” of the Pharisees: Hypocrisy or False Doctrine?

“Leaven” of the Pharisees: Hypocrisy or False Doctrine? November 3, 2011
Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (bet. 1886 and 1894), by James Tissot (1836-1902) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


Nathan Rinne is a friendly Lutheran theological adversary. His words will be in blue. I will be changing excessive bolding in Nathan’s replies to italics.
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Nathan’s latest reply — just one small portion of which I am now responding to –, is entitled, Round 2 with RC apologist Dave Armstrong: the unattractive body of Christ. I have complained here and there about the broadness of subject matter and clashing methodologies. I wrote the following to Nathan to try to explain the difficulties we are encountering along those lines, as I see it:

If it’s all over the ballpark, I will be forced (by time-management considerations) to give short answers (mostly will link to other papers); otherwise it becomes War and Peace II. My main concern (far more than a preference for line-by-line organization) is that we narrow down the subject matter.

We can’t argue everything at once.  No one can do so, no matter how good a debater they are or what their position is. I will respond for sure, but like I said, if the subject matter is too broad or scattered, it won’t be a very extensive reply.

* * *

I think I see or conceive better now (having heavily skimmed your reply) how and why we clash methodologically (which is a separate issue from a theological clash). You seem to approach things from what I would call a (holistic) “dogmatic / philosophical” viewpoint, stressing entire worldview and what you think is superior Lutheran coherence, whereas my apologetics is more particular, concentrating on facts and individual issues: either utilizing Scripture (usually systematically or topically) or patristics (dealing with narrowed-down topics or one father and his views), with special emphasis on history and development of doctrine (tying into Catholic tradition).

The only way I could adequately respond to your piece from within your own paradigm would be to unleash extraordinary amounts of energy and spend, say, six-eight weeks on it, and I have neither the energy nor desire to do all that (with other projects in the works), and don’t think it would accomplish much of anything, even if I did. I can write entire books, even two books, in that span of time.

When there are major worldview differences, they have to be dealt with, in my opinion, with “little chunks” at a time.

I think what your presentation does is at least offer some reply to a Catholic apologetic (i.e., mine), which is good for Lutheran readers. It gives them confidence that their view is (according to you) coherent and consistent and able to be believed. I don’t think it would convince many Catholics to become Lutheran (nor would a long, exhaustive reply from me cause many or any Lutherans to become Catholic). It’s “preaching to the choir”, which is what dogmatic (or more catechetical) material does: embolden and exhort those who already hold to it.

As you would guess, I’m not too big on preaching to the choir, either. My task as an apologist, as I see it, and according to my particular style, is to compare Catholicism with non-Catholic views x, y, z, etc., and to show how Catholicism is more believable on matters a, b, c, d, e, etc. It’s particularistic. I believe that if enough doubt is cast on enough different things, then a person starts to experience cognitive dissonance and eventually leans to and then adopts Catholicism, from the accumulation of evidences in its favor. I’ve observed many hundreds (some as a direct result of my work) indeed do that.

I can’t do that from within your method, because everything is undertaken on this grand, holistic scale. I can’t re-invent the wheel or lay the foundations of a skyscraper with every reply I make to something you write.

All I can do (given all this) is pick and choose (just as you are already doing with my material) and cast doubt on small particulars of your huge skyscraper that you have constructed: showing how this foundation has cracks, how that beam will break, or that the windows are drafty and unreliable, the plumbing is bad, etc.

I think this is why it seems frustrating and exasperating to me, to deal with all your arguments. It has little to do with content (I could give some sort of answer to everything you write, if I were motivated enough to do so); it’s almost all about methodology and organization: how things are approached and one’s goals.

Anyway, hopefully this will help you understand the position I am coming from on this stuff. Issues of this sort come up frequently during debates. People have different ideas of how to go about it. Minds work differently. Theological systems differ. I suppose that is why it is usually helpful to have a lot of limitations on numbers of words and on topic, as in formal debates. It does keep things in check to a large extent.

With that in mind, I proceed: this time dealing with just one (rather important and fundamental) section of his paper. I think I can destroy or at least cast great doubt upon various key false premises that Nathan brings to the table (including the one presently dealt with). That is my specialty as a methodological socratic, anyway.


. . . I responded by pointing out that where in Matthew 23:2[-3] Jesus commands His followers to listen to the scribes and Pharisees and do whatever they tell them to keep, in other places he calls them false teachers (he even points out some false teaching in Matthew 23).  A very simple point.


Johan Gerhard, writing in his On the Church, makes the same point (though in less Scriptural detail then I do in the comments section of the post where all of this happened):


“’The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat; keep and do whatever they tell you to keep,’ says Christ in Matt. 23:2[-3].  He commands them to listen to the scribes and Pharisees not absolutely in all things but insofar as they sit in Moses’ seat, that is, insofar as they propose things that are in harmony with Moses’ teaching.  Elsewhere, He commands them to beware of their ‘leaven’, that is, of their false teaching (Matt. 16:11-12).  So, too, we should listen to the church, namely in those matters that are devout and holy and in harmony with the commandments of our heavenly Father.  If the church brings forth anything different from the teaching of Christ, to this extent and in this respect we should not listen to her.  (On the Church, p. 221, see also 201)… the scribes and Pharisees to whom Christ orders us to listen were mixing the ‘leaven of errors’ and corruptions with the pure teaching of Moses and the prophets.” (p. 226)


First of all, note that Gerhard fundamentally distorts what Christ said. He didn’t say to obey the Pharisees’ teaching “insofar as they sit in Moses’ seat, that is, insofar as they propose things that are in harmony with Moses’ teaching.” No; He simply said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; [3] so practice and observe whatever they tell you”  (Matthew 23:2-3a). The difference is huge and essential; hence, the error that Gerhard and Nathan (following him) propose, is huge as well. 

One take of the passage is saying that the Pharisees (by analogical extension, Church authorities now) have authority, period, and must be obeyed (i.e., infallibility; real binding authority). The other holds that they only have it as long as the individual judges that they are teaching truth, which is, in the end, no authority at all, because it so easily disobeyed, and the disobedience rationalized on allegedly “super-pious” but unbiblical principles.

Scripture has to be interpreted as a consistent, coherent (inspired, infallible) totality. The theme of hypocrisy in teachers is a very common biblical motif. Thus, I mentioned that this (as well as the related sin of spiritual pride) was in mind when Jesus rebuked the Pharisees in Matthew 23: for example, 23:3: “practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice“; 23:5: “They do all their deeds to be seen by men”; 23:6: “they love the place of honor at feasts”;  23:23: “neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith“; 23:25: “you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity“, etc. I also provided another example of rebuke of hypocrisy rather than doctrine: Paul’s rebuke of Peter’s hypocrisy in Galatians. Paul provides another example, in discussing the non-Christian Jews:

Romans 2:17-23 [RSV, as throughout] But if you call yourself a Jew and rely upon the law and boast of your relation to God [18] and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed in the law, [19] and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, [20] a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth — [21] you then who teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? [22] You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? [23] You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?

It is obviously hypocrisy, again, which is in Paul’s mind, not false teaching per se. The teaching is false, only insofar as the application by bad example is false. They know what is right, but don’t do it. They teach the right thing, but don’t observe it themselves: just like Matthew 23 and the Peter-Paul incident about Jewish-Gentile Christian relations. Paul calls himself (referring to his present Christian state) a Pharisee twice, as I noted in past installments; therefore, neither for Jesus nor Paul, are the Pharisees a completely corrupt entity.

They are a group with different factions (e.g., followers of Shammai and Hillel): some of which are corrupt in practice and rife with hypocrisy: which sounds of course, precisely like every group of Christians today that I am aware of. Sin is always in the Church: the wheat and the tares, etc. Lots of biblical teaching about that . . .

Nathan states, “he even points out some false teaching in Matthew 23.” I looked through it and didn’t see false doctrinal teaching per se. I saw, however, numerous examples of hypocrisy and spiritual pride and lack of foresight.

The clincher for my interpretation, I believe, is another passage where Jesus Himself defines what He means by leaven. This is good ol’ Protestant (and Augustinian and Catholic) hermeneutical principles: interpret the less clear portions of Scripture by the ones that are more plain and clear. If Jesus tells us what He means by using the metaphor of leaven, then we can know for sure! He does this in Luke 12, which follows the latter half of Luke 11: the parallel passage to Matthew 23 (excoriations of Pharisaical hypocrisy). Right after that, He states:

Luke 12:1-3 In the meantime, when so many thousands of the multitude had gathered together that they trod upon one another, he began to say to his disciples first, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. [2] Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. [3] Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.

So there we have it: precisely as I have been contending all along. This is important, since Nathan seems to think that his interpretation of Matthew 23 and Pharisaical corruption as false doctrine rather than hypocrisy, is some sort of silver bullet and a big plus for his battle for the superiority of Lutheranism and against the indefectibility of the traditional Catholic Church. But it is not, because he has eisegeted the Scripture rather than taking it at face value and according to its own definitions and proper cross-referencing. This is classic erroneous Protestant exegesis and false application of isolated prooftexts, according to man-made tradition.

I can even go further, if the above data is insufficient for my case, and delve into the biblical meaning of leaven. The New Bible Dictionary (“Leaven” in the 1962 edition, p. 726) states that leaven in relation to Pharisees, is:

. . . the Pharisees’ hypocrisy and preoccupation with outward show (Mt. xxiii. 14, 16; Lk. xii. 1) . . .

St. Paul again supports the concept of leaven as moral corruption and hypocrisy when he mentions the word:

1 Corinthians 5:6-8 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? [7] Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. [8] Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Linguist A. T. Robertson, in his six-volume Word Pictures in the New Testament, comments on Luke 12:1 (cited above):

He had long ago called the pharisees hypocrites (Matt. 6:2, 5, 6). The occasion was ripe here for this crisp saying. . . . Hypocrisy was the leading pharisaic vice (Bruce) and was a mark of sanctity to hide an evil heart.

(Vol. II, 171)

The best contrary argument, I think, comes from a seemingly straightforward interpretation of another passage in Matthew:

Matthew 16:11-12 How is it that you fail to perceive that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sad’ducees.” [12] Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sad’ducees.

“Teaching” here is didache, also often translated as “doctrine.” So how do we interpret this, over against Matthew 23:3: “practice and observe whatever they [the Pharisees] tell you,” and Luke 12:1, where our Lord defines “leaven” as hypocrisy? I think we harmonize them by understanding that the notion of “teaching” can (and usually does, in Scripture) have a wider application, beyond content alone: incorporating example and overall living of a life according to one’s own outlook or belief-system. The Pharisees were teaching by their actions and hypocrisy as well as their doctrines. Jesus repudiated their hypocrisy but not their upholding of the Law.

Paul expresses this connection of doctrinal teaching and behavior in his several references to himself as an example whom Christians should emulate or follow:

1 Corinthians 4:15-17 For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. [16] I urge you, then, be imitators of me. [17] Therefore I sent to you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.

Philippians 3:16-17 Only let us hold true to what we have attained. [17] Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us.

Philippians 4:9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-9 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. [7] For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, [8] we did not eat any one’s bread without paying, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you. [9] It was not because we have not that right, but to give you in our conduct an example to imitate.

Paul stresses to his successor of sorts, Timothy, that Christian teaching always includes right conduct and example:

1 Timothy 4:6, 11-12, 15-16 If you put these instructions before the brethren, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the good doctrine which you have followed.. . . [11] Command and teach these things. [12] Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.. . . [15] Practice these duties, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. [16] Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

And to Titus as well:

Titus 1:7-9 For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, [8] but hospitable, a lover of goodness, master of himself, upright, holy, and self-controlled; [9] he must hold firm to the sure word as taught [didache], so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it.

Titus 2:1, 7 But as for you, teach what befits sound doctrine.. . . [7] Show yourself in all respects a model of good deeds, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity,

St. Peter also reiterates this theme of “teaching by example,” in writing to the elders of the Church:

1 Peter 5:1-3 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed. [2] Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, [3] not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock.

This is how I harmonize all of the biblical data, as to whether Jesus condemned the doctrine of the Pharisees, or rather (as in my interpretation above), only their “teaching” insofar as it is presented to the world hypocritically, as an entire package. Otherwise, if the entire pharisaical system of doctrine is condemned, Matthew 23:3 seems contradictory to Matthew 16:12, and Paul calling himself a Pharisee, etc. Jesus puts it all together in the Sermon on the Mount. He is not rejecting the continuance of the Mosaic Law in some real, tangible sense, but rather, coupling righteousness and a deeper, more spiritually profound outlook with it:

Matthew 5:14-20 You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. [15] Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. [16] Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. [17] “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. [18] For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. [19] Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. [20] For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Nathan’s task is to harmonize all these passages together, as I have done (agree or disagree). He can’t just pick out of Scripture what agrees with his previously held dogmatic Lutheranism and polemics against Catholicism (making us analogous to the Pharisees, as is almost always done) and ignore what doesn’t fit. That won’t do. In any event, using a few passages while ignoring others will not provide a pretext for the rejection of the binding authority of the Church (when an individual — like Luther himself — sees fit to do so), let alone for an undermining of the indefectibility of the Church, according to the worldview that Lutherans and other Protestants must adopt in order to justify their own continuing existence.

Nathan can’t demonstrate his Lutheran notion of a fallible Church that can be disobeyed by the atomistic individual with Bible in hand, from the Bible itself. I challenged him to do this in one of the comments under our first exchange:

The Bible has no room for your notion of the Church, either. I challenge you to find me a passage anywhere in Scripture that tells us that the Christian Church ever “officially” teaches error. It is always stated that the “truth” or “word of God” (beyond Scripture alone), the “message” or “doctrine” or “the faith” or “tradition” is absolutely true (hence infallible).

Paul always assumes his teaching is absolutely infallible and without error. The Church is called “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). I wrote an entire paper on that passage, showing that the only logical interpretation is infallibility. The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) speaks in quite certain terms, and Paul goes out and informs his hearers of the decisions of he council, for obedience and observance (Acts 16:4). Infallibility, therefore, is all over Scripture, whereas Luther’s invention of sola Scriptura is not at all.

If the Church was allowed by God to teach error, we would be in rough shape. But the Church is indefectible, according to Scripture, and contra Luther.

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Further exchange on Nathan’s website (11-9-11):

At the same time, John 5:39 disavows us of any notion that the Pharisees understood the Scriptures either


Really? Why is it, then, that Paul calls himself a Pharisee twice after he became a Christian? Why does he continue to associate with the name and school? It’s well-known that there were factions among the Pharisees (e.g., followers of Shammai vs. those of Hillel). It is my belief that Jesus was excoriating the former school in his jeremiads against hypocrisy. The same could apply to Paul.

But in our faulty interpretation of ancient Jewish modes of thought and frequent recourse to exaggeration and hyperbole, we falsely assume that all Pharisees whatever are being condemned.

So that brings us back to the question that you have never (to my knowledge) addressed: why Paul calls himself one twice (Acts 23:6; 26:5)?

And of course, if they (to a man) understood not a lick about Scripture, how is it that Jesus could say at all, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; [3] so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:2-3)?

So you say they are utterly ignorant as to [Old Testament] Scripture, yet Jesus tells His followers to observe “whatever” they tell them, and in doing so He also appeals to a notion (“Moses’ Seat”) that is not present in the Old Testament; hence an originally oral tradition passed down (see: Exodus Rabbah 43:4 and the Pesikta siRav Kahana 1:7: these Talmudic sources can be found online if one looks hard enough). And oral tradition (going back to Mt. Sinai) was precisely the belief of the Pharisees, not the Sadducees. Jesus followed their general school of thought just as Paul did.

[Nathan has replied. I declined to counter-reply, for (mostly time-management) reasons explained on his site, but would like to engage in various other debates with him in the future]


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