David Johnstone

Beware the scribes

July 5, 2011

You may have noticed the way that the gospels written by Matthew, Mark and Luke have a lot in common. This is, after all, why they are called the synoptic gospels. The exact relationship between them is notoriously difficult to work out, and, for all the parallels, there are many interesting differences.

I noticed one of these differences the other day. Compare the ESV section headings for these three passages (of course, these headings aren’t part of the original text, but are added by the translators to make the Bible more readable):

Matthew 22:15–24:2Mark 12:13–13:2Luke 20:19–21:9
Paying taxes to CaesarPaying taxes to CaesarPaying taxes to Caesar
Sadducees ask about the resurrectionSadducees ask about the resurrectionSadducees ask about the resurrection
The great commandmentThe great commandment
Whose son is the Christ?Whose son is the Christ?Whose son is the Christ?
Seven woes to the Scribes and PhariseesBeware the ScribesBeware the Scribes
The widow’s offeringThe widow’s offering
Lament over Jerusalem
Jesus foretells destruction of the templeJesus foretells destruction of the templeJesus foretells destruction of the temple

Looking at the headings alone hardly tells you everything, so it’s probably very helpful to look a side by side comparison of these passages. But what is obvious from just the headings is that the three gospels are following the same story arc. What I’m interested in here is how Mark and Luke have “Beware the Scribes” while Matthew has “Seven woes to the Scribes and Pharisees” (look at the passages to see how the text differs).

When I first noticed this, I assumed that Matthew had a more thorough version of what Jesus said to condemn the Scribes compared with what Mark or Luke included (Matthew’s section is far longer than the others’). It certainly appeared to be thematically similar material in the same position. However, Luke 11:37–54 contains a passage (titled “Woes to the Pharisees and Lawyers”) that is much more similar to Matthew’s “Woes”, which could make you think that Matthew added a similar but different story to Mark and Luke.

So what is one to make of this? I don’t know. It’s interesting to think about, but I don’t think I’ll be losing much sleep over it. Maybe someday I’ll get my hands on some thick commentaries and see what they have to say.

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