13.05.04 Mt. 23:25-28
25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence! 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so the outside of it may also become clean.
27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every impurity. 28 In the same way, on the outside you seem righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
“Like whitewashed tombs.” It was the custom to have a tomb whitewashed (a mixture of water and limestone powder) for one of three reasons:
- To improve the tomb’s appearance at the time of a burial
- To decrease the odor of decomposing bodies.
- But the main reason tombs were whitewashed was to identify them so other pilgrims would not walk over them and become defiled. If that occurred, they could not participate in the feast. When pilgrims came to Jerusalem, the city was not large enough to house all of them. Therefore, many slept in nearby olive groves and woodlands. Obviously it was extremely easy for someone to walk over a grave and become defiled. Whitewashing tombs was therefore, considered highly important.
Rabbinic writings specifically stated that all graves had been identified with whitewash to prevent accidental defilement. Furthermore, all graves were whitewashed in the month of Adar. Uncleanness or defilement always resulted in prevention of festival observances.
The backdrop to this passage is very impressive, as the western side of the Mount of Olives, which faces the temple mount, has been a cemetery for thousands of years. When Jesus used the phrase, “like whitewashed tombs,” He used it as a play on words because some leading Pharisees wore white garments so they would be perceived to be righteous and pure. That is, purity (Greek katharos ) is defined within the realm of physical, religious, and ethical purity; a term that has both figurative and literal requirements of behavior. They gave the impression of purity but were far from it. Therefore, Jesus said they were like whitewashed tombs: white on the outside, but like decaying bodies in their motives.
13.05.04.A. MODERN “WHITE-WASHED” TOMB. The whitewash (lime and water) of ancient times has been replaced with white paint. The tombs of significant individuals, both Arabs and Orthodox Jews, are painted white to honor them. Shown is the tomb of Rabbi Ushiva of Tiria. Photograph by the author.
Evidently the scribes and Pharisees were familiar with the expression, as it was common in their day. From the Dead Sea Scrolls are similar statements written by the Essenes in their Damascus Document.
The serpents are the kings of the peoples and the wine their paths and the asps’ head is the head of the kings of Greece, which comes to carry out vengeance against them. But all these things the builders of the wall or those who daub themselves whitewash, have not understood, for one who raises wind and preaches lies, has preached to them, the one against whose congregation God’s wrath has been kindled.
Dead Sea Scroll, Damascus Document CD 8:9b-13
God says: “Their wine is serpent’s venom and the head of cruel harsh asps.” The serpents are the kings of the peoples and the wine, their paths and the asps’ head is the head of the kings of Greece, which comes to carry out vengeance against them. But the builders of the wall have not understood all of those things, nor those who daub with whitewash, because one who raises up storms, and preaches lies, to the man, the one against whose congregation God’s wrath has been kindled.
Dead Sea Scroll, Damascus Document CD 19:22-27 (with reference to Deut. 32:33)
These examples demonstrate the use of the term “whitewashed tombs” as one of condemnation and subject to the judgment of God. Clearly, not all Pharisees were religious hypocrites. The Apostle Paul belonged to the religious sect, even after becoming the primary evangelist of the New Testament (Phil. 3:5; Acts 23:6; 26:5), as did the now famous Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and the Hasmonean King, Alexander Jannaeus. The dying words of the king (reigned 102-76 B.C.) to his wife were,
“Fear not the true Pharisees, but greatly fear the painted Pharisees.”
Jannaeus also said that she should not be like:
“Painted ones, whose deeds are the deeds of Zimri, but who expect to receive the rewards of Phineas.”
Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 22b
The Essenes likewise condemned the Pharisaic aristocracy for misleading the people. One of them wrote:
They lead thy people astray, for they utter smooth speeches to them. False teachers, they lead astray, and blindly they are heading for the fall, for their works are done in deceit.
Dead Sea Scroll, Thanksgiving Hymn 1QH 4:6-8
Clearly the condemnation by Jesus was not unique as His words were shared by many other righteous Jews.
. To make plaster, the ancients burned limestone for 72 hours until it became a heavy dust. Then they added water and placed it on the walls with a trowel. Because limestone is about thirty percent water, the burning process required considerable fuel. The result was that during the Roman period many areas were deforested. SOURCE: Interview with Arie bar David, tour guide and lecturer. August 2000.
. Mishnah, Shekalin 1:1; Mishnah, Kelim 1:4; Mishnah, Moed Katan 1:2; Mishnah, Masser Sheni 5:1; Living Bible Encyclopedia 10:1255.
. Mishnah, Kelim 1:4; See also Jn. 11:55; 18:28.
. Josephus describes the garments of the Essenes in Wars 2.8.3. See also Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 72a; Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 25b; Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 20b.
. Link and Schattenmann. “Pure, Clean.” 3:102-03.
. Herr, “Whitewash.” 4:1058.
. Martinez, ed., The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated. 38.
. Martinez, ed., The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated. 45-46.
. Josephus, The Life of Flavius Josephus 2.12.
. Farrar, Life of Christ. 356.
. Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nashim Sotah 22b, 3:113.
. Martinez, ed., The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated. 317.