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Teachers of the law are literally "scribes," which throughout the Empire included those who wrote legal documents for others, but in Judea and Galilee included educated teachers who instructed children in the law and in some cases taught adults as well. Pharisees were a particularly scrupulous brotherhood of teachers and laypersons committed to interpreting the law according to the traditions received from earlier Pharisees. Both groups (which overlapped at points) probably derived from families with some means, and Pharisees clustered especially (though not exclusively) in Jerusalem, where some of them belonged to the urban elite. Luke correctly distinguishes scribes and Pharisees (Lk 11:39-54), but like modern preachers, Matthew is telling the story in a manner that addresses the enemies of his own community, of whom Pharisaic scribes seem to be the dominant element (compare Hare 1967:81). Matthew is sensitive to the Jewish orthodoxy of his own audience, which probably included some Christian scribes (Mt 13:52; 23:34) and Pharisees (Acts 15:5; compare 23:6), but by Matthew's day the non-Christian Pharisaic leadership had probably marginalized all Christians, Pharisaic or not.
Some people used abba ("papa") as a respectful title for older men and other prominent individuals (Jeremias 1971:68), and may have especially viewed Bible teachers in these terms (see, for example, Sipre Deut. 34.3.1-3). But with God as their Father, Jesus' disciples are all siblings (compare 12:48-50; 18:15; 28:10). Matthew's original readers, who knew all about the titles and power Pharisaic teachers were claiming for themselves, would hear Jesus' teaching as a warning not to be like their competitors by seeking honorary titles or a position above others.
John Meier, a Roman Catholic scholar, notes Jesus' prohibition of the title father and questions the use of ecclesiastical titles, which arose even in Matthew's church in Syria a few decades after his Gospel (1980:265). But while we Protestants may determine "pecking order" by different means, most of our churches offer the same temptations for personal advancement. In most church services, ministers (including guest ministers performing no function in the service) grace the platform; many churches use various forms of social conformity to increase offerings. In some circles ordained ministers are taken aback if they are not greeted with the title "Reverend," which literally means "one worthy of reverence, one who should be revered." Is it possible that the very criticisms Jesus laid against the religious establishments of his day now stand institutionalized in most of his church?