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.

Top Five Acts Commentaries

Introduction. This blog began in 2008 when I was teaching through Acts both at my Church and in a semester class at Grace. Since I have had the chance now to teach through Acts several times, I have put together a huge collection of commentaries and other resources for studying the Book of Acts. Along with Luke, there are a number of excellent monographs on the theology of Luke and Acts as well as literary studies which focus on Luke as an author. To complicate matters, the study of Acts invites historical study, especially the Greco-Roman background of the Pauline mission. I would highly recommend the five-volume series published by Eerdmans on Acts, including Paul in Roman Custody by Brian Rapske. The second volume of Eckhard Schnabel’s Early Christian Mission (IVP) is also essential for the history and background of the various cities which Paul targets as he moves west.

Perhaps more than any other installment in this series so far, I have been tempted to add to my “top five.” I could easily double this list, but that is what the comments are for. I invite the readers to add a few that I have skipped here.

Ben Witherington III, Acts: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998). This commentary is one of the best for cultural background material for reading Acts and has been the “first off the shelf” for me for several years. Witherington provides some exegetical commentary, although the general reader will have no problem reading the commentary since this is not the main thrust of the book. Where the commentary excels is the massive amount of Greco-Roman material which is brought to bear on the text of Acts. As with all the Socio-Rhetorical commentaries, Witherington uses lengthy excursuses in a slightly smaller font to develop special themes. These “closer looks” are worth the price of the book alone! For example, after introducing Aquila and Priscilla in Acts 18, he provides five pages on Judaism as a religio licita. This detailed section is worthy of a major Bible Dictionary article. One of the criticisms I have of other volumes in this series is the somewhat forced use of Greco-Roman rhetorical forms, but this is not a problem here in Acts.

Joseph Fitzmyer, Acts (AB; New York: Doubleday, 1997). As a companion to his two-volume Luke commentary, Fitzmyer’s Acts commentary is readable and useful for scholar, pastor or layman. The Anchor Bible format begins with a fresh translation followed by a comment on the text and then a “notes” section for exegetical detail. All Greek is transliterated and all citations are in-text. What is remarkable to me is how efficient Fitzmyer’s commentary is. He is able to cover the necessary issues in the text in a few paragraphs, despite having an encyclopedic knowledge of the Greco-Roman world! While the commentary is 800+ pages, it is not overly burdensome. For each section there is a bibliography covering secondary literature in English, German, and French. This makes the commentary invaluable for the scholar.

James Dunn, Beginning at Jerusalem (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009). This is the second volume of Dunn’s epic Christianity in the Making, so technically speaking it is not a commentary on Acts. Dunn wrote a brief commentary in the Epworth series (1996) and it appears to me that most of that commentary has been assumed into this larger book on the origins of Christianity. (There are some passages which are word-for-word the same, and a handful where significant changes have been made). I find Beginning at Jerusalem to be the most highly detailed commentary on Acts available today (pending Keener’s due summer of 2012). After 130 pages of introduction, Dunn steps through the book of Acts dealing with each pericope on an exegetical level, but much more attention is paid to historical and theological matters. Dunn’s style is not a verse-by-verse commentary, but rather a series of questions which need to be addressed in order to come to a full understanding of Acts. Each of these subsections are important, but a reader may skip over some if that particular question is not of interest. One of the features of this book I appreciate are chapters on topics which cannot be included in most commentaries. For example, chapter 30 is on Paul’s Churches. This sixty page essay on churches in the middle of the first century is excellent and will help any interpreter of Acts (or the epistles) unpack Pauline mission more accurately. The average commentary simply cannot spend the effort on such detail.

John Polhill, Acts (NAC; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992). This is an efficient commentary on Acts. By far the smallest on this list, Pohill does an excellent job covering exegetical details in the text along with providing cultural and historical background. The introduction is a only 50 pages, yet manages to give the reader a basic orientation to major issues for reading and understanding Acts. Most of the background material is found in the footnotes, although even these are not so copious that a casual reader will become overwhelmed. All Greek is transliterated. A possible criticism here is that Polhill did not write the NAC commentary on Luke, so there is less awareness in the commentary of overarching Luke-Acts themes.

Darrell Bock, Acts (BENTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2007). Bock also write the BECNT on Luke, so this commentary has the same look and feel as his previous work. Bock also has a work on the Theology of Luke / Acts due from Zondervan in the Summer of 2012. His 46 page introduction briefly covers essential issues, and while I particularly like his theology of Acts section, I look forward to more detail and expansion in his upcoming biblical theology text. As with his previous commentary, each section begins with a summary of the larger unit and a translation of the text. The exegesis section includes both Greek and a transliteration of the Greek. He deals with both lexical and syntactical issues in the body of the commentary, spending more time on identifying grammatical categories than other commentaries on this list (I think that is a DTS thing!) Unlike the Luke commentary, Bock does not have a final summary at the end of the pericope, by guess is that these were dropped by the commentary series.

Conclusion. What have I left out? What commentaries on Acts have you found useful?  Once again the classics are missing (no F. F. Bruce?) Let me know what I have missed!

Index for the Top Five Commentary Series

 

Introduction to Series on Commentaries

On Using Commentaries 

Matthew        Mark        Luke        John        Acts
Romans        1 Corinthians         2 Corinthians
Galatians         Ephesians        Philippians        Colossians
1-2 Thessalonians        Pastoral Epistles         Philemon
Hebrews        James         1 Peter         2 Peter & Jude 
Letters of John         Revelation

Conclusion:  Last Thoughts on New Testament Commentaries

Top Five John Commentaries

Introduction. For someone who has spent most of their academic career in the Synoptic Gospels, John commentaries are a strange and undiscovered country. Commentaries on John do not have to dwell on syntax since the Greek is fairly straightforward. Rather, a commentary on John must wade through some of the most dense theological texts in the New Testament. Sorting through John’s possible influences (Jewish, Hellenistic, Gnostic) is something of a chore. In addition, there seem to be more high-quality commentaries on John than any of the gospels.

It was very hard to come up with a final five. Since I have been preaching through John, I have picked up a few more John commentaries. In fact, I would describe the last five years as a great time to be a Johannine scholar! Not only have several new and excellent commentaries been published, but Köstenberger and Marvin Pate have both published books on the theology of John and his letters. I had to leave a few off the list that I have used regularly and enjoyed.

Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (2 Vol.; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2003). Keener’s introduction to John runs 330 pages, then he tags another thirty pages of introduction to the prologue. This introduction ought to be required reading for anyone who wants to seriously study John. In fact, it should probably be separated from the commentary and sold separately as a monograph on interpreting John’s gospel. His section on the Jewish Context of John’s gospel (pages 171-232) is excellent. The body of the commentary deals with every imaginable aspect of the Greek text, drawing on the Hebrew Bible as well as the literature of the Second Temple Period. A scan through his footnotes demonstrates Keener’s mastery of both Jewish and Hellenistic literature. He deals with problems of historicity as well as special Johannine features in the body of the commentary. The main criticism of this commentary is related to its strengths – there is so much material here it is difficult to digest to all.

D. A. Carson, John (PNTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991). This is a remarkably useful commentary on John for exegetical details. Carson states in the introduction that he does not intend to interact with all of the scholarship on John, but rather “a small representative part of the massive secondary literature on John.” In the body of the commentary he treats the Greek text well both in terms of lexical and syntactical issues. All Greek words are transliterated so the non-Greek reader will have no problem reading the commentary. Footnotes are rare, sources are cited in-text. Carson is best when he is comparing several options for understanding a text. In the end, it is always very clear what his view is! Of the five commentaries listed here, Carson is in the most likely to draw implications for systematic theology.

Frederick Bruner, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2012). At nearly 1300 pages, Bruner’s commentary on John is a massive contribution to the study of the fourth gospel. This is not an exegetical commentary. In fact, rarely will Bruner comment on a Greek word or a syntactical detail. Where this commentary excels is in the section labeled “historical interpretation.” here Bruner gathers trenchant comments from a wide variety of interpreters, from the church fathers to modern scholars. Some of these are the usual suspects (Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Brown, Schnackenburg, Bultmann), but often Bruner cites obscure scholars or preachers, sending me to Wikipedia for a little biography. One of the things I really like about this commentary is the list of key quotes from scholars which serve as an introduction to the interpretation. These are thought provoking and focus my attention on important aspects of the text fort preaching and teaching.

Craig Blomberg, Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel: Issues and Commentary (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001). This is the more brief book on this list, about a quarter of the size of Bruner. Yet this book has been extremely helpful to me in working through the book of John. Blomberg’s goal is not an exegetical commentary, but rather to assess the value of John’s gospel as a contribution to the study of the historical Jesus. Usually John is left out of discussions of the historicity of Jesus because it is assumed the book was written late by someone who was far-removed from the eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus life, as a theological document rather than historical. Blomberg wants to read the stories in John and evaluate them on a historical level. What this means is that he places Jesus in the context of the Second Temple Period, and in the end, John’s gospel is very Jewish, John’s version of Jesus is very Jewish, and the story told in John is not as a-historical as is often assumed. This book is written in a non-technical tone and can be read by scholars, pastors, and laymen, yet is a valuable contribution to the study of the fourth gospel.

Andreas Köstenberger, John (BECNT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2004). Of the five I have chosen, I have used Köstenberger the most over the last year as I prepared for my preaching on John. For the last year, this has been my “first off the shelf” commentary, although there are more detailed commentaries available. Like most of the BECNT series, each pericope begins with a synopsis of the section followed by a translation and exegesis. He deals with lexical matters int eh body of the commentary, syntactical issues tend to be placed in footnotes. Textual critical comments are covered (briefly) in the “additional notes” at the end of a pericope. Köstenberger’s commentary is excellent for its interaction with other literature on John. The footnotes are packed with detailed notes drawn from a wide variety of scholarship. Köstenberger does not have a conclusion to each pericope to draw out theological implications, this is done in the body of the commentary where necessary. For the most part, the theological results of his commentary are to be found in his Theology of John (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009).

Conclusion. What have I left out? What commentaries on John have you found useful?  I have included no classic commentary on my list – let me know what I have missed!

 

Index for the Top Five Commentary Series

 

Introduction to Series on Commentaries

On Using Commentaries 

Matthew        Mark        Luke        John        Acts
Romans        1 Corinthians         2 Corinthians
Galatians         Ephesians        Philippians        Colossians
1-2 Thessalonians        Pastoral Epistles         Philemon
Hebrews        James         1 Peter         2 Peter & Jude 
Letters of John         Revelation

Conclusion:  Last Thoughts on New Testament Commentaries

 

Top Five Matthew Commentaries

Introduction. Matthew Commentaries necessarily must deal with the synoptic problem. For the most part, virtually every modern commentary accepts Mark as the first gospel written, Matthew used Mark as a foundation for his later work, usually supplemented by a sayings source (Q). Very few commentaries written in the last 50 years have attempted to argue Matthew was written first. The synoptic problem is always looming in the background of Matthew commentaries, some will dwell on it more than others. To me, over-interest in redactional issues distracts from the usefulness of a commentary.

W. D. Davies and Dale Allison, Jr. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew (ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988, 1991, 1997). This 3 volume commentary is the best modern scholarly commentary written on Matthew. In fact, I am tempted to say it is the best commentary ever written on Matthew. Davies and Allison certainly set a high standard for detailed commentaries on the Greek text of the Gospels. There is careful exegesis of the Greek text, but also a sensitivity to the Jewish background to Jesus’ teaching. The recent volumes in the ICC series are all excellent, but priced for libraries only. I personally am frustrated by the girth of the final volume, it is too thick for convenient reading; perhaps dividing it into two sections would have been wise. Allison published a “shorter” commentary on Matthew based on this larger work (T&T Clark, 2004), intended for “readers who find the larger commentary too involved or too complicated.”

John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (NIGTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2005). This commentary is on the Greek text of Matthew and is another magisterial commentary. For Nolland, Matthew is based on Mark and Q and was composed before the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, although he does not think that the apostle Matthew is the author of the final form of the book. The body of the commentary includes brief bibliographies for pericopes, comments on text critical issues, and phrase-by-phrase comments. Greek is normally translated so that a reader without Greek can use the commentary without too much difficulty. It is the style of the NIGTC commentary series to use a smaller type for detailed which may be less important, although I find these sections excellent. Nolland does an excellent job setting the words of Jesus into a Second Temple Period background, his footnotes contain copious references to the literature of the first century.

Craig Blomberg, Matthew (NAC; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992). I have always enjoyed reading Blomberg, his work on the parables is one of my favorites. His commentary on Matthew is the most brief of the five I have listed here (432 pages), but Blomberg has a knack for unpacking a text with brevity without sacrificing depth. His footnotes interact with a wide variety of scholarship. He argues for apostolic authority and an early date (A.D. 58-69) for the gospel. He is certain that there is some literary relationship between Matthew and Luke, but is not dogmatic on the synoptic problem.

Craig Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009). This is the most recent of the commentaries I have chosen and is part of a series published by Eerdmans which attempts to read the biblical books against both a social and rhetorical background. What this means is that the commentary works hard to place Jesus in a proper context (Second Temple Period Judaism) but also to place Matthew as an author in his (later) context. In fact, Keener is “more inclined to accept the possibility of Matthean authorship” than in his earlier work on the Gospel (p. 40). The gospel was written in Syro-Palestine in the wake of the Jewish War, and “within the range of” develop rabbinic influence. Keener therefore reads Matthew as a Jewish Christian voice responding to the tragedy of A.D. 70. One of the advantages of the Socio-Rhetorical series is the use of Excursus to treat issues which are outside of the normal scope of a commentary. For example, Keener has more than 3 pages on demons and exorcism in the Greco-Roman word, a section dense with primary sources. These excursuses are the highlight of the commentary.

Donald Hagner, Matthew (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1993, 1995). Hagner’s contribution to the Word Biblical series follows the pattern of the whole series. Each pericope begins with a detailed bibliography, followed by a translation with textual notes and a form / structure section. It is in this section that Hagner treats synoptic issues, leaving the commentary to a detailed examination of the Greek text of Matthew. Greek is not transliterated or translated, making the commentary less accessible for those without Greek. Hagner uses the literature of the Second Temple Period as the context for Jesus as a teacher. The Word series concludes each pericope with an “explanation,” usually brief reflections on the contribution of the section to the overall theological themes of Matthew’s gospel. My suspicion is that most pastors will skip over the details and read only the commentary and explanation sections. Perhaps Hagner’s introduction to the gospel the best of the commentaries surveyed here.

Conclusion.  After writing this essay, I realize now how difficult it is to limit myself to five commentaries, not to mention trying to summarize a thousand word commentary in 150 words.  I can think of another five which are work of a “top commentary” list and there are several classic commentaries which it pained me to omit.   So tell me, what commentaries have you found useful (and why)?  Who has been (criminally) omitted from this list?  What classic commentary on Matthew should be read by all students of the Gospels?

Index for the Top Five Commentary Series

 

Introduction to Series on Commentaries

On Using Commentaries 

Matthew        Mark        Luke        John        Acts
Romans        1 Corinthians         2 Corinthians
Galatians         Ephesians        Philippians        Colossians
1-2 Thessalonians        Pastoral Epistles         Philemon
Hebrews        James         1 Peter         2 Peter & Jude 
Letters of John         Revelation

Conclusion:  Last Thoughts on New Testament Commentaries