1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. 3 Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice
Teachers normally sat to teach (see 5:1; and cf. 13:1–2; 24:3), and 26:55 will tell us that Jesus followed this custom during this period in the temple courtyard. Given that cultural norm it is likely that to “sit on Moses’ chair” is simply a figurative expression (cf. our professorial “chair”) for teaching with an authority derived from Moses. Moses himself gave Israel the basic law, but ever since then it had been necessary for other teachers to expound and apply it, and those who did so with due authority “sat on Moses’ chair.” There is evidence of special front seats for synagogue leaders at the time of Jesus (see v. 6), but the suggestion that such a chair was literally described as the “chair of Moses” lacks clear evidence. In addition, many modern scholars wonder if the reference also points to a powerful political, religious and social position – in addition to simply teaching. Surprisingly, and in contrast both to what precedes (16:6,12) and to what immediately follows (23:4, 16–22), Jesus condemns only the practice of the scribes and Pharisees, not their teaching. There are many scholars that would see a large degree of overlap in the teachings of Jesus and the Pharisees.
“Scribes” and “Pharisees” are two distinct groups – although a scribe could be part of the Pharisee movement. Scribes were a professional class with formal training, somewhat like lawyers in contemporary American society. They were schooled in the history and tradition of the rabbis that had come before them and their interpretation/application of the Torah to current issues. Pharisees were a group within Judaism defined by strictly religious rules, composed mostly of laypersons without formal theological training. They were committed to the ideal that the holiness prescribed for the priestly class, was a goal for all people.
Not all Pharisees occupied a formal teaching role, but they no less than the scribes saw themselves as the true successors to the Mosaic tradition. On the face of it Jesus’ words acknowledges the legitimate teaching authority of the scribes, but in what follows Jesus will dispute their right to that authoritative role. There are some scholars that offer v.3a as evidence both that Jesus himself conformed to the scribal tradition and also that Matthew’s church still operated within the confines of rabbinic law, and was not yet in conflict with the Jewish establishment. But the words must be read in their context.
From Mt 23:13 ff Jesus begins the eight “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites…” in which these people are declared quite unfit to guide God’s people. The rhetorical effect might be better paraphrased: “Follow their teaching if you must, but be sure not to follow their example.” But then, their behavior in effect annuls their “Mosaic” authority. Jesus has already clashed with these groups regarding their teaching on the sabbath (12:1–14), purity (15:1–20) and divorce (19:3–9) and in more general terms in 16:6–12.