Matthew and Paul. A Comparison of Ethical Perspectives

Written by R. Mohrlang Reviewed By John Barclay

To give a concise outline of the ethical perspective of any one New Testament author is no easy task; and to make an adequate comparison of two is more than doubly difficult. Mohrlang, however, has tackled the problems with considerable skill and insight and has given us a book (originally a 1979 Oxford DPhil Thesis) which is eminently sane and balanced. Many comparisons of Matthew and Paul have fallen into the trap of reading Matthew through Paul’s eyes or else setting up exaggerated contrasts between law (Matthew) and grace (Paul). But Mohrlang follows a steady course between the two extremes, pointing out the similarities between the two writers while allowing their different perspectives and emphases to emerge.

As the title suggests, the book is concerned more with fundamental ethical principles than the details of particular instructions. It consists of five chapters dealing with the topics of ‘Law’, ‘Reward and Punishment’, ‘Relationship to Christ and the Role of Grace’, ‘Love’ and ‘Inner Forces’. In each case Matthew’s and Paul’s perspectives are described separately before comparisons are drawn. On the whole the descriptions successfully bring out each writer’s particular concerns: Matthew’s emphasis on Jesus as teacher and interpreter of the law and on the threat of judgment as an ethical sanction; in contrast, Paul’s ethical basis in the death and resurrection of Christ, the work of the Spirit, and the priority of grace. Mohrlang often underlines the considerable differences between the two writers and occasionally his conclusions lapse into generalized and over-schematized contrasts; but he generally recognizes the important elements common to both writers even where they are expressed in quite different terminology. In the final resort he concludes that ‘the emphases of the two are complementary’ (p. 132) and suggests seven factors which go towards explaining their differences: not least is the fact that Matthew is writing a gospel and therefore working within the limits of the gospel tradition, although using it to give instruction to his community.

It is unfortunate that the first chapter, on ‘Law’, is the least satisfactory section of the book (despite its length—40 pages of text and 314 footnotes!). This is partly due to the mere fact that it is discussed first, since for both Matthew and Paul the place of the law can only be properly understood in the context of Christology and salvation-history. Although Mohrlang touches on Christological themes later in the book (ch. 3), he fails to bring out the essential context of God’s dealings with Israel. For Matthew, Jesus’ attitude to the law is only understandable if he is the fulfiller of Israel’s role (‘the King of the Jews’, ‘the one greater than the temple’) who calls Israel to repentance and to enter the Kingdom of heaven (another theme curiously underplayed by Mohrlang). For Paul, statements such as ‘faith establishes the law’ (Rom. 3:31) or ‘Christ is the end of the law’ (Rom. 10:4) are deeply embedded in his discussion of Abraham, faith and Israel’s destiny and to abstract them from this context is to misconstrue their meaning. Mohrlang’s lack of perspective here ultimately accounts for his unconvincing conclusion that Matthew held side by side two essentially contradictory views of the law and that Paul’s thought is based on a hidden distinction between ritual and moral aspects of the law. As a result he finds the two writers very difficult to harmonise: ‘at bottom, their understandings of the role of the law in the church are radically divergent’ (p. 42). Of course such questions are extremely complex and contested; but there are several occasions when one feels that Mohrlang’s argument is hindered by the volume of secondary literature cited and his reluctance to engage in what Barrett has called ‘the bayonet-fighting of detailed exegesis’.

Nevertheless, the book contains a number of valuable insights and makes a very helpful contribution to the (often neglected) study of New Testament ethics. The coverage of secondary literature is impressive (with a few gaps since 1979) although the use of endnotes and their frequent citation of authors by name only (requiring a third ‘finger’ in the bibliography) is tiresome. This is certainly not a book for the newcomer to this territory, but to seasoned visitors it is a very stimulating guide.

John Barclay

University of Glasgow