98 Seat of Moses, Mat.23:2
Sometimes a phrase represents a direct or concrete meaning. “Will you please polish that chair.” Everybody knows we are talking about something to sit upon.
Sometimes a phrase represents a symbolic or figurative meaning. “Sir, in court you may not speak directly to the judge, you have to address the chair.” Nobody will ever think one should speak to any chair, and not even to the person sitting in that chair per se, but to the judicial system and laws applicable in that state.
And sometimes a phrase has both meanings. “The Pope wears many hats.” We know that this phrase not only refers to the different head attire he wears, but also to the unique duties, honour and authority that is attached to that specific headgear.
Now the question is how one should translate a phrase in the Bible that is open to different meanings.
In Matthew 23:2 we have such a case. Until recently I was under the impression that this phrase had only a figurative meaning. Then I found photographs of the remains of many synagogues dating from the time of Jesus having an elaborately decorated “seat of Moses” next to the Torah Shrine. During a service, one rabbi would stand at the Torah Shrine and read the designated portion from the Torah. Then he or another rabbi would sit down in the Chair of Moses and explain and interpret that Scripture. Like the declaration of a king from his throne, this word was considered as binding and with absolute authority.
It is to this practise that Jesus was referring when he said: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.” (NIV) The BBE translates with the figurative meaning: “The scribes and the Pharisees have the authority of Moses.” The NLT makes the words of Jesus into a statement: “The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses.”
When this phrase is just translated from the Greek, it could be understood as either referring to the physical chair in the synagogue, or to the figurative meaning, but it could also be understood in it’s double meaning. Yet what exactly did Jesus mean when He said that? This we have to discern by studying the context.
It was custom to stand while reading the Scriptures as Jesus himself did. (Luke 4:16) Yet in the synagogue the very person who would explain the Scripture just read, sat down in the actual seat destined for this purpose, called the “seat of Moses”. That is why all eyes were on Jesus and not on all the scribes gathered that day in Nazareth when He sat down to explain the Scriptures. (Luke 4:20)
When Jesus referred to the person sitting in the seat of Moses, He made a specific distinction between an explanation given by the scribe in person, and by him sitting in the seat of Moses where the other scribes were present to evaluate or correct his exegesis. That is why Jesus made a definite difference between what is said from the seat of Moses as having authority, and worthy of obedience. (Mat. 23:3) Yet what they do or say outside on the streets should be judged by their practice and conduct. Personal opinions not from the seat of Moses have no authority. (Mat 23:16-22) A judicial statement by an expert of law from the cathedra in a lecture room has a distinctly different outcome than the same statement by the same person from the bench in a court of law.
Jesus makes an unambiguous distinction between a declaration by a teacher of the law in person and of him from the seat of Moses. Therefore a translation with the un-interpreted words (KJV, NIV) should be preferred, rather than a translation open to the possible interpretation of teachers of the law having that authority per se. (BBE, NLT)
How would you translate if it were your responsibility?