Book Review: Ian Boxall, Discovering Matthew

Boxall, Ian. Discovering Matthew: Content, Interpretation, Reception. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015. 216 pp. Pb; $22.   Link to Eerdmans

Ian Boxall’s Discovering Matthew is the first of two contributions to the new Discovering Biblical Texts series from Eerdmans, joining Discovering John by Ruth Edwards. The sub-title for the series is “Content, Interpretation, Reception,” indicating an interest in both the general content of the Gospel of Matthew but also how the Gospel ought to be read in the light of the reception of the Gospel by the church.

Boxall_Discovering Matthew_wrk04.inddMatthew has been a popular gospel because it was thought to be the earliest Gospel and written by an eyewitness, the tax-collector turned disciple, Matthew. As a result it was used in liturgy and catechisms by the early church, so that many Christians are only familiar with the forms of the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew or the Lord’s Prayer only in Matthew.  In the nineteenth century that consensus broke down, Mark became the earliest of the Gospels and Matthew was written by an anonymous writer as many as sixty years ears after the death of Jesus. This author used (and sometimes abused) Mark’s Gospel. Some are offended by Matthew’s vitriolic attacks on the Jewish leaders, especially the Pharisees, yet others are drawn to the Gospel’s interest in the Gospel going out to the nations.

The first three chapters of this introduction deal with introductory matters, including strategies for interpretation and the text of Matthew. Boxall surveys various exegetical approaches to the Gospel beginning with Aquinas and other pre-critical readings (allegorical, etc.) He introduces Historical Criticism (source, form and redaction criticism) as well as social scientific readings of Matthew and Narrative criticism and Reader-response approaches. For each of these categories he offers a brief description and evaluation supplemented with a few key references to representative scholars. With respect to Matthew’s sources, Boxall briefly summarizes the arguments for (and against Q), although he does not come to a firm conclusion (“leaving Q aside,” p. 35). He dates the Gospel after A. D. 70 and before A.D. 100 and later in the book Boxall surveys several possible provenances for the Gospel and concludes a precise identification does not add much to the interpretation of Matthew (74).

Chapters 4-5 describe the characters of Matthew’s story (following Jack Kingsbury) and the historical and social setting of the first Gospel. The setting of Matthew is a hotly debated topic, with some scholars following W. D. Davis suggestion Matthew was written as an alternative to “Jamnia Judaism,” the Judaism which formed out of the Jewish response to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Others (Richard Bauckham, for example), reject this view of the background of Matthew since it is not tenable Matthew addressed a specific situation as if it was a Pauline letter. Boxall thinks Bauckham has overstated his case: there are passages which do appear to address a specific situation (65). But what is that situation? Was the Gospel written to people who were essentially Jewish who believed Jesus was the Christ, or Christians who were ethnically Jewish (intra vs. extra muros)? Unfortunately, Matthew’s Gospel is ambiguous, both are possible given the evidence of the book. It is even possible Matthew was a gentile, or at the very least has a pro-Gentile bias. John Meier suggested this, Boxall is not convinced (70).

The next seven chapters treat major themes of Matthew’s Gospel, beginning with the Infancy Narratives (ch. 6), Jesus as Teacher (ch. 7), Jesus as healer and exorcist (ch. 8), Jesus as fulfilment of the Law (ch. 9), The Gospel of the Church (ch. 10), The Passion (ch. 11) and resurrection (ch 12). These chapters provide light commentary on genre, sources and content, but also reflection on Matthew’s theology as presented in the unit. As with the other sections of the book, Boxall offers a wide range of opinion in order to introduce students to secondary literature on Matthew.

A concluding chapter offers a few comments on interpreting Matthew today (ch. 13). First, Boxall observes they growing awareness in scholarship that a text is capable of meaning several things. Authorial intent is only one possible meaning sine a text tends to take on a “life of its own once it leaves the author’s hand. If this is the case, Boxall’s second observation is that there is a need for a variety of interpretive tools to more fully interpret a complex text like Matthew. By focusing only on historical-critical questions, one will miss the rich theological possibilities raised by narrative criticism or the study of Reception history. Third, as newer approaches to the text have made clear, interpretations have consequences. Here Boxall alludes to the unfortunate consequences of some interpretations of the phrase “his blood be on our heads” (Matt 27:25). Finally, Boxall concludes modern interpretive methods have increased our understanding of the participation of readers in the process of interpretation. The days of the detached, unbiased historical critic are long gone and it is difficult to separate interpretation from application.

Conclusion. Discovering Matthew offers a brief overview of the Gospel of Matthew with special attention to recent trends in New Testament interpretation. What is remarkable is the vast amount of secondary literature surveyed in this short book. Boxall is able to summarize a wide variety of views on virtually every aspect of Matthew, including historic Christian writers as well as modern commentators. The most significant shortcoming of the book is its frustrating brevity. Virtually every topic could be expanded to a chapter length presentation. Nevertheless, Boxall’s Discovering Matthew is an excellent introduction to the ongoing exegetical and theological discussion generated by the First Gospel

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: Ian Boxall, Discovering Matthew

    • It is a short handbook or primer, not exegetical at all. It is more like “what people are saying about Matthew.” So rather than solve the problems, he tells you what the big issues are and then points you to major commentaries and monographs to get the answers.

  1. Great review…. Sounds like an excellent book… perhaps as ref. work as well as one-time-read. I’m curious whether either he says or you happen to know if Bauckham dates Matt. as before or after 70?

    And interesting to hear that there is still no consensus on location, specific audience or author…. Am I right that the NT disciple, Matthew/Levi, is no longer a serious consideration among virtually all NT scholars?

    Also, does Alexandria as place of authorship get consideration much, if any? Whether or not that has much evidence to support it, it seems there ARE some good reasons to believe Alexandria probably quite early had a strong congregation of Jewish Christians altho it’s not discussed in the NT. That is, Christians who may have been observant Jews of more lenient type, and open to inclusion of Gentiles. (But I like his/your comment that the text remains ambiguous, despite all the ancient and modern study.

    Like the other Gospels, ambiguity in content may well reflect “ambiguity” (or fluidity, rapid changes) in living situations, types of hope, fears, etc. At least from the late 50s or early 60s to sometime after 70 there was a LOT of disruption, participation in or avoidance of savage battles (66-70 or 73 – Masada), probably economic hardship, social upheaval, etc. And of course, loss of organizing national economic center and “capitol”, Temple, priesthood. (You know this but I mention it bec. I know so many lay people either don’t or forget to factor it in.)

    • In the Evangelical world, there is a tendency to defend the traditional authors, but even there that consensus is eroding (since the title are not part of the originals). The motivation is to keep the Gospels within a generation of Jesus (less time for development of legendary elements).

      As for provenance, I cannot think of a single commentary suggesting Alexandria, mostly because of the use of Matthew in Ignatius of Antioch and/or the obvious traditional Judaism. Unlike Hebrews, there is no typology which would hint at Alexandria (or an Alexandrian like Apollos).

      Something he does not spend much time on is the work of Richard Horsely or Warren Carter, they have some political background material which makes me think Palestine is a serious candidate (more than Antioch at least).

      I do not know when Bauckham dates the book, sorry!

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