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The four Gospels have been caricatured as everything from a disconnected patchwork of history to an esoteric smorgasbord of fables. So when a serious work of scholarship committed to academic integrity appears, one that evidences a depth of familiarity beyond the barricades of inchoate speculation, it’s always a welcome addition to already overstocked bookshelves. What Patrick Schreiner—assistant professor of New Testament language and literature at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon—does so well is step back and set the scope of reading the Gospels in ways that conform to what philosopher Mortimer Adler coined as “the reading of reading.”
One of the keys to reading the Gospels well is to read them within the literary framework of narrative. The Gospels tell a story that’s coherent and connected to earlier theological understandings revealed in the Old Testament. This characteristic is particularly evident when reading Matthew’s Gospel. Schreiner’s Matthew, Disciple and Scribe: The First Gospel and Its Portrait of Jesus teaches Matthew’s readers how to read the gospel-narrative in its context in light of the beginning of divine revelation and the eschatological end. The result is a self-conscious understanding of Jesus through the lens of Old Testament narratives.
“The method Matthew employs to communicate this conviction is ‘gospel-narration’ through the use of shadow stories” (38). As one reviewer of the book states, “Shadow stories are, for Schreiner, short-hand for how one ought to read Matthew.” Shadow stories “connect large swaths of narrative rather than just points or dots in the story,” and he intends to show that by being alert to the shadow stories that evoke “persons, places, things, offices, events, actions, and institutions of the OT” (55, emphasis original), a deeper and more helpful reading of Matthew’s gospel-narrative emerges.
This fresh look at the Gospel of Matthew highlights the unique contribution that Matthew’s rich and multilayered portrait of Jesus makes to understanding the connection between the Old and New Testaments. Patrick Schreiner argues that Matthew obeyed the Great Commission by acting as scribe to his teacher Jesus in order to share Jesus’s life and work with the world, thereby making disciples of future generations. The First Gospel presents Jesus’s life as the fulfillment of the Old Testament story of Israel and shows how Jesus brings new life in the New Testament.
But how does a deeper and more helpful reading of Matthew’s gospel-narrative help the church?
Reader as Disciple
Many Bible readers often think of the Gospels as an ancient version of the parlor game of telephone. In this game, ideas evolve through repetition and iteration across generations. What’s said in Genesis, therefore, has little to do with what’s written in Matthew’s Gospel. How could it? The corruption of the message over time has been weakened to the point of irrelevance. Even if there’s some sort of connection or repetition in words or ideas, surely they must take on new meanings that diverge from the earlier arguments once advanced. In the end, there’s really no way to understand the Bible as a whole. This renders the perception and framing of the Gospels as a lens that distorts more than it focuses.
Not so for Schreiner. Jesus is a “teacher-sage-rabbi forming a new scribal school” (35); Matthew is first and foremost a disciple, whose purposes for writing are fundamentally about practical discipleship in the context of community. “The purpose of scribal training was not only literacy and learning but also the shaping of a kind of person,” the kind of person who becomes a better disciple of the “teacher-sage-rabbi”—Jesus—by becoming a better reader (36).
By becoming better readers of Matthew’s Gospel, Christians become better disciples of Jesus as they’re formed into a certain type of person, participating in ‘a certain of community.’
By becoming better readers of Matthew’s Gospel, Christians become better disciples of Jesus as they’re formed into a certain type of person, participating in “a certain type of community” (247). Discipled scribes, according to Schreiner, aren’t saved to themselves, but “form a community” of disciples that will be sent into all nations to build a church (36). They’re “to be like their teacher and become teachers themselves who transmit the message of Jesus to future generations” as “they are to go out, making disciples by teaching and baptizing” (247). They’re “to tell the story of Jesus, because in this story the new and the old clatter together” (241). They’re to teach how a “discipled scribe understands, interprets, and communicates the relationship between the new [testament] and old [testament] through the lens of Jesus” (250).
Discipleship as Formation and Imitation
Discipled scribes don’t only teach. They “embody the life of their teacher” (246) who is “God with us” (Matt. 1:23) for, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). They don’t merely repeat, regurgitate, and proof-text. Discipled scribes are immersed in Scripture, submitted to Scripture, assimilate Scripture, live Scripture, and thereby find their minds constantly engaged with Scripture.
In a world where it’s possible to know much more about Scripture and truth than wisdom, Schreiner’s call to become a discipled scribe provides a context for developing patient attentiveness to Jesus’s ways over a lifetime in the marathon of following God.
A coherent theological understanding of these ideas connects and affirms the authenticity, historicity, unity, and perspicuity of Holy Scripture as more than a story without meaning.
This book should cultivate a Jesus-soaked imagination as readers learn to pay attention to God in the Word made flesh in Matthew’s Gospel and move beyond surface-level readings. His book helps readers see that the importance of the Old Testament connection to a New Testament context does not absolve Bible readers of responsibility to learn the critical contours of Bible study. A coherent theological understanding of these ideas connects and affirms the authenticity, historicity, unity, and clarity of Scripture as more than a story without meaning.
Shaping Bible readers is a challenge that can be met through signposts provided by scholars like Schreiner who guide the reader through the process of coming to know the Bible even as they grow in their understanding of its meaning and purpose.
Correction: An unattributed quote appeared in the original version of the review.