A few weeks ago I mentioned the release of Craig Evans’ Matthew volume in the New Cambridge Bible Commentary Series (2012; ed. Witherington). Having now read the commentary, I am happy to commend it to students, pastors, and scholars interested in this Gospel as well as Jesus studies.
Obviously, this commentary is consistent with Evans’ previous work – Jesus is best understood within his Jewish background and context, the Gospels offer reliable historical portrayals of the life of Jesus, etc… (see esp p. 10). In terms of his overall approach to Matthew, he follows a traditional view of the Synoptic Gospels with Mark preceding Matthew, and the latter redactionally re-working Mark towards his own theological interests. Evans presumes the existence and influence of Q.
While he does not hammer the point too hard, he makes a reasonable hypothesis regarding the purpose and background of Matthew: “Matthew is still in the Jewish community, struggling to convince a skeptical synagogue that Jesus really is Israel’s Messiah, that his teaching really does measure up to the righteous requirements of the Law of Moses, and that his death and resurrection really have fulfilled prophecy” (p. 6). He goes on to state that there is still some signs of the parting of the ways: “Matthew seems to have written his Gospel in a time of transition, when he and his primary readers, most of whom were ethnically Jewish but were evangelizing Gentiles, had been driven out of the synagogue and had begun to form a community of faith distinct from it” (pp. 6-7).
One of the central issues of interpretation of Matthew I was interested in was the evangelist’s use of the OT. Evans makes frequent, though brief, statements in this regard. First of all, Evans notes Matthew’s particular interest in typology: “Matthew sees biblical history repeating itself, which is what typology is all about — the conviction that God will act in the future the way he acted in he past” (p. 47). Evans is careful to argue, though, that if certain interpretive techniques (like Midrash) were used by Matthew, that does not mean he made up stories about Jesus simply to connect him to OT stories. He uses the miraculous conception and virginal birth as an example. Is it really possible that these Jesus stories were fabricated out of a reading of Isa 7:14?
There is no history of interpretation that anticipates either a miraculous conception or a messianic identity of the child in Isaiah 7. Neither was there an expectation that the Messiah was to be born of a virgin (p. 63).
Evans also underscores that Jesus did not directly threaten or challenge Torah. Part of Matthew’s purpose in writing is to show that “Jesus was not a lawbreaker and did not encourage his followers to break the law” (p. 113). So why does he seem so critical of Jewish leaders and their own attitudes towards the law? In view of Matt 7:13-14, Evans explains, “one can either interpret the Law according to what it really teaches and what it really requires, or one can make a sham of it; one can practice one’s piety with integrity and sincerity, or one can play the role of an actor whose piety in intended to win the praise of humans, not God” (pp 170-171)
The real value of this commentary, though most comments are all-too-short, revolves around Evans’ encyclopedic knowledge of early Jewish, Rabbinic, and Greco-Roman literature and how Jesus’ life and teachings fit into this context. Here are some of the comments he makes that caught my attention.
1. Evans notes that Mary’s husband, Joseph, had a number of important dreams. Evans connects this to “Joseph the dreamer” in Genesis.
2. Evans takes a more negative view of the magi. They are not holy wise men coming to worship Jesus.
3. “Let the dead bury the dead.” Jesus is not disrespecting a son’s desire to bury is recently dead father. Rather, this perhaps refers to “the Jewish custom of gathering and reburying the bones of the deceased one year after death and primary burial” (p. 194).
4. Beatitudes – Evans notes the striking similarities with Isaiah 61:1-11 – mourning, inheritance, righteousness, being filled, etc…He refers to the beatitudes, then, as an exposition of this prophetic text.
5. Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection. Is this Easter faith imported back into the life of Jesus? Evans thinks not. Jesus watched the condemnation and execution of John the Baptist happen during his ministry. He could see the expected outcome of his own preaching and actions. What about his resurrection? Evans thinks that it is likely he already believed in the resurrection from the dead – especially that he would be vindicated by God. It is unclear whether he imagined to be raised up independently.
I could go on and on (the commentary is littered with my markings and underlining of a wide variety of interesting parallels and interpretations). However, I should also mention a few weaknesses and omissions in this commentary. First of all, I was very surprised that Evans did not include in his introduction a discussion of genre. This has become a very critical point of interpretation as the view on genre determines things like historicity, purpose, and the way a theological reading might be accomplished.
Secondly, sometimes his redactional views seem rather rigid – Matthew is always fixing up and re-working Mark. This raises many questions. For example, did Matthew disagree with Mark? Were these corrections?
Thirdly, while I really enjoyed reading his contextual parallels, he rarely takes time to explain the significance of these comparative texts. Was Jesus influenced by them? Was his teaching unique or conventional?
Fourthly, the few times he commented on Greek verbal issues, he worked from a view that tense is equivalent to and indicative of time or continuity of action (which Stanley Porter would object to; see p. 87). Because grammatical comments are not a point of focus in the commentary, this is not that big of a deal, but it did irk me on the rare occasions I saw it.
Finally, he almost never draws out the theological significance of the interpretations he offers. Perhaps this is a constraint of the series itself (where it is about historical interpretation, not theological analysis). Still, I know Evans has opinions on these matters and I kept hoping for more “Therefore…” in the commentary. Again, it could be that he simply could not do this in view of his writing assignment.
I am really happy to have this volume by Craig Evans. When it comes to defending the historical reliability of the gospels, there are few folks more competent than Evans and he does so without seeming like a close-minded fundamentalist. He really thinks and acts like a true historian and that is why he is so well-respected, even by those who disagree with him. This commentary works best as a reference work, to wrap your head around the Jewish background and context of Jesus’ life and teachings. You will need to turn elsewhere for helps with theological views and application for life and ministry (I recommend Keener, Senior, Hagner, and France). Also, for $35.00 the price is not bad for a 500+ page commentary. So, even though there are a wide number of commentaries on Matthew available, this one is worthy of attention.