The Gospel Of Matthew In Its Roman Imperial Context, JSNTS 276

Written by John Riches and David C. Sim (eds) Reviewed By Jason B. Hood

This volume finds its inspiration in the recent work of scholars such as Richard Horsley and Peter Oakes who explore the New Testament’s imperial context, as well as Warren Carter on the importance of the Roman Empire for the interpretation of Matthew (see especially his Matthew and Empire, Trinity Press International, 2001). The subtitle of Carter’s 2001 work, Initial Explorations, suggests the need to continue investigating. The present volume is more enlightening than Matthew and Empire, and helps shore up a relative lack of material on Matthew’s Roman context (viz. Paul, Luke-Acts, Mark, and Revelation), even if Matthew is almost irrelevant to half of the book.

The book is divided into two equal sections of four essays each. The first quartet deals with methodological questions and the Roman Empire in contemporaneous Jewish texts, and the second four seek to explore particular aspects of Matthew’s Gospel in that context. The eight chapters are braced by a short introduction and conclusion written by the editors.

The first essay (P. Esler) deals with responses to Rome in Jewish rabbinic and apocalyptic literature—who would have thought the rabbis would have run Romulus and Remus through the gird of Jewish history? In the second essay fresh scholarly ground is broken, as a somewhat plausible reading of Josephus as a subtle critic of Rome is presented by an experienced Josephus scholar (J. McLaren). The third chapter discusses various sociological models of ‘empire theory’ and applies them to Rome, suggesting likely positive and negative aspects and reactions (D. Duling). The first section concludes with an excellent short review of the various attitudes toward Rome in the New Testament (P. Oakes). Each document reflects a general condition of tension with Rome. On the whole, though not in every book, this is seen in six conflicting attitudes—awe, appreciation, resentment, contempt, denial of ultimate authority, and expectation of overthrow.

The ‘Matthew’ section begins with an essay on the expected role of Rome in Matthew’s eschatology (D.C. Sim). This is followed by a useful review on Roman characters in Matthew’s Gospel; Matthew emphasizes their powerlessness in relation to God and Jesus (D.J. Weaver). The seventh essay presents a reading of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20) against the background of Roman Imperial domination (J. Riches). The section concludes with a detailed and interesting study of the likely impact of Matthew 1:1 on the original audience of the Gospel, standing as they did under the dominion of Rome (W. Carter). Readers might benefit particularly form reading the helpful contributions by Carter, who sees implicit critique of the Roman Empire in the text, and Weaver, who sees a mixed approach to Roman characters. These two chapters seem to illustrate the tension described by Oakes in the first section of the book.

With the exception of the chapter by Riches, there is little overt connection between these two sections, as the authors do not interact with one another’s work in the present volume. It should be noted that other methods of studying the texts are frequently suppressed for lack of space.

Material such as essays by N.T. Wright and the first chapter of Michael J. Gorman’s, Apostle of the Crucified Lord (Eerdmans, 2004), may prove more appropriate for non-specialists first engaging the ‘imperial’ dimension of the New Testament.

Jason B. Hood

Highland Theological College