Matthew: A Commentary on his Literary and Theological Art

Written by Robert H. Gundry Reviewed By Dick France

Gundry’s commentary on Matthew has been eagerly awaited, not only because of the promise of a full-scale commentary on the most neglected gospel by a leading Matthean scholar, and a conservative one at that, but also because it had been widely ‘leaked’ that this book would take the bold new line of defending unhistorical midrash as an acceptable category within the context of an evangelical doctrine of Scripture.

It is, I suppose, inevitable that evangelical comment on this volume will focus particularly on Gundry’s denial of a historical intention in much of Matthew’s presentation of Jesus; indeed the author is aware of this danger, and suggests that readers withhold judgment on this issue as they read the commentary on chapters 1–2, where it arises in its most acute form, until they have sampled the rest of the commentary. This review will, accordingly, try not to overbalance in that direction, for the volume is presented first and foremost as a commentary rather than simply a discussion of Matthew’s attitude to historicity.

This is not a book for those who baulk at untranslated Aramaic and Hebrew. Its sheer bulk is likely to deter non-specialists. Yet it has few references to other scholars, and Gundry makes a point of his intention to ‘develop his own line of interpretation’ rather than to interact with other interpreters. (Even where, unusually, opposing views are mentioned, they are not documented, as on p. 360 where ‘the hypothesis’ dismissed in small print is taken almost verbatim from Jeremias’ New Testament Theology, I, pp. 155f., but Jeremias is not mentioned.) This approach is both refreshing, in that it leads to a less cluttered text and a more direct flow of argument, and frustrating, in that a dogmatic presentation of one exegetical option is likely to send most of us to other commentaries to assess the strength of the alternative. As one presently writing a commentary on Matthew, I found it interesting to compare Gundry’s exegetical decisions with what I had written. Sometimes I was enthusiastically in agreement; sometimes (quite as often, I guess!) I disagreed. In the latter cases, while I am sure that the view I adopted had been given a fair hearing in Gundry’s study, the case was seldom presented in the book. No doubt all commentators must to some extent appear arbitrary to those they disagree with; but few, at least in a volume of this size, do so as a matter of policy!

In many ways this is an original volume; both in its conception and in its contents it is not a conventional commentary. So what may the theological student expect to find here that he would not find in most other commentaries? Three things stand out.

  1. Date and authorship. Here is the best argument I have seen, on the basis of the contents of the gospel itself, for a date before ad 63 (the date Gundry assigns to Luke), which is argued in full awareness of the wider implications if Matthew used Mark. There is also an energetic defence of Matthew the apostle as author, based largely on a long discussion of the Papias testimony. This (pp. 609–620) is in itself an argument to be reckoned with, as Gundry dates Papias’ work no later than 110, identifies his ‘Elder John’ with John the apostle, and regards the statement about Matthew as a direct quotation of John’s testimony. The price of this shoring up of Papias evidence is that Papias’ Hebraidi dialectō must be translated ‘in a Jewish style’, a result which suits Gundry’s emphasis on Matthew’s midrashic procedure, but which still seems to me to stretch the elastic of Papias’ reported words to the limit.
  2. Inspired fiction? It has hitherto generally been assumed, and sometimes argued, that a high view of Scripture (‘scriptural inspiration, authority, infallibility or inerrancy—call it what we will’, p. 639) entails that the gospels are throughout reports of historical events and sayings. Without wishing in the least to lower this view of Scripture, Gundry questions whether it may not accommodate deliberately unhistorical narrative and the attribution to Jesus of words he never actually spoke. If this was standard Jewish literary practice, why should it not have been adopted by Matthew and accepted as such by his Jewish readers who would automatically understand that he was writing ‘midrash and haggadah’, and so would not expect his theological expansion of the tradition to reflect actual events? Thus, after nearly two millennia of Gentile misunderstanding, we are now enabled, by our increasing knowledge of ancient Jewish literary method, to understand Matthew’s inspired work as he intended it to be taken, as a deliberate mixture of historical tradition and unhistorical embellishment.

This is a bold argument, attractively presented, and worthy of respectful attention from evangelicals whose particular concern it should be to interpret Scripture according to its own intention rather than in terms of modern literary convention. Those who disagree must do so not on the basis that this is not what evangelicals have traditionally believed, but by showing why it is not a proper conclusion from the evidence of the gospel. The debate has already begun, and no doubt it will continue for a long time. This review cannot enter into it, but Themelios readers may like to refer to longer review articles by Don Carson in Trinity Journal 3 (1982), pp. 71–91, and by Philip Payne, forthcoming in volume 3 of Gospel Perspectives (the publications of the Tyndale House Gospels Research Project; JSOT Press, 1983).

The only point I want to take up here is Gundry’s repeated appeal to ‘midrash and haggadah’ as if these terms, whether singly or together, represented a recognized and unified literary category, as if a prime characteristic of all ‘midrash and haggadah’ was the fictional embellishment of history, and as if it were agreed that this procedure was so commonplace in pre-Jamnian Judaism that Matthew could take it for granted that his life of Jesus would be understood in that light, despite the fact that it does not obviously conform to any existing Jewish literary genre. Here is room for much debate, and particularly for much careful study of non-Christian Jewish literature in all its diversity. Perhaps a commentary on Matthew is not the place to expect such a study, but without it, and without even a definition of how these notoriously slippery terms are being used, the simple use of the slogan ‘midrash and haggadah’ is in danger of becoming a confidence trick at the expense of those who are not aware of the complexity of the subject. It is what Matthew can be shown to be doing in his own right, rather than his assumed conformity to a supposed literary convention, that should be the basis of the judgment as to how much store he set by historicity, and it is here that Gundry’s arguments must be weighed, not waved aside, by those who find the notion of inspired fiction disturbing.

  1. A new type of commentary. The sub-title is important. This is not a book to help preachers to grasp and expound the meaning of a passage, still less a book to sit down and read for exegetical and devotional help. It is a meticulous study of Matthew’s literary technique and theological predilections by means of a redaction-critical analysis of almost every word of his Greek text. At times it seemed to me to treat a pericope rather like a crossword puzzle, where every word of every clue has to be accounted for, sometimes by quite esoteric means, and the object of the exercise is the individual words rather than any over-all meaning.

The essential basis of the commentary is Gundry’s view of synoptic relationships. Matthew used Mark and Q, and little else beyond his own scripturally-inspired imagination (neither oral tradition, nor the ‘many’ of Luke 1:1, nor even, apparently, his own apostolic memory). ‘Q,’ however, is larger than the commonly accepted corpus, for Matthew based some of his apparently independent (‘M’) material on other traditions which Luke recorded more directly (‘L’). Thus the M parable of the two sons (Mt. 21:28–32) is Matthew’s reworking of the prodigal son, and, most importantly, most of Matthew 1–2 is based on the Lucan infancy narratives. Thus the visit of the shepherds inspired Matthew’s story of the magi, the visit to Jerusalem (Lk. 2:22) is reworked into the flight to Egypt, and the sacrifice of doves in the temple (Lk. 2:24) is changed into Herod’s slaughtering of the babies. Yes, he really does say that (p. 34)! If you find this too fanciful to be taken seriously, then you must immerse yourself in the commentary for a few weeks, and discover the subtlety of Matthew’s mind as Gundry reconstructs it. Given such a mind, all things are possible, so that the passive heurethē (was found to be pregnant) of Matthew 1:18 can be derived from the active heures (found favour with God) of Luke 1:30; i.e., it is the word, not the meaning, which is the basis of association.

In this connection it is interesting to read (p. 37) that Matthew’s claim to be recording things that ‘happened’ in order that Scripture might be ‘fulfilled’ is ‘saved from fantasy’ by the fact that ‘his embellishments rest on historical data, which he hardly means to deny by embellishing them’. Yet it is precisely in the ‘embellishments’ that the fulfilment is claimed to occur, while the events of the Lucan narratives themselves find no place in Matthew’s story. No wonder Gundry concludes that in order to understand Matthew’s procedure in this light ‘we will have to broaden our understanding of “happened” as well as of “fulfilled” ’!

To return to Gundry’s synoptic theory, this is essential to his commentary in a way it is not to most others, for the commentary is essentially on Matthew’s use of his sources, rather than on the text of Matthew as such. Every verbal variation from the source is explained, even if it be only a de for a kai. It is remarkable how much theological blood can be sucked out of such linguistic stones, as for instance when the elthōn of 16:13 for Mark’s exēl-then is taken as a reference to Jesus as ‘the Coming One’. But may not authors have different stylistic habits, or deliberately go for linguistic variety, without a covert theological motive? Must every variation in grammatical structure or word order be ‘explained’?

A major feature of the commentary is the regular provision of statistics setting out how often Matthew inserts a given word or phrase into traditional material, and how often it occurs in his own contributions. These are a useful resource, conveniently gathered in an index of Greek words at the end. They form the basis of Gundry’s judgments as to what is characteristically Matthean vocabulary. Sometimes this is clearly a valid conclusion, but when the statistics run in single figures, as they very often do, one wonders how significant they are, and how far they merely reflect the subject-matter of the gospel. And how far do writers in fact conform to a ‘preferred vocabulary’ rather than vary their language, consciously or unconsciously, for literary effect? Even granted the validity of the selection of ‘Mattheanisms’, however, it does not follow, as Gundry tends to infer, that the presence of Mattheanisms indicates a Matthean creation, for presumably in telling a sorry derived from tradition Matthew is not bound to set aside his favourite vocabulary.

So I have some reservations about the method employed in the detailed analysis, not least the fear that it can reduce the humanity of the author and treat him as a linguistically and redactionally programmed machine. But my main complaint is that this is not what I turn to a commentary for. I am interested in the ‘literary and theological art’ displayed in the redactional work, but primarily I want to understand the text which has resulted, to see the flow of thought in the pericope as a whole and how it fits into the over-all development of the gospel. Now there is a good deal of exegetical discussion in this volume, but it is done in relation to each verse individually, and there it has to be disentangled from a mass of linguistic analysis, so that it is hard to keep it in perspective. There is often little or no discussion of a pericope as a whole, and therefore no discussion of the total meaning which is more than the sum of the minutiae.

I suppose much of this adds up to saying that this is not the sort of commentary I would have written (or rather am writing!). It is not necessarily the worse for that; it is for the potential reader to decide what he is looking for. He will certainly find here endless material for a fascinating detailed study of Matthew’s ‘art’.

Over-all, then, an important book, a controversial book, a book to be aware of. But not, I think, the large-scale exegetical commentary on Matthew for which we have been waiting.

Dick France

Llangelynin, Gwynedd