Matthew 23:15

15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single 1proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a 2child of 3hell[a] as yourselves.

Matthew 23:15 Meaning and Commentary

Matthew 23:15

Woe unto you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites
The same character, and woe, are still continued, and a new reason added, confirming the justness of them, in order to awaken and convince them, or, however, to caution the people against them:

for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte;
that is, to the Jewish religion, and their particular sect. There were two sorts of proselytes among them; one was called (bvwt rg) , "a proselyte of the gate", one that might dwell in any of their towns, and cities, and who is thus described F1;

``Who is a proselyte of the gate? whosoever takes upon him, before three neighbours, that he will not commit idolatry. R. Meir and the wise men say, whosoever takes upon him the seven precepts which the sons of Noah took upon them: others say, these do not come into the general rule of a proselyte of the gate: who is then a proselyte of the gate? this is a proselyte, that eats what dies of itself, but takes upon him to fulfil all the commandments said in the law, except that which forbids the eating of things that die of themselves.''

But the usual account of such an one is, who agrees to the seven precepts commanded the children of Noah F2, which were these F3; the first forbad idolatry, the second blasphemy, the third murder, the fourth uncleanness, the fifth theft, the sixth required judgment, or punishment on malefactors, the seventh forbad eating the member of any creature alive. The other proselyte was called (qdu rg) , "a proselyte of righteousness"; and he was one that submitted to circumcision F4, and the rest of the ceremonies of the law; and was in all respects as an Israelite himself; and of this sort is the text to be understood. The Ethiopic version reads the words, "baptize one proselyte, and when he is baptized"; referring to a custom among the Jews, who baptized; or dipped their proselytes in water, as well as circumcised them; about which there are great disputes in their writings; some alleging, that the dipping of them was necessary to the making them proselytes; others affirming, that it was not:

``a proselyte that is circumcised, and not dipped, dipped, and not circumcised, the whole follows after, or depends on circumcision, says R. Eliezer.''

R. Joshua says, even dipping delays it; (i.e. the want of it, hinders a man from being a proselyte;) but R. Joshua ben Levi says, it should go according to the tradition of Bar Kaphra; for the tradition of Bar Kaphra is,

``that he that is circumcised, and not dipped, lo! he is right; for there is no proselyte but what is dipped, because of the pollutions that happen to him F5.''

And elsewhere F6 this is debated in the following manner:

``a proselyte that is circumcised, and not dipped, R. Eliezer says, lo! this is a proselyte; for so we find concerning our fathers, that they were circumcised, but not dipped. One that is dipped, and not circumcised, R. Joshua says, lo! this is a proselyte; for so we find concerning our mothers, that they were dipped, but not circumcised. The wise men say, one that is dipped, and not circumcised, or circumcised, and not dipped, is no proselyte, until he is both circumcised and dipped.''

So the dispute ended, and it became a settled point, that one should never be reckoned a proselyte, unless he was both circumcised and dipped. And after this it became customary to receive proselytes by circumcision, dipping, and sacrifice; and the manner was this F7:

``a stranger that comes to be made a proselyte at this time, they say unto him, what dost thou see, that thou comest to be made a proselyte? dost thou not know that the Israelites at this time are miserable, banished, drove about, and plundered, and chastisements come upon them? If he says, I know this, but it does not satisfy me, they receive him immediately, and make known some of the light commands, and some of the heavy commands to him; and they acquaint him with the business gleanings, the forgotten sheaf, the corner of the field left standing, and the poor's tithe: they also inform him of the penalties of the commands, and say unto him, know thou, that before thou camest into this way, thou didst eat fat, and was not punished with cutting off; thou didst profane the sabbath, and was not punished with stoning? but now if thou eatest fat, thou wilt be punished with cutting off; and if thou profanest the sabbath, thou wilt be punished with stoning: and as they inform him of the penalties of the precepts, so they acquaint him with the giving of the rewards of them; saying to him, know thou that the world to come is not made but for the righteous; and the Israelites at this time cannot receive neither much good, nor much punishment? but they do not multiply words, nor critically inquire of him; if he receives these things, they immediately circumcise him; and if there remain in him obstructions, hindering circumcision, they circumcise him a second time; and when he is healed they immediately dip him; and two disciples of the wise men stand over him, and acquaint him with some of the light commands, and some of the heavy commands; then he dips, and comes up, and is as an Israelite in all respects: if a woman, the women set her in water up to her neck, and two disciples of the wise men stand by her without, and inform her of some of the light commands, and some of the heavy commands.''

And, as Maimonides F8 adds, who gives a larger account of this matter,

``she sits in the water, and after that dips herself before them; and they turn away their faces, and go out, so that they do not see her, when she comes out of the water.''

From all which it appears, that this affair was moved after our Lord's time; was not a settled point till a good while after; and is a custom that has obtained since the Jews were drove out of their own land; though they pretend to say it was an ancient practice of their fathers, of which they can give no sufficient proof; wherefore there could be no regard had to it in this text, and consequently the Ethiopic version of it is not a right one; nor can the dipping of proselytes by the Jews be what Christian baptism takes its rise from, or in any respect be modelled according to it, between which, in many things, there is a wide difference. Now the Jews were very diligent and industrious, which is meant by compassing of sea and land: they used all kinds of methods, ways and means, to gain such a point, and sometimes very wicked ones.

``Rabbenu Tam F9 allowed a daughter of Israel to change her religion, and a stranger to lie with her, that she might confirm it, when he became a proselyte.''

And this they were so exceeding fond of, not out of any regard to the glory of God, or the good of the souls of men; nor did they really love the proselytes: and it is often said by them F11, that

``proselytes are hard or uneasy to Israel, as the itch or scab.''

The gloss says, because they were not expert in the commandments, and were the cause of punishment, and the Israelites were apt to imitate their works; but they coveted to make them, because hereby either they strengthened their own party, or filled their purses with their substance, or got applause and credit among the common people; for the making a proselyte was reckoned a very great action, and is ascribed to the patriarchs Abraham and Jacob, and made equal to creation F12.

``Says R. Eliezer, in the name of R. Jose ben Zimra, if all that come into the world were gathered together to create even one fly, they would not be able to put breath into it: but you will object what he saith, "the souls they made in Haran", ( Genesis 12:5 ) , but these are the proselytes whom Abraham proselyted; but why does he say "made", and not proselyted? to teach thee, that whoever brings near a stranger, and proselytes him, "is as if he created him". You will say Abraham made proselytes, but not Sarah: the text is, "the souls which they made in Haran": which he made is not written, but which they made: Abraham proselyted the men, and Sarah proselyted the women.''

And a little after,

``Jacob made proselytes, as it is written, ( Genesis 35:2 ) "Jacob said unto his household",''

And in imitation of these they might be fond of making proselytes, but no further than their own interest was some way or other concerned:

and when he is made, ye make him two fold more the child of hell
than yourselves;
for to their former errors in heathenism, some of which they might still retain, they added new ones, they received from them, equally as bad, and were but more and more deserving of hell, and even more than their masters; and besides, were trained up by them in the most bitter prejudices against Christ, and his Gospel; and many of them proved more violent persecutors of the followers of Christ, than the original Jews themselves: see ( Acts 15:5 ) ( Acts 14:2 Acts 14:19 ) Our Lord here seems to oppose a common notion and saying of their's F13, that when

``one was made a proselyte, he became entirely like a new born babe;''

but so far from being like one in innocence and harmlessness, that he became a child of hell, filled with wrath and malice, and fitted for destruction; and so opposes another notion of their's, that hellfire has no power over their disciples, nor even over the transgressors of Israel F14: but they will find it, by experience, that neither their descent from Abraham, nor their learning, nor their religion, will save them from the devouring flames, which their sins have made them so deserving of, and so are (Mnhyg ynb) , "children of hell" F15; a Talmudic phrase; the meaning of which they understood well enough, and which was applicable to them, and more so to their proselytes; and that as owing to them, which was an aggravation of their own guilt and condemnation.


F1 T. Bab. Avoda Zara, fol. 64. 2.
F2 Maimon. Hilch. Obede Cochabim, c. 10. sect. 6. & Maacalot Asurot, c. 11. sect. 7. & Issure Biah, c. 14. sect. 7.
F3 lb. Hilch. Melachim, c. 9. sect. 1.
F4 Zohar in Exod. fol. 36. 1.
F5 T. Hieros. Kiddushin, fol. 64. 4.
F6 T. Bab. Yebamot, fol. 46. 1, 2.
F7 Ib. fol 47. 1, 2.
F8 Hilch. Issure Biah, c. 14. sect. 6.
F9 Piske Toseph. Cetubot, art. 7.
F11 T. Bab. Yebamot, fol. 47. 2. & 109. 2. Kiddushin, fol. 70. 2. & Nidda, fol. 13. 2.
F12 Bereshit Rabba, sect. 39. fol. 35. 1. & sect. 84. fol. 72. 3, 4.
F13 T. Bab. Yebamot, fol. 22. 1. & 48. 2. & 62. 1. & 97. 2. Maimon. Hilch. Issure Biah, c. 14. sect. 11. & Eduth, c. 13. sect. 2.
F14 T. Bab. Chagiga, fol. 27. 1.
F15 T. Bab. Roshhashanah, fol. 17. 1.

Matthew 23:15 In-Context

13 "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.
15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
16 "Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.'
17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred?

Cross References 3

  • 1. Acts 2:10; Acts 6:5; Acts 13:43
  • 2. [John 17:12; 2 Thessalonians 2:3]
  • 3. See Matthew 5:29

Footnotes 1

  • [a]. Greek Gehenna; also verse 33
The English Standard Version is published with the permission of Good News Publishers.