MATTHEW: Gospel for a Teaching Church

The Gospel readings for 2014 will come mainly from the Gospel According to Matthew. This Gospel was composed around 90 CE, probably in Antioch in Syria, a city heavily Jewish and mainly Greek-speaking. The Gospel incorporated two older sources, the Gospel of Mark and the document Q, and added its own local lore. “Matthew” put into good flowing Greek the accepted teaching of that second-generation church just as it had finally separated from its roots in the Jewish synagogue.

Contents of this Review

1. Matthew Emphasizes Jesus’ Teachings.
2. The Old Scriptures of Israel Testify to the Messiah.
3. Matthew’s Jesus Calls for a Greater Righteousness.
4. The Church Awaits the End of the Age – as Jesus’ Servants.
5. Matthew Reflects Bitter Conflicts with Jewish Groups.
6. Narrative Sequence is Theological in Matthew.

A Very Personal Report on Commentaries on Matthew.

1. Matthew Emphasizes Jesus’ Teachings.

A quick survey of the 28 chapters of the Gospel According to Matthew brings to attention the clusters of long teaching sessions by Jesus. This is especially so if one compares this Gospel with those of Mark and Luke. Sayings and pronouncements that are scattered in various contexts in Mark and Luke are gathered into sustained discourses in Matthew. Someone has worked hard to organize Jesus’ teachings into topics and placed the resulting discourses in appropriate contexts in Jesus’ career.

Overall, Matthew follows Mark’s narrative framework but locates the large teaching blocks within it. Tradition has identified five discourses in Matthew, each concluded with a statement like, “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things…” (Matthew 7:28, NRSV; see also 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). These are the five resulting discourses:

Matthew 5-7 — The Sermon on the Mount – the gospel of the Kingdom.
Matthew 10 — The Mission of the Twelve to Israel.
Matthew 13 — Parables of the Kingdom.
Matthew 18 — Instructions for life in the Church.
Matthew 24-25 — Instructions and Parables on the Last Judgment.

There is actually a sixth discourse that lacks the concluding formula but is also a compilation of sayings from various sources. This is the condemnation and Woes on the “scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites,” in chapter 23. This discourse, longer than the one on the church in chapter 18, stands in the Gospel as Jesus’ final encounter with these opponents before the crucifixion.

For comparison, Mark has 282 verses in which Jesus speaks (of a total 664 verses in the Gospel); Matthew has 643 verses of Jesus speech (of a total of 1,071 verses in the Gospel). Thus, Jesus speech is 42% of Mark’s Gospel; 60% of Matthew’s Gospel.

2. The Old Scriptures of Israel Testify to Jesus the Messiah.

It is immediately evident that Matthew’s Gospel is about Jesus, the Anointed One (Messiah). “The scroll of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (1:1, NRSV modified). Jesus is an heir of David, the founder of (true) kingship in Israel; he is also an heir of Abraham, the ancestor of all the elect people. Each of these great figures in Israelite history received unconditional promises (covenants) from God – Abraham was assured of the continuance of the people; David the continuance of his line of kings in Israel. This Jesus, who is shown in this Gospel as the world-ruling Son of Man, was the fulfillment of old promises recorded in the Israelite scriptures. That fulfillment is emphasized repeatedly as the story unfolds – especially in a group of passages scholars call the Formula Quotations in Matthew.

There are between ten and fifteen of these formal citations of scripture, each linking some feature of the Jesus story to the Jewish scriptures. (A classic study of these quotations was Krister Stendahl, The School of St. Matthew, Fortress Press, 1968 [original 1954]; a current summary, listing 15 citations, is in Pheme Perkins, Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels, Eerdmans, 2007, pp. 176-181. Looser ways of counting quotes find much higher numbers, such as 41, J.L. McKenzie, The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice-Hall, 1968, vol. II, p. 64.) The Gospel According to Matthew emerged and flourished in a community that saw this fulfillment of scriptures as evidence of continuity between the God of Israel’s past and the new community founded by Jesus.

It is well to note here the conception of the scriptures these passages reflect: the old scriptures are viewed as oracles (in the Greek sense). That is, the writings in the old scrolls are divine pronouncements, often with veiled or unexpected meanings. The old texts are coded messages, the mysterious (and sometimes highly improbable) meanings of which make up a scribal lore, to be ferreted out by much midnight oil and prayerful inspiration. (Thus it required a “school” of scribes to develop and formalize these scripture references for the new Messianic community – a la Stendahl.)

This role of the old scriptures is made clear early in the Gospel. The formula quotations cluster especially at the beginning of the Gospel. (Eleven of fifteen quotations are in the first thirteen of the Gospel’s twenty-eight chapters.) The birth and infancy stories especially have scripture quotations, sometimes requiring a far stretch from the old Israelite text. For example, Rachel weeping over her lost children (Matthew 2:17-18) is a lament in Matthew, but in Jeremiah it is a prophecy of hope (Jeremiah 31:15-17).

The prophetic scroll of Isaiah is especially important in the formula quotations. Eight of fifteen formula quotes are from Isaiah, and these include the Emmanuel passage (Isaiah 7:14), the Comfort Zion passage (40:3); the “people who dwell in darkness” passage (9:1-2); the healing by the Suffering Servant (53:4, in Matthew 8:17); and the calling of the Servant of the Lord passage (42:1-4, in Matthew 12:17-21).

It is clear that for the Matthean community, the scroll of Isaiah was a primary testimony to the Messiah that was to come!

3. Matthew’s Jesus Calls for a Greater Righteousness.

After the preliminaries of his birth, baptism, temptation, and return to Galilee (chapters 1-4), Jesus presents a great sermon from a mountain, providing the constitution and torah for a new Messianic community. In chapters 2 through 7, Jesus is presented as a new Moses: at his birth he is threatened by a wicked king, as Moses was by Pharaoh; like Moses he is called out of Egypt; he is tested in the wilderness; after gathering disciples he ascends the mountain to bring a new law to a newly chosen people; and the Sermon begins with the Beatitudes just as Sinai opens with the Ten Commandments. These parallels are not continued past the Sinai-like setting of the Sermon on the Mount, but it adds a powerful aura to the one speaking the Sermon.

The Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount greet the new chosen people – proclaiming their actual blessedness, in spite of worldly appearances to the contrary. They are in fact the salt of the earth; beyond appearances, the light of the world (Matthew 5:3-16).

The first substantive instruction of the Sermon is that Jesus has not come to abolish the past religious tradition; not to abolish it but to “fulfill” it. That tradition is provided by “the law and the prophets” (5:17), and its custodians in the contemporary world are “the scribes and the Pharisees.” But for the new community, Jesus declares at the very outset: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

In the Sermon, the meaning of this “greater righteousness” seems to be that you have to go beyond mere formal observance of the (moral) commandments; you have to take into yourself the spirit and intention of the commandment. Not only do you have to not murder; you have to purge your heart of hatred and envy that lead to violence. This is the import of the series of “…but I say unto you” teachings in Matthew 5:21-48. The Greater Righteousness requires a purification of the inner person. It is a matter – in Israelite anthropology – of the Heart.

The Sermon’s discussion of righteousness does not refer explicitly to Jeremiah’s New Covenant passage (Jeremiah 31:31-34), but the thought certainly is in agreement. In the New Covenant, God will transform the motivational center of the restored people, the heart: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). The Sermon certainly suggests that such inward change was the “greater righteousness” that Jesus required of his new elect people.

At the end of Jesus’ teaching, there is perhaps the most profound presentation of the greater righteousness that Jesus hoped for: the unselfconscious care for the needy and neglected, given anonymously and inconspicuously – which the Lord sees as given directly to himself (Matthew 25:31-45).

4. The Church Awaits the End of the Age – as Jesus’ Servants.

The first generation of Jesus followers were an apocalyptic sect within Judaism, expecting the coming judgment and open to charismatic revelations. The movement clearly became contagious and multiplied cells and clusters of Jesus believers, especially outside Galilee. When eventually the Gospel According to Mark put in writing the legacy of the first generation of Greek-speaking preachers of Jesus’ Messiahship, what it presented was an apocalyptic drama. At key points Mark makes clear that Jesus’ return in power was still close at hand (Mark 9:1; 13:30), and his longest Jesus discourse is the instructions about the end times (chapter 13). The long, and long-meditated, passion narrative in Mark made the death of Jesus a major event in God’s salvation history, but the ultimate moment of the drama was always the final judgment that Jesus, the Son of Man, would carry out upon his return in glory (see especially Mark 14:61-62).

Matthew’s Gospel keeps Mark’s apocalyptic orientation. The sayings about the end coming in the first generation are repeated with virtually no modification (Matthew 16:28 from Mark 9:1; Matthew 24:34 from Mark 13:30). Matthew also keeps the main body of Mark’s Apocalyptic Discourse as Jesus’ final speech preceding the passion (Matthew 24:1-25, 29-36).

However, while Matthew doesn’t omit Mark’s apocalyptic materials, he does add significantly to the materials about the last judgment. Matthew adds six sizeable pieces, totaling 61 verses. (Mark 13, the apocalyptic discourse, is 37 verses.) These are Matthew’s additions:

1) “About that day and hour no one knows” – Noah’s flood as example, 24:36-41.
2) “Keep awake therefore…” – the thief coming at night as example, 24:42-44.
3) The faithful and unfaithful slaves – when the master is delayed, 24:45-51.
4) The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (“virgins”), 25:1-13.
5) The Parable of the Talents, 25:14-30.
6) The Son of Man Judges the Nations, 25:31-46.

All except items (4) and (6) in this list have parallels in Luke, which suggests that they were in the Sayings Source Q, independently drawn on by Matthew and Luke. These include the examples of Noah’s flood, the thief in the night, and the servants waiting out their lord’s delay. Item (5), the Parable of the Talents, as it is called in Matthew, has had a complicated history. In Luke it is the parable of the “pounds” and many details are quite different – though the overall point is much the same (Luke 19:12-27).

The significant point in all this is: Most of Matthew’s additions to the apocalyptic materials are about the waiting period! The only exception is the new description of the Last Judgment itself (Matthew 25:31-46). Even there, however, the message is: Live your whole life now in service of the Lord. When he comes it will be too late!!

Otherwise, in Matthew’s community it was important to exhort people to be watchful, not get complacent, and – in particular – not just sit around and wait. The Parable of the Bridesmaids shows the waiting church is in for a long haul – wise estimates and stock-piling are needed. The Parable of the Talents makes even clearer that investment and hard work are what the absent Lord has prescribed for the waiting servants. These folks have staked their lives on a near end of the world, but they are under heavy commission to be energetic and productive!

Of particular interest for Church life is the description of the faithful and unfaithful slaves (24:45-51). This passage clearly reflects issues of leadership that had emerged in some congregations.

Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom the master will find at work when he arrives. (Matthew 24:45-46, NRSV.)

Administrative arrangements in the early congregations are reflected here. In time, these functions would become the responsibilities of Christian bishops in Roman cities.

But if that wicked slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and he begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of the slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. (24:48-50.)

By the time of Matthew’s Gospel, experience with irresponsible and corrupt leaders had already afflicted the Christian congregations.

5. Matthew Reflects Bitter Conflict with Jewish Groups.

Matthew’s Gospel is schizophrenic about its relation to Judaism. It shows a complex love-hate relation to the Jewish tradition and some of its representatives. (While there were several sectarian groups among the Jewish people of Palestine, the Gospel certainly regards the Pharisees as the representatives over against whom Jesus defined his own positions. Matthew, however, unlike John and Luke, does not call these opponents simply “the Jews.”)

The Matthean community would like to be fully Jewish, only adding the provision that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact the Messiah. Unfortunately, the majority of Jewish people did not accept Jesus, and the Jesus believers became a separate and increasingly persecuted sect as the Palestinian world moved into and past the Roman War (66-73 CE). Especially after that war, the Jesus movement received more and more non-Jewish people (“the nations,” that is gentiles), into their fellowship, which further separated the Christians (as they then were) from Pharisaic Judaism (on its way to becoming Rabbinic Judaism).

In Matthew, here is the conflict: On the one hand, Jesus says that he has not come to abolish the law and the prophets, and that anyone who breaks even the smallest commandment is least in the kingdom of heaven (5:17, 19). Further, when Jesus sent out the missionary disciples he warned them to go only to the Jewish people (10:5). On the other hand, Matthew follows Mark in abolishing the dietary laws (Matthew 15:1-20, from Mark 7:1-23). By the end of the ministry, Jesus distinguishes between what the Pharisees teach and what they do. His disciples are to follow their teaching, not their conduct (23:2-3). Finally, the heavenly empowered disciples are sent to all the nations; Jewish exclusiveness is no longer part of the gospel (28:19-20).

This conflict over whether Jesus was the Messiah led to deadly results. Jesus people were being persecuted, even to death, because of this sectarian warfare. The persecution is described in Matthew 10:16-23: “Brother will betray brother to death…and you will be hated by all because of my name” (verses 21-22, NRSV). The people were divided into separate camps, so that Jesus speaks of “their” synagogues (10:17). We have moved into a world of “them and us.”

The bitterest result of this conflict from the side of the Jesus group is the notorious declaration of the people at the trial of Jesus. When Pilate sought to avoid guilt for executing Jesus, “the people as a whole” cry out, “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25, NRSV). From Matthew’s viewpoint, this terrible curse was carried out in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. In that catastrophe, all the population of Jerusalem was destroyed or, if lucky, dispersed to other places. For the Matthean community, the conflict was essentially over. God’s judgment had been rendered, and the Jesus people went on with the gospel to all the nations.

Nevertheless, this vicious saying at the trial echoed down the centuries to bring untold misery, injustice, and slaughter to Jewish people at the hands of triumphant Christian fanatics. It doesn’t matter whether the report in Matthew is accurate or not. From any viewpoint, the curse should have been over by the year 73, and the gospel should have gone forward with justice (righteousness) rather than hatred.

6. Narrative Sequence is Theological in Matthew.

Matthew starts out as an utterly Jewish story, but ends as a message of salvation for all nations. Shaping the story was critical to getting the right message out there.

Modern commentators agree that the major development in the storyline is the rejection of Jesus’ message by the Jewish leaders.

The beginning of the story establishes that, from ancestry, birth, and God’s testimony, Jesus was the Messiah (Matthew 1-4). It is the Messiah who delivers the Sermon on the Mount as the renewed Law for a restored Israel. The disciples were then sent out to take that message to the Jewish people (10:5), but most of their instructions anticipate resistance and persecution (10:16-39). After that the direct opposition to Jesus increases until the Pharisees first decide they must eliminate him (12:14).

Teaching in parables (the discourse in chapter 13) is a recognition that direct statement is not sufficient, and in this context Isaiah is quoted to pronounce doom upon the people who will not understand what is told to them (Matthew 13:13-17, quoting Isaiah 6:9-10). From that point on, Jesus concentrates more on teaching and developing the alternative community, the disciples who begin to be called “the church” (16:18; 18:17).

After the disciples’ confession of Jesus as Messiah (16:13-20), all is focused on going to Jerusalem. Why to Jerusalem? First, that is where all the Isaiah prophecies locate the glorious time of fulfillment (Isaiah 2:2-4; 40:1-11; 49; 60-62). Secondly, that is where the power of the authorities is concentrated, and where they must be challenged – which is what happens in the cycle of controversies in Jerusalem (chapters 21-22), including the final condemnation of the “scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” (chapter 23).

Finally, of course, Jerusalem is where the unfaithful people have always killed the prophets (23:37), so that the final irony is that the glorious city of Isaiah’s prophecies will in fact become the center of defeat, death, and destruction for the people who put Jesus to death instead of heeding him. Matthew, like Mark, does not expect any new life from Jerusalem after Jesus’ death. The risen Lord will be seen in Galilee.

It is clear that the linear story is important in Matthew. Things change, especially because the Jewish people did not recognize their Messiah, and instead of Messianic blessing, brought disaster upon themselves. It was important to keep telling the story this way because the Matthean community was still living beside and arguing with the descendants of those Pharisees denounced by Jesus in this Gospel.

The story line ends, of course, on that other mountain in Galilee, in which the community of Jesus’ disciples is expanded to include all the peoples.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (28:18-20.)


A Very Personal Report on Commentaries on Matthew.

In many respects Matthew is the easiest of the Gospels to understand. This Gospel is probably clearer than Jesus’ own teachings were in their various contexts. One does not really need more than the introductions and notes of a good study Bible. Through the ages, however, this has been the most used and most studied of the Gospels, and therefore it has produced a multitude of commentaries.

Of this multitude, these are some I remember – mostly with appreciation. (This is also a sketch of issues that have successively occupied Gospel scholars over the last century.)

A.B Bruce, Scottish Professor (1831-1899).

I constantly turn to A.B. Bruce’s commentaries on Matthew, Mark, and Luke in The Expositor’s Greek Testament (Hodder and Stoughton, Vol. I, 1897 [the 5-volume set reprinted often by Eerdmans and Baker]). Bruce was a professor for the Free Church of Scotland at Glasgow University. He taught in the first generation in which modern Gospel criticism had become widely known. Accordingly, he addressed seriously the issues of inspiration and the historical Jesus for working ministers in the churches. He also had a creative but disciplined imagination. He sought constantly to imagine what it felt like – for Jesus as well as others – to be in the situations portrayed in the Gospels.

Here are some quotes from his views on how to read the Gospels and the history behind them:

Historicity…is not to be confounded with absolute accuracy, or perfect agreement between parallel accounts. Harmonistic [making the Gospels agree with each other in detail] is a thing of the past. It was a well-meant discipline, but it took in hand an insoluble problem, and it unduly magnified the importance of a solution, even if it had been possible. (Vol. I, page 25.)

It is greatly to be desired that devout readers of the Gospels should be emancipated from legal bondage to the theological figment of inerrancy. Till this is done, it is impossible to enjoy the full Gospel story, or feel its essential truth and reality. (Page 26.)

Bruce respected the achievement of Matthew’s Gospel, but his real love was for Mark, as the following quote shows:

The didactic interest [in Matthew] overshadowed the historical… with the result that his story does not present the aspect of a life-drama steadily moving on, but rather that of a collection of discourses furnished with slight historical introductions. (Page 37.)

Two Anglican Examining Chaplains (Allen and McNeile)

Willoughby C. Allen was an Oxford scholar, serving as “Examining Chaplain to the Bishop of Lichfield” when his imposing commentary on Matthew was published (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, T&T Clark, 2d ed., 1907). For many decades Allen’s commentary served as a major source on the language usage of Matthew – words shared with Mark, with Luke, confined to Matthew only, etc. On really historical questions he didn’t have as much to offer.

However, Allen opened his volume with a “Preface” that was a vigorous and aggressive Hermeneutical Essay (as I have titled it in my copy). More recent scholars would probably be astonished to read this manifesto for redaction criticism before its time. “Down with harmonizers; up with redaction criticism” – such is the program of Allen’s Preface (the phrasing is mine). Here are his words:

[The goal of this volume is] to find out what this Gospel meant to the Evangelist as he wrote it. (Page ii.)

The traditional method of studying the Life of Jesus has been to harmonize the Gospels.

[This approach assumes] first, that all three Gospels are sources for the life of Christ of equal value; and, second, that the commentator is in direct contact with the words of Christ as he uttered them… (Page ii.)

The very important element of the Gospels which such a treatment of them overlooks, or minimises, is the individuality of the respective Evangelists. (Page iii.)

The fact that the study of the Gospels is in such a chaotic condition, is partly due to this radically false method of studying them. … False and antiquated methods of exegesis do incalculable harm to the young and simple, and to the coming generation of men. (Pages iv-v.)

[The proper question for the commentator is] what were the conceptions of the life and Person of Christ which governed and directed the Evangelist in his work. [Such a commentator] is immediately concerned, not with the actual facts of the life of Christ or with his doctrine, but rather with these as mirrored in the mind of the particular Evangelist with whom he is dealing. [Italics added; from pages vii-viii.]

Allen has written a correct prescription for the enterprise of redaction criticism: studying what the final writer did with his sources. All that was still lacking was the impact of form criticism in the study of those sources, which would come in the decades between the First and Second World Wars.

However well he carried it out, Allen set out to read the Gospels as second generation witnessing to the Christ – a way of reading many folks still have difficulty learning to do.

Alan Hugh M‘Neile was a Cambridge scholar who served as “Examining Chaplain to the Lord Bishop of Oxford” when his commentary was published: The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Macmillan, 1915. McNeile was to remain a dean of British New Testament scholars for several decades, and in this commentary he decidedly represents Anglican conservatism. He wrote more for theological students who had to pass exams on Matthew in Greek than for the religious public at large – which was appropriate for a volume in the venerated Macmillan commentary series.

“The Christ of history is known to us from the Gospels; the Christ of experience is known to us from the Gospels and from all the subsequent history of the Christian Church to the present moment, including for each individual the spiritual experience of his own soul.” (Italics added.) This opening sentence of McNeile’s Preface expresses the Credo of the scholar who is also a pastor.

Clearly the business of the scholar is “the Christ of history known to us from the Gospels.” Thus McNeile focuses mainly on the historical Jesus. He tosses off, almost impatiently, questions about “the Synoptic Problem,” simply nodding acceptance to the current consensus. About the text? “Textual criticism is like an ordnance survey [written in the opening year of the First World War, in which artillery rather than tanks were the major factor]; most readers need a map in which the broad features are not obscured by multiplication of detail.” (Pages xi-xii.)

If one is seeking to be faithful to the historical Jesus, the issue of the prophecy of Jesus’ second coming (“Parousia”) is a particular challenge for a modern reader. McNeile gives a traditional position:

Unnecessary difficulty has often been felt in the fact that the Parousia of the Messiah did not take place, and has not yet taken place, as a catastrophic event as He pictured it. He Himself balanced His Jewish language by non-Jewish conceptions. But the pictorial language must be frankly accepted as Jewish. His human intellect, like all other human intellects before and since, was compelled—not consciously but inevitably—to employ symbolism in order to express the transcendental; and He employed that of His age and country, the language of prophets and apocalyptists of centuries past…. The divine translation of it in [read “into”] history must be seen, as the evangelists recognized, in the Christian Church, which was, in fact, born in a sudden outburst within the generation then living, and which, in its ideal, is a polity of redeemed souls living in righteousness, over whom God reigns on earth in the Person of Jesus the Messiah. (Page. xxvi.)

A Liberal Jewish View (Claude G. Montefiore, 1858-1938)

C.G. Montefiore first published his introduction and commentaries on the Synoptic Gospels is 1909, but produced a much expanded second edition in 1927. (The Synoptic Gospels, 2 vols, Macmillan, 1927.) He was fully versed in current Christian scholarship, and in the second edition is in constant dialogue with, among others, Rudolph Bultmann and B.H. Streeter. His work is celebrated, however, because of its particular “point of view,” that of Liberal Judaism (British equivalent to Reformed Judaism in America). Of this point of view he says,

This “peculiar point of view” is that of a Liberal Jew, who has not found his profound attachment to Liberal Judaism inconsistent either with a high appreciation of the lives and the teachings of many of the ancient Rabbis, on the one hand, or with a similar high appreciation of the character and teaching of Jesus, upon the other…. It is the point of view, as I hope, of reverence and freedom. And it is this combination of reverence and freedom which I owe to, and have learnt from, Liberal Judaism. (Volume I, p. ix.)

Montefiore’s comments are interesting and suggestive, and have not been entirely absorbed by later Christian interpreters. Perhaps his remarks on the discourse against the “scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites,” (Matthew 23) are predictable for a Jewish reader, but on a balanced view they are rather compelling, even if harsh.

How much or how little goes back to Jesus of xxiii 1-36 can never be ascertained. I hope little. The attack is so fierce, and when all allowances have been made… so doubtfully historic. It confuses the few very bad with the many who were probably, like most people, neither very bad nor very good, and with the few who were very good. It tars the whole class of Rabbis and Pharisees with the same bitter and undifferentiating brush. “Righteous anger” is one thing; undiscriminating abuse of an entire class is another. Matthew xxiii seems to be the most “unchristian” chapter in the Gospels. (Vol. II, p. 296.)

From the 1950s to the 1980s.

In my seminary and graduate school years The Interpreter’s Bible had recently appeared (12 volumes, 1951 to 1957). The first volume published (Volume VII) contained materials on Matthew. There were also general essays, such as, “The Sermon on the Mount” by Amos N. Wilder, and Walter Russell Bowie on “The Parables,” pertinent to many materials in Matthew.

The Introduction and Exegesis of Matthew (The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. VII, pp. 231-625) was done by Sherman E. Johnson. Johnson (1908-1993), an Episcopalian, had studied at Seabury Western seminary and the University of Chicago Divinity School (Ph.D.) and served for some decades as Dean of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California. It was in the company of Johnson’s commentary that I first found my way around Matthew. As a commentary it was reliable, church-oriented, and not radical.

A little later the commentary by Floyd V. Filson appeared in the Black/Harper New Testament Commentary series, A Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew, Adam & Charles Black, 1st ed. 1960, 2nd ed. 1971. Filson, a Presbyterian, taught New Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, a colleague of G. Ernest Wright and Frank Moore Cross in the heyday of the “Biblical theology” movement of the 40s and 50s. I was impressed by an article of Filson’s in the Journal of Biblical Literature, “Broken Patterns in the Gospel of Matthew” (Vol. 75 [1956], pp. 227-231), and extended his argument to the treatment of the “New Moses” patterns in Matthew 1-7.

A small commentary from this period, that I discovered at a later time, was written by Suzanne de Dietrich, The Gospel According to Matthew, tr. Donald G. Miller, The Layman’s Bible Commentary, John Knox Press, 1961. Dietrich was a scholar at the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches in Bossey, Switzerland. Her comments are compact but forceful and, as fits the series, with no scholarly jargon. “The insistence on putting into practice the word which is heard is one of the constant themes of this Gospel. For it is precisely this divergence between ‘saying’ and ‘doing’ which is the snare of ‘pious’ people, their real hypocrisy.” (Page 9.)

This was the era when Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls were influencing all Biblical studies, and some of that impact was seen in Krister Stendahl’s The School of Matthew and Its Use of the Old Testament, Fortress Press, 1968 (original 1954). See some comments above under Statement 2. Stendahl also contributed an excellent brief commentary on Matthew to the one-volume Peake’s Commentary on the Bible, Nelson, 1962.

A couple of medium-sized commentaries appeared in the 1970s that I have found useful. David Hill, The Gospel of Matthew, New Century Bible, Attic Press (Greenwood, S.C.), 1972, presented a balanced treatment of Matthew after the full impact of form criticism. I like its treatments of Matthew texts, sensible discussions of scholarly issues, and good comments about religious import. The other similar commentary was Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew, tr. David E. Green, John Knox Press, 1975. The Good News commentaries translated all of Schweizer’s volumes from the German popular series, Das Neue Testament Deutsch (the German of Matthew appeared in 1973). Schweizer’s commentaries always have a certain vigor and occasional excitement about them. The English version uses as its translation (with Schweizer’s modifications) the American Bible Society’s popular Good News for Modern Man, published in 1966.

This was also the era of the full impact on Gospel studies of redaction criticism. The landmark volume for Matthew was Günther Bornkamm et al., Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew, tr. Perry Scott, Westminster, 1963. At the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, Norman Perrin had a cluster of students working on the redaction of the Gospels, and Richard Edwards and Dennis Duling focused on Matthew. Edwards later concentrated on the Sayings Source Q and published, A Theology of Q, Fortress, 1976. Duling, among other things, did the introduction and notes on Matthew in the HarperCollins Study Bible (1st ed. 1993; 2nd ed. 2006).

Among the mature works using redaction criticism was John P. Meier’s, The Vision of Matthew: Christ, Church and Morality in the First Gospel, Paulist Press, 1979. (Meier’s more recent fame is for his multi-volume work on the historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew, Doubleday/Yale, four volumes as of 2009, and still counting.) This volume is a small-scale commentary on Matthew, but from a particular viewpoint. Part One is titled, “Remodeling the Form of Gospel: From Mark to Matthew.” The point is to comment on Matthew as a section by section re-doing of Mark’s Gospel to fit Matthew’s situation. The final Part is, “Remodeling Morality: The Eschatological Demand of Christ,” and is a closer discussion of Christ and the Law in Matthew 5:17-48. An earlier summary of this eschatological demand reads:

This awaiting of the final judgment still molds present Christian existence as eschatological existence. The difference is that, in Matthew’s gospel, stringent judgment, rather than temporally proximate judgment, is the main motive force behind Matthew’s moral exhortation. (Page 39, italics added.)


Other important writings by John P. Meier on Matthew include the joint volume with Raymond Brown, Antioch and Rome, Paulist Press, 1983, which locates Matthew in the Christian communities in Antioch, the generation after Q and the generation before Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch (about 110 CE). Meier also did the very full article on “Matthew, Gospel of” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Doubleday, 1992, Vol. 4, pp. 622-641.

A Summing Up. A work that draws together the major issues through 1990 in an excellent way is A Gospel for a New People: Studies in Matthew, by Graham N. Stanton (T&T Clark, 1992; Westminster/John Knox, 1993). The book is addressed to scholars and has three parts. Part I, discusses in some detail the application to Matthew of (1) redaction criticism (“Redaction Criticism: the End of an Era?”), (2) literary criticism, particularly questions of genre and rhetorical criticism, and (3) social science criticism, with discussion and examples of social conflict theory.

Part II of Stanton’s book deals in seven chapters with a topic much discussed recently, “The Parting of the Ways,” which includes the issue: Whether Matthew’s community still regarded itself as Jewish. (Stanton thinks they have recently gotten clear that they are separate from at least the Pharisaic leaders who have been persecuting them.) “The evangelist’s much sharper anti-Jewish polemic is an assured result of redaction critical studies…. That Matthew’s more strongly worded polemical traditions reflect a ‘parting of the ways’ can be affirmed with confidence.” (Page 278.)

Also in this section of the book, of particular interest to past members of Protestants for the Common Good, is Stanton’s long discussion of the Last Judgment scene – the sheep and the goats and “the least of these” (Matthew 25:31-46). He discusses the major options about inclusiveness of those judged and of the needy who are helped (or not helped), but focuses on the issue of genre. Most interpreters recognize that the passage is not a parable, so what is it?

Stanton urges that the only close comparisons are found in discourses in Jewish and Jewish-Christian apocalypses composed in the same general period as Matthew (80 to 100 CE). Thus the genre of the Matthew passage is “apocalyptic discourse.” Comparable judgment scenes are found in 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, and the Similitudes of I Enoch, all addressed to persecuted communities needing assurance that God’s rescuing vindication of their loyalty is near at hand. In Matthew’s structuring of the entire discourse on the end times (Matthew 24-25), “25:31-46 is a final consolation to the recipients of the gospel. God’s enemies will not have the last word, for they will be judged on the basis of their treatment of the brothers of the Son of Man, however insignificant.” (Page 229.)

Part III are “Studies in Matthew,” including two chapters on the Sermon on the Mount, in which Stanton insists (contra Hans Dieter Betz) that the Sermon is, and was constructed to be, integral to the whole Gospel. Another chapter here investigates the “comfort” words of Jesus in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you that are weary…” (NRSV). Stanton argues that the currently common view that this is Jesus speaking as a personified Sophia (Wisdom) is without much support and in fact is in direct conflict with Matthew’s emphasis on the humility of the human Jesus.

Since 1988 – Era of Huge Commentaries

In 1988, W.D. Davies and Dale C. Allison opened the Preface to their three-volume commentary on Matthew with the following:

Two main objections have been urged against the publishing of biblical commentaries at the present time. First…there has been an explosion of knowledge in the last half-century which has impinged upon the study of the Bible, and also developments in methodology in the study of documents which have led to new forms of biblical criticism demanding a radical rethinking of the genre of the commentary….

The second objection urged is that there already exist many excellent commentaries…

A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Vol. I, T&T Clark, 1988, p. ix.

They go on to plead that there are not, in fact, many large-scale commentaries on Matthew in English.

Willoughby C. Allen published his volume in this series [the I.C.C.] in 1907, and A. H. McNeile’s commentary in the Macmillan series appeared in 1915. These were on a large scale and based on a scrupulous scholarship. The recent work of Robert H. Gundry (1982) is massively learned and instructive [a mere 750 pages] but not a little idiosyncratic. There have also appeared…others on a smaller scale… [Ibid., p. ix-x.]

If that was true in 1988, it is certainly not true now. That first volume by Davies and Allison went to over 750 pages, and by the time all three volumes were published (1997) they totaled 2,350 pages. And they were selling at around $250 per set. No wonder Dale Allison and the publisher thought it wise to publish a one-volume abridgment of a mere 580 pages, paperback, in 2004 (T&T Clark International).

To stay on this issue of the massive scale for a moment, the parallel case to Davies and Allison is Ulrich Luz. Luz is a Swiss New Testament scholar who taught at the University of Bern from 1980 to 2003, when he became emeritus. Over some decades Luz published a four-volume commentary on Matthew in German in the ecumenical series, Evangelisch-katholischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament, which went through several editions. An early edition of the first volume (Matthew 1-7) was translated into English and published in 1989 by Fortress Press, but eventually the entire commentary was published in English in the Hermeneia series: Matthew 8-20 (2001), Matthew 21-28 (2005), and the latest edition of volume one, Matthew 1-7 (2007). These three English volumes totaled 1,770 pages.

Among Evangelical scholars, beside the flagship volume of Robert H. Gundry referred to by Davies and Allison (Gundry’s book is Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church Under Persecution, Eerdmans, 1st ed. 1982, 2nd ed. 1994 [744 pages]), I have spent some time with Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, Eerdmans, 2009 (originally published in 1999, adapted now for the Socio-Rhetorical series) [1090 pages], and with Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew: The NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan, 2004 [1003 pages]. In Keener especially an inordinate amount of time and verbiage is spent skirting issues of the literal truth of the Gospel texts.

The sheer length and verbosity of these huge productions raises some fundamental questions. Who are these for, and what new stuff about Matthew can possibly warrant such a larger investment of resources – much less reader’s time?? (Works like the Application Commentary are not, of course, just historical; they also address what folks can do with Matthew now, and there is no end to that kind of discussion.) Probably the less said about publisher’s objectives in all this the better. If it can be sold, the publishers will certainly keep cranking it out. Besides the publishers, of course, is the brute fact that there are now a vastly larger number of professional Biblical scholars in the world than there used to be, and to advance their careers, they have to find something to publish.

About two of these big works, however, there are some positive words to say. Davies and Allison were bringing up to date the Matthew volume of a major commentary series that was almost a hundred years old. This updating was needed, and for the most advanced scholars, it needed to be on the three-volume scale they were allowed by the publisher. We do not need multiple versions of such a work, however, and every fifty years is enough!

Luz’s work is somewhat unique, particularly for its heavy focus on the influence of Matthew over the centuries. Luz published an entire volume on that influence, Matthew in History, 1994, and the volumes of his commentary are rich with how each episode in Matthew has appeared, not only in theological history, but in art, literature, and drama throughout European history. Reading Luz on a Matthew pericope is always intriguing. Needless to say, he covers the most up-to-date discussions of European scholars down to about 2000. Luz’s words in the Preface to his first edition are poignant:

Admittedly, I too am uncomfortable with [the Commentary’s] length. …there lies behind this commentary the conviction (or, perhaps, the hope!) that pastors and priests regularly have to struggle at their desks with the substance of their texts if they are not quickly to suffer from preacher’s burnout…. I have written this commentary primarily for priests, pastors and teachers of religion. One wonders if it will help them engage in an intensive conversation with the texts in their study or whether its length will actually keep them from such a conversation. I would rather have a response to this question than to read all the critical reviews. (Matthew 1-7: A Commentary, tr. James E. Crouch, Fortress Press, 2007, p. xv.)


There have, of course, been many medium and small size commentaries on Matthew published since 1988. The New Interpreter’s Bible volume including Matthew came out in 1995, with “The Gospel of Matthew” done by M. Eugene Boring of Brite Divinity School of Texas Christian University. Boring emphasizes that the gospel is about historical events, and that “authentic” understanding of the Gospels requires historical interpretation. His discussions are usually clear and useful. On an even smaller scale, in a series I find repeatedly excellent and helpful, is Barbara E. Reid, The Gospel According to Matthew, “New Collegeville Bible Commentary,” Liturgical Press, 2005. (This series prints the New American Bible translation of the book being commented on, a very readable contemporary Catholic version.) Ms. Reid is Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and she gives clear guidance around Matthew and related scriptures for non-specialist Bible readers. It’s a good series.

Running parallel to much of the above scholarship have been the Liberation theologians, especially those with a strong anti-imperialist bent. In my reading these have been represented by Warren Carter. Carter is a New Testament scholar, originally from New Zealand and Australia, doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary, taught at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, and is currently on the faculty of Brite Divinity School of Texas Christian University. Carter’s main treatment of Matthew, as I have studied it, is Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, “The Bible & Liberation Series,” Orbis Books, 2000. This is in fact a full commentary on Matthew, of 600+ pages. That was followed shortly by Matthew and Empire, Trinity Press International, 2001, and more recently in a broader format, by The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide, Abingdon, 2009.

Here is Carter’s manifesto about his reading of Matthew:

Matthew’s gospel is a counternarrative. It is a work of resistance written from and for a minority community of disciples committed to Jesus, the agent of God’s saving presence and empire. The gospel shapes their identity and lifestyle as an alternative community. It strengthens this community to resist the dominant Roman imperial and synagogal control. It anticipates Jesus’ return when Jesus will complete God’s salvific purposes in establishing God’s reign or empire over all, including Rome. (Matthew and the Margins, p. xvii. The entire quotation above is in italics in the original.)

In this approach, God’s kingdom (“the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew) is described as God’s Empire – to make the obvious parallel. If God is bringing in one empire for the whole world, there obviously isn’t room for another one – and (by implication) Rome is just as certainly doomed as is God’s kingdom certain to come in through Jesus’ mission and destiny. Carter’s handicap here is that the Matthew text does not in fact talk about the Roman empire. It concentrates instead on the resistance and opposition of the Jewish leaders and their allies – which Carter, of course, views as puppet agents of Rome. Carter works to address this handicap of the absence of Rome in a section titled, “Roman Imperial Presence,” pages 36-43.

The impact of Carter’s work, and similar writings, is seen incidentally in a former Divinity School student, Dennis C. Duling. Duling wrote the introduction and notes on Matthew in the HarperCollins Study Bible, both first edition (1993) and second edition (2006). In revising his own introduction for the second edition, Duling introduced the topic of the Roman Empire as the great dominating force in the background of all that happened in the Gospel – none of which had been mentioned in the excellent introduction he had written in 1993.

Anti-imperialism/post-colonialism has been a great movement for justice in the last two generations, and Biblical scholars have added their efforts to reinforce that cause. In the big picture, even if Matthew has little to say about the Roman empire, this Gospel certainly does lean the scales of God toward those on the “margins.” There are undoubtedly “imperialist” ways pursued by Christians, in and out of churches, who need very much to hear Jesus’ proclamation of GOD’S empire!

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