Friday
November 27, 2009
volume 20, no. 331
The Vacant Chairs of Moses and Peter

Part One of A Study of St. Matthew 23: 1-3

By

Stephen Grieve

    Editor's Note: Stephen hails from across the pond in England and has agreed to provide interesting articles that should stir the sensibilities of those who continue to elude the inevitability that a true pope would never and could never do what the conciliar leaders in Rome have done for the past 50 years. Having completed a six-part treatise on 2 Thessalonians 2: 6-7, Steve tackles the Gospel of St. Matthew, specifically chapter 23, verses one to three in proving the basis for a sede vacante stance based on holy Scripture itself. Steve refutes two who attack the sedevacantist stance, clearly delineating where their false arguments fall apart. Steve illustrates Christ's intent when speaking of the scribes and pharisees in part six of his series Toward a Scriptural Brief proving Sede Vacante.
      "The Master was no Pharisee. On the contrary He excoriated Pharisaism. Jesus Christ - the incarnate Theo-Logos - was, theologically, ENTIRELY HIS OWN MAN. That certain Pharisaic doctrines may have come closer to our Lord's doctrine is true and one is reminded of the Pharisaic (Hillel) belief in the Resurrection of the Dead, Angels and the spirit world (Acts 23:8). All this means is that they approached certain aspects of the teaching of Christ, not that Christ approached them. It is, when you think about it, absolutely outrageous to make Jesus out to be a follower of Hillel's 'more conservative school'!"

    It is the Tuesday of the second week of the month Nisan (April) 'Passover Week'. Jesus Christ, Our Lord, is in Jerusalem. He knows the fate that awaits Him; He sees the Cross before Him. But there are yet things He has to say for our instruction before He enters His 'Hour'.

    Jesus is about to launch into another withering denunciation of the scribes and pharisees, those men who were so steeped in their own man-made traditions (corrupting all true religion) that they were obstinately blind to the Person and principles of their God (Who was standing before them). However, before He goes into 'attack mode', Jesus said something quite surprising as recorded in the Gospel of St. Matthew 23: 1-3:

      "Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: The scribes and the Pharisees have sat on the chair of Moses. All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not. For they say, and do not."

    Since the Reformation, at least, Catholics have used this text against the objections regarding wicked popes. 'It doesn't matter how morally bankrupt some of our popes may have been,' we say, 'the fact is that (unless it is a matter of sin) we still obey them since they are in a position of legitimate authority. Unworthiness does not obviate the Office.'

    This argument is sound when used as a matter of general principle. However, the text is now being used by Novus Ordinarians against traditional Catholics. With a little more scrutiny, I think we shall find that, so far from being a valid scriptural argument against a 'Sede Vacante' position, Matthew 23:1 is a text that may be used to very good effect in advancing the 'Enterprise'

    It's an interesting term,'Enterprise'. In recent times this word was used pejoratively by Christopher A. Ferrara in an article published by Catholic Family News and the Remnant with the title: "Opposing the Sede-vacantist Enterprise." I can't be the only one who's picked up on it, but the persecuted English recusant Catholics under Elizabeth Tudor used to refer to 'The Enterprise of England' meaning the restoration of England (as the 'Dowry of Mary') to the Catholic Faith. I think this term 'Enterprise' is a most felicitous ascription and one we should gratefully take on board. Thank you, Mr. Ferrara. Catholic Resistance can be nothing other than the Enterprise for, and of, Catholic Truth.

Background on St. Matthew 23: 1-3

    Let us now look at Christ's words. Firstly, what exactly is this "seat of Moses" to which Jesus alludes?

    Some say the Master is alluding to a literal seat; others that His meaning is more metaphorical. Let us look at both:

    1. Literal. 'The seat of Moses' refers to a stone seat/chair placed at the front of synagogues. There is clear archaeological evidence for this. The most prominent elder sat on this seat which was on a raised platform next to the ark containing the OT scrolls, and from it he (was supposed to have) expounded the Mosaic Law.

        "The seat symbolised the authority of the scribes and pharisees as interpreters of the Law in unbroken succession from Moses" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 425]. "Synagogues had a stone seat at the front where the authoritative teacher, usually a grammateus ('teacher of the law') sat" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 472]. "Scholars regularly observe that later Palestinian synagogues often had a special chair for teaching, which came to be known as a 'chair of Moses' and thus symbolized the succession of teachers from Moses' day" [Citations from: Dr. Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 541].

    Observation. There is no such thing as 'Mosaic Succession.' Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Second Moses. Neither was there any succession of Mosaic teaching as such since the Synagogue had (long before the Lord's advent) ceased teaching Moses' doctrine, instead substituting it for their Mischnah and proto Talmud. During the Babylonian Captivity, teachers (who were to become the 'scribes' and, later 'pharisees') had been established to preserve the Mosaic Faith among the people. But they had not been appointed by God (whereas Moses had). And, as said, neither did they keep the Mosaic Faith but instead polluted it.

    2. Metaphorical. 'The Jews spoke of the teacher's seat as we speak of a professor's "chair". The "chair," then, simply signifies the authority to teach and lead. "By 'the seat of Moses' we are to understand authority to teach the law" [Clarke's Commentary, vol. 5, p. 217]. It had long been the custom of the Jewish teachers to sit as they taught from the Law and the Prophets, but to stand as they read from these works [see: Luke 4:16, 20-21]. Therefore, "the expression is a metaphor referring to the fact that the Pharisees had assumed the role of being the Law's interpreters" [Citations: Noel S. Rabbinowitz, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, September, 2003].

    The one explanation does not preclude the other: the 'seat' of Moses should be taken as both a literal chair, and a widely understood principle at the same time.

What about the "Chair"?

    There are two anti-sedevacantist arguments I would like to refute in respect to Sacred Scripture. First is the Society of St. Pius X priest Fr. Dominique Boulet from the Canadian Province. In his 'Dossier on Sedevacantism', published in the October-December 2004 quarterly (no. 21) Communicantes, he titles his piece: 'Is that Chair Vacant?' Fr. Boulet advances 9 major arguments (with subsections) against 'Sede Vacantism'. It is not my objective to answer all 9 (others, better qualified than I, have already done so or are capable of). In this paper, I hope only to make some headway with his ninth argument (subsection 1) which reads:

    9.1 Was Our Lord sedevacantist?

    "As He was preaching in Palestine, and even when He was arrested and condemned to death, Our Lord kept recognizing the authority of the Mosaic priesthood. "Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to his disciples, saying: The scribes and the Pharisees have sat on the chair of Moses. All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not. For they say, and do not." (Matthew XXIII, 1-3). Moreover, Our Lord did not fire St. Peter after his triple betrayal during the night of the Passion, but confirmed him in his functions after Peter made reparation for his sin (John XXI, 15-17)."

Objections.

A. The Temple did not have a 'chair of Moses': it had the 'Holy of Holies', the 'Sanctuary' to which only the High priest was admitted once a year. It was only the synagogues that had a 'chair of Moses'. Our Lord's comments have nothing to do with the apostate temple priesthood here. They concern, as St. Matthew specifically notes, the scribes and pharisees, who (credit due) were also at variance with the temple priesthood - though for reasons other than Our Lord's (It was the Sadducees more than the Pharisees who were the prime movers in Christ's execution).

B. 'even when He was arrested and condemned to death', says Boulet 'Our Lord kept recognizing the authority of the Mosaic priesthood.'

    With regard the high priesthood, when confronted face to face with it, Our Blessed Saviour remained silent (σιπα) and refused it any acknowledgement or pretended authority. Christ's utter contempt for Caiphas is evident. He was more prepared to admit the legitimacy of Pilate than He was of Caiphas (cf. St. John 18: 28ff). It was only when the Name of His most holy and ('Intra-Triune') Beloved Father was invoked (and thus solemnly brought into the proceedings) that Jesus spoke, declaring 'It is you who say so'. Even then, Our Lord did not answer Caiphas; He did not deign the man worthy of a simple 'yes'. The question of whether our Lord recognised Caiaphas' authority can be dealt with in much greater detail, later.

C. 'Moreover, Our Lord did not fire St. Peter after his triple betrayal during the night of the Passion, but confirmed him in his functions after Peter made reparation for his sin '(John XXI, 15-17).

    Boulet has 'knight-jumped' texts but, even so, he answers his own objection: St. Peter made reparation for his sin. In this context, all we are saying is that Benedict XVI has not! (But this is a different matter and one not directly related to the authentic exposition of the text to hand). In any case, Boulet should have said that Jesus 're-confirmed' Peter in his functions after his apostasy during the Lord's Tribulation.

* * * * *

   Now let us turn from Fr. Boulet to another anti-sedevacantist: I. Shawn McElhinney, henceforth referred to as I.S.M. Since he also uses St. Matthew 23: 1-3 against the Sede Vacante position, it is necessary to refute his arguments as well. Consider his skewered thinking here:

I.S.M: "To address the sedevacantists claim, we will start by reflecting upon what Our Lord did in his time when amongst the wicked leaders of Israel. This is not a claim that the popes since John XXIII have been wicked of course. But let us grant the sedevacantist their premise briefly to therefore refute their foolishness… Now Our Lord theologically was of the Pharisaic movement himself - being of the more conservative school of Hillel. (As was the Apostle Paul.)"

REPLY. "Now Our Lord theologically was of the Pharisaic movement Himself- being of the more conservative school of Hillel. (As was the Apostle Paul)."

    The Master was no Pharisee. On the contrary He excoriated Pharisaism. Jesus Christ - the incarnate Theo-Logos - was, theologically, ENTIRELY HIS OWN MAN. That certain Pharisaic doctrines may have come closer to our Lord's doctrine is true and one is reminded of the Pharisaic (Hillel) belief in the Resurrection of the Dead, Angels and the spirit world (Acts 23:8). All this means is that they approached certain aspects of the teaching of Christ, not that Christ approached them. It is, when you think about it, absolutely outrageous to make Jesus out to be a follower of Hillel's 'more conservative school'!

    Similarly, St. Paul loathed his former Pharisaism and called it 'dung', 'refuse', 'filth' (the word is σκβλα, Philippians 3:8) though he did use it to his (or, rather, the Gospel's) diplomatic advantage.

I.S.M: "When speaking of the authority of the Scribes and the Pharisees shortly before issuing scathing rebukes against them, consider how He approach (sic) the authority that they claimed to wield. According to the Douay-Rheims Bible, He commanded obedience to the Scribes and Pharisees when they are seated on Moses' Seat (Matt. 23:1-3).

REPLY. '…He commanded obedience to the Scribes and Pharisees when they are seated on Moses' Seat'.

    i. It would appear, in this author's view, that the scribes and pharisees only had authority when they were sitting (physically) on the seat of Moses in the synagogue. The rest of the time (providing the said teachers weren't actually on the chair) the Jews were free to ignore them. This gives a magical quality to a stone chair.

    ii. The Lord never commanded the Jews to obey the scribes and pharisees.

    St. Matthew 15:9: Jesus says of the scribes and Pharisees that the prophet Isaiah has rightly said of them, "In vain do they worship Me, teaching doctrines and commandments of men."

    The disciples, anxious about the 'rumpus' this remark had made, told Jesus, "Dost Thou know that the Pharisees, when they heard this word, were scandalised?" [vs. 12]. He replied: "Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted, shall be rooted up. Let them alone: they are blind and leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both fall into the pit." Their traditional interpretations and teachings were actually the fact they "...have made void the Commandment of God..." [vs. 6] and resulting in the fact they "transgress the commandment of God" [vs. 3].

    In St. Matthew 16:11 Jesus warned His disciples, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees." Now, notice the very next verse: "Then they understood that He said not that they should beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees." It was not just a question of their bad example, Jesus repeatedly criticised the scribes and Pharisees for their false teaching. It is these selfsame people who were currently sitting on 'Moses' seat', claiming the authority to teach. In the light of what we have just read, did Our Lord then say that they had to be obeyed in everything?

    The texts quoted are with reference to the scribes and pharisees before Matthew 23:1-3. Now consider Our Lord's characterization of them immediately after 1-3 (i.e. immediately following on) where He calls them: hypocrites, blind guides, fools, whitewashed tombs full of corruption, lawless men, serpents, a brood of vipers, and seed-counting, gnat-straining, camel-swallowing nitpickers! So unless we are to accuse the Master of self-contradiction or total inconsistency, His words 'All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do' must necessarily be understood in full context. We shall propose two interpretations that do no violence to the meaning of the text presently. Meanwhile:

I.S.M: "Since he castigated them for personal failing and for following their own traditions in numerous places of the New Testament (see Matt. 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13), it is strange that He did not claim that through their errors that they had "forfeited" their positions of authority to teach. But maybe the sedevacantists do not use a translation mirroring the Douay-Rheims Bible. Perhaps in the "Holy Bible: Revised Sedevacantist Version" Jesus addressed the problem in the following manner:

Matthew 23. 1 Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, 2 Saying The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: 3 All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; unless you think they are teaching erroneously upon which ye may depose them for their seat is thus vacanted (sic). 4 (Upon such a vacancy you must adhere to the teachings of the Pharisees of "the Eternal Sanhedren" which you should have no problem determining for yourselves even if your level of theological knowledge be no more than that of a small child's.)

REPLY:

A. "Since He castigated them for personal failing and for following their own traditions in numerous places of the New Testament (see Matt. 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13)" As above. While the Lord certainly had hypocritical conduct in His scope, it was not restricted to just mere behaviour. Our Lord includes actual teaching in this.

B. "Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, 2 Saying The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: 3 All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do;"

    This is very odd. McElhinney has now twice referenced the Douay-Rheims version and implied that the Sede Vacante are not familiar with it. However, McElhinney has not used the Douay but the King James! In part two I will expand on this.

Stephen Grieve





For past articles, see Archives



Our Scriptural Roots