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If Jesus’ description of flamboyant, hypocritical praying sounds like grand theatre, that’s because it probably was.

“And when you pray,” Jesus said in Matthew 6:5, “do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men” (italics mine).

Although some Jewish prayers (such as the Amidah) included standing, most did not. Thus, Bible scholars tell us that this word picture of Christ likely hearkens to Greek-influenced performance art of the time. The Greek word we translate as “hypocrite” in Matthew 6:5 is one that was typically associated with a career actor, or more literally,  a “play-actor.” In Greek culture it also carried the meaning of a “pretender” or “expounder of dreams.”

This play-actor theme continued Christ’s earlier sentiments about “acts of righteousness” done as performance art (see 6:1-2), and it would have been readily familiar to Jesus’ audience. Only a few miles north of Nazareth, in nearby Sepphoris, Herod Antipas had built a large, Greco-Roman style theatre with seating for a whopping 2,500 people. Antipas’ father, Herod the Great, had also built similar theatres in Jerusalem and Jericho

So, when Jesus labeled religious narcissists who stood and prayed in public as “hypocrites,” his audience would have pictured the theatre in Sepphoris (or Jerusalem or Jericho), and seen a vain, preening actor, standing center stage, delivering a sloppy soliloquy in hopes of applause.

 

Works Cited:

[BKB, 121-122]

 

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