Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Review of France's Matthew, Part One

I will be excerpting sections of my review of R. T. France's The Gospel of Matthew (New International Commentary on the New Testament) in a series of posts. Here is the first installment.

R. T. France’s commentary on Matthew is a significant contribution simply in its size: a massive 1117 pages of introduction and commentary—with emphasis squarely on the latter as the introduction is a brief 22 pages. Much more than that however, France’s Matthew is the fruit of a life of labor toiling in the field of the Gospels more generally and Matthew specifically. Whatever weaknesses one may think it has, are significantly outweighed by its overall strength. One will go away from the commentary not only with a greater understanding of the First Gospel, but more importantly in my view with a greater passion for following its central character. Lay folks and scholars alike will find France’s commentary a useful guide to apprehending Matthew’s message. It will no doubt take its place alongside the few other evangelical Matthew commentaries that are widely consulted within the field.

This review will be extremely selective and admittedly superficial—but how does one do justice to such a tome in such a short presentation? The purpose of my study was to take some soundings of France’s commentary to grasp a sense of his reading of Matthew. I will proceed through the commentary sequentially dealing first with introductory matters and proceeding through the commentary proper. Then I will discuss interpretive issues that I found to be interesting or curious in what I deem to be key Matthean passages: (1) the genealogy Matt 1:1—17, (2) the introduction of Galilean mission (4:12-17), (3) the fulfillment of the Torah (5:17-20), (3) the parable of the vineyard (21:33-44), and (4) the mission statements (10:6; 28:19-20). This seemed to be the most useful strategy given France’s own words to potential reviews. He wrote:

I have noticed that reviews of biblical commentaries often focus on the introduction rather than undertaking the more demanding task of reading and responding to the commentary itself. Potential reviewers of this commentary who hope to use that convenient shortcut will, I fear, be disappointed (1)

Matthew’s Structure & Outline
One thing that immediately stands out to me in the introduction is France’s understanding of the structure of the Gospel. He argues, in contrast to most modern commentaries, that Matthew has structured his Gospel geographically. Following Mark, Matthew organized Jesus’ story within a geographical framework. He writes, “This geographical outline of the story seems to me a more satisfying basis for discerning its narrative structure than the search for verbal division markers” (4). He comments further,

To read the Gospel of Matthew as a continous [sic] narrative, structured around the geographical progress of the Messiah from his Galilean homeland to his rejection in Jerusalem, with its final triumphant scene back home in Galilee, is to begin to appreciate its power as a work of literature, no simply as a source for theological or historical data” (2007: 4-5).

In France’s earlier work, Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher, he notes that “references to Jesus’ geographical movements punctuate Matthew’s narrative even more clearly than Mark’s” giving the following as evidence: Matthew 3:13; 4:12-16; 4:23-25; 9:35; 11:1; 14:13; 15:21; 15:29; 15:39; 16:13; 16:21; 17:22; 19:1; 20:17-18; 20:29; 21:1 (1989: 151).

France’s outline of the Gospel, then, is as follows:
I. Introducing the Messiah (1:1—4:11)
II. Galilee: the Messiah revealed in word and deed (4:12—16:20)
III. From Galilee to Jerusalem: the Messiah and his followers prepare for the confrontation (16:21—20:34)
IV. Jerusalem: the Messiah in confrontation with the religious authorities (21:1—25:46)
V. Jerusalem: the Messiah rejected, killed, and vindicated (26:1—28:15)
VI. Galilee: the Messianic mission is launched (28:16-20)

While this geographical structure is a significant development and represents a turning back to a much earlier understanding of the Gospel’s structure (see for example Allen), one may ask why France sees a narrative turn at 16:21 since no major geographical move has happened. The next geographical statement of structural consequence comes rather in 19:1: “he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan River”. This is the first time in the narrative since 4:12 that Jesus is said to be moving to Judea.


Divine_Contemplative said...

While 16:21 doesn't have any geographical movement, it does at least note the necessity of going to Jerusalem. Perhaps this hinges partly on what exactly 19:1 is referring to when it says "Jesus finished saying these things.

16:13-20 reveals Jesus' identity as the Messiah, then 16:21 picks up with intent toward Jerusalem.

I could see the sense in that. Still in Galilee, but there's preparation to go to Jerusalem starting with 16:21's statement.

Tyler said...

I know he doesn't follow Kingsbury's structure, for which 16:21 is a major turning point (Ἀπὸ τότε ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς repeated in 4:17 and 16:21).

Nevertheless, perhaps he's recognizing a narrative development at that moment that will take Jesus to Jerusalem. That's when Jesus starts to talk to his disciples about the Son of Man suffering...

Tyler said...

***“The five words are an effective transitional idiom, but they do not compare with Matthew’s frequently repeated formulae of quotation (1:22 etc.) and of discourse ending (7:28 etc.) as markers of literary design.” 2007: 144.***

Joel Willitts said...

I don't have any doubt that 16:21 represents a transition of sorts. But even France critiques Kingsbury for making too much of the transition.
France queries:

It needs to be asked whether a form of words which clearly moves the story on to a new phase is therefore to be treated as marking off separate sections of the book which may be seen as to some extent self-contained units. This question is particularly acute in the case of the formula at 16:21, which falls in the middle of the account of the Caesarea Philippi episode (1989: 152).

His answer to the question is in the negative:

While 16:21 marks the beginning of a new emphasis in Jesus’ ministry, it does not mark the end even of the episode which immediately precedes it, let alone the end of a whole major section of the gospel. It seems better, then, to treat this formula, like that which concludes the discourses, not as marking out a self-conscious literary division of the work, but rather as simply a deliberate and important notification by the author that a new phase of the story is here being introduced, a new phase which does not interrupt the flow of the narrative, but rather weaves a further strand into the ‘complication’ which will lead in time to the ‘resolution’ in Jerusalem and its final triumphant outcome in Galilee (1989: 152).

France concludes with this assertion:

For the work as a whole, therefore, it seems more plausible to suggest that the plot is the structure, that the principle on which Matthew has collected his material is the desire to carry the reader as cogently as possible through the story of Jesus so that by the time it reaches its end the reader will be able to say, ‘Yes, of course, that was how it had to be’” (1989: 153, emphasis his).

There is a geographical word "Jerusalem", but if anything this represents a transition of momentum, not movement. If we are using geographical movement, then 19:1 is the transition.

Tyler said...

That's true, I'm just wondering aloud if France figures 16:21 to be proleptic; significant enough in pointing to Jesus' final destination to serve as a geographical marker.

Tyler said...

** I'm not denying that's it's odd if, in fact, that's what he's doing.

theswain said...

I appreciate this post and look forward to the next. I'm wondering if you two might be interested in doing a related post of placing France within the Matthean commentaries of say the last 20 years or so.