What is Moses’ seat?

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By BibleAsk Team


The term “Moses’ seat” is a phrase that appears in the New Testament of the Bible, specifically in the Gospel of Matthew. It’s found in Matthew 23:2 in the New King James Version (NKJV), where Jesus addresses the crowds and his disciples. To delve into the significance of this phrase, we need to understand the historical and cultural context of Moses’ seat within Judaism during the time of Jesus.

Moses’ Seat

In Matthew 23, Jesus is delivering a scathing critique of the religious leaders of his day, particularly the Pharisees and scribes. These were the authoritative figures responsible for interpreting and teaching the Jewish law, and they held significant influence over the Jewish people. Jesus begins by acknowledging their authority: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.” This statement acknowledges that the scribes and Pharisees occupied positions of religious leadership that were originally established by Moses, the revered figure who received the Law from God on Mount Sinai.

The concept of “Moses’ seat” represents the authority to teach and interpret the Mosaic Law, which was foundational to Jewish religious life. In ancient synagogues, the seat of honor was often reserved for the person who was recognized as the primary teacher or interpreter of the Law. This position was seen as a continuation of the authority bestowed upon Moses himself.

The authority of the scribes and Pharisees was derived from their knowledge of the Law and their adherence to religious traditions. They were seen as the custodians of Jewish religious identity and practice. However, Jesus goes on to critique their behavior, accusing them of hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

In Matthew 23:2, Jesus does not challenge the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees—which He did upon other occasions (Mark 7:1–13) but He focuses on the fact that their lives are not in harmony with their exalted profession of godliness. The scribes and Pharisees professed full loyalty to the Scriptures but failed to act on its principles. Their righteous actions consisted in a meticulous attention to ceremony and ritual requirements rather than to the “weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 9:13; 22:36; 23:23). Thus, Jesus supported in His teachings the principle of Sola Scriptura, not unbiblical Tradition.

Jesus warns the crowds and His disciples not to follow the example of the religious leaders, saying, “Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do” (Matthew 23:3). In other words, Jesus acknowledges that the scribes and Pharisees have legitimate authority in interpreting the Law, but he criticizes them for failing to practice what they preach.

The significance of “Moses’ seat” lies in its representation of religious authority within Judaism. By acknowledging the authority of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus affirms the importance of respecting traditional Jewish teachings. However, by critiquing their behavior, He also challenges his followers to prioritize genuine piety and righteousness over mere outward observance of religious rituals.

Application

The concept of “Moses’ seat” continues to have relevance for Christians today as they consider questions of religious authority and interpretation. It serves as a reminder to approach religious teachings with discernment and to prioritize authentic faith and moral integrity over legalistic adherence to religious rules and traditions.

Today, there are churches that err when they elevate their unbiblical traditions to equality with Scripture, even proclaiming their tradition essential to salvation thus leading people away from the truths of the Bible. To these, Jesus said, “But in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7).

Archeology

In the past, “Moses’ seat” was thought to have been a figurative expression compared to “the chair of history” at a school of higher learning today. Modern archaeologists have discovered that ancient Jewish synagogues had actual chairs in which the interpreter of the law sat to teach. The synagogue unearthed at Hamath had a stone chair close to the south wall of the synagogue, with its back toward the “ark,” where the scrolls were stacked. It is very possible that Jesus was referring to such a chair.

Summary

In summary, “Moses’ seat” refers to the seat of authority held by the scribes and Pharisees in Jewish religious life during the time of Jesus. It represents their role as interpreters and teachers of the Mosaic Law. While Jesus acknowledges their authority, He also criticizes them for their hypocrisy and calls his followers to prioritize genuine piety and righteousness. This concept continues to challenge Christians to discern the true sources of religious authority and to prioritize authentic faith over legalistic adherence to tradition.

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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