In the four gospels, we find in the neighborhood of 190 times where Jesus encounters “chief priests and scribes” or some combination of these named Jewish groups and/or Pharisees, Sadducees, elders, lawyers, teachers of the law, wise men, leaders, a council, the Council, and the Sanhedrin. Most of the time, however, the detractors standing nearby are identified as “chief priests” and “scribes.” Sometimes the order changes, from “chief priests and scribes” to “scribes and chief priests.”
Regardless of how they are labelled, there are usually two — not one, not three — categories listed. If the scribes are standing nearby, so are the priests. If the chief priests are hovering about, so are the scribes.
Out of these 190 occasions across the four gospels, we count only fourteen times (fifteen if you include the Amplified Bible translation) where the gospel writer strings together three named bodies of men:
Matt 16:21, 27:41
Mark 8:31, 11:27, 12:1 (Amp insertion), 14:43, 14:53, 15:1
Luke 9:22, 19:47, 20:1, 20:16 (only in Amp), 22:66
John 1:19, 11:47
Let’s look at Luke 19:47 in several translations. It is one of these exceptions where three groups are listed. The English Standard Version has:
And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, (ESV)
while others have:
… chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people … (NIV)
… leading priests, the teachers of religious law, and the other leaders of the people … (NLT)
… chief priests and the scribes and the foremost of the people … (Berean Literal)
… chief priests and the scribes and the leading men among the people … (NASB)
… chief priests and the scribes and the chief of the people … (KJV)
… chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people … (Holman)
… chief priests and the experts in the law and the prominent leaders among the people … (NET)
… chief priests and the scribes and the rulers of the people … (Douay-Rheims)
… chief priests and the scribes and the chief of the people … (Darby)
… chief priests and the scribes and the leading men among the people … (WEB)
… chief priests and the scribes were seeking to destroy him — also the chiefs of the people … (YLT)
… chief priests and scribes and the leading men among the people … (Amp)
… chief priests and the scribes and the most prominent men of the people … (Lexham)
Bible Bits is not concerned here with translation word choices, but is instead intrigued by the insertion of this third category of “principal men” or “leaders” and so on.
Is there substance to this addition? Or is Luke just slinging in extra words?
Sometimes when we speak and write, and rattle off lists of things, each item in the string is well-identified and distinct from the other items: “I went to the store and purchased Coke, pretzels, and hot dogs.” At other, less careful times, the list is more vague: “I went to the store and bought Coke, drinks, pretzels, snacks, chips, hot dogs, soda, Pepsi and sausages.” Or perhaps, “The world would be a better place without dentists, used car dealers, bureaucrats, government workers, Democrats, Republicans, and politicians.”
Is the writer/speaker making himself clear: Are pretzels distinct from snacks? And chips? Is Coke distinct from Pepsi and soda and drinks? Are bureaucrats not the same thing as government workers? Are Republicans and Democrats not also politicians? Is the speaker making delimited distinctions or being verbally lazy and imprecise?
When Luke tells us that Jesus encountered “principal men” or “leaders of the people” is he referring to a category of distinct persons not already included among the chief priests and scribes? How precise and careful is Luke when choosing his labels and words?
The SBL Greek gives the original Luke 19:47 as:
Καὶ ἦν διδάσκων τὸ καθ’ ἡμέραν ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ· οἱ δὲ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ γραμματεῖς ἐζήτουν αὐτὸν ἀπολέσαι καὶ οἱ πρῶτοι τοῦ λαοῦ,
ἀρχιερεῖς = archiereus = chief priests
γραμματεῖς = grammateus = scribes, lawyers
πρῶτοι = protos = leading men
Who are these πρῶτοι τοῦ λαοῦ, these protos ho laos, these principal men of the people?
The Expositors Greek New Testament commentary suggests that this add-on was “added as a kind of afterthought — the socially important people who, though laymen, agreed with the professionals in their dislike of Jesus.”
Elliott’s Commentary suggests that “apparently, it denotes those who, whether members of the Sanhedrin or not, were men of mark — notables, as it were — among the inhabitants of Jerusalem.”
John Gill, writing around 1760, equates the “chiefs” or “elders” of the people with the “whole Sanhedrin.” (Not the chief priests with the Sanhedrin.)
The NIV Study Bible, on the other hand, equates “chief priests” with the Sanhedrin.
John MacArther gives the conventional view that the “chief priests” are the “temple hierarchy” and “mostly Sadducees,” while the “scribes” are “mostly Pharisees,” and that the “leaders of the people” (NKJV) are “prominent Jewish laymen with influence in temple affairs.”
The King James Study Bible ventures that the third group consists of “prominent citizens, in addition to Jesus’ other numerous enemies.”
R.C. Sproul’s Reformation Study Bible is where we were alerted to this Bible Bit, and the somewhat unusual third item in the list. It informs us that “Jesus’ opposition now includes a new group — ‘the principal men of the people.’ Evidently prominent lay people had now joined the priests and the scribes.” (ESV quote)
What do your sources of scholarship and commentary say?
As always, when you reply, please stay narrowly on topic, quote scripture, and offer scholarly commentary and theology from the rich tradition of Jewish and Christian Godly study.
And read the actual Bible for yourself! Blessings to you!