A review of Ben Witherington's, "Matthew," by Dr. Craig Blomberg.
Ben Witherington III. Matthew. Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006. xxii + 568 pp. $60.00 ISBN 9-781573-120760
The emerging Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary Series is perhaps the most attractive and user-friendly commentary set yet to have been invented. Neither too long to bog down the average reader, nor too short so as to bypass crucial questions consistently, these hardback volumes come with a nice quality of paper, sidebars that address all manner of important issues in more detail, black-and-white pictures (many of them from the history of art) having to do with the passage at hand, and a CD that reproduces the text, sidebars and pictures with various search and projection features. A Ã¯Â¿Â½ConnectionsÃ¯Â¿Â½ section regularly punctuates the commentary, allowing the author to make contemporary applications, larger biblical or systematic theological observations or reflections on the use of a passage throughout church history. The authors reflect a spectrum of Ã¯Â¿Â½liberal evangelicalÃ¯Â¿Â½ to Ã¯Â¿Â½conservative or moderately liberal.Ã¯Â¿Â½ Of the volumes to appear to date, Ben Witherington may be the most conservative thus far, and he is well known for his prolific publishing, including voluminous commentary writing, even while carrying on a ministry of teaching New Testament studies at Asbury Seminary and regularly traveling and speaking around the country and world.
One might not expect a mid-range commentary to say anything particularly new about Matthew, with as many good Ã¯Â¿Â½competitorsÃ¯Â¿Â½ in print. But Witherington defends the somewhat distinctive thesis that Matthew should be read as wisdom literature from start to finish and that this Gospel presents Jesus as Wisdom incarnate as a dominant Christological category. Many scholars have acknowledged this as at least a minor, distinctive theme in Matthew, but Witherington makes it a major one, with sidebars for every pericope entitled Ã¯Â¿Â½A Sapiential Reading of . . .Ã¯Â¿Â½ the text at hand. In addition to the regularly cited passages such as the latter half of Matthew 11 or the inclusio around the Gospel involving Jesus as Ã¯Â¿Â½God with usÃ¯Â¿Â½ (Immanuel at the beginning; Ã¯Â¿Â½Lo I am with you alwaysÃ¯Â¿Â½ at the end), Witherington regularly sees the emphasis in Matthew on JesusÃ¯Â¿Â½ ethical teaching as portraying him as a sage. The son of David motif which most see as stressing Jesus' royal Messianic heritage can also link Jesus with DavidÃ¯Â¿Â½s son, Solomon, as in Ã¯Â¿Â½one greater than Solomon is here,Ã¯Â¿Â½ who of course was given the gift of great wisdom in his day. When Jesus appears as a miracle-worker and particularly an exorcist, we are to think of the intertestamental Jewish traditions of Solomon as exorcist, and the only one among characters from previous biblical history. When Jesus functions like a prophet, we are reminded that the ministries of prophets and sages often overlapped in the ancient world. (Indeed, two of WitheringtonÃ¯Â¿Â½s previous books are on Jesus the Seer and Jesus the Sage, respectively.) But whereas many today in the Ã¯Â¿Â½third questÃ¯Â¿Â½ would see Jesus more as a prophet (and even more than a prophet) by subsuming the teaching of wisdom under the prophetic role, Witherington reverses the super- and subordinate categories here.
With respect to introductory topics, while he does not think Matthew wrote the final form of this book, Witherington suspects a lot of what source critics call Ã¯Â¿Â½MÃ¯Â¿Â½ does come from Matthew, perhaps in Aramaic, accounting for the persistent early Christian tradition that Matthew wrote the Ã¯Â¿Â½sayingsÃ¯Â¿Â½ of Jesus in a Semitic language. An apostle, Witherington thinks, would not have used the work of a non-apostolic writer like Mark nearly so much, while the author of the final product he believes is a Christian scribe not a converted tax collector. The provenance may be more likely Galilee than Syrian Antioch, and we should not see the community as exclusively or even substantially Jewish-Christian, even if those concerns are clearly present. Because Witherington dates Mark to the late 60s, he thinks Matthew must have appeared in the 70s or 80s.
As one has come to expect from WitheringtonÃ¯Â¿Â½s books, this volume offers a gold mine full of nuggets of insight both into the original meaning of the text and into its application, often phrased in memorable and preachable form. The story of the virginal conception is not likely to have been made up, because for those who did not accept it the Ã¯Â¿Â½Holy FamilyÃ¯Â¿Â½ was in fact stigmatized with shame for life. The Magi are guided by general revelation only so far; special revelation must lead them to the Christ childÃ¯Â¿Â½s exact location. JesusÃ¯Â¿Â½ role as a Ã¯Â¿Â½new MosesÃ¯Â¿Â½ can easily be exaggerated, but he does do right what Israel more generally did wrong, not least in the temptations in the wilderness. The Sermon on the Mount functioned for Matthew much like a CD of Ã¯Â¿Â½JesusÃ¯Â¿Â½ Greatest HitsÃ¯Â¿Â½ would in the twenty-first century. A better translation of the antithesis about lust would be Ã¯Â¿Â½anyone who so looks on a woman that she becomes desirous has already led her astray into adultery in his heartÃ¯Â¿Â½ (p. 132). Ã¯Â¿Â½Lead us not into temptationÃ¯Â¿Â½ in the LordÃ¯Â¿Â½s prayer means, as in the later Babylonian Talmud, Ã¯Â¿Â½Do not bring me into the power of a sin, a temptation, a shameÃ¯Â¿Â½ (b. Ber. 60b). Ã¯Â¿Â½Judge notÃ¯Â¿Â½ in context refers to unfair critiques, uncharitable evaluations and using standards that one would not apply to oneself. By the end of the Sermon, one has learned that Ã¯Â¿Â½one is not eternally secure until one is securely in eternity, and oneÃ¯Â¿Â½s behavior as a disciple affects that final outcomeÃ¯Â¿Â½ (p. 160).
Jesus was probably the first sage to have women as his followers. Physical healings also deal with problems of ritual impurity, huge in JesusÃ¯Â¿Â½ world even if we seldom think about them today. Parables have one, two or three points of comparison between their stories and the spiritual realities to which they point. The enigmatic 10:23 is best viewed as referring to the perennially incomplete mission to the Jews before ChristÃ¯Â¿Â½s return. Calling John the Baptist the greatest person ever born suggests that Jesus is even greater and in a position to make such a declaration. Ã¯Â¿Â½Criticizing Jesus as a human being is not an unforgivable sin, but criticizing the Holy SpiritÃ¯Â¿Â½s work in and through Jesus, and thereby calling good evil, is indeed blasphemy against GodÃ¯Â¿Â½ (p. 248). JesusÃ¯Â¿Â½ indirect, questioning, and step-by-step teaching style Ã¯Â¿Â½expected far more of his less educated and in some cases illiterate followers than we tend to expect of our more highly educated congregations. What is wrong with this picture?Ã¯Â¿Â½ (p. 251).
Jesus and the Pharisees could be viewed as leading dueling holiness movements. Even in his harshest words, Jesus never spoke ad hominem and always told the truth. In calling the Canaanite woman a dog, Jesus employs a diminutive of contempt, prompting the woman to find a way to ask for pure grace. JesusÃ¯Â¿Â½ rebuking Peter with the words, Ã¯Â¿Â½Get behind me, SatanÃ¯Â¿Â½ means for Peter that he must Ã¯Â¿Â½take the place of a disciple, following [Jesus] and [his] exampleÃ¯Â¿Â½ (p. 321). In telling Peter to forgive 77 times, Jesus was assuming that the offenders repented; otherwise he would have been contradicting the teaching on church discipline which he had just given. In our culture of narcissism and entitlement, we fight a huge uphill battle to model and to instruct selfless surrender to others, including within the field of Christian counseling!
Ã¯Â¿Â½For Jesus there were two (but only two) equally valid callings in lifeÃ¯Â¿Â½fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness for the sake of the Dominion [i.e., kingdom]Ã¯Â¿Â½ (p. 365). JesusÃ¯Â¿Â½ words to the rich young ruler led Wesley to teach that if you do not give as much of your money as possible away or for doing good to others, you may be a live person but you are a dead Christian. The blind men Jesus heals are better models of discipleship than the Twelve, for the former simply want to follow him and continue depending on his mercy, whereas the latter are arguing about the rewards they will receive in the future! Election in the parable of the marriage feast is corporate not individual. God has not withdrawn his promises to Israel nor transferred them to others but he has said that they are fulfilled in and through Jesus. JesusÃ¯Â¿Â½ death has cosmic consequences but unlike at his baptism there is no heavenly voice, only JesusÃ¯Â¿Â½ dying cry. The Great Commission suggests that the main way of making disciples is through teaching.
Only rarely does Witherington take exegetical positions to which one must strongly object. Nothing in Matthew 5 or 19 suggests that some marriages represent relationships that God has not joined together. If that were to become a legitimate reason for divorce, there would be no person wanting out of a struggling relationship who could not appeal to such a criterion! The parable of the wheat and the tares cannot support deliberately including nonbelievers with believers in church membership because Jesus explicitly teaches that the field in the story is the world, not the church. While Witherington is right that Matthew 17:27 may not have been intended literally, the idea that Jesus may have been joking is least likely of all. Jesus never said that the earth was the LordÃ¯Â¿Â½s and the fullness thereof (p. 411); that quotation comes from Psalm 24:1! The Ã¯Â¿Â½immediatelyÃ¯Â¿Â½ of Matthew 24:29 cannot refer to after the Parousia but is said to refer to after the tribulation that precedes the Parousia. Witherington is right that this includes the time of the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 and that it cannot be limited to that time; the solution, however, is to recognize the entire period from then until ChristÃ¯Â¿Â½s return as from one point of view Ã¯Â¿Â½tribulation.Ã¯Â¿Â½ And to say that Mark Ã¯Â¿Â½certainlyÃ¯Â¿Â½ did not end at v. 8 but that the real original ending (which Matthew followed for part of chap. 28) has been lost is to drastically overstate a conclusion that remains in the minority, even if a growing one.
Unfortunately, one has also come to expect, particularly in the last few years, manuscripts from Witherington that are really not yet quite ready to turn into the publishers. This is, however, the first one where apparently no one at the publishing house was able to turn the rough draft into a publicly presentable form. Sentences are poorly worded and concepts are unnecessarily repeated, sometimes verbatim within just a few sentences of text. Just about any kind of typographic error that spellcheckers alone do not catch appears somewhere in the book, even in large print subheadings. Chapter and verse references have not been carefully checked. Transliterated foreign words, especially from Greek, are misspelled so often as to call into question even the authorÃ¯Â¿Â½s competence, especially with the determination of lexical forms of words. Endnotes have not been rendered via any consistent form, especially short second references. Dates, places of publication, and publishers, in both endnotes and bibliography, at times are just plain wrong. Endnote superscripts are wrong by one digit for pages on end on two different occasions. Wrong fonts or colors of fonts now and then appear. In the text itself, it appears that Witherington read and cited less and less secondary literature, particularly from recent scholarship, as his work on the commentary progressed. While it is perfectly understandable that he should often refer to his own previously published works (because he has written so many), where Matthew runs parallel to Mark not only did he frequently appeal just to what he had written earlier in his commentary on Mark but also his endnotes too frequently referred solely to Markan rather than Matthean studies.
Some sage once coined the proverb not to judge a book by its cover. In our high-tech age, we have to modify that into something like Ã¯Â¿Â½donÃ¯Â¿Â½t judge a book by its cover, color, typescript, pictures, accompanying CDs, sidebars, spacious margins, and so on.Ã¯Â¿Â½ This is a fantastic book in appearance. It had the potential for being outstanding in content and style as well. But, in his goal to write commentaries on every book of the New Testament and then get on to even more major projects, our author is working much too fast and/or not enlisting competent editorial help. This book deserves a revised edition that corrects these numerous deficiencies.
Craig L. Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament