Friday, June 08, 2007

A Response to my yet-published Matthew book

Recently I received an email from a young scholar friend who had occasion to read an early draft of my Matthew book coming out this fall. He asked two perceptive questions about the primary argument of my thesis and I briefly responded. I blog here the text of his email and my response. I also appreciated his comments about the implications of the thesis I propose.

I had a break in my reading agenda recently and sat down with the tome of wisdom otherwise known as your dissertation. While I am most certainly a neophyte in regards to Gospel scholarship, I really enjoyed what you had to say. I would be interested to hear how your defense went - especially considering the frequent references to your thesis "verging on the preposterous." I had a couple of comments/questions regarding your proposal though.There was a primary question that I continued to return to throughout. Assuming Matthew's hope for a concrete, geo-political restoration of territorial Israel (in whatever specific form that might be evinced), what does it mean that this hope went unrealized? If Matthew hoped for this territorial restoration, if he successfully communicated this hope, and if his audience received it in this manner, then what did they do in light of the reality of an unrestored Israel? It seems that, regardless of where you actually date Matthew, both the author and the audience would have struggled to reconcile the Gospels' message of restoration with Jesus' failed mission of restoration. (although, depending upon when it was written in relation to AD 70, I could see how they would have held out more or less hope in a territorial restoration.) How do you continue in community or in worship or the re-appropriation of Jewish theology when the basic mission of the Messiah is restoration of land and kingdom, and they were left with neither land nor empire? From what I could gather, I believe you ameliorate this tension by couching your discussion within an eschatological framework. Hence, territorial restoration is that which is hoped for - that which will come at the "end of the age." But this leads to my second question which is not unlike the first. I know I am probably missing some of the nuance, but, regarding the pragmatic life of Matthew's community, how different is an eschatological restoration from a spiritualized kingdom? Or, more directly, how would Matthew's initial audience (ostensibly wilting under the oppression of the Roman empire) have functioned differently knowing there would be a territorial restoration at the appearance of the "son of man on the clouds" as opposed to a spiritualized kingdom?

Those were my two big questions. However, as I read your work, I did so through the lens of some current personal thoughts I have been wrestling with that are more theological in nature than your exegetical study might have intended. However, as we have talked about before, I can't dis-integrate the two disciplines - how can biblical scholarship not be theological or vice-versa? At any rate, here is where I was quite encouraged and could see your study as a natural springboard for theological reflection.First, the issue of a concrete territorial restoration. It is interesting to view Jesus' mission through this lens. If, at least in Matthew, Jesus is focused on this concrete kingdom, then it follows that so should we. Rather than a detached, ethereal and disembodied utopia we describe as heaven (which has also become synonymous with "kingdom of God"), perhaps the kingdom is much more concrete. If we held to this ideal fully, then it would radicalize our understanding of evangelism, of worship, and of mission. Rather than simply understanding the Christian mission as "winning souls," our participation in the Missio Dei would include an overt and, possibly, embodied bias towards creation (the land) and the creatures (the sheep) in it. Redemption (Restoration) might be viewed not simply as a redirection of individuals' souls, but as a reorientation of individual, corporate, and systemic praxes. Second, the issue of oppression. As Matthew paints Jesus as protesting the religio-political situation of his day and establishing his mission to those who suffer under the oppressors, he shows us a Jesus who is radically concerned with social justice. (albeit, justice for the chosen remnant) I have been consummed lately with the manner and means by which followers of Christ engage with the oppressed. If the realization of Jesus' mission was to take place in stages as you suggest, then in what manner are we participating in the present stage? I know, at this point I am guilty of allegorizing your points, but I can't help it. :) However, the primary point is that Jesus was concerned with political redemption in addition to spiritual or religious redemption. In light of the Great Commission, how else are we to understand our mission if not in a very concrete, political sense?In a way, I just realized that I might have "theologized" an answer to the questions I had when reading your dissertation. Of course, I would love to hear your corrections of either my understanding of your project or my ill-fated attempts at extrapolating from your work.

Thanks for your careful and thoughtful reading of my thesis. First of all, let me say how much I appreciated the theological implications you have discussed. It was just these kinds of things that have had a lasting affect on me as a result of the research. Increasingly scholars have recongized the ethical aspects of our reading of the biblical text. They assert that the ethics of our interpretations should play a role in criteria which validates a given interpretation. I tend to think that his is consistent with what Augustine called the "hermenuetic of love". Just the kind of insights you have suggested encourages me that while I am wrong on many points no doubt, the general direction is a good one.

Perhaps I can answer your two questions with one brief response. I am willing and able to concede that at one level, in the experience of both the Matthean community and indeed ourselves as the ongoing Jeshua movement, the kingdom is experienced now primarily as a spiritual reality. I do not at all want create a fissure between spiritual and political -- I think this is one of the major flaws of the argument. In fact that is why the "spiritualized" interpretation has and can hold such sway. There has not been a physical, concrete restoration of the Davidic political-territorial kingdom. Yet, according to Matthew's Jesus, the disciples were to act in such a way as if that kingdom had indeed been inaugurated. Still the realisation was a future hope, not a present reality. Nonetheless, this is still wholly different from the traditional spiritualized interpretation (e.g. NT Wright) wherein what you see is all that there is. While in these schemes there is an already-not yet aspect, the not yet is NOT this concrete Jewish hope anymore. This difference has monumental consequences for how one thinks about the the message of the Gospel and the life of the community. To a Jewish audience with a messianic hope, the Gospel is a message of preparation (repentance, belief and obedience) in light of the fact that Israel's messiah has come and will come again. Although the language and practice of worship within the scope of a "spiritualized kingdom" interpretation and a what you might call the "concrete kingdom" interpretation might sound the same, the content of the future hope is vastly different. For the latter, the kingdom has come, perhaps you could caricature it as a present spiritual reality, but not in full. And the first installment is only the foretaste and in no way a complete experience of the future reality. I submit that those on the other side see this spiritual kingdom as what Jesus was bringing full stop, even if there is allowance for a still future realisation; it is more of the same. The tension you suggest is a true one and I am sure it was of great concern to these early Jeshua believers in their mission and increasingly so as the parousia delayed. However, I think this tension is a central component of the hope of the Gospel. The hope to which even Paul refers (Rom 11). One last point I would mention, is the fact that Jewish believers in Jesus today, stand in continuity with the Matthean community. Many Yeshua-believers maintain this same Jewish hope and understand the Gospel as a proclamation of the soon-coming kingdom of David with its concomitant blessings for themselves and Gentiles.


Christopher Heard said...

Joel, might you have meant your not-yet-published book? ;-)

Joel Willitts said...



J. B. Hood said...


Wouldn't NTW object to being labeled "spiritual" in any sort of anti-concrete sense? He goes on and on about new creation, NH/NE, new jerusalem, resurrection...none of which is merely "spiritualized", 'what you see is what you get'? Also, I'm not sure who precisely you're targeting on the "more of the same" observation (non-dispensationalists?). Could you flesh that out?

Can't wait to read the dissertation!


Michael Barber said...


I can't wait to read this dissertation... we think so similarly that it's scary. I don't think a day goes by now that I don't look at my shelf of favorite books where I keep a little room open, and say, "That's where Joel's dissertation is going to sit."

I will say that I think Matthew 16 is a crucial key to understanding the Kingdom. There the "keys of the kingdom" are clearly associated with the establishment of the church.

Furthermore, as most commentators agree, the image of the key is taken from Isaiah 22, where we read about the Prime Minister's authority in the Davidic Kingdom. Numerous parallels could be mentioned (look for a post on it on my site in a future series on Jesus and the Hope of the New Temple).

It seems to me that Jesus thought that while the Kingdom certainly has a future dimension, it is also clearly "at hand". He is the Son of David who is coming to restore that Kingdom. Like Solomon, he appoints 12 royal officials (1 Kgs 4:7). He also appoints one those twelve as the Prime Minister, giving him keys. It seems to me then that Peter's relationship to the church needs to be viewed in this light. Somehow the Kingdom is restored in the community of believers--who are to recognize not only the authority of Christ the King, but also the royal authority of Peter and the twelve.

I know all of this sounds a bit "Catholic", but I certainly don't think I'm simply reading something into the text--I think this is vitally important. I also think it is precisely because most Jesus scholarship is done by non-Catholics that this element is overlooked.

Of course the meaning of the Kingdom cannot simply be reduced to a one line description, nonetheless, I think the Davidic / ecclesial link is really missing in most contemporary reflections.

Just a thought...

May God bless you and your family!

Joel Willitts said...

J.B. : I have caricatured Wright in saying that he has a spiritualized reading. Indeed you are right that he wishes to stress the new creation and in this sense Wright's understands the future in a concrete manner. On this point, I am in agreement with him. Yet Wright has no place for the restoration of Land or the Davidic-messianic throne. Jesus is the climax of Israel and what that means for him is that and future expectations of a restored Davidic empire are spiritually fulfilled in his person and work of Jesus. That "spiritualized" is not the best moniker I would be willing to concede. But given the fact that he beleives that Jesus "redefined" the Israel's symbols to the extent that no longer is there a future restoration of Land and Kingdom in Jewish-Christian eschatology he does not have a concrete realization. That is why I say, "there is not a concrete Jewish hope anymore". It is something, but not Jewish.

My comment "all you see is all there is" refers to the eschaton. While it will then be in a new creation, the essence of the thing is the same as now: a borderless, territorial-less kingdom (i.e. Rom 4-- Abraham's promise is now the world).

Joel Willitts said...


I have thought/argued for a similar understanding of Matt 16 and the foundational role of the 12 in Matthew's eschatology. Especially important in this regard is matt 19:28, the throne logion. W. Horbury has written an article on the Twelve and the Phylarchs establishing that there was an expectation in the air of a restoration of the tribal princes who served in Solomon's administration. I believe the key here is to see that Matthew is working with a David/Solomonic paradigm. This, I believe, has tremendous explanatory power.

The book with BNZW is going to be expensive, perhaps you shouldn't buy it. I am trying to get Baker to publish it in the US, a la Brant Pitre.

J. B. Hood said...

Thank you Joel. I have to say I hope to land a review copy, but kudos for working on Baker for a cheaper edition! (Are you saying Paul, and perhaps the author of Hebrews given 11:8-10, 13-16 would disagree with Matthew?) Would you mind juxtaposing your view with that put forward by Brant Pitre on this? He discussed the Land quesetion on his blog in light of Davies, 2TJ, etc:
He comes out more or less where NTW does if I remmeber correctly, though I don't have NT and People of God at hand.

Joel Willitts said...


I actually have a chapter in my thesis where I tackle this issue head on so I will not take time to unpack it here. My primary criticism of views such as Brant's -- and trust me I am a strong supporter of Brant's work -- is the issue of the Davidic Messianic expectation. It plays no role in views such as he espouses. And that goes for Wright and most of NT scholarship on the question. I do think there is diversity in the NT and I think that Hebrews, although Jewish is much more Hellentistic in its perspective than Matthew. Still even the most Hellenistic of Jewish thinkers, e.g. Philo, never abandoned a firm view of the restoration of Eretz Israel even admist their very universalistic conceptions. This point is even documented by Davies in his two books on the subject. My argument is this: when a Davidic messianic expectation is central to the author, it is inconceviable that the restoration of Land and a territorial kingdom is absent. Much more on this later.

J. B. Hood said...

Thanks Joel. Look forward to more.