Jesus, Matthew’s Gospel and Early Christianity: Studies in Memory of Graham N. Stanton (Review)

When I was looking at PhD programs several years ago, I had an immediate interest in Cambridge and I emailed Prof. Graham Stanton with the hopes of becoming one of his PhD students. Stanton sent me back a very polite reply saying that he had recently retired and could not supervise my research. I ended up getting a fine education at Durham, but I know some of Stanton’s PhD students and friends, and everyone speaks very highly of this outstanding scholar and gentleman (who passed away in 2009).

While he was interested in Paul’s letters (particularly Galatians), Stanton made the most impact on the First Gospel and the study of its main character – thus, it is quite sensible that a Festschrift was produced in his honor under the title Jesus, Matthew’s Gospel and Early Christianity: Studies in Memory of Graham N. Stanton (T & T Clark, 2011; eds D.M. Gurtner, J. Willitts, and R. Burridge). The essays are as follows:

Sapere aude, “dare to be wise” : graduation address on receiving an honorary doctorate of divinity, University of Otago, New Zealand, 16 December 2000 / Graham N. Stanton –
The gospel of Jesus : Graham Stanton, biography and the genre of Matthew / Richard A. Burridge –
The gospel of Matthew from Stanton to present : a survey of some recent developments / Daniel M. Gurtner –
How did Matthew go about composing his gospel? / James D.G. Dunn –
Matthew as ‘gospel’ / Scot McKnight –
Determining the date of Matthew / Donald A. Hagner –
Graham Stanton and the four-gospel codex : reconsidering the manuscript evidence / Peter M. Head –
Fulfilling the law and seeking righteousness in Matthew and in the Dead Sea scrolls / Craig A. Evans –
A gospel for a new nation : once more, the [ethnos] of Matthew 21.43 / Wesley G. Olmstead –
Judging Gentiles in the gospel of Matthew : between ‘othering’ and inclusion / Anders Runesson –
Matthew and hypocrisy / Christopher Tuckett –
The twelve disciples in Matthew / Joel Willitts –
Memorial tribute to Professor Graham Stanton, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, 23 January 2010 / David R. Catchpole.

Two things strike me about the life and scholarship of Stanton. First, he is known as a kind man, someone everyone respected as a person of integrity and grace. Secondly, he was honest and humble enough to admit when he had changed his mind on a matter. These are characteristics that most Biblical scholars simply don’t have. Stanton is quite unique in that he was someone many younger scholars seek to emulate in sharpness of mind, but also in mature character.

While all the essays in this volume are interesting, I will restrict myself to commenting on the first six.

Burridge is up first with a discussion of Stanton’s (and his) own journey of studying the genre of the Gospels. The default scholarly position prior to about the 1970′s was that the Gospels were a unique genre and should not be “classified” definitively within an existing genre category. However, Burridge points out that “Stanton was…the first voice of protest against the critical consensus…and he makes the further significant point that they should be compared with ancient biographies, rather than modern biography” (p. 7). Burridge notes, though, that Stanton did not follow this line of thinking to its natural conclusion and showed hesitancy in his book The Gospels and Jesus where Stanton concludes his genre discussion with these words: “we can be almost certain that Mark did not intend to write the biography of Jesus in the Graeco-Roman tradition” (p. 12 of FS; pg. 19 of Gospels and Jesus).

This was disheartening for Burridge because he was going to defend his own doctoral thesis before Stanton and make the opposite case! It is quite entertaining to read Burridge’s reflections on the unpredictable course of the viva.

It was going alright until  about half-way through when Graham said, “Well, we had better talk about the bit where you take my new book to the cleaners. What would you say if I said, a, b, or c?”, referring to the features which he thought must have puzzled ancient readers. I replied with some points from my thesis, to which he just said, “Yes, you’re right, I’m wrong and I’ll put it right in the next edition,” and moved on to the next question on his list! In that instant, I learned that an internationally leading scholar’s humility could be even more extraordinary than his intellectual ability and research. (13)

Burridge is an entertaining guide through the various stages of Stanton’s academic life. You can tell they were quite close and each one impacted the other for the better. This is a nice snapshot of the best that our guild has to offer in terms of cooperation within a community of learning.

In the next chapter, Daniel Gurtner (also an editor of the volume) offers a survey of the study of Matthew “from Stanton to present.” He examines the development and progress (sometimes!) of critical scholarship in the study of Matthew on such topics as social-scientific criticism, Judaism, empire, wisdom, and comparisons of Matthew and Paul. It is hard to summarize this essay or capture its deft handling of scholarship, but I must say that it should be standard reading for anyone studying Matthew at present.

In Jimmy Dunn’s little essay on Matthew, he takes time to consider the method of composition and also the purpose of its composition. On the first matter, Dunn wisely refers to five “collections” of Jesus tradition that were probably at Matthew’s disposal: Mark, oral tradition which Mark also knew, Q tradition (in written form), Q tradition (in oral form), and “M” (tradition material unique to Matthew). Dunn especially highlights the debt Matthew owes to Mark’s pioneering of this Gospel form (bios raw form notwithstanding).

[T]he very fact that Matthew follows Mark’s pattern so closely, even when using the Jesus tradition in his own way or using other versions of Jesus tradition known to him, underlines the commitment which Matthew in effect took upon himself — that is, a commitment to use Mark’s Gospel genre for his own retelling of the story of Jesus and to follow the pattern of Mark’s build-up of his Gospel to the climax of Jesus’ death and resurrection. (45)

In terms of what Matthew is doing  with this tradition, Dunn makes 9 points:

(1) Matthew puts less emphasis on Jesus as “Son of God” (than Mark) and more on him being “son of David.”

(2) Matthew weakens the Messianic secret motif.

(3) He carries on the “Son of Man” motif, but with slight theological differences.

(4) Similar to #1, Matthew is more interested in showing Jesus’ royal identity.

(5) Matthew takes further a concern to show Jesus as one who fulfills Israel’s Scriptures

(6) Matthew makes much of a Moses Christology, probably to appeal to Jews

(7) Matthew underscores, beyond Jesus’ identity as Messiah, he embodies the presence of God himself (see 55)

(8) Matthew seems to present Jesus as the presence of divine Wisdom

(9) Matthew highlights how various people worship (proskuneo) Jesus.

In Scot McKnight’s essay on “Matthew and ‘Gospel’”, he raises the question as to what it means to call Matthew a “Gospel.” Rather than focusing on genre, McKnight wonders if the term is more of a hermeneutic, where the term came to mean very early in its Christian usage “the declaration of the Story of Jesus as fulfilling the Story of Israel, and that means declaring that Jesus is Messiah, Lord and Savior” (p. 68). If I understand McKnight correctly, St. Paul was also “gospelling,” but the Gospels do this in a thoroughgoing way by recording that story in all its richness and depth, in a way only inchoate in Paul’s references to the “gospel.”

Lastly, I want to mention Don Hagner’s chapter on the dating of Matthew (ch. 6). He writes openly about a process he went through where he changed his mind about the dating, now doubting the earlier position he had that the dating must be in the 80′s. Currently, he thinks an earlier date is more plausible. He gives a variety of reasons, but ultimately urges scholars not to pre-judge the dating matter too quickly.

In determining the date of Matthew scholars should exhibit openness to the possibility of a date earlier than critical orthodoxy currently allows. Nevertheless, because of the indirect nature of the evidence, dogmatism – on either side – is of course out of the question. (92).

The other essays on the book are beneficial, but these are the ones I found most stimulating (though I probably should add my deep interest in Evans’ piece).

Those who have admired Stanton’s work will be interested in this FS, and those interested in Matthew and the Gospels will find much wisdom in these pages. This monograph reminds me of the good work that regularly comes out of the Matthew section of the SBL meeting, and I think Stanton would be proud of much that is going on in that group even in his noticeable absence.

UPDATE: Dave Lincicum brought to my attention that he has co-edited (along with Markus Bockmuehl) a collection of essays by Stanton called Studies in Matthew and Early Christianity (WUNT) – it is coming out in May and totals over 500 pages!

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6 thoughts on “Jesus, Matthew’s Gospel and Early Christianity: Studies in Memory of Graham N. Stanton (Review)

  1. Thanks for reviewing the important book Nijay! Graham was a wonderful man. Interesting note from David. That will be a nice collection of Graham’s works.

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