Book Review: The Gospel of Matthew and Judaic Traditions

gospelofmatthewjudaictraditionsTitle: The Gospel of Matthew and Judaic Traditions: A Relevance-based Commentary

Author: Herbert W. Basser and Marsha B. Cohen

Series: Brill Reference Library of Judaism, 46.

Bibliographic info: XXII + 721 pp. + 71 pp.

Publisher: Brill, 2015.

Buy the book at Amazon or direct from the publisher

With thanks to Brill for the review copy.

The Gospel of Matthew and Judaic Traditions, by Herbert W. Basser (and with editorial help from Marsha Cohen), explores the Gospel of Matthew with the intent to shed illumination on the Gospel by focusing on Jewish traditions and writings.

What is interesting is Basser’s method is that he indiscriminately uses Jewish material, regardless of the provenance and date. Even if the Jewish tradition is from centuries before or after the time of Jesus, it is fair game for shedding illumination on Matthew’s Gospel. He explains:

[I]t is far more likely that, whatever their dates, the texts in the Gospel and rabbinic literatures that look and act like each other, or else reinterpet each other, share a common provenance. It is for this reason I believe that texts in the one literature can help bring out a fuller meaning to the corresponding texts in the other literature. To use the language of modern semiotics, I suggest that the shared symbolic universe of discourse in common contexts between Talmud and Gospel narrows the ambiguous possibilities in the senses of these texts. (249)

He states that the “rabbinic literature as a whole is essential in helping us bring to light what is obscure in the Gospels”, but notes that there “is no need for  a text in the Gospels to correspond exactly with a text in rabbinic literature in order for the text from the latter source to give meaning to a text from the former” (248).

Furthermore, Basser seemingly thinks that a lot of scholarship on the Gospel of Matthew is based on a speculative exegesis that uses Jewish and Hellenistic traditions and texts that might have been available to Jesus, Matthew’s sources, and the author of Matthew. He notes in one spot that even if his own exegesis derives from “medieval writings”, at least it isn’t the “fabrications of modern scholars” (134 n28). Thus, he sees no problem in his own exegetical method that, while being drawn from sources that are at times centuries divorced from the time the Gospel was written, can nevertheless all be placed within the same interpretive culture of Judaism.

This is a large volume (over 700 pages) and so contains a lot of commentary on Matthew, some of which I found to be very interesting and some I found the connections to be dubious. The commentary proceeds on a chapter by chapter basis of Matthew’s text. Each chapter begins with an overall introduction to that chapter of Matthew’s text, followed by a pericope-by-pericope commentary on the text.

Basser sees the Gospel of Matthew as portraying Jesus’ message as being initially meant for Jews, but it was rejected by them and embraced by the Gentiles. He “seriously doubt[s]” that the author of Matthew was a Jewish-Christian, and says that if he was indeed one, then he “can only have been a self-loathing one” (126). Furthermore, he states that Matthew “succeeds in making his Jesus a Jew among Jews, in order to dramatize the perfidy of the Jews in rejecting his exclusive ‘sonship'” (126 n24).

There was a lengthy and helpful discussion on Matthew 12 and the relationship between the story of David eating bread and Jesus’ disciples being able to pluck grain. There are a lot of other interesting commentary that Basser makes throughout. For instance, when it comes to the genealogy of Jesus, Basser speculates:

The threefold pattern of fourteen generations makes sense in relation to rabbinic traditions that speak of the cycle of the moon. Just as the lunar cycle has twenty-eight nights (the cycle ends at dusk on the twenty-ninth day), so the night of the fourteenth-fifteenth signals the full moon at midmonth. … According to this scenario, both David and Jesus are at “full moon” positions in a complete fourteen/fifteen generation-repeating cycle. (31-32)

Regarding the Sermon on the Mount, Basser notes that “for Jesus’ audience there was nothing really new in the Sermon, although the way it is phrased and constructed makes it an eternal masterpiece. Jesus’ real message seems to lie buried within his parables” (218). An interesting conjecture on Basser’s part is the saying in Matt. 7:6 of “do not give what is holy to the dogs.” He sees the word “holy” as a mistake, where the Aramaic qadashin (“rings”) was confused with the similar qadishin (“holy things”). Thus, the proper reading of the verse is: “Do not give rings to the dogs, nor throw your pearls before pigs.”

Some other interesting points that Basser makes are:

Gen. Rab. 56 to Gen 22:6 informs us that the phrase “taking one’s cross” was a known idiom and so independent of any association with the crucifixion; therefore it could, perhaps, have been used by Jesus without reference to his own death. (265)

On Matt. 11:11 where John is describe as being the greatest born among women:

Almost always when the Rabbis use the phrase “born of a woman,” they use it to contrast angels with someone of the stature of either Moses or Jacob. (273)

On Matt. 18:19-20 and asking in Jesus’ name:

the result ambiguity leads me to translate eis with the sense of “for,” a not uncommon translation  … the Hebrew text “name of heaven” is usually understood as “for the sake of heaven,” and perhaps that is what Matthew means also “for the sake of my name.” … It would seem that the Gospel is not referring to Jesus when it says “I am in their midst” but, rather, citing a phrase as it spoken by God. … The point is that when the designated judges of the assembly agree on a matter, God will be bound by their decision and honor it. (474)

There are numerous occasions where Basser isn’t afraid to go against the grain in his interpretation. For instance, he claims that “scholars have erred in virtually every discussion” of Matthew 21, a chapter which he sees as having been gentilized rather than Judaized (530). When it comes to the cursing of the fig tree, Basser considers the interpretation of this act as a prophecy about Jerusalem’s destruction as “unwarranted and misleading as the text itself says nothing of the sort” (549). And he sees Matthew 22 as utilizing a “Gnostic parable which [Matthew] fine-tuned to reflect his own agenda” (559).

All in all, while I couldn’t agree with the usefulness of all of the Jewish traditions that the author sees as being helpful for illuminating the Gospel of Matthew, there are many valuable gleanings to be had in this commentary. This volume will be great for anyone interested in early Christianity in its relation to the cultural context of Jewish practices and literary traditions.

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