Two Horizons New Testament Commentary
Brown, Jeannine K., and Kyle Roberts. Matthew. Two Horizons New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018. $38.00. Pap. 575 pp. ISBN 978-0-8028-2566-7
Since 2005, nine volumes in the slowly appearing Two Horizons New Testament Commentary Series have now appeared. The goal is to integrate New Testament studies with systematic theology. Different contributors, most of them New Testament scholars, have tried different formats. One other volume, like this one, has been co-authored by a theologian along with a biblical scholar. Brown is NT professor at Bethel Seminary, teaming with her former colleague Roberts, who now teaches at United Theological Seminary in the Twin Cities. While Brown is primary author of the exegetical section and Roberts of the theological section, both read and made recommendations on all parts, integrating the book about as well as one could expect from two individuals from different disciplines.
The first half of the book is written in traditional commentary format and focuses on narrative criticism. Readers may already be familiar with Brown’s views from her excellent Teach the Text Commentary Series volume on Matthew (Baker, 2015). While only rarely quoting her earlier volume, her perspectives remain largely unchanged. A very brief introduction does not come down for or against Matthean authorship (an unnecessary step if one focuses solely on the implied author), dates the letter after 70 C.E. but sees it stemming from an intramural Jewish debate in which the audience is largely Jewish Christian, considering themselves still a part of Judaism. The outline, like many recent ones, is something of a combination of Bacon and Kingsbury, with all but one main section division coming at the beginning or end of a block of Jesus’ teaching or the key literary seam at 16:20. That exception is ending a section at 20:28, with the ransom-logion forming the concluding climax of 16:21ff., and the healing of the blind men (20:29-34) introducing the section that takes us through “Palm Sunday” to the passion narrative proper (beginning at 26:1). Perhaps only the date here is a little surprising, at least to the extent that Matthew’s community and its debate with the synagogue are still seen as within Judaism. I was also surprised to see my view listed as holding to the very precise dates of 58-59 (p. 19, n. 42), when in fact I referred to a “very slight preponderance” of evidence favoring something in the range of 58-69 (i.e. before the destruction of Jerusalem; Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew [Broadman, 1992]).
It is never possible to do justice to all the exegetical insights of a commentary in a short book review. But some of the highlights for me included the stress in the infancy narrative of God watching over the vulnerable young king Jesus with warnings and guidance by dreams and angelic revelation. Yet at his temptation, he does not resist because of his divine identity (which would be of no help to us) but by faithful Spirit-led devotion in his humanity (which we might replicate). The beatitudes divide into two sections—”those that announce blessing on those whose situations are destitute and cause for despair” (5:3-6) and those “with a strong ethical impulse” (p. 58), commending a Christlike lifestyle (vv. 7-10). In the context of “easy divorce” for a husband, 5:32 “shores up the stability and integrity of lifelong monogamy, thereby protecting women from the whims of a dissatisfied husband” (p. 64). Would that it would be understood and followed as such today for both women and men!
The narrative structure of chapters 8-9 is elegant: three healing narratives, two teachings on discipleship, three more spectacular miracle narratives showing Jesus’ authority, two teachings on discipleship, and three healing narratives. Repeated quotations of Isaiah, some of them unique to Matthew’s gospel show here and throughout his Gospel that Jesus’ life and death not only function as the Suffering Servant but as a physical healer. The parable discourse of chap. 13 reminds us that parables not only reveal to insiders and conceal from outsiders but also reflect a certain opacity to their topic—the hiddenness as well as the revelation of the kingdom of heaven. The anachronistically labeled Canaanite woman of 15:21-28, like the Gentile centurion of 8:5-13, has enough faith for Jesus to make them exceptions to his mission of coming to the Jew first and then to the Greek. The rock of 16:19 does refer to Peter, but only as the leader of the church in its initial years, without any of the later distinctively Roman Catholic teachings about him. The extension of the keys to the kingdom from Peter to all the apostles in chap. 18 (implied by the binding and loosing of 18:18) shows that “everyone in the faith community is responsible for maintaining the health and integrity of the whole,” not just church leaders (p. 169).
The problem of calling no one “instructor” in 23:10 is resolved by recognizing kathÄ“gÄ“tÄ“s as more akin to “master teacher” (p. 205). The blistering rebukes of the Pharisees and scribes in chapter 23 more generally must be understood as referring to one particular group of Jewish leaders out of a larger group of leaders who in turn are only a small part of the nation overall. No matter how many reject Jesus, all his first followers are also Jewish, so there can be no legitimate charges of anti-Semitism in any blanket, overall sense here. Verse 39, moreover, looks forward to their return to the Lord in the future. Despite the oft-abused 27:25, this is not an indictment of all Jews for all time, but the acceptance of responsibility for his death by one group of bystanders, notwithstanding the historical reality that Pilate and the majority of the Sanhedrin are the most culpable individuals. The prominent role of the women at the tomb in 28:1-10 balances the role of the male apostles in verses 16-20, charging all of Jesus’ followers to assist in the task of making disciples, defined as those who obey all that Jesus has taught.
There are only a very few occasions on which I would demur at Brown and Roberts’ exegesis. Despite the venerable precedents of R. T. France and N. T. Wright, I remain unconvinced that either 10:23 or the parousia predictions in the eschatological discourse have Jesus’ invisible coming to judge Jerusalem through the Romans in 70 C.E. in view. Particularly in 24, this view seems unlikely because it would have Jesus saying that when everything he has predicted takes places then his return is merely near, not already here. The consistent use of “little ones” and “brothers (and sisters)” elsewhere in Matthew makes the view that the sheep and the goats are about all needy people in the world also seem unlikely. Not that Christians should avoid helping needy unbelievers, just that one should turn to other passages (e.g., Luke 10:25-37 or Gal. 6:10) for that teaching. My biggest hesitation is about Brown’s completely well-intentioned desire to avoid any hint of anti-Semitism, which leads her (and presumably Roberts) to play down every teaching of Jesus that suggests the new covenant may be moving beyond the Mosaic Law. It is one thing to say (correctly) that Jesus keeps all the Law while he is alive; it is another to say that he does not envisage the fulfillment of the Law (5:17) as bringing the end of the Law as an enduring prescription of how God’s people, Gentile or Jew, must live.
We must treat the second half of the volume more briefly, even though it is at least as deserving of close perusal. Here our authors turn to a series of short topical chapters dealing with key themes in Matthew—kingdom, Christology, the Holy Spirit, discipleship and “the Messiah’s deeds”—as well as interacting with this Gospel in service of related enterprises: constructing a New Testament theology, reading as a feminist or liberation theologian, and highlighting this Gospel’s contributions to pastoral, political, and post-Holocaust concerns. Some of these chapters provide what one might expect; consider the rich Christology and teaching on discipleship that almost everyone acknowledges are among Matthew fortés. Others are a little more surprising, and our authors realize this but believe, and for the most part demonstrate, that there is more present than meets the eye, as for example with the Holy Spirit or with feminism, even if, at least among the Gospels, one might more naturally turn to Luke, or even John, for both of these topics. Of all the insights I could highlight, writing this review the week after our nations’ riots and protests over George Floyd’s murder by a Minnesota policeman, none is perhaps more important than the following: “Given that Jesus’s exhortations in Matthew have highlighted justice, mercy, and covenant loyalty (see 23:23; also 9:13; 12:7, 18-21; 25:31-46), it will not do to isolate the activity of teaching [the gospel] from social justice” (p. 453).
One is used to reading hyperbolic praise on the back covers of books; I may have even written some myself at times! Mark Powell lauds Brown and Roberts’ volume as “the single best introduction to the Gospel of Matthew.” I would not go quite so far myself, though it is a very good book, but I would suggest that it is by far the best contribution to the Two Horizons New Testament Commentary Series to date. And that is not to imply that there are no other very good contributions as well.
Craig L. Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament