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.