Thursday, December 30, 2010

RBL Review of Matthew's Messianic Shepherd-King

I was very pleased to see another review of my book Matthew’s Messianic Shepherd-King (De Gruyter, 2007). Don Garlington review in RBL was published today. I want to thank Garlington for his thorough reading of the book evidenced in his very useful summary of nearly 4 pages. Students of Matthew wishing to know what I argued and how I argued it without before reading or let alone buying (Garlington notes the outrageous price of De Gruyter books) the book would do well to read this review, at least the first four pages. In addition his general assessment is positive:

As an overall assessment, this is a notable and useful work. The exegesis is detailed, informed, and serves to shed a good deal of light on the First Gospel against the backdrop of Tanak and in the context of Second Temple literature. Certainly, the attention given to the geographical and political dimensions of the Gospel is very apropos. The book is well organized and, in the main, clearly written, with numerous internal summaries that facilitate the reading process. Helpful as well are the frequent tables that place various texts in parallel for the purposes of comparison and contrast . . . this is a volume well worth consulting on the part of research scholars, not least because of its frequent insights (e.g., 133–34, 138). Certainly as a heuristic undertaking, the book is to be commended for its boldness in advancing an uncommon reading of Matthew.

In the end however he finds himself in agreement with D. Senior’s review in the same publication. He writes,

In sum, notwithstanding the value of Willitts’s thesis for research purposes, I have to agree with Donald Senior’s previous evaluation of the book: “the narrow focus that Willitts suggests for Matthew’s Gospel, even when coupled with a vision of eschatological triumph, strains the imagination”

His agreement with Senior is apparently the result of at least 4 criticisms. I want to respond briefly to three.

1. The passages in the Hebrew Bible do not establish the case that the scattered sheep of Israel have exclusive or even particular reference to the North and postulating that Matthew restricts “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” to this region is solely to beg the question. Here I would submit that with a more accurate reading of the thesis would reveal that my logic for the conclusion about the identity of “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” is not based on a false understanding of the identification of the “scattered flock” as exclusively the northern kingdom. I don’t believe I ever make that claim. The biblical evidence does however show that the scattered flock were the exilic people of both the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel. This criticism to me seems off the mark.

2. The name “Israel” is varied and ambiguous, as I myself note, so in Garlington’s estimation this is “another instance of assuming a conclusion, or at least of special pleading”. He adds “The data presented are simply not decisive or compelling, making it difficult to believe that Matthew necessarily envisages the northern kingdom as distinct from “all Israel.” On this point I am again slightly surprised by the criticism since it appears that Garlington read the thesis carefully. My point in the chapter to which he references the discussion is to show that each context must be considered definitive for understanding the meaning of the name “Israel”. I make a comprehensive argument to show that the “house of Israel” is a reference to the northern kingdom although I make the point that the limitation was suggestive of a restoration of “all Israel”. In other words, Matthew’s Jesus was interested in a comprehensive salvation of Israel corporately and territorially. So when Garlington asserts that I’m “assuming the conclusion” I again think this misses the mark significantly. He may not buy my argumentation, but I don’t assume the conclusion. I would like to know what he means by this so that I can think this through more carefully if there is something to his criticism.

3. The hermeneutical issue of “literal” versus “symbolic” or “typological”. He asserts that “I do little to provide a convincing refutation” of a symbolic/typological reading of “land”. First it should be noted what was the purpose of the chapter in question. Garlington is not alone in judging my thesis on my inadequate argument in favor of Matthew's belief in territorial restoration. The chapter however was not meant to be comprehensive. It was rather to be a preliminary argument that would supplement the larger argument of the thesis. I readily admit more work needs to be done, but I was attempting to at least make such a suggestion reasonable in a scholarly climate where even the question seems bordering on outrageous. He claims that I do not take “seriously enough the factor of typology in Matthew”. He agrees that the expectation of territorial restoration was in the air in first-century Palestine, but he queries in what appears to be a rhetorical question: “was Matthew in sympathy with this sort of expectation? (emphasis his)?” For some reason he thinks this would be a highly unlikely hypothesis adding “especially in light of Matthew’s use of the Hebrew Scriptures”. Well, this seems like questioning begging to me. What about Matthew’s use of Scripture would undermine just such a hypothesis? Does typology? I don’t believe so. This is all the more clear to me when Matthew was apparently doing the same thing with the Scriptures that other Jews of his day were with Scripture who held just such a view? So why wouldn’t he? That is my question. I don’t see the hermeneutical problem. Instead, and this should not be a surprise, I believe presuppositions, deeply held, are the reason this kind of hypothesis is considered to “strains the imagination”.

Well there was another point about imperial readings of Matthew and I’ll have more to say on in a forthcoming piece. Notwithstanding the contentious points mentioned above, I am thankful for Garlington’s review and I would look forward to dialoguing about these with him at some point in the future if he's willing. I respect Garlington as a scholar and Christian and have learned a great deal from him particularly on issues of the New Perspective.


Nazaroo said...

great stuff. Your points seem very reasonable.

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