Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

NT Lesson 9: Hypocrisy in Matt 6-7

Posted by Robert C. on February 24, 2007

Per Cheryl’s request, here is a new post to discuss the meaning of hypocrisy in scripture, esp. as it pertains to Matthew 6-7.  I don’t really have time right now to look into this all that carefully, so I’m simply going to summarize what I’ve found so far, and post a rather lengthy excerpt [*] for your reading pleasure from the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament about the meaning and use of the term in the LXX and around the time of Christ.  I will also post some rambly personal thoughts for which I apologize ahead of time.

What I find most interesting in the TDNT excerpt (I decided to post this in a Word document below, it’s about 5 pages of reading) is that religious usage of the term seems to have had a uniformly negative and somewhat broad connotation, whereas secular use of the term seems to have been oftentimes positive and generally more narrow, related to rhetoric and drama.  This all suggests a very complicated and rich set of possible connotations for this word, though I think the TDNT discussion about the LXX usages should be taken as most relevant for understanding the usage in the Gospels.

Now for the rambly personal thoughts on hypocrisy. 

I only managed to take two philosophy classes when I was a BYU student, both from Terry Warner (I regret not taking more now…).  If anyone’s familiar with Terry Warner (perhaps most famous in Mormon circles for writing Bond That Make Us Free, available online via Meridian here), they know that self-deception is a big theme in his writing, and that Kierkegaard was very influential in thinking about this.  Kierkegaard is the first philosopher that sparked a deep interest in me for philosophy (my previous exposure to philosophy had given me the impression that philosophers just sat around rehashing unsolvable arguments about whether we can really know that we see a chair before us or whether we just think we see a chair, etc.).  One aspect of Kierkegaard’s writing that was easy to relate to was his discussion of the challenge of being a true Christian in Christendom–that is, a society where being Christian is socially acceptable, even advantageous.  I think this situation is very applicable (I’m going to use the term “applicable” now as often as possible, just to needle Joe…) to those of us who live in areas where Mormonism is the dominant religion, like I was at BYU when I was studying Kierkegaard.

The challenge for us is that because it is socially advantageous to be good Mormons, this can prove to be a stumbling block to having pure motivations.  Are we doing what we do out of a pure love of God or “to be seen of men”?  This is why Kierkegaard talked a lot about self-deception, to help us recognize ways that we might be using to try to convince ourselves that we have a pure heart when in fact we don’t.  I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll make another plug now his short little book “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing” (the text is available online here), which I think is quite readable (at least by philosophy standards…) and very interesting.

In a larger sense, I think this is all very related to the guilt-complex that is such a prevalent problem among Mormons, in my humble opinion–or not-so-humble since this is a pretty judgmental statement.  That is, I think there is a deep and intimate relationship between guilt and hypocrisy because both stem from impure desires.  I should be less vague here about what I mean by guilt, but I’m not sure I can.  An easy example to illustrate what I have in mind is being motivated by guilt: if I do my hometeaching more because I will feel guilty if I don’t, I think my hometeaching can be accurately described as hypocritical.  That is, inasmuch I am motivated by guilt rather than a purer desire (e.g. love of those I home teach, a love for the Savior and desire to “feed his sheep” etc.), I am only (hypocritcally) pretending to be a truly concerned home teacher.

 That’s all I have time for now.  Thoughts, comments, suggestions?  As always, feel free to hijack this thread to discuss anything related to SS Lesson 8.



I really don’t know the legal and ethical ramifications are for posting copy-righted material like this on a blog.  Usually I like to keep excerpts small relative to the length of what I post myself, just to be safe.  If anyone knows more about these issues, esp. if someone knows that I’m out of line in posting such a lengthy excerpt, please let me know and I’ll remove this material.  The material I’m quoting is only about 25% of the full article on this word, so I’m hoping that makes my posting this kosher....  I felt uneasy about this (and concern was expressed), so I edited the Word.doc file by cutting some excerpts and summarizing more, and adding more of my own not-too-reliable thoughts about the passages from the TDNT.  I think the document is now within the Fair Use guidelines (though it seems no one can really know for sure what Fair Use really means until it goes to court!).

26 Responses to “NT Lesson 9: Hypocrisy in Matt 6-7”

  1. Cheryl said

    Thank you Robert.

    I asked to have this as a point of discussion because of the black and white way we often look at the “hypocritical” Pharisees, and by extension, the Jews, in our GD study. This carries over to the BOM, where some passages and quotes regarding the “Jews” give me distinct pause – the polemic nature of Matthew specifically and the BOM passages also seem to translate into an assumed anti-semitic understanding of the role of the “Jews” in opposing Jesus and their resultant consequences for this action:1 Nephi 19:11-14; 2 Nephi 25:15; Jacob 4:14-16 and some others. Sometimes the discussion in GD classes that I have been in seems to affirm that the Jews have both deserved their long fate of persecutions and that prophecy has justified that fate. Ultimately this is also tied up with Jesus’ harsh words to the Pharisees. . . oh ye hypocrites, generation of vipers, woe unto you!, etc.

    This is an important point with me personally because I serve on the board of a group called the Michigan Center for Early Christian Studies, which supports the study of early Christianity (through about 700 and including the rise of Islam) at the University of Michigan. Part of what early Christian studies does is study the “parting of the ways” and how Jews and Christians became such enemies. When Brown writes about the sensitive, ethical rabbinic writings (below) post first-century, he is not kidding. Our black and white view of who the Jews were, who the Pharisees were, etc., simply does not hold.

    So when I teach this next Sunday (not tomorrow) I want to include the Brown quote with a very brief oral disclaimer that we should not get all our historical information from the NT; that our views of Jews generally and the various Judaisms of Jesus’ time specifically need to be a little broader than that communicated by the gospels – that we need to remember the Jewishness of Jesus and the background of the time period in which the gospels were finally given their final shape (the destruction of the temple, the competition for control of the synogogue, etc.). The bottom line is that the Jews’ scattering by Rome and later persecutions by Christians especially were not a result of the “Jews” rejecting Christ so much as they were a consequence of complex historical activities. Specifically the terrible persecutions of Jews by Christians were a result of the failure of Christians to understand their own Christianity. This failure certainly lasted all through the centuries up to and post-Holocaust, with Martin Luther being one of Hitler’s three most admired historical figures . . . with all Luther’s raging anti-semitism.

    So what does the group think about this? Brown infers that the Pharisees have actually been slandered. I would say, not the Pharisees only, but all of those who call themselves Jews.

    The quote from Raymond Brown is:

    General note: Pharisees are often called “hypocrites” in the gospels. It is important to note that the Greek hypocrites means “overscrupulous, casuistic,” but not “insincere.” The English definition of hypocrite possibly presents an overly negative picture.

    “Matthew’s extremely hostile critique of the scribes and Pharisees as casuistic (especially in chap. 23) is not untypical of the harsh criticism of one Jewish group by another Jewish group in the 1st centuries BC and AD – a criticism that at time crossed the borderline into slander. . . .for many of the recorded views of the rabbis of the second century AD (often looked on as the heirs of the Pharisees) are not casuistic but sensitive and ethical.” (An Introduction to the New Testament, Raymond E. Brown, 1996, p. 222)

  2. Cheryl said

    And Robert, I did appreciate your “rambly” comments . . . especially about how the condemnation of hypocrisy can apply to us as well. Though I think we are all much too hard on ourselves . . .


  3. Robert C. said

    Cheryl, I think this is a fascinating and difficult issue/question. I wish I had a good answer–I’m very anxious to hear others’ thoughts.

    On the one hand, I think there’s a sense in which many members find comfort in these “anti-Semitic prophecies” in struggling with how God could allow such atrocities like the Holocaust etc. to occur On the other hand, surely the perpetrators of such atrocities will be held accountable. But regardless, the question remains about how we should interpret the passages you cited. I would personally be inclined, simply b/c I have no better idea, to discuss for example the “hated among all nations” passage in 1 Ne 19:14 as a prophecy but one that should in no way, shape or form be taken as a justification for such hate (more likely, I would probably just try to avoid opening this can of worms!).

    (Regarding being too hard on ourselves, I tend toward this view that Joe expressed: the quicker we realize we our nothing, the more grace I think will flow into our lives. I think this is a topic we’ll likely address again before too long.)

  4. Cheryl said

    I don’t mean to open the whole can of worms with the 2nd Sermon on the Mount lesson – there is just too much beautiful that is there. But I DO want to say something, however brief. My conscience does not permit me to just pass over this issue.

  5. nhilton said

    Cheryl, I appreciate your comments here & especially the Brown quote. I agree that Christians erroneously have often lost touch with Jewish roots and see ourselves as separate, if not elevated, from the Jews. Without careful historical study this origin is lost and we fail, too often, to reconnect with contemporary Jews for whatever excuse. Only during the past 10 years have I consciously tried to discover my relationship. There is a wealth of spiritual information and comradery available to the pro-active.

    But, additionally, perhaps this scriptural context might be stretched to find the similarities between the ancient “hypocrites” and the modern “hypocrites” (us). Such a connection could be done using D&C 105 and D&C 90:5 regarding living the United Order & scripture study. And, of course, Pres. Benson’s Gen. Conf. talk on taking the BofM lightly. These thoughts can certainly be linked with God’s people being chastised. These two are good along that line of thinking: D&C 103:4 and D&C 95:1.

    I also think that when Christ said, “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persectue you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake…” this can certainly pertain to those Jewish peoples who have suffered so much innocently.

  6. Jim F. said

    Why can’t the tragic history of the Jews be both prophesied (as in “foretold”) by Christ and the result of complex historical causes? I don’t see those two as mutually exclusive. That Christ or a prophet prophesied that fate would not mean the Jews deserved it. Christians should I can take neither pleasure nor comfort in what has happened to the Jews in the last 2,000 years. To believe that otherwise would be to commit the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc.

  7. nhilton said

    Cheryl, perhaps it’s the connection between suffering and punishment that you’re concerned about regarding the Jews. Clearly the Jews suffered, but were they being punished? Obvious scriptures come to mind along those lines but specifically D&C 103:4 & 95:1. I’m sure you’d have a lively discussion here…but not necessarily wormy. I don’t think it need be avoided if it’s all in the spirit of charity. One of my dear friends is a Jewish Mormon and would appreciate being included. It’s kinda like seeing a severely handicapped person & trying not to make eye-contact for fear of being thought to stare, when in fact they really need our acknowledgement. RE: sensitive gospel topics, I think it’s sometimes better just to talk about the issue instead of avoid it.

    I agree with you that Christians often overlook their Jewish roots and cast a deep chasm between “us & them” erroneously. Maybe during SS it’d be helpful to find the similarities & most especially, the similarities between us as hypocrites. D&C 90:5; 105:7 are huge in showing LDS as hypocrites & of course Pres. Benson’s landmark address on our taking the BofM lightly.

  8. robf said

    Any culture or society that rejects Christ is going to suffer. He doesn’t want that. We shouldn’t want that. We should want all cultures, societies, and individuals to be able to progress rather than damn their progression. I agree with nhilton. Maybe we should be looking at our own hypocracy, and how we also routinely reject the Savior and his teachings. After all, that’s part of the lesson this week (Matt 7:3), right?

  9. brianj said

    (Robert: check your @byu email inbox)

  10. Matthew said

    Cheryl Robert, great post and comments. Thank you.

    #1 Cheryl, Brown notes, as you quote him, that hypocrite does not mean insincere. But, if I understand the point of the Word doc Robert attaches (and I may not), then hypocrite came to mean insincere in the context of the New Testament. I assume that in reading insincerity into the concept of hypocrisy as it is used in the New Testament, we are reading the New Testament correctly–even if the same Greek word used in other Greek literature didn’t carry this same connotation. Is that right?


    Suppose one person believes that they home teach because otherwise they feel guilty and they don’t like feeling guilty and another person believes they home teach because they think it the right thing to do and they want to do what is right. I have two problems with your claim that the first person is worse than the second.

    1) I don’t see this question as related to Matt 6-7. Or in other words, I am not getting the connection you are making between guilt and hypocrisy.

    2) These two people are the same in the way that really matters (i.e. they both are sincerely doing what is right). In my view the significant difference between the two people is simply that the first person ends up explaining their motivation in a way that is unnecessarily convoluted.

    When Jesus criticizes those who pray to be heard of men, I see this as criticizing an action that can be easily identified. Thus his advice on the subject is for a simple action (pray in your closet). He isn’t asking for deep self-analysis of their motivations given that they are Jews in a culture that values the virtues of good Jews. And when he tells them to pray in their closets, is he worried that this will result in insincere people praying in their closet only to satisfy their own desire to see themselves as righteous? He doesn’t seem to.

    It is a mistake (dare I say a self-deception?) to take our own desires too seriously. Or in other words, instead of focusing on why it is that I am willing to help my neighbor move, and whether my desires are pure, I am much better off just forgetting about it and helping. Let’s focus on our actions instead–do we help in a way that draws attention to ourselves and how good we are? are we willing to help the person who needs it but who can return no favor? and, who won’t be in testimony meeting to thank us? I think this is Jesus’s point here. Even in Utah there are plenty of opportunities to help without getting praised or getting a reward–there are still plenty of closets to pray in.

  11. Cheryl said

    #9 – Yes, re what Brown says vs what the word document Robert attached seemed to be saying. I agree with you in terms of that interpretation, though I have to think that Brown really understood what he was talking about. Unless he was just trying to open a door, knowing that his interpretation was on shaky ground. But he is dead and we cannot ask him.

    My point remains regarding how we should read these verses- at the very least in context for that place and time, and not a condemnation of all Pharisees and Jews everywhere. What about the ones in Alexandria, for instance? Or those already in other places of the Roman empire?

    I’m trying to remember how Gabriele Boccaccini teaches this at the U of M – I have some class notes where I’m sure he talks about this very issue, if I can only find them. I’m going to write him and I’ll post his response.

    The important thing to me is that we don’t look at these verses as a sciptural and simplistic justification for centuries of ills done to a people, and so the responses of others to this topic are germaine (#3,5,6,7)

    Re your comments to Robert, Is it possible that Jesus would say the same words today regarding praying in secret, etc? Or would his complaint perhaps be the opposite, at least to those who live outside a religious society, as in not Utah? That is, in a secular society (the opposite of the society in which Jesus taught) would the command be different? In our society, are people embarrassed by any display of piety? By any open prayer? Does a secular society see any sense in self-denial such as fasting?

    What is the challenge in these verses? What is the challenge of the kingdom
    of God? In addition to/in tandem with having pure motivation, perhaps one
    of the challenges is that those belonging to the kingdom need to act in such a
    way that challenges the presuppositions of the society around them. As
    followers of Christ, how are we continually asked to, by our differences,
    challenge the society in which we live?

    I think so, actually.

    Thanks for this ongoing conversation.


  12. Matthew said

    Thanks for the response Cheryl. I agree that in a situation where people fail to do good because they are afraid of what the people around them will think (this is how I understand your question) Jesus would condemn that. And I agree Jesus’s response then seems to recommend the opposite behavior. And, in fact, this is not just a thought experiment. We see Jesus give the opposite advice. For example see Matt 5:16, D&C 23:6, D&C 19:28 and 3 Ne 18:24.

    I stole these references from the good work done on this topic on the wiki, done almost exclusively by Joe. See here. Further edits there are welcome.

  13. Matthew says: “It is a mistake (dare I say a self-deception?) to take our own desires too seriously. Or in other words, instead of focusing on why it is that I am willing to help my neighbor move, and whether my desires are pure, I am much better off just forgetting about it and helping.” Amen, buddy.

    Jim says: “Why can’t the tragic history of the Jews be both prophesied (as in “foretold”) by Christ and the result of complex historical causes? I don’t see those two as mutually exclusive. That Christ or a prophet prophesied that fate would not mean the Jews deserved it.” Again, amen, buddy.

    That said, I’m not sure that the “pharisee” question is the right place to raise these kinds of issues. I trust the NT enough to assume that Jesus really did call those pharisees hypocrites. And I think we have the duty of thinking that text. And I think that we need to be too careful not to embrace the pharisees (there seems to be something of a push in that direction in some of the more recent LDS literature…). And certainly we need to be careful about saying that Jesus was a pharisee.

    There are, I think, important historical issues to deal with here, but ones I haven’t the time for this morning. I’ll get back to this, if not later today (Sundays are hard for me), then tomorrow perhaps. But let me just say that there were six or seven hundred years of important history leading up to the epithet “hypocrites!” And we have got to take all of that into account.

  14. Cheryl said

    For your consideration, here are some quickly written comments by Gabriele Boccaccini, who teaches Early Christian Studies at U of M. and also 2nd Temple Judaism (he did give me permission to post this to the list):

    February 25, 2007

    My point is that the competition between Pharisees and Christians got stronger after the year 70 and was particularly strong in the community of Matthew, but does not reflect the experience of the historical Jesus. Jesus certainly spoke against the hypocrisy of the leaders (of all leaders!). The earliest sources offer a different picture.

    Jesus shares the basic religious convictions of the Pharisees.
    They are not “far from the kingdom of God ” (see Mark 12:28-34)

    However there is some controversy, about the Messiah and about the origin of evil and forgiveness of sins.

    Pharisees warn Jesus about Herod Antipas (Luke 13:31ff).
    Pharisees repeatedly invite him to meals (Luke 7: 36ff; 11:37ff; 141ff).

    In any dispute with the Sadducees they side with Jesus and his followers:
    In the Gospel of John, the Pharisee Nicodemus intercedes for Jesus in the Sanhedrin (John 7:45ff; cf. 19:38ff). Joseph of Arimathea had a similar attitude (Mark 15:43; 23:51).
    After the death of Jesus, Gamaliel will defend the disciples of Jesus, Peter and John.
    The Pharisees defend Paul in the Sanhedrin (Acts)
    According to Flavius Josephus, when James the brother of Jesus was killed by the Sadducean High Priest in 62 CE, the Pharisees complained with the Roman governor, so much so that they had the High Priest removed from office.

    There was no involvement of the Pharisees in the Passion of Jesus, according to Mark.

    It is better to read those passages in Mark and a universal message against the hypocrisy of the leaders (in particular of religious leaders) to be applied to the leaders of all time. At the time of Matthew, the leaders happened to be “Pharisees’. Who are the religious leaders of our time? Are they acting differently?


  15. Cheryl said

    And once again, I really appreciate this discussion. As a teacher, I want to be prepared for and even address a worldview regarding Jews and Pharisees that is probably not correct; nevertheless the teachings of Jesus don’t lose their power with this paradigm shift. Nor does the Matthean gospel lose its power – I’m just trying to understand it.

  16. Robert C. said

    Matthew #10, thanks for your questions, I’ve been rethinking this issue of guilt, and I’m much less sure about my thoughts on this. Perhaps a more clear example of what I had in mind is, say, doing my hometeaching just so that I can report it to my EQ president–doing it “before men” in that sense.

    But I really like what you said about not being self-absorbed in analyzing our motivations, rather, we should just focus on helping others. This actually helps me think about some of the issues I was thinking about regarding prayer (for the RS-MP lesson), the kind of self-absorption that I think can be a danger when we talk about self-reflection in the context of prayer and meditation….

  17. Robert C. said

    Cheryl, thank you for posting these very interesting thoughts of Gabriele’s. I hope Joe will take up the task of following-up on this.

  18. Nitsav said

    Richard Draper has a lengthy article about hypokrisis in the NT.

    “Scribes, Pharisees, Hypocrites”: A Study in Hypókrisis
    from The Disciple as Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson

    Logged-in members can read it on the FARMS page.

  19. Robert C. said

    Nitsav, thanks for the heads up on this article by Draper. I couldn’t find it on the FARMS page (I’m a member, logged in, and searched, but couldn’t find it)—any suggestions or hints on finding it?

  20. Robert C. said

    Never mind, I finally figured it out (go to the “Read Our Publications” link then the Book Chapters link; frustrating that a search of the site doesn’t find this…). Here’s the link to the article (subscribers only).

  21. Sorry all. I did promise to get some further thoughts out on this business, but I have not had a chance to get back to this until today. I really think there are some important historical considerations for taking up the question of the Pharisees.

    Let me begin by saying that I think I agree with everything Cheryl quoted from Gabriele Boccaccini. I think it is important to recognize that there does not seem to have been anything like a Jesus vs. the Pharisees kind of issue. But I think we need to be careful about readings of the gospels that make Jesus another pharisee, or a rival pharisee, or some such thing.

    The historical background is absolutely vital. Judea was still very much living in the wake of the exile in the time of Jesus, and the developments of Judaic history during those five centuries is of the utmost importance. It is unfortunate that most of that history has only become accessible in the past century or so, but thank the heavens we now have what we do have. The consequence of all of this primary source material coming out so late is that we have many centuries of bad readings of the historical setting in the gospels to do battle with.

    Unfortunately, I’m only just beginning to do work on the effects of the exile and the return on Jewish thinking, on what that has to do with the rise of the synagogue, and on how that should inform our reading of both the Bible and the Book of Mormon. But I do think already that we have got to take very seriously at least one major facet of the exile: at the collapse of an independent Judean state, the nature of the Law must have changed fundamentally. This is becoming, I think, clearer and clearer as we look at the split between what became, eventually, the Samaritans and the Jews. The Pharisees represent a particular point of view in that interpretive question, and Jesus, it seems to me, represents a very different point of view. Though Jesus hardly came to condemn the Pharisees, and though they had nothing to do with the Passion, I think we had better be careful about giving them too much credit. There is more thinking to do there.

    Sorry this is so sketchy. I just came from the hospital, visiting a friend who had a heart attack. I’m finding it a little difficult to keep my thoughts together.

  22. […] prayer (Matthew 6:5-15), but I will also make notes for the rest of both chapters. Of course, Robert C and Cheryl have already provided excellent materials on these […]

  23. Lexi said

    Hi Iam doing a Bible study in Matthew 6:1-18 and the question is: What reward does Jesus mean when He says the hypocrites ” have received their reward in full ” ?

  24. Lexi said

    Can anyone help me?

  25. Jim F. said

    Isn’t it that the hypocrites have wanted “to appear unto men to fast” and that they have received what they wanted: they seem to others to be fasting; they have a reputation for fasting.

  26. […] prayer (Matthew 6:5-15), but I will also make notes for the rest of both chapters. Of course, Robert C and Cheryl have already provided excellent materials on these […]

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