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Pennington, Jonathan T. The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2017. 326 pp.; Hb.; $32.99. Link to Baker   

In the introduction to his new book on the Sermon on the Mount, Jonathan Pennington suggests the Sermon should be read in both a Jewish and Greco-Roman context. In placing the Sermon in this dual context, he argues the Sermon is concerned not simply with theological questions but also with the important the existential question of “human flourishing.” By “human flourishing” Pennington means happiness, blessedness, or shalom, a true flourishing which is only available through fellowship with God revealed through his Son and empowered by the Holy Spirit (14). He does not force either a virtue-based ethic on to the Sermon or a Jewish wisdom model. He will attempt to balance both wisdom and virtue (or, Jewish and Greco-Roman context) because Jesus is the fulfillment and incarnation of both.

This first part of this book begins with a chapter on the context of the Sermon. He uses Umberto Eco’s Encyclopedic Context model to show the ideal “model reader” of the sermon has a cultural and philosophical encyclopedia which consists of both Greco-Roman and Jewish elements. Pennington is clear he is not proposing a new way of doing biblical backgrounds, but rather he is trying to locate the Sermon in the right context, and that context is More complex that either Jewish or Hellenistic. He therefore briefly surveys wisdom literature with its emphasis on shalom which only fully restored in the eschaton and Greco-Roman virtue tradition with its emphasis on eudaimoia, or human flourishing. The Sermon on the Mount sits at the crossroads of these two traditions (38).

The middle three chapters of Part 1 deal with key vocabulary used in the Sermon, primarily makarios and teleios. The word makarios is notoriously difficult to translate with a single word. The traditional “blessed” is not sufficient, and although “happy” is closer to the meaning it does not have the same gravitas. Following Scot McKnight, Penning observes if you get this word right, everything else in the Sermon falls into place. By beginning with the Beatitudes, Jesus is “painting a picture of what the state of true God-centered human flourishing looks like” (47). For Pennington, the Beatitudes blend both eschatological reversals with wisdom/virtue. In fact (as is often observed), wisdom literature has an apocalyptic edge.

The second key concept in the Sermon is telios, a term often translated as “perfect” but should be translated “wholeness” or “completeness,” or even “virtuous” (70). The word is important since it appears in Matthew 5:48, a verse which Pennington sees as central to the whole structure of the Sermon. Rather than “be perfect,” he reads this verse as encouraging wholehearted devotion to God. This cardiographic reading of telios helps to explain how a person could keep the whole law and still not be whole (Matt 19:21).

Pennington surveys seven other key term sin the Sermon, including righteousness, hypocrisy, heart, gentiles/pagans, “the Father in Heaven,” the Kingdom of God/heaven, and reward, recompense and treasure. Each are only treated briefly, each is worthy of a chapter (or monograph)! The final chapter in Part 1 is an attempt to provide some structure for the Sermon.

The second part of the book is the commentary proper (about 130 pages) divided into six chapters. Pennington begins each pericope with his own translation followed by a few paragraphs dealing with the overall teaching of the text. Since Pennington subtitled this book a “theological commentary” he often goes beyond exegesis to theological reflection. Most exegetical details are restricted to the footnotes and interaction with the Greek text is minimal (and transliterated). This makes for a very readable commentary which will appeal to both professions and laypeople.

For example, for the Beatitudes there is little traditional exegesis. To be fair, Pennington covered the main issue for the section in his chapter on makarios. He has a sub-section on the Isaianic background to the Beatitudes, a section connecting the Beatitudes with the rest of Matthew, a section on the paradox of suffering-flourishing, and a section on the theological appropriation of the Beatitudes in the rest of the canon.  Although not as clearly marked in other sections of the commentary, Pennington follows this pattern throughout his work. He sets the sayings in context by looking back to the Old Testament, the whole context of Matthew, then forward to the reception of the sayings in the rest of the canon and early church.

The final chapter is a final theological reflection on the contribution of the Sermon on the Mount to a “theology of human flourishing.” He makes a series of “theological assertions” based on his reading of the Sermon. First, Pennington says the Bible is about human flourishing, a claim he needs to make because of the Protestant fear of describing the Bible in this way. Protestants tend to see the Bible as a “drama of redemption” (how does God deal with the sinfulness of humanity), but to focus solely on this misses the rich material throughout the Bible on how people can flourish as humans. This assertion makes perfect sense if one has a biblical view of shalom, essentially the second and third chapter of Pennington’s book.

Second, the Bible’s vision of human flourishing is God centered and (ultimately) eschatological. This point is developed from Pennington’s work on telios in chapter 3. Since the story of the Bible is working toward the restoration of shalom, it is goal-oriented. Part of this goal can be realized in individual human flourishing, but it is also missional and outward focused. By participating in the story of redemption, humans work toward God’s eschatological goal of restoring shalom.

Third, the moral view of the Bible is a “revelatory virtue ethic.” Although he is attracted to ethics as virtue, Pennington is adamant the virtue demanded by the Bible is shaped by and encircled by divine revelation (300). This is not a case of baptizing secular virtue ethics by prooftexting them with the Sermon on the Mount.

Fourth, salvation is “inextricably entailed” with discipleship and virtuous transformation. In this assertion Pennington wants to defuse the potential disconnect between Jesus and Paul. In Matthew, disciples pursue righteousness, in Paul, righteousness is imputed by grace through faith in Jesus’s death and resurrection. Even though they talk about righteousness differently, the Sermon and Paul both have a vision of discipleship as a transformation of the heart.

Fifth, virtue and grace are compatible. Again, this may be another problem generated by setting Jesus against Paul, since in the Sermon the virtuous disciple “seeks righteousness” and Paul is often made to say righteousness as a legal status equivalent to salvation. For Pennington, righteousness, virtue and sustaining grace are all essentially the same vision for Jesus’s disciples.

Finally, Pennington observes that biblical human flourishing will provide an insight into the meaning of God’s saving work. He does not want to leave the impression one can live a happy and prosperous life by following the Sermon on the Mount but never actually encounter Jesus as a savior. Human flourishing is not the only metaphor to describe the message of the Bible (309), but it does provide a framework for understanding redemption and the kingdom of God.

Conclusion. In this book, Pennington demonstrates that the Sermon is a “Christocentric, flourishing-oriented, kingdom-awaiting, eschatological wisdom exhortation” (15). He achieves this goal by setting the Sermon in a canonical context of wisdom literature, but also by paying attention to interaction with the world of ancient ethics texts. Pennington’s contribution to the ongoing discussion of the Sermon on the Mount is far more than a commentary, it is an introduction to biblical ethics. Like Stassen and Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics, Pennington’s book attempts to use the Sermon on the Mount as a foundation for discussing larger issues of discipleship, virtue and ethics.

 

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

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.

Gundry, Robert H. Peter: False Disciple and Apostate according to Saint Matthew. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015. 139 pp. Pb; $20.   Link to Eerdmans   Video of a lecture Gundry gave at Westmont on the topic of this book.

This short study by Robert Gundry makes the somewhat surprising claim that Matthew considered Peter to be a “false disciple and apostate.” In the introduction to the book Gundry makes his motivations clear. This is not an anti-Catholic book and he is not interested in subverting any traditions about Peter. Nor is he interested in the “historical Peter,” assuming a history of Peter’s life could be written. Gundry’s project is strictly limited to the presentation of Peter in Matthew’s gospel only.

Gunrdy, PeterIn order to reach this conclusion, Gundry analyzes every appearance of Peter in the Gospel of Matthew. By way of method, Gundry employs redaction criticism in order to show Matthew edited Mark’s narrative to present Peter as an example of a disciple who was very close to Jesus but ultimately failed to follow through on his commitment to Jesus. In the end, Peter is left “outside in the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Gundry’s use of redaction criticism is well-known from his commentaries on Matthew and Mark, therefore many will pre-judge some of his comments based on his method alone.

After a short introductory chapter on method, Gundry’s second chapter surveys all of these texts prior to the climactic confession of Peter in Matthew 16. Peter is not presented in these texts as a model of faith, in fact, the famous story in Matt 14:22-33 does not demonstrate Peter’s faith, but his lack of faith. The story of Peter’s request to walk on the water is not found in the other Gospels. Matthew therefore chose to report the words of Peter, “If you are Jesus (14:28) in similar language to the devil in the Temptation (4:3, 6). The other disciples in the boat confess Jesus as God’s son and worship him, but Peter is not included in that group (12).

In Matthew 16:13-32 Jesus seems to call Peter to be the leader of his church. Gundry therefore examines this pericope in detail in chapter 4. By confession Jesus is the Messiah, Peter is “playing catch-up” since the other disciples have already done so in 14:33 (16). The real issue in Matt 16 is Jesus calling Peter “the rock.” Gundry argues the “rock” refer to the words of Jesus, recalling Matt 7:24, the wise man builds his house on the rock.”  The bedrock in Matt 7:24 is clearing the words of Jesus (μου τοὺς λόγους τούτους). Peter himself is cannot be the “foundation of the church” since the church will be built on the teaching of Jesus. He is the one teacher (Matt 23:8) and the disciples will be commissioned to disciples the nations by teaching them everything Jesus has taught (Matt 28:20). The “keys to the kingdom” and “binding and loosing” both refer to teaching Jesus’ words, not the words of Peter as the successor of Jesus. The disciples are to convey Jesus’ words, not interpret them (25).

After Peter’s confession, Jesus reveals he will die in Jerusalem (Matt 16:21). Peter rebukes Jesus for this prediction (16:22). The brazenness of this rebuke is often lost in translation, but disciples do not rebuke their masters in the ancient world. Peter not only rebukes, but Matthew uses a double-negation plus a future indicative, the strongest negation in Greek. Jesus calls Peter Satan and a snare. Again, this stinging counter-rebuke is often translated to put Peter in a good light, but Matthew uses σκάνδαλον, a temptation to sin. In Matthew, Jesus has already said anyone who causes others to sin (πάντα τὰ σκάνδαλα) will be thrown into the fiery furnace where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:41-42). For Matthew, all “σκάνδαλα belong in hell” (30).

At Capernaum

At Capernaum

Chapter 4 traces several appearances of Peter in Matt 17-26, from transfiguration to the Garden of Gethsemane. Most of these are examples of “redactionally anti-Petrine moves by Matthew” (40). In Matt 19:27-30, when Peter responds to Jesus’ “camel through the eye of a needle saying, Matthew adds “what therefore will we have?” (τί ἄρα ἔσται ἡμῖν;). This future expectation of reward is not in the parallel in Mark or Luke. For Gundy, this is evidence Matthew is presenting Peter as “angling for present compensation” (39).

Gundry argues Peter’s denial of Christ is a parallel to Judas’s betrayal and suicide (chapter 5). He carefully examines the details of Peter’s denial, demonstrating Matthew’s modifications of Mark show Peter has apostatized. Matthew has redacted Mark in order to demonstrate the gravity of Peter’s denials. Peter swears with an oath (καὶ πάλιν ἠρνήσατο μετὰ ὅρκου, 26:72). In a passage unique to Matthew, Jesus states his disciples should not take oaths. For Gundry, this is flagrant disobedience to the Lord’s commands. By verse 74, Peter begins “to curse and swear,” another redaction by Matthew in order to highlight Peter’s apostasy; Matthew changes Mark’s ἀναθεματίζω to καταθεματίζω and drops “on himself” from Mark 14:71. In Mark, Peter is cursing himself, in Matthew he is cursing others (49-50).

Peter obviously denies his Lord, but most commentators are adamant Peter is restored after the resurrection. His bitter weeping is usually understood as a demonstration of his great remorse in contrast to Judas’s suicide. Gundry lists two dozen statements from various commentaries which try to rehabilitate Peter and offers a short response for each. For Gundry, the “bitter weeping” indicates Peter is an apostate who has in fact move into the darkness, “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

In to this evidence, addition, there are a number of places in Matthew where Peter’s name is omitted. Chapter 6 examines these “non-appearances” of Peter and argues they represent Matthew dropping Peter because he is an example of a false disciple. For example, in Mark 16:8 the angels tell the women to go and tell the “disciples and Peter.”

Chapters 7-8 develop two threads Gundry has traced in this book as well in his commentary on Matthew. First, Gundry gathers more than twenty texts in Matthew describing false discipleship and concludes both Peter and Judas are quintessential false disciples (88). Just one example: In the Wedding Banquet parable (Matt 22:1-14) scholars are often perplexed by the unprepared man in the second part of the story. For Gundry, this man is a professing disciple who is marked as a false disciples because of his lack of wedding clothes (79). Like Peter, this man is one of the many who were called but not chosen and will remain outside, where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The second theme Gundry traces is flight from persecution in Matthew. He examines (briefly) eight pericopae in which those who flee persecution are condemned.  A false disciple is exposed when there is persecution. Like Peter’s betrayal, the false disciple will show themselves and deny Jesus publically.

In his final chapter Gundry makes a few suggestions based on the texts surveyed in the book. He speculates a gospel presenting Peter as an apostate could not be written after his martyrdom, so his argument for Peter as a false disciple implies an early date for the writing of Matthew. A corollary he does not mention is dating Matthew to before A.D. 70 pushes the date for Mark/Q perhaps a decade earlier.

A second implication is more speculative. Like many scholars, Gundy associates Matthew with Syrian Antioch. Galatians 2:11-14 describes a face-to-face confrontation between Paul and Peter. Gundry gently suggests Matthew reflects a situation where Paul won his argument with Peter. He recognizes this echoes the old Tübingen school, but it “may call for further investigation” (103).

Conclusion. A book entitled Peter: False Disciple and Apostate will naturally generate a great deal of interest since Peter is beloved as the first leader of the Christian church. This is certainly true in the Catholic tradition, but evangelical pastors love to preach about thick-headed Peter, a simple man used by Jesus to found the Church. Doubtless many will point to John 21 as a “restoration of Peter,” but that is John’s story and not Matthew’s. Gundry has delimited his topic to only Matthew’s Gospel, so the “restoration” of Peter in the other gospels or tradition does not matter to him.

But it is true the Gospel of Mark also fails to mention a restoration of Peter. Although Luke describes Peter as a leader in the Jerusalem church, people are suspicious of his escape from prison in Acts 12. After this event, Peter is hardly mentioned in Acts and seems to have been supplanted by James, the Lord’s brother. It just might be the case Peter is not as important to the foundational level of the Church as tradition has made him out to be.

Peter: False Disciple and Apostate is a brief but extremely well-researched book that argues a single point in a short 100 pages. Gundry makes his case well, although it is a case many will find jarring. Although I imagine the book will cause much “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” the book will set the agenda for Matthean theology for years to come.

 

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

 

An angel warns Joseph not to divorce Mary because the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit (1:20-21). The angel indicates that the conception of the child is by the Holy Spirit. While we usually talk about this as a virgin birth, it is better to think in terms of a virgin conception and a normal birth. There is nothing in the Bible which implies that there was anything unusual about the pregnancy after it begins. Jesus’ birth was normal and Mary and Joseph go on to have other children.

The-AnnunciationThe Greek text does not have the definite article, the child is conceived by “a holy spirit.” There are a number of suggestions for what this might meet, at the very least it refers to the power of God as responsible for Mary’s pregnancy.

There is little use trying to figure out the “science” of how this happened, then whole point is that this is a miracle from God. The child is not Joseph’s nor is he the son of any human, he is the “son of God.” The connection of the Holy Spirit to the birth of Jesus is important for several reasons.

First, like Adam, the human Jesus is a special creation of God. Paul will use this parallelism between Adam and Jesus in Romans 5:12-21. The virgin birth is therefore analogous to the special creation of Adam in Genesis 2.

Second, the Hebrew Bible refers to the king of Israel as a “son of God.” In Ps 2:7, for example, the enthroned King of Heaven says to the king of Israel “you are my son, today I have begotten you.” The virgin birth is the ultimate enthronement of a king in the line of David. It is significant tat Joseph is called a “son of David” in this text, the only place in the New Testament where someone other than Jesus is given that title. This likely highlights the royal importance of the child to be born.

Third, there are many references to special servants of God in the Hebrew Bible who are born through miraculous circumstances. Beginning with Isaac, several old or barren women have children. Even John the Baptist is born in this classic “Old Testament”scenario. A virgin giving birth is the ultimate unlikely birth!

Fourth, there are a number of references to the coming messiah / servant of God as being specially empowered by the Spirit of God, Isa 11:2, for example, describes the “root of Jesse” as having the seven-fold Spirit of God upon him.

That the child is not the result of unfaithfulness, but rather a divine miracle, would comfort Joseph and assure him that this child is part of the larger plan of God.

Joseph discovered his young wife to be is with child (Matthew 1:18-19). Betrothal in the Second Temple Period was a legally binding relationship which could be set aside only through a divorce-like proceeding. A betrothal period could take up to twelve months (m.Ket 5:2), during which time the woman is still under the authority of her father.

Normally there were no sexual relations between the engaged couple, although it is likely that sort of thing did happen. If the man lived with his father-in-law during the betrothal, he cannot divorce his wife is she is found not to be a virgin. There is a whole section of the Mishnah (Ketuvim) dealing with engagements and breaking those engagements. It is impossible to be certain that the practices described there were in force at the time Jesus was born, but it is likely that some of the things we read there reflect the issues with which Joseph dealt.

Since Mary is pregnant, she must have been unfaithful. Joseph therefore decides to divorce her “quietly” because he does not want to shame her. The verb δειγματίζω is used for the shaming of a woman caught in adultery, as the the scribes wanted to do to a woman caught in adultery in John 8:2. Dio Chryssostom mentions a Cyprian law requiring an adulteress to cut her hair and be “subject to contempt by the community” (Dio Chrys. 47; BDAG). This form of the verb does not appear in the LXX, but the compound verb παραδειγματίζω appears 6x. In Num 25:4 it describes the public hanging of those who fornicated with the prostitutes from Baal-Peor (compare PsSol 2:12-14, a possible allusion to that story).

MangerThe divorce (ἀπολύω) is to be “quiet,” an adverb (λάθρᾳ) often meaning “in secret” or “in private.” In Matt 2:7, for example, Herod summons the wise men “in secret.” It is occasionally used outside of the New Testament with the sense of “not going through proper channels.” It is possible that Joseph, being a poor man, did not feel it necessary to spend the money and time to properly punish her, so he would dissolve the marriage without bringing it before proper authorities who would (perhaps) insist on a shaming of Mary and (undoubtedly) money from Joseph.

Since Joseph was described as a “righteous man,” it is possible that he thought he was obligated by the Law divorce Mary (Nolland, Matthew, 95). Numbers 5:11-31 may indicate that if a man discovers his wife in adultery a divorce is required, as well as a public shaming. It is also possible that Joseph did not want to shame himself by declaring to the public that his betrothed wife had been unfaithful. While the text says that it is Mary’s shame that is in mind, Joseph would have a certain level of humiliation when the news became public

Whatever his motives, Joseph is describe as “doing the right thing” and preserving Mary from a public disgrace for adultery.

In the carol Silent Night, we sing the words “Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child, Holy infant so tender and mild.” This well know Christmas carol was written in 1816 by an Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr and set to music two years later by Franz Gruber. It was first preformed on Christmas Eve 1818, accompanied by a guitar because the church organ was broken. The carol was translated into English in 1863 and eventually included in an English Sunday School hymn book. The song usually tops lists of “most popular” Christmas carols and has been translated into 300 languages! According to Wikipedia, it has been recorded by virtually every artist who has produced a Christmas album. (From Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley, the Vienna Boys Choir to the metal band Anthrax, there is even a John Denver version accompanied by the Muppets!)

Silent NightIt is remarkable to me that the song remains popular because the lyrics contain rather traditional theology. When we sing this song we are reminded of the Virgin birth of Jesus, the holy son of God who is pure light, the savior who brings redeeming light into a world darkened by sin.

While it is unlikely that the instrumental versions floating around the background at the local Mall can be construed as “theology,” the idea that Jesus was born miraculously from a virgin mother is part of our culture. This time of year people will point out that Jesus was born to a single mother into the world of poverty, he was homeless, etc. For doctrinal reasons the phrase “Virgin Mary” is common throughout the world, although sometimes for less-than-biblical reasons.

On the other hand, the virgin birth of Jesus is often dismissed as a lame attempt by early Christians to give their founding figure a miraculous birth, like Apollo or some other divine man. Scientifically, women do not reproduce on their own therefore this “miracle” is quickly explained away as legend. This is quite true but the point is that the birth of Jesus was supernatural, a miracle.

But the point that Matthew makes by claiming Mary was a virgin is that the origins of Jesus are different than any other great leader of Israel. Samuel, for example, was born to a woman who was barren in response to her fervent prayer (1 Samuel 1). The stories of the Patriarchs repeatedly include barren or old women giving birth because God gave them a child. The irgin birth of Jesus is the ultimate miraculous birth.

But two of the Gospels begin the story of the virgin birth, and Matthew states that the virgin birth happened “to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet.” In this case, the prophet is Isaiah and the sign of Immanuel. It is important to read the words of Matthew in their proper context, looking back to what God did in Isaiah’s day. In the context of Isaiah 7, God is with his people at a time when they are apathetic towards the covenant and the King is in open rebellion against his God. Yet the sign of Immanuel is given because God is still working to preserve the Davidic Dynasty.

In Matthew 1, the sign of Immanuel is given once again for the same reasons. While the details are different, the people of God are still apathetic toward the real heart of the covenant and many are in open rebellion against it – yet God is still working to preserve the people of Israel, to redeem them from their sins and to bring the real King, the Son of David into the world.

Silent NightIn the carol Silent Night, we sing the words “Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child, Holy infant so tender and mild.” This well know Christmas carol was written in 1816 by an Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr and set to music two years later by Franz Gruber. It was first preformed on Christmas Eve 1818, accompanied by a guitar because the church organ was broken. The carol was translated into English in 1863 and eventually included in an English Sunday School hymn book. The song usually tops lists of “most popular” Christmas carols and has been translated into 300 languages! According to Wikipedia, it has been recorded by virtually every artist who has produced a Christmas album. (From Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley, the Vienna Boys Choir to the metal band Anthrax, there is even a John Denver version accompanied by the Muppets!)

It is remarkable to me that the song remains popular because the lyrics contain rather traditional theology. When we sing this song we are reminded of the Virgin birth of Jesus, the holy son of God who is pure light, the savior who brings redeeming light into a world darkened by sin.

While it is unlikely that the instrumental versions floating around the background at the local Mall can be construed as “theology,” the idea that Jesus was born miraculously from a virgin mother is part of our culture. This time of year people will point out that Jesus was born to a single mother into the world of poverty, he was homeless, etc. For doctrinal reasons the phrase “Virgin Mary” is common throughout the world, although sometimes for less-than-biblical reasons.

On the other hand, the virgin birth of Jesus is often dismissed as a lame attempt by early Christians to give their founding figure a miraculous birth, like Apollo or some other divine man. Scientifically, women do not reproduce on their own therefore this “miracle” is quickly explained away as legend. This is quite true but the point is that the birth of Jesus was supernatural, a miracle.

But the point that Matthew makes by claiming Mary was a virgin is that the origins of Jesus are different than any other great leader of Israel. Samuel, for example, was born to a woman who was barren in response to her fervent prayer (1 Samuel 1). The stories of the Patriarchs repeatedly include barren or old women giving birth because God gave them a child. The irgin birth of Jesus is the ultimate miraculous birth.

But two of the Gospels begin the story of the virgin birth, and Matthew states that the virgin birth happened “to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet.” In this case, the prophet is Isaiah and the sign of Immanuel. It is important to read the words of Matthew in their proper context, looking back to what God did in Isaiah’s day. In the context of Isaiah 7, God is with his people at a time when they are apathetic towards the covenant and the King is in open rebellion against his God. Yet the sign of Immanuel is given because God is still working to preserve the Davidic Dynasty.

In Matthew 1, the sign of Immanuel is given once again for the same reasons. While the details are different, the people of God are still apathetic toward the real heart of the covenant and many are in open rebellion against it – yet God is still working to preserve the people of Israel, to redeem them from their sins and to bring the real King, the Son of David into the world.

In Matthew 1, Joseph and Mary are described as “betrothed,” a legally binding contract which was something like a “pre-marriage”  arrangement.  Since Mary is found to be pregnant, she must have been unfaithful.  This sad situation almost requires a breaking of the marriage contract, so Joseph decides to divorce her “quietly.”

Joseph and the AngelJoseph does not want to shame her. The verb δειγματίζω is used for the shaming of a woman caught in adultery. It appears in John 8:2 with this sense, and in Dio Chryssostom 47 there is a reference “a Cyprian law, according to which an adulteress had to cut her hair and was subjected to contempt by the community” (BDAG).

This form of the verb does not appear in the LXX, but the compound verb παραδειγματίζω appears 6x. There is little difference in meaning, TDNT 2:31. In Heb 6:6 the compound form is used for shaming Christ by publicly recanting one’s faith. In Col 2:15 uses the verb for the shaming of the “authorities” after when Jesus triumphed over them in the resurrection. In Num 25:4 it describes the public hanging of those who fornicated with the prostitutes from Baal-Peor (compare PsSol 2:12-14, a possible allusion to that story).

The divorce (ἀπολύω) is to be “quiet,” an adverb (λάθρᾳ) often meaning “in secret” or “in private.” In Matt 2:7, for example, Herod summons the wise men “in secret.” It is occasionally used outside of the New Testament with the sense of “not going through proper channels.” It is possible that Joseph, being a poor man, did not feel it necessary to spend the money and time to properly punish her, so he would dissolve the marriage without bringing it before proper authorities who would (perhaps) insist on a shaming of Mary and (undoubtedly) money from Joseph.

Since Joseph was described as a “righteous man,” it is possible that he thought he was obligated by the Law divorce Mary. (John Nolland makes this suggestion and he offers a number of mishnaic sources which indicate that the situation described here may require a divorce. Nolland, Matthew, 95) Numbers 5:11-31 may indicate that if a man discovers his wife in adultery a divorce is required, as well as a public shaming.

While I am not sure that it is correct to connect the “righteousness” of Joseph to keeping a legal tradition requiring the divorce of an adulteress wife, I do think that it is important to read righteousness in a Matthean context rather than importing the Pauline idea into this text. Matthew is not saying that Joseph was “justified” before God, but rather that he was a Jew who was keeping the Law as best that he could. It is possible to read this Greek word as reflecting the same idea as the Hebrew צַדִּיק, “conforming to the laws of God and people” (BDAG).

It is also possible that Joseph did not want to shame himself by declaring to the public that his betrothed wife had been unfaithful. While the text says that it is Mary’s shame that is in mind, Joseph would have a certain level of humiliation when the news became public.

Whatever his motives, Joseph is describe as “doing the right thing” and preserving Mary from a public disgrace and potential execution for adultery.

The Sermon on the Mount is very much a Jewish style collection and there are some parallels between Jesus’ teaching and discussions of the Law found in the Mishnah.  For example, exchanging coins for tithes (Mt. 21:12, Maaser Sheni 2:7, Sheqalim), rules for healing on the Sabbath (in Shabbat, cf. Luke 6:6-11), fasting (in Taanit, cf Mt. 6:16-18), Marriage and divorce, (Ketubot, cf Mt. 5:31-32, 1 Cor. 7), Vows (Nedarim, cf Mt. 5:33-37), etc.  Several of the “you have hear it said” topics in the Sermon seem very much based on the same sorts of rabbinic interests in the Mishnah.

This tells us something important about Jesus’ style of teaching:  it was not unlike contemporary Jewish teachers.  But more than this, it tells us something about Matthew’s collection of Jesus’ sayings into the Sermon on the Mount.  Perhaps we can think of the discourses in the book of Matthew as a sort of proto-Mishnah, with a focus on only one teacher, Jesus.

In Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus discusses elements of the Law.  Did Jesus come to abolish the Law?  Rather than abolishing the Law, Jesus seems to be re-interpreting it in a somewhat radical manner.   The first three of these examples seem to re-interpret and intensify the law, while the second three seem to interpret the Law which may make the command “lighter.”  Jesus “goes beyond the Law” by returning to the heart of the Law.

In the first two cases, murder and adultery, Jesus takes the command of scripture and emphasizes the emotion underlying the sin.  For murder, the real problem is anger and hatred.  For adultery, the real problem is lust.  Jesus says that one cannot claim to keep the commandments if they have been angry with their brother or lusted in their hearts.  Other Jewish literature recognizes this as well.  Sirach 9:1-9, for example, encourages the one who Fears the Lord to be careful what they look at in order to avoid adultery.  Similar to Jesus, the wise person in Sirach 9 avoids the mental process which leads to lust in order to avoid lust.

Here is an example of this quasi-rabbinical application of the Law, through Jesus, to a contemporary issue.  (Another though experiment, since people like those so much!) I think most Christians are going agree with Jesus that lusting in one’s heart is sinful, and this is usually used to point out that pornography is wrong.  But what about the command to be careful about “murdering in your heart”? If a Christian says using a computer for pornography is wrong, why do we not also say using a computer for violence is wrong?  Playing a violent video game is in fact “murdering in your heart” and ought to be seen as just as great a danger as viewing porn on a computer.   Again, Christians agree watching a pornographic movie is sin, but them watch extremely violent movies.  That Jesus chose to pair violence and sex in his teaching should be a powerful warning to modern Christians who filter one, but not the other.

Is this a fair application of the principles of the Sermon on the Mount?  Why do Christians (rightly) condemn sexual content in entertainment, but not violence?

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

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